Webber handed Brazilian victory in a 'box
27 November 2011
Mark Webber finally claimed his first victory of the 2011 F1 world championship campaign, but was somewhat gifted the honour when Red Bull Racing team-mate Sebastian Vettel ran into gearbox problems.
The German made the better start from an all-RBR front row, while Webber slotted into second after fending off a fast-starting Jenson Button, but it initially appeared that Vettel had the upper hand and, despite the chance of Webber moving up in the overall standings, neither would have been happy with team orders altering the order. As Vettel pulled out almost a second a lap, Webber also pulled away from Button, leaving the Briton at the mercy of Fernando Alonso as Red Bull looked on course for another 1-2 result.
The gap between the top two was nearly four seconds by lap ten, but there was more action further back, with Bruno Senna and Michael Schumacher coming together at turn one, resulting in a puncture for the German and a penalty for the local favourite, and Alonso closing sufficiently on Button to pull off a stunning outside pass at turn five.
That, however, was quickly overshadowed by the first radio transmission that informed Vettel that he needed to short-shift in second gear. Despite the warning, the German continued to press on, only to be cautioned again, this time with the word 'serious' emphasised by his engineer, who instructed the world champion to 'short shift every corner every lap'. Vettel acknowledged the call, adding that he would not hold his team-mate up, with Webber already beginning to close in.
The swap of positions came at the start of lap 30, with Vettel moving out of Webber's way at the entry to the Senna 'S', but only after setting another fastest lap. Vettel's antics caused cynics to suggest that perhaps allowing Webber through was an attempt to help the Australian to second in the championship - even if his team-mate needed help in that direction from both Button and Alonso - but it was soon apparent that he was unable to keep pace, even if Alonso wasn't yet a threat to second place.
Behind the top four, Hamilton ran fifth, ahead of Felipe Massa, with Adrian Sutil keeping Nico Rosberg at bay and Paul di Resta holding ninth in a strong display for Force India as they not only tried to keep ahead of Sauber and Toro Rosso but kept Renault's fifth overall in sight. Schumacher's enforced tyre change had dropped the German to the back of the field, rejoining between Button and Hamilton as the leaders put a lap on the Mercedes, while Senna was running just behind his assailant having been penalised for the secondary contact that caused the puncture and damaged his Renault's front wing.
The order had hardly been shuffled by the first round of tyre stops, but Button attempted to make a play for at least a podium finish by switching to the harder medium compound at his second stop, having reported that his McLaren had been better on that tyre during the early stages of the weekend. McLaren appeared to be hedging its bets when it kept Hamilton on the soft compound two laps later, a decision that was echoed by the remainder of the frontrunners as Alonso, Webber and Vettel all took their stops.
Massa, meanwhile, was attempting to go through on two stops, having pitted later than his rivals first time round. The move had not helped his position that much after, and he fell back to fifth when Button breezed past and back into fourth after 39 laps. Hamilton was next to challenge the Brazilian but, given their history this season, it was no surprise to see Massa less willing to make space for the second McLaren. Unable to find a way past, Hamilton opted to pit again just eleven laps after his second stop, this time fitting a set of mediums in an effort to undercut the Ferrari.
The Scuderia, however, covered the move, returning Massa to the track in front of his rival but, in truth, the battle was already over, with Hamilton being told to conserve his gearbox. Just three laps after attempting to gain an advantage in the pits, the Briton was parking up with a box full of neutrals, his difficult season ending on another disappointing note.
While the retirement would eventually hand Massa his sixth top five finish of the year, he would not be going any higher unless those ahead of him hit problems and, despite further warnings being issued to the world champion, Vettel's gearbox appeared to be holding together.
Indeed, the top four appeared set for a while, allowing attention to switch to the few battles going on in their wake. Most notable amongst these was Rosberg's attempt to defend sixth from a determined Sutil. The pair had swapped positions during the second round of stops, but Sutil, with his seat for 2012 under threat, was not about to settle for seventh. Having had one attempt into turn one rebuffed by his countryman, he responded next time around by crowding the Mercedes at the same place, leaving Rosberg no room to reply. With team-mate di Resta running eighth, the gap to Renault was closing tantalisingly, although Force India was another needing a miracle up front to improve their overall position.
Sauber and Toro Rosso also remained locked in combat over seventh overall, with Kamui Kobayashi holding ninth ahead of Renault's Vitaly Petrov, with Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi stalking the Russian for the final point. Sergio Perez, meanwhile, was recovering from a spin, but found himself behind Rubens Barrichello in what could be the Brazilian veteran's final grand prix appearance. Further back, Team Lotus appeared on course for a second consecutive tenth place in the championship, a result that would confirm them as a 'column one' team eligible for an FOM pay-out, as Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli easily out-paced Marussia Virgin and HRT. The former was down to a single car after Timo Glock left his first pit-stop without his left rear wheel, the German kick-starting a retirement list that also gained Williams' Pastor Maldonado before Hamilton was added.
Button's hopes of going to the end on his medium compound tyres proved a mirage with 20 laps to go, the Briton having to pit for more of the same on lap 52, but he immediately set off in pursuit of Alonso, who also rejoined on the harder tyres after his third and final stop. The gap closed inexorably until, with nine to go, McLaren was able to take a look at Ferrari into turn one, setting Button up for a pass with the assistance of DRS three corners later. Once in front, the Briton pulled away from his rival, cementing his eighth podium in nine races since the double DNF he suffered mid-season.
Despite eating into the gap between himself and second place, however, there simply wasn't enough time for Button to catch and pass Vettel, and the German was able to back up his team-mate in another 1-2 for the year's dominant team. Button's pass on Alonso did have some significance for the championship battle, however, as victory then allowed Webber to move past the Spaniard and into third on the overall table.
The Red Bull driver didn't appear too overjoyed with his achievement as he stepped from the RB7 in parc ferme, but the smile had returned by the time he took to the podium, climbing onto the highest step for the first time since Hungary 2010. His eventual margin of victory was a shade under 17secs, with Vettel nursing his car over the line, its gearbox almost devoid of oil. Button, too, was instructed to park up at the top of the Senna 'S', although his 'problem' was thought to be a lack of fuel rather than anything mechanical.
Alonso duly took fourth, ahead of his team-mate, while Sutil gave various teams food for thought as he resisted Rosberg for sixth. Paul di Resta concluded an impressive rookie season with another points finish - his eighth - in P8, while Kobayashi and Petrov ran unchanged to the flag, despite the best efforts of the two Toro Rosso drivers, who kept Perez behind them in 13th. The Mexican had earlier demoted Barrichello, possibly seeing the Brazilian bow out of the top flight with a 'fun' 14th, one place and four seconds ahead of former Ferrari nemesis Schumacher. Everyone between Sutil and his fellow countryman was a lap down on the leaders, with 16th-placed Kovalainen another behind, but doing enough to accompany Lotus' transformation into Caterham F1 with a handy pay-out.