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Vettel defies tyre worries for Spa victory

28 August 2011

Sebastian Vettel returned to the top step of the podium for the first time since the street race in Valencia in June after a typically feisty drive saw him head a 1-2 result for Red Bull Racing in the Belgian Grand Prix.

The German had to overcome persistent problems with the softer of the two Pirelli tyre options on offer at Spa-Francorchamps, with concerns starting even before the race as teams in the top ten sought the replacement of blistered rubber they were required to run. Permission was not forthcoming, and Red Bull, in particular, was left to take the grid with considerable uncertainty over the longevity of its tyres.

Although Vettel made a solid start, he was not in front at the end of the opening lap, as Nico Rosberg - whose Mercedes' brakes were smoking heavily on the grid - made a blinding getaway to be in second entering Eau Rouge and then steamed past his countryman on the run to Les Combes. Behind the two Germans, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa also made the most of a poor start for Mark Webber - who confirmed that the anti-stall kicked in as he attempted to pull away - moving into, and then exchanging, third and fourth several times on the opening tour.

Further back, there was chaos at La Source, caused largely by a combination of Webber's bad start and Bruno Senna's lack of recent race experience. The Brazilian passed the tardy Red Bull on the inside, but then found himself without sufficient room to brake and make the corner. The black-and-gold machine barrelled across Webber's nose, before squarely collecting the hapless Jaime Alguersuari. The Toro Rosso driver appeared briefly to have escaped major damage, but the impact only served to push his car into the right rear quarter of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, braking its front suspension.

Alonso escaped without significant damage but, in his wake, there was further contact, with Timo Glock collecting a couple of cars ahead of him. The two Team Lotus entries came together in the middle of the melee while Paul di Resta, who bore the brunt of Glock's assault, was forced into Jenson Button's rear wing, badly damaging its right-hand end plate. The drama wasn't over for the Hungarian GP winner, however, as Senna's damaged front wing disintegrated on the run to Eau Rouge, shedding debris that not only ripped through the McLaren's front wing and narrowly missing his helmet as it tore the right-hand wing mirror from the outside of the cockpit.....

The scuffles had a varying effect on the early order, with the second Toro Rosso of Sebastien Buemi moving up to seventh, chasing Alonso, Adrian Sutil dropping back out of the top ten, and both Michael Schumacher and Daniel Ricciardo gaining a big handful of places over back row grid spots. There were also a number of first lap stoppers as the casualties came in for repairs, but Button was not among them, as McLaren told him to struggle on with the damaged wing until the earliest time for a tactical first tyre stop.

The Briton, along with Schumacher, was also among the few to opt for the harder Pirelli tyre for the start, his qualifying miscommunication giving him the opportunity to choose, unlike those in the top ten. He duly pitted on lap five, changing his wing as well as swapping to the softer compound, but the race had already seen Webber come in to change his damaged rubber, and Vettel was not too far behind.

The German had had to let Rosberg have his moment in the sun for a couple of laps but, as soon as DRS was activated, retook the lead on the run to Les Combes. Alonso, too, was on the move, clearly showing that there were no ill-effects from the Alguersuari hit as he muscled his way past team-mate Massa on the sprint down to Rivage. The Brazilian did not make it easy but his defence left him open to attack from Hamilton, and the Briton duly claimed fourth at Pouhon.

Toro Rosso's day got worse as Buemi joined Alguersuari in retirement on lap six, the Swiss driver's rear wing collapsing as he exited Eau Rouge, possibly as the result of earlier contact. At the same time, the two culprits at the heart of the first lap skirmish were called to account, as Senna and Glock both being handed drive-thru' penalties.

Vettel's pit-stop promoted Rosberg back into the lead but, again, the German's joy was short-lived as Alonso caught and passed him at Les Combes. Hamilton assumed second place a lap later, while the recovering Vettel picked off Kamui Kobayashi for fifth at the same time.

The first round of tyre stops was cycling through quickly by now, and both Alonso and Hamilton followed in quick succession. The Spaniard's stop unwittingly produced the move of the race, if not the season, as the accelerating Ferrari was caught and passed, into Eau Rouge, by Webber. The Spaniard did not make it easy for his rival, giving him just enough room between car and verge, but both survived.

Alonso was back through a lap later, however, but both were already having to chase Vettel, who was now back into second, passing Rosberg for the second time, this time through Blanchimont. The German was again in trouble with his tyres, though, reporting the return of blisters on his second set after just a few laps, but knew that he could not afford to change them immediately without handing an advantage to the opposition.

Vettel's patience was rewarded just a handful of laps later, however, as the safety car was called upon to clear debris from the end of the DRS zone at Les Combes. Not only could the Red Bull team afford to pit for tyres, but one of the German's likely rivals was out of contention, as Hamilton's charge back towards the head of the field had come to a violent end in a collision with Kamui Kobayashi. The McLaren driver had used DRS to pass the Sauber on the Kemmel straight, but neglected to consider that Kobayashi might still be close to him as he edged left to take the ideal line for Les Combes. The pair tangled, with the McLaren being spat hard into the Armco on the outside before coming to rest in the run-off area.

Vettel was joined in the pits by Button and Rosberg, as well as those who had yet to make a stop, while the safety car period was extended slightly by Ricciardo's HRT rolling to a stop on track. Alonso led at the restart, but Vettel was quickly on his tail after passing team-mate Webber exiting La Source. One lap later, and the German was back into P1....

As the race moved through its halfway point, Alonso remained sandwiched between the two Red Bulls, with Rosberg and Massa completing the top five, but the order remained more fluid behind them, particularly as Button began to make progress through the field.

One lap after the restart, the Briton passed both Vitaly Petrov and Sergio Perez in a single move exiting La Source, then caught and passed Schumacher, after a trial run, under braking at the Bus Stop chicane. Sutil succumbed at Les Combes on lap 23, again after a look at the chicane, before both Massa and Rosberg were despatched at the same place on laps 25 and 26. When Alonso pitted to take on the harder tyre, as mandated by the rules, on lap 29, the 2009 world champion was into the top three and looking good for a podium.

Vettel pitted next time around, promoting Button to second, but if the Briton's believed that he had the potential to take another unlikely victory - and in fully dry conditions at that - it was to be dashed when carrying the softer tyres through to the end proved impossible. The ensuing stop dropped him back to fourth, but he was not finished in his pursuit of the podium, hunting down Alonso, whose Ferrari clearly liked the harder tyre a lot less than its softer cousin, and reclaiming third with a couple of laps to run.

Behind the Spaniard, Rosberg and Massa continued to battle over fifth until the Ferrari driver was forced to make two pit-stops in the space of four laps, the result of a puncture just minutes after completing his final tyre change. That dropped him out of the points, but he continued to battle, moving back into the top ten with six laps to go and then relieving Petrov of eighth on the final tour.

Rosberg, meanwhile, had his own problems. Just as he appeared on course for a top five finish, despite increasing pressure from Mercedes team-mate Schumacher, the team warned him to back off and watch his fuel consumption, eventually making him a soft target for the seven-time world champion, who completed his comeback from starting on the back row with a move in to Les Combes with two laps to go.

Between Rosberg and Massa at the flag, Adrian Sutil secured a handful of points for Force India, while Petrov - who parked up as soon as he crossed the line - was followed home by Pastor Maldonado, the mercurial not only claiming another top ten result for Williams, but opening his own F1 account 24 hours after the controversial clash with Hamilton that earned him a five-place grid penalty.

Paul di Resta was a couple of seconds away from giving the 18th-placed starter another points finish - a remarkable streak that has existed for several races - while Kobayashi survived both his moment with Hamilton and the subsequent stewards' enquiry to take twelfth. Senna's disappointing Renault debut ended in 13th, ahead of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen, who battled back from their turn one collision to again top the third division teams, finishing ahead of Rubens Barrichello's Williams, the Virgins of local favourite Jerome d'Ambrosio and Timo Glock, and the remaining HRT of Tonio Liuzzi, who rounded out the finishers.

At the front, meanwhile, Vettel crossed the line just under four seconds ahead of his team-mate, giving Red Bull its first victory at Spa and a rare 1-2 finish, only the second this season after Turkey.

The 25 points accrued by the German lifted him to 259 overall, now 92 clear of Webber with 175 on offer over the remaining seven rounds. Alonso and Button both took advantage of Hamilton's mistake, to climb into third and fourth respectively, although only eleven points continue to cover the trio. RBR, meanwhile, strengthened its grip on the constructors' standings as the F1 circus prepares for Monza in two weeks' time.

The Italian circuit is not thought to favour Red Bull, but then the same was said of Spa.....


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