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Star of India Vettel crowned as champion

27 October 2013

It's done - the championship battle is over.

A tense battle in the haze of India saw Sebastian Vettel finish the race in first place, and even though he didn't have it quite all his own way in 2013 unlike in former years, the title was his almost from the very start after early disaster struck the only man standing between him and his clinching a fourth consecutive world title.

Starting on pole position for the seventh time in 2013, Sebastian Vettel led the field to the grid with the hope and indeed expectation that he would seal not only his own championship, but also that of of his team Red Bull in the constructors' battle. It could hardly have fallen to a better venue for him to seal the deal, given that in both previous Indian Grand Prix races before 2013 there hasn't been a single race lap that he hadn't led - but that record at least would end here today, and sooner than expected.

When the lights went out in the haze hanging over the start line, Sebastian Vettel was able to cover off the two Mercedes cars and scamper off to the first corner while Lewis Hamilton briefly got the better of Nico Rosberg for second only for a flying Felipe Massa to blast both cars a few corners later. Mark Webber meanwhile was struggling to get up to speed as the highest-placed man on the grid running the medium tyres and lost out on the entry into turn 1, banging wheels with Kimi Raikkonen which caused him to slow momentarily and take a hit on the rear from Fernando Alonso, whose front wing was clipped in the process.

With a 2.4s lead over Massa at the end of lap 1, Red Bull executed a radically early pit stop for Vettel, calling him at the end of just the second lap to ditch the short-lived soft option tyres. That meant an even earlier than expected finish to Vettel's perfect record out in the lead in India, leaving him exiting pit lane in 17th place and handing control of the race to the Ferrari. Other early stoppers for a change of tyres included Paul di Resta, Jean-Eric Vergne, while front wing damage for Alonso and a puncture for McLaren's Jenson Button also saw them both in earlier than their teams had planned - highly damaging to both men's race hopes after they had started on the prime tyres and been planning a long first stint, a strategy now in ruins.

Massa's lead lasted until his own first pit stop at the end of lap 8, more in line with the expected strategy and in line with the approach taken by Hamilton and Raikkonen. That meant that after suffering that nightmarish start, Webber was finding the race coming right back to him as he took the lead for the first time ahead of other cars yet to stop that included Sergio Perez, Daniel Ricciardo and Romain Grosjean, with Vettel the fastest man on track and quickly shuffled back up to fourth place some 15s behind his team mate and still on course to resume the lead once Webber's turn to stop came around.

Vettel made that third with an easy pass on Grosjean on lap 12 (the Frenchman struggling to make a set of the soft options work well beyond their 'best by' date) and a prompt repeat on Ricciardo on lap 13. It was all falling into place for Vettel, whose only remaining rival for the championship - Fernando Alonso - was marooned in 15th place after his front wing change in a race that he had to win to keep the title battle mathematically alive for another week.]

A drive-thru for a jump start by Esteban Gutierrez took the yet-to-stop Sauber out of sixth place and promoted Massa back up a place, but the Ferrari was now over 12 seconds adrift of Vettel as the next-best of those to have pitted. It seemed that the task of working his way back through traffic had hardly been a problem for the world champion after all despite the pre-race concerns, who long-ago laid to rest any suggestions that he was unable to pass cars in a race and who provided an emphatic reminder of his skills again here today. Only Perez separated Vettel from Webber, with McLaren assuring their man that he was still on 'Plan A' even as Vettel closed and ultimately passed the Mexican for second on lap 21.

The early pit stops out of the way, the race had settled down as the strategies that the drivers had committed to unfolded. Alonso was doing his best to fight back, but despite a muscular move on Guttierrez on lap 22 he was still outside the points in 13th place, some three seconds off the back of the Force India of Paul di Resta. Alonso's team mate Massa meanwhile was coming under attack from Nico Rosberg on lap 24 and briefly lost sixth place at turn 4 before the Mercedes ran wide and allowed the Ferrari to take back the position in turn 5, all the while with Lewis Hamilton approaching the duelling pair from the rear with the idea of picking up the spoils should there be a clash.

Nico Hulkenberg's move on Williams' Valtteri Bottas for ninth place on lap 25 succeeded only after the Sauber took to the run-off at turn 4, adding to the simmering controversy this weekend about drivers gaining advantage by exceeding track limits seemingly with the blessing of the FIA in the pre-race driver meetings. The incident was investigated by race stewards, but this simply endorsed the 'hands off' approach to off-roading at Buddh International Circuit this weekend with no further action deemed necessary after the officials accepted that Hulkenberg had run wide to avoid causing a collision.

With the midpoint of the 60-lap race nigh, it was time for the other show to drop on the pit strategies: Gutierrez and Vergne were the first to make a move on lap 27, with Rosberg in next time around after continuing to be unsuccessful getting around Massa. Lap 28 saw race leader Webber finally pit along with Perez for their first stops, which allowed Webber to resume in second place behind Vettel and Perez back out in seventh behind Hamilton who was swiftly put to the sword by the McLaren. Hamilton took this as a sign that fresh tyres were urgently needed and he was in on lap 31 along with Massa which helped push Perez back to fifth place.

Webber's run on the option tyres was as short-lived as expected, the Red Bull back in again at the end of lap 32 for a rapid return to the primes, the lap after Vettel had also made his own final stop of the day. Perez soon followed Webber's lead on lap 34, dropping him to the outskirts of the top ten albeit with at least four cars ahead of him looking likely to need at least one more pit top between now and the finish of the race. By contrast, Ricciardo had made his first set of prime tyres last for a whopping 34 laps before making his own first stop before following the others' example of pitting again after just five laps on the options, the net result being a drop from fourth place down to 14th. Sutil went even longer, running as high as third place as he went well beyond Pirelli's recommendations for the maximum number of laps on a single set of tyres before finally coming in on lap 42 for a stint on the dreaded options.

Charles Pic's problematic race came to an end on pit lane on lap 38 with the team citing a 'serious issue' perhaps stemming form the early puncture that had left the Frenchman trailing around at the back of the field. He joined his team mate Giedo van der Garde on the sidelines, the Dutch driver having made his second quick retirement in succession after a collision with Max Chilton at the start left his own Caterham with broken suspension.

But there was a more serious retirement to come on lap 39 when the Red Bull pit wall tersely informed Mark Webber that "We are losing gearbox synch." It sounded serious - and it was, the Australian forced to pull over to the side of the track with an alternator failure. The team soon informed Vettel, who responded grimly with a twice-repeated: "I'm aware," aware that what ailed one of the team's cars could easily also develop on the other. The team were taking is seriously enough to caution Vettel not to use his drinks bottle any further, because even the tiny electrical drain for taking a sip of fluid could be the straw on the camel's back.

That latest turn of events left Vettel in the lead on lap 42 and still on course for his championship, with Red Bull still looking set to clinch the constructors title despite Webber's exit. Raikkonen was up to second but along with overheating and fuel issues it looked he was simply not going to last to the finish without a further visit to pit road, while Rosberg looked good to go in third for a run to the finish. Romain Grosjean had some in-car problems as he ran in fourth ahead of Massa, Hamilton, Perez and Hulkenberg, with Force India duo Sutil and di Resta rounding out to the top ten for the time being.

Raikkonen's waning fortunes were confirmed when a dash of DRS saw Nico Rosberg blast past him on lap 52 for second place, but the Mercedes was now 26s off the back of the race leader. Raikkonen continued to fade right into the hands of his team mate Grosjean, but the Finn being the type of driver he is was utterly resistent to the idea of letting the clearly faster Grosjean past him. That resulted in the two clashing on lap 56 and Grosjean being forced off the track in the process, before Raikkonen bowed to the inevitable (and a stern rebuke from the Lotus pit wall) and conceded the position as his car's performance continued to deteriorate from 'a handful' to 'undrivable' leading to him quickly losing a further place to Massa and then falling under attack from Lewis Hamilton. In fact it was Sergio Perez who gained the most from this latest clash, the McLaren getting the jump on both Raikkonen and Hamilton in the run down the long straight to turn 4 to get fifth place.

Raikkonen was finally forced into a pit stop on the penultimate lap which at least allowed him to steal the fatest lap honours, likely much to Vettel's annoyance. With Hulkenberg also laid low before the end and forced to retire in the pits with a safety issue, it meant that Raikkonen was able to keep a top seven position despite that final extra stop.

Vettel celebrated with some donuts to add to the smokey atmosphere over Buddh, for which he might earn a penalty fine but which is surely the only sensible way to celebrate a truly remarkable achievement in the sport. When Vettel finally made his way back to the paddock he was joined on the podium by Rosberg and Grosjean, with Massa holding on to fourth place for Ferrari ahead of Perez and Hamilton.

Raikkonen finally crossed the line in seventh with di Resta getting the better of his team mate Sutil for ninth ahead of Ricciardo who was the late recipient of a championship point courtesy of Hulkenberg's late retirement. That left Fernando Alonso outside the points entirely, and that alone would have been enough to hand Vettel and Red Bull the championships in India.

The celebrations are just starting. It might only be a week before the next Grand Prix gets underway in Abu Dhabi, but it seems that the new four-time champion and his team are willing to risk the hangovers tonight in Greater Noida - and surely no one can blame them, as the party got underway with the music getting cranked up in the Red Bull garage.

See full race results.


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