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Vettel waters down Button lead with British GP glory

21 June 2009

Sebastian Vettel stole Jenson Button's thunder on the Brawn GP star's home turf to consummately triumph in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend, leading home a crushing Red Bull Racing one-two ahead of team-mate Mark Webber to prove that the energy drinks-backed outfit can win in the dry too – and demonstrating that it is very much game on for the 2009 F1 World Championship crown.

A textbook getaway from pole-sitter Vettel when the lights went out was almost bettered by that of Rubens Barrichello alongside, but the German kept his nose in front into Copse, with Webber slotting into third and Kazuki Nakajima moving up a place into fourth in the leading Williams. The biggest gain was made by Kimi Raikkonen in the Ferrari, however, as the 2007 title-winner exploited his KERS power boost to maximum effect to storm down the outside – bravely brushing the grass en route – and vault up into fifth.

The Finn was aided along the way by a slow start from Jarno Trulli on the second row that dropped the Pescara native back to seventh and also compromised home hero Button, who found himself tucked up behind the Italian and with nowhere to go, falling back from sixth to ninth in the process, behind Nico Rosberg, Trulli and the second fast-starting Ferrari of Felipe Massa.

Trulli was desperate to find a way back past Rosberg on the first lap but found his efforts swiftly rebuffed, and after Button profited from a mistake by Massa to move back up into eighth, he again found himself frustratingly stuck behind the Toyota. Further back, there was a superbly opportunistic move by an inspired Giancarlo Fisichella into Stowe, as the experienced Italian took advantage of Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso squabbling ahead of him to dive down the inside of both and into eleventh.

That left the tardy Heidfeld – nursing a damaged front wing and defying the advice of his team in not pitting for a replacement – doggedly staving off the earnest and energetic advances of Alonso, the sister BMW of a slow-starting Robert Kubica and defending F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton in an entertaining scrap, with the latter having had his own grassy moment on the entry to Stowe after getting held up by Alonso and complaining of no grip from his underperforming McLaren-Mercedes.

The real focus of the race, however, was up front, where Vettel was busy eking out a commanding advantage of a second a lap, helped by Barrichello's difficulties in warming his tyres up to temperature sufficiently quickly. Fastest lap after fastest lap carried the top flight's youngest-ever grand prix-winner almost 15 seconds clear just 13 laps into the action, with Webber able to make little impression on the Brawn GP right ahead of him and seeing his chances of victory evaporating into thin air.

Nakajima unsurprisingly became the first man to pit on lap 15, releasing the duelling Raikkonen and Rosberg into fourth and fifth respectively, with Trulli, Button, Massa and Timo Glock similarly in attendance at the foot of the top ten. Raikkonen was the next to blink, promoting Rosberg to fourth, and the extra lap completed enabled him to leapfrog Nakajima in the process.

There was tension as Trulli and Button pitted together next time around, but unfortunately for British fans the status quo was maintained, and even worse, whilst Trulli was able to jump Raikkonen, the understeer-plagued Button was not – as the luckless Nakajima slipped behind all three of them following his excellent opening stint.

Barrichello was the next in, followed only a lap later by pursuer Webber, but whilst the latter's stop was longer, the Australian narrowly rejoined ahead – though there was a brief heart-stopping moment as the Red Bull emerged from the pit-lane and the Brawn GP stormed up behind him on the exit of Copse, with Webber just doing enough to stave 'Rubinho' off on his cold tyres. Interestingly, too, the two teams went in different directions on tyre strategy – and this time it was RBR that would prove to hold the winning hand.

From there, Webber would go on to pull inexorably away from Barrichello, leaving his Brazilian adversary to focus on dealing with the threat of the closing Rosberg behind, as the German got the bit between his teeth and dragged Massa along with him for good measure, the Ferrari ace having rocketed up the order from eighth into fifth by dint of a strong opening 23-lap stint.

Up front, meanwhile, Vettel was beginning to back off in an effort to preserve his tyres, giving Webber a chink of light – albeit 20 seconds further down the race track. There was drama lower down the order, though, as 2008 British Grand Prix pole-sitter Heikki Kovalainen emerged from his late first stop alongside McLaren team-mate Hamilton, and ceded the place to the Briton rather easily at the end of the Hangar Straight, much as he had done twelve months earlier. A handful of corners later, however, Sébastien Bourdais in the Scuderia Toro Rosso attempted to take advantage by sneaking past into Vale, but as Kovalainen moved swiftly back across again – having perhaps fleetingly mistaken the Frenchman's car for the race leader coming up to lap him – the STR struck the rear of the McLaren, and the damage was sufficient to put both cars out of the race, with debris strewn across the circuit.

The second round of pit visits witnessed more changes, with Massa the principal beneficiary as he leapfrogged Rosberg into fourth, but by virtue of running longer, Barrichello comfortably retained third, despite having been visibly struggling for pace prior to the stops. Button similarly made in-roads, putting in a series of very strong laps to jump both Trulli and Raikkonen into sixth.

The fans' favourite then set his sights on Massa and Rosberg ahead, and with seemingly a new lease of life and a far better-handling car, fancied his chances of grabbing another spot or two in the handful of laps that remained before the chequered flag. Further back, there was an equally gripping battle brewing between Raikkonen, Glock and the determined Fisichella for the final point, with the Italian driving a superb race that had at one stage seen him running as high as third during the initial round of pit-stops.

As Button relentlessly hunted down his prey, the crowd rose to their feet, sensing a late upset – but it was one that would not arrive, as the 29-year-old perhaps resolved that with the championship at stake, discretion was the better part of valour, and he ultimately settled for sixth place, in the wheeltracks of Massa and Rosberg in fourth and fifth. Seventh went the way of Trulli, with Raikkonen holding on to eighth for the final marker, just ahead of the second Toyota of Glock and the impressive Fisichella.

The remaining finishers were constituted by the luckless Nakajima, who seemed to slip back further with every pit-stop after his stunning qualifying performance, Nelsinho Piquet in twelfth, Kubica, Alonso, Heidfeld, Hamilton, Adrian Sutil – who had begun from the pit-lane after developing pre-race fuel pressure woes – and Sébastien Buemi. Hamilton, indeed, endured a grand prix full of incident, with an 'off' between Vale and Club, a frenetic battle with the two Renaults – tussling it out tooth-and-nail with former team-mate Alonso for lap-after-lap – and donuts for the fans after the flag had fallen.

If the Stevenage-born ace's celebrations were a sign of humility, however, those up on the podium afterwards for Red Bull duo Vettel and Webber were anything but subdued, with the message to Brawn GP loud and clear – the battle is on!

Crash.net Driver of the Day: Felipe Massa (tempting to plump for Vettel, but Massa gets the nod for having converted a mediocre qualifying showing into what was very nearly a podium finish courtesy of an extremely strong drive that left team-mate Raikkonen – not for the first time – looking a bit-part player. And they say Felipe can't drive at Silverstone...)

To see the race result in full, click here


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