Considering that Sebastian Vettel was on his way to making a small piece of F1 history, it was remarkable just how unremarkable the United States Grand Prix was for the four-time world champion. He aced the start, breezed the restart, and promptly disappeared into the dusty horizons of the Lone Star state never to be troubled again, seemingly in a world and certainly in a class of his own all afternoon long.
While Vettel got his familiar perfect getaway as the lights went out that released him uncontested into the first corner, Mark Webber had his equally familiar damp squib of a start. Wheelspin ensured that he quickly lost position to Romain Grosjean despite the Lotus being forced to go around the outside of turn 1 and through cement dust that had been put down after a support race incident leaked oil onto the track. Webber's day went from bad to worse when Lewis Hamilton also got by him in the exit of the same corner, indicating that the pre-race concerns about the Mercedes' brakes had been laid to rest.
Behind them it was the usual scramble for advantage, Esteban Gutierrez needing to bring the Sauber in for running repairs at the end of the first lap after some jostling for position left him with a puncture. But even as he did so, the race itself was put behind the safety car after Adrian Sutil pulled across the front of Pastor Maldonado's Williams in the run down to turn 12, resulting in a collision that put the Force India into a crunching impact with the unyielding metal barriers. Sutil was quickly out of the car, but the track officials needed four laps under yellow to clear up the wreckage and debris from the accident. Despite damage to his front wing, Maldonado initially tried staying out but he was subsequently shown a black-and-orange flag requiring him to pit for a replacement after it started to break up and shed debris on track.
Once the clean-up was finished, Vettel led the field to the restart on lap 5 and the Red Bull had no trouble taking off to safety once more, pulling out two seconds on Grosjean even before the end of the lap, while Hamilton also successfully maintained his advantage over Webber for third place. Behind them, a fired-up Sergio Perez tried to get his McLaren past Nico Hulkenberg to no avail, the Sauber once again proving a formidable obstacle for anyone seeking to get past on track. In any case, Perez had to be mindful of the threat of Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas attacking from behind.
The biggest loser of the opening laps was Lotus stand-in driver Heikki Kovalainen, who perhaps understandably had been rather cautious in the first corners and been bounced down from eighth to 12th place as a result with Paul di Resta, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Rosberg all able to take advantage of the fact that it's the Finn's first Grand Prix in a year. Kovalainen was able to hold off the Ferrari of Felipe Massa, however, while behind them both Jenson Button was suffering from damage to his own front wing from the first lap shake-out.
The first significant change of position since the restart came on lap 13, as Hamilton was being warned about new issues with overheating front brakes. Webber used the opportunity to get within RS range, and once that was done he was able to cruise around the outside of the Mercedes in the run down to turn 12, deftly applying the brakes on the exit to seal the deal and relegate the Briton to fourth place. Hamilton's humour wasn't improved by a new warning from the pit wall to manage his tyres: "I'm trying to manage that, I'm trying
to," he responded.
With everyone bar Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne having started on the medium option tyres, the time for drivers' first and likely sole pit stop of the day to take on a set of primes loomed large, with Kovalainen first to make a move onto pit lane on lap 18 in the hope of coming back out into clean air after a rather slow stop by the Lotus crew. No one else seemed inclined to immediately follow his example, Sergio Perez even telling his pit wall that he was experiencing very low tyre degradation. However the same couldn't be said for his team mate Jenson Button, who was next onto pit road for new tyres on lap 21 which triggered a covering response from Felipe Massa next time by. Massa rejoined right ahead of Button and succeeded in making the Ferrari wide enough to thwart the Briton's attempt to use his momentum to sweep past.
Perez meanwhile was under heavy pressure from Massa's team mate Fernando Alonso, and the team opted to pit him at the end of lap 23 which also saw stops for di Resta, Rosberg and Ricciardo in what was proving to be a very tight battle for position in the midfield. With Bottas in next time by, that left only seven cars yet to make their first stops - Vettel with an eight second lead over Grosjean, Webber setting a new fastest lap and now over three seconds ahead of Hamilton, with Hulkenberg and Alonso also running long while Vergne was up to seventh spot on the Hail Mary counter tyre strategy, which faltered when the primes finally cried 'enough' after just 28 laps, leaving the options with a lot of work to do if they were to last the whole of the second half of the race without a further stop.
When Hamilton pitted on lap 26 he was able to rejoin again in sixth place, while Alonso stayed out a further lap and almost cut it too fine, only just getting out ahead of Esteban Gutierrez who was rising up the standings but who was almost certainly set for a two-stop strategy after being forced in early after his first lap puncture. Vettel, Webber and Hulkenberg were all in shortly after which left Grosjean briefly minding the store until his own stop on lap 30 which completed the pit stop cycle.
Vettel was now back in charge by ten seconds ahead of Grosjean, while Webber in third place catching the Lotus by leaps and bounds with every passing minute. Hamilton was ten seconds back down the road and coming under pressure from Hulkenberg and Alonso, while Sergio Perez completed an emphatic pass on his countryman Esteban Gutierrez for seventh as the Sauber's tyres started to show their age. Bottas and di Resta rounded out the rest of the top ten, with Rosberg, Ricciardo and Massa all left on the outside of the points looking in: Rosberg didn't like that arrangement and on lap 34 the Mercedes put DRS to sublime use to muscle his way past the Force India in turn 12.
Everyone still appeared to be targeting a one-stop race, but the first break came on lap 32 when Heikki Kovalainen was forced back onto pit road for a lengthy stop for a new nose as well as a new set of medium tyres, which dropped him all the way down to 17th place - not the points-scoring performance that the team had been hoping for when they hired him to fill in for Kimi Raikkonen for the final two races of the season. Meanwhile Esteban Gutierrez had been soldiering on despite his tyres having run for 35 laps, which inevitably meant that he was easy prey for Bottas to get past with a brave close quarters move in turn 2, as a result of which the Sauber pit wall finally call Gutierrez in for a new set of option boots a few minutes later.
More surprising was Massa's return to pit road on lap 39 from 12th place for a change back to the mediums, indicating that the teams were increasingly struggling with keeping their tyres from overheating and having to contemplate an enforced change of strategy. At the front, Red Bull were once again engaged in trying to reign in Vettel's instinct to go faster and faster, race engineer Guillaume 'Rocky' Rocquelin counselling his driver that "Going as far as we can is more important than going as fast as we can"just before the driver truculently went on to collect the fastest lap; and even Mark Webber's relentless charge-down of Romain Grosjean for second place was briefly put on pause as Red Bull ordered the Aussie to back off and let his tyres cool down.
As the race got to within a dozen laps of the finish, drivers started to figure out how to use the mismatches in the rate of tyre degradation between different cars to their advantage. Di Resta's struggle to hold off Ricciardo for tenth place came to an end going into turn 1 on lap 44, the Scot running off the track in his unsuccessful efforts to fight back over the following corner; a lap later at the same spot, Alonso also managed to find his way past Hulkenberg for fifth place; and on the penultimate lap of the race it was Jenson Button's turn to use the same corner to get past Ricciardo to steal the final points-paying position.
However not every overtaking move came off: Webber's ongoing efforts to get past Grosjean for second spot weren't paying off as the rear tyres of the Red Bull started to go off and Grosjean started to pull away again. Nico Hulkenberg's efforts to retake fifth place from Fernando Alonso in turn 1 on the final lap were also thwarted when the Ferrari fought back and re-passed the Sauber seconds later, while Esteban Gutierrez's last-lap effort to pass Jean-Eric Vergne ended in contact that punted the Sauber into the dusty run-off even as Sebastian Vettel was busy claiming the chequered flag up the road.
Job done, then, for Vettel. Win number eight was in the bag without a care in the world despite what had been by any other measure a great run to second for Grosjean. It's the first time that any driver has clinched eight consecutive wins in a single season, and arguably the first time that any driver has ever won eight in a row - depending on how you feel about Alberto Ascari, who won nine races in 1952/3 but who wasn't entered in the atypical Indy 500 that was formally part of the world championship at the time.
Joining Vettel and Grosjean on the podium was Webber, looking for all the world like he was genuinely ready to put all the frustrations of near-misses behind him with his exit from F1 now just seven days away. Hamilton was a distant fourth place while Alonso was two seconds further back after foiling that last overtaking move by Hulkenberg who finished in sixth ahead of Sergio Perez.
Valtteri Bottas delivered on the promise he'd been showing throughout the Austin weekend, succeeding in finishing in the points for the first time in his F1 career in eighth place ahead of Nico Rosberg, with Jenson Button holding on to the last point on offer in tenth ahead of Toro Rosso pair Ricciardo and Vergne.
Those cars that had been forced to pit a second time - Massa, Gutierrez, Kovalainen and latterly joined by di Resta - all came in behind, with four cars (Maldonado, Jules Bianchi, Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic) ending up a lap down and Max Chilton two laps off the pace by the chequered flag in last place for Marussia.
As the German anthem once again sounded out over the F1 paddock, Sebastian Vettel looked in an emotional frame of mind, perhaps as he started to full realise the scale of his achievements so far in 2013. With one more race to go, the question now is whether he can make it nine consecutive wins and also set a new record for winning the most number of championship points in a single season.
On the sort of form he displayed in Austin today, you'd have to say it's odds-on - and it would be very hard to begrudge it if he pulls it off.See full race results