23 September 2012
Vettel gifted win by neutralised Hamilton
By lap 22 Hamilton's lead was around 1.5 seconds ahead of Vettel, who in turn had around three seconds in hand over Button with similar gaps in turn back to Maldonado and Alonso and then a nearly ten second drop off to di Resta, Webber and Rosberg as the race seemingly settled into a comfortable routine.
That routine was shattered next time around when Lewis Hamilton's McLaren lost all gears coming out of turn 1, and found itself coasting down the track stuck in neutral and trailing smoke out of the back of the car. No amount of flipping gear paddles or thumping the steering wheel would revive the situation, and team radio communications from McLaren stating that they had "done everything we could yesterday" hinted that the issue had been a known problem going into the race - not that this was any consolation for Hamilton as he walked away from the stationary car and returned to the pits. McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh later denied that it was related to Hamilton's brush with the wall on Saturday.
That left Vettel in charge of the store ahead of Button, with Maldonado pushing very hard to close on the back of the sole remaining McLaren even at the cost of a brutal lock up into turn 1. Alonso followed in fourth with di Resta in fifth and Webber up to sixth before he was the first of the leaders to pit again at the end of lap 28 for a new set of supersoft rubber, which committed him to a three-stop strategy. Next time around, Maldonado and Alonso came in together - but there was a difference in tyre selection, with Maldonado going with the supersofts suggesting he was following Webber's three-stop approach, while Alonso opted for the prime soft tyres which kept alive the possibility of running all the way to the end of the race - even though that was half the total race distance - with no further stops.
Despite being on the grippier tyres it was evident that Maldonado still didn't have the same pace as Alonso, who was desperate to get past him. The Williams driver was having none of it and defended robustly, and then the duel between them was suspended as the yellow flags came out and the safety car deployed after Narain Karthikeyan understeered off into the barrier at turn 18 and got plastered in fire extinguishant by the rather too-eager track marshalls.
Kimi Raikkonen was quick to take advantage of the opportunity to dive into the pits, followed by Button and Vettel as soon as they were able to complete the current lap. Pretty much everyone followed suit regardless or where they were in their pit strategies prior to the safety car, and even Maldonado was back onto pit lane on lap 34 for a switch back to the prime soft tyres after all as the possibility arose that a lengthy stint under yellow could allow more cars to reach the end without further stops.
In fact, Williams had bigger problems with Maldonado's car: they had detected a hydraulic failure and were reluctantly forced to order their man to bring it into the garage and park. His race was done, and his long streak of point-less races that stretched all the way back to his win at Barcelona was extended by at least one more outing despite that oh-so-promising qualifying performance.
The race resumed on lap 39, with Vettel virtually brake-testing Button in the final corners before the green flag came out, which nearly ended in a nasty collision between the two. Once past start/finish line the major battle of interest was between Hulkenberg and Webber over fifth place which was finally won by the Australian, while further back Michael Schumacher was determined to pass Jean-Eric Vergne for tenth place.
Too determined, it turned out: as Vergne went wheel-to-wheel for ninth with a struggling Sergio Perez on older tyres, Schumacher realised too late that their scrap was resulting in them running into the next right hander far slower than Schumacher was expecting. He floored his bakes, locked up on the bumpy track - and ploughed right into the back of the Toro Rosso, sending up a cloud of carbon fibre and putting both drivers out of the race on the spot.
The new extended safety car period forced the hands of those teams still weighing pit stop strategies, and a gaggle of cars consisting of Hulkenberg, Perez, Petrov and Pedro de la Rosa came in for their final visits, with Petrov ordered to a halt at the end of pit lane after he exited his pit box with an improperly attached wheel nut.
The race got back underway again on lap 43, with the highlight of the initial laps under green being a fierce battle between Brazilian compatriots Bruno Senna and Felipe Massa over ninth place. Massa was clearly faster on the supersoft options but Senna had track position, squeezed him tight against the outside wall - and Massa wobbled, had the Ferrari twist violently off line by an angle of nearly 30 degrees, and a big accident for the two appeared imminent. Yet somehow Massa saved the car, got it pointing back in the right direction - and emerged from turn 13 ahead of Senna after all, in possibly the most jaw-droppingly unlikely successful overtaking move of the season to date.
Red Bull Racing
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