The biggest question ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix was whether runaway F1 2011 World Championship leader Sebastian Vettel could do enough to write himself into the sport's record books as only the ninth-ever back-to-back title-winner. The answer was no – but only just.
Courtesy of his ninth triumph from 14 races this year, Vettel now requires just a single point in next month's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka to finish the job off – and for that, fans have Jenson Button to thank, for chasing the German down for all he was worth over the closing stages under the Singaporean spotlights...as McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton once more found himself in the wars. Here's how it all unfolded...
A textbook getaway for pole-sitter Vettel when the starting lights went out was not matched by that of Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber alongside, and as Lewis Hamilton attempted to take advantage of the Australian's tardy launch, the Briton dived to the inside only to find his nose brusquely chopped off. With the pair both consequently slowed, Button and Fernando Alonso were able to sweep around the outside into second and third respectively, with Webber fourth.
Behind them, a contretemps
between Felipe Massa and Nico Rosberg into Turn One caused the German to skip across the run-off area as the pair tussled over fifth and sixth, followed by Michael Schumacher in seventh and the delayed Hamilton all the way down in eighth, ahead of Force India F1 pairing Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta.
As Vettel scampered seamlessly away – opening up a staggering 2.6-second advantage over his pursuers by the end of the opening lap alone – Daniel Ricciardo was by stark contrast touring back to the pits at a considerably lower speed with the front wing of his Hispania dragging underneath the car.
Hamilton, however, was the man on the move, making rather shorter work of his Monza nemesis Schumacher by finding a way past on lap four – and in evidence of how much time he was losing behind the Mercedes, he immediately set the fastest first sector of anyone. Next on the 2008 world champion's hit list was Rosberg in the sister 'Silver Arrow', and once that move was completed in similarly short measure, Hamilton set about chasing down the Alonso-Webber-Massa tussle over third position, some 20 seconds adrift of Vettel already and almost ten behind Button. By lap ten, the McLaren was right with them.
Webber and Hamilton – on the back of Alonso and Massa respectively – looked the raciest of the quintet, and the Red Bull man produced a supremely brave manoeuvre to relive the first of the two Ferraris of third place, going for the outside and then the inside as he got the switchback on the exit of the corner. His rear tyres used, Alonso pitted at the end of the lap.
Qualifying combatants Massa and Hamilton were in together next time around – rejoining in the same order – but then only moments later into Turn Seven, there was contact, as at the same corner as he had come together with Webber this time last year, the McLaren ace clumsily tagged the right-rear tyre of the Ferrari on the outside line, leaving one with a broken front wing and the other a puncture...and a long way to go to return to the pits for repairs.
Massa made it back to the pit-lane with his tyre completely shredded, but Hamilton inexplicably continued on for another full lap before stopping – holding Rosberg up along the way. To compound matters, the British star then earned himself a drive-through penalty for his troubles – leaving him all the way down in 16th position and on the harder-compound tyre, albeit still only four seconds behind Massa...
Alonso's earlier stop, meanwhile, had paid dividends as it vaulted the Spaniard back past Webber once more – but both were behind di Resta, yet to stop in the Force India and impressively running right the way up in third place. The Ferrari eventually found a way past, leaving the Scot to deal with fending off a fast-advancing Webber until his own first pit visit at the end of lap 19, freeing the Aussie up to chase down Alonso all over again.
Further down the order, Schumacher hammered the kerbs to avoid clattering into Kamui Kobayashi, whilst the German's countryman Timo Glock was the race's first retirement after spinning his Virgin Racing machine into the barriers.
Almost ignored up front, Vettel motored on serenely, some 15 seconds clear of Button and a gaping 34 ahead of Alonso, by now beginning to suffer with brake temperature issues and more rear tyre woes. By lap 23, meanwhile, Hamilton was right behind Massa once again – albeit down in 12th and 13th places respectively. This time around, he would clear him rather more cleanly following a mistake from the Brazilian, who subsequently pitted.
Alonso's own second stop at the end of lap 26 elevated Webber to third, whilst di Resta was storming up behind FIF1 team-mate Sutil for fifth. Mindful no doubt of the constructors' world championship situation, the German would soon dutifully yield, leaving him needing to cope with the attentions of compatriot Rosberg in seventh. The Mercedes, however, would then run wide, and he paid the price as Sergio Pérez vaulted past him.
In attempting to immediately recover, Rosberg dived down the inside of the Sauber into Turn One, making contact and aggressively pushing Pérez across the same escape road he himself had been forced to use on the opening lap to regain his position. With the pair slowing each other up, the charging Schumacher in the sister Mercedes was brought right into the fray, but after getting a tremendous run through Turn Seven, it all came to grief as he clipped Pérez heading into Turn Eight, finding himself sent flying up into the air and landing again with a thud before slamming into the tyre barriers. Happily, the most successful driver in the sport's history was able to clamber out unaided.
That triggered – as in all previous Singapore Grands Prix – the appearance of the safety car, prompting Webber to pit straightaway...and still
rejoin behind race-long arch-rival Alonso, albeit now on tyres that were four laps younger. Vettel, meanwhile, had the advantage of a Jarno Trulli/Vitantonio Liuzzi/Kobayashi buffer in-between himself and second-placed Button, and 28 laps remaining.
The leader made sure of bolting upon the re-start to open up an immediate margin over Button, as Alonso and Webber – caught up in traffic – continued to duel. Only a handful of corners later, the Red Bull star brilliantly snuck up the inside of the Ferrari into Turn Ten with a supremely bold and opportunistic manoeuvre. Alonso barely even saw him coming.
Vettel served a timely reminder of his outstanding raw pace by setting the fastest first sector of the race from the safety car re-start – and come the end of the lap, he already had an extraordinary nine seconds in his pocket over Vettel. The Schumacher incident, meanwhile, had played beautifully into Hamilton's hands, with the Briton now up to eighth place behind Sutil – and within sniffing distance of a podium finish. After fending him off for a while, the FIF1 man ultimately yielded – leaving Hamilton to set off in pursuit of Rosberg in sixth. He would not be behind the Mercedes for long. Next up – di Resta, and into Turn Seven a lap later, the job was done. P5.
As Hamilton concentrated on chasing down fourth-placed Alonso, third-placed Webber was similarly homing in on Button as Vettel made good his escape – although the Briton was managing the gap and pressure well, as the pecking order up-and-down the field began to stabilise somewhat and the embattled Kobayashi earned himself a drive-through penalty for ignoring blue flags.
With 13 laps to go, Webber pitted for a set of super-softs, rejoining right behind Hamilton on significantly older rubber and swiftly making his way past the traction-less McLaren. Button, meanwhile, ended all doubts about whether he would need to stop again by coming in next, swiftly followed by his team-mate, who re-emerged all the way down in ninth.
Vettel was next to blink, almost finding himself collected in the pit-lane by the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen, prematurely released from his pit box – whilst Alonso's stop shortly after was rather more straightforward. Hamilton was busy fighting his own way back up through the order – clearing Pérez and Sutil in fairly short shrift – as Vettel set another new fastest lap with nine tours to go. Next up for Hamilton was a defensive Rosberg in P6. Once cleared, di Resta was next on the menu – and the distance between the pair was soon gobbled up. Easy meat.
With six laps remaining, the other McLaren of Button was pushing on, and inexorably reducing his deficit to Vettel, bringing it down from over 13 seconds to just over eight – and lapping as much as two seconds-a-lap quicker. With five laps left to run, Button could see
his prey and much as in Montreal, was throwing caution to the wind – and Vettel was struggling in traffic. With three laps to go, the gap was just 3.7 seconds.
Button lost critical time behind the internecine Williams duel – some two seconds in all – meaning the margin was 5.7 seconds with two laps to go, with Jaime Alguersuari dumping his Scuderia Toro Rosso into the same Turn 18 wall as had claimed Glock earlier on and Vettel coming upon the fierce five-way scrap over seventh place on the final lap. Even that, however, would not be quite enough for Button to be able to take advantage, try as he might, and the difference between the pair at the chequered flag was a scant 1.7 seconds. Just one more lap...
Behind the leading two protagonists, Webber, Alonso and Hamilton came in spaced apart in third, fourth and fifth respectively, with Singapore rookie di Resta the last driver not to be lapped in sixth at the end of a superb performance. The tussle over seventh was resolved in favour of Rosberg from Sutil, Massa and Pérez. Outside of the points, Pastor Maldonado, Sébastien Buemi, Rubens Barrichello, Kobayashi, Bruno Senna, Kovalainen, Vitaly Petrov, Jérôme d'Ambrosio, Ricciardo and Liuzzi completed the finishers.
So as F1 heads next to Japan in a fortnight's time, one point is all Vettel requires, and then for another year at least his title rivals will have to kiss their title hopes sayonara
To see the race results in full, click here