The Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix: Alonso Reigns Supreme at Home!

Although the Spanish GP was more about tyre management and pit stop strategies, it still provided an intriguing spectacle for die-hard F1 fans.

May 10, 11, 12, 2013

After the Bahrain disaster, Fernando Alonso was back at his best to win his home race.

Qualifying

Pirelli yet again brought the medium and hard tyre compounds for the Spanish Grand Prix. It was early Christmas for the teams even as the tyre maker offered an extra set of tyres for free practice as well. As in Bahrain, the compounds were expected to favour the likes of Red Bull Racing, Lotus and Ferrari although pundits were quick to dismiss the chances of Mercedes who have struggled with tyre degradation and unusually heavy wear in the season so far.

Q1 saw the exit of last year’s winner, Pastor Maldonado of Williams-Renault and his team-mate Valtterri Bottas, Guido Van Der Garde and Charles Pic, Caterham, and Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton, Marussia.

The Mercedes team topped the time-sheets with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg clocking 1:21:728s and 1:21.913s respectively. Interestingly, Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus put in a time of 1:22:210s on the hard compound tyres and that too after being held up by the Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez.

Q2 continued in the same vein with Hamilton waiting it out until the last minute of the session to top the time-sheets with a run of 1:20:001s followed by Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Fernando Alonso, Ferrari and Raikkonen, Lotus. Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing, Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, Sergio Perez, McLaren, Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Romain Grosjean, Lotus and Paul Di Resta, Force India, made the cut while Jensen Button, McLaren was the one upset among the top drivers not to make the Top 10 for Q3.

With less than two minutes to go in Q3, a string of cars hit the circuit including Alonso, Raikkonen, Vettel, Rosberg and Hamilton. Rosberg set the fastest time of 1:20:728s, followed by team-mate Hamilton who was a mere 2/10ths of a second behind.

Final Line-up: 1. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), 3. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 4. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus), 5. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), 6. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), 7. Romain Grosjean (Lotus), 8. Mark Webber (Red Bull), 9. Sergio Perez (McLaren), 10. Paul Di Resta (Force India).

Race Laps 1 – 20

Rosberg got off to a decent start to maintain his pole position at the start of the race but team-mate Hamilton locked a wheel into Turn 1 and had to concede track position to Vettel who stormed his way from the outside to slot in just behind the leader.

Meanwhile, Alonso in the Ferrari blazed his way from the left side of the track to first lock wheels with Hamilton and then sweep past him and Raikkonen into third place. It was brilliant, fully committed racing from the Spaniard on a circuit where overtaking is difficult, if not impossible.

Raikkonen was down into 5th place, continuing his terrible streak with race starts. Down the grid, Perez and Massa battled it out for track position with the former pushing the Brazilian wide only to lose the place by the start of Lap 2. At this stage both the Ferraris were showing terrific race pace and seemed to be flying past the competition even without DRS enabled!

That duly happened in the middle of Lap 3 and immediately, Vettel began to close in on Rosberg while Raikkonen set about pressurizing Hamilton. But status quo was maintained well into the 6th Lap with the magnificent string of cars all within half a second of each other. At this point, 19 cars were separated by a mere 15 seconds!

It wasn’t until the middle of Lap 7 that Raikkonen finally made his move on Hamilton; zipping to the inside of the Mercedes and making an opportunistic pass stick. Meanwhile, Mark Webber who had been languishing in P13 was called in to the pits in Lap 8 and loaded with a fresh set of hard compound tyres. The Red Bull strategy was to change things around and push hard from here on given that Webber still had a couple of hard sets of rubber available for the remainder of the race.

Lap 8 saw Hamilton struggle with brake and tyre issues and that made it easy for Massa to pass him and claim track position at P5. As was the case in Bahrain, the Mercedes was losing ground alarmingly. However, Ferrari chose to give up the position by pitting Massa at the end of the lap and getting him on to the hard compound tyres. Massa rejoined the field at P14.

More pit action was in store at the top of Lap 9 with Adrian Sutil, Force India and Romain Grosjean, Lotus limping back into the garage with mechanical failures. The race had ended for the French driver but the Force India crew were able to douse the smoke emanating from Sutil’s rear brakes and send him back out, albeit after what seemed like eons in the pits.

Alonso made his first stop at the start of Lap 10 and changed his tyre to the hard compound as did Mercedes’ Hamilton. They were followed in quick succession by all three leaders – Rosberg, Vettel and Raikkonen. Of these, only the Finn went back in on medium compound tyres.

Ferrari’s strategy of pitting Alonso earlier than the leaders bore rich dividends when he managed to get ahead of Sebastian Vettel at the pit lane apex in order to move himself in to P3 just behind Rosberg. The home boy was now storming down the tail of the German.

In the middle of the field, Jensen Button, McLaren had sneaked his way into P6 after a very early pit-stop at the start of the race. But Raikkonen on fresher tyres had started to gain on him and very soon passed him comfortably at Turn 10 to claim the position. At this point in the race, Esteban Gutierrez of Sauber led the race for the very first time in his fledgling F1 career followed by Rosberg who had somehow managed to ward off the marauding Alonso.

Meanwhile, Mark Webber who went down the field to P17 was back in P7 driving beautifully on his set of fresh hard tyres. It was clear that the Red Bull strategy of pitting him earlier than planned, was working perfectly and a podium finish seemed on the cards.

Alonso’s frustration at being stuck behind a persevering Rosberg finally came to an end at the start of Lap 13 as he swept past the German at Turn 1 driving the home fans to frenzy. With Gutierrez yet to pit, the legion of Alonso fans sensed that it was going to be his day!

That move was also the cue for Vettel and Massa to start attacking Rosberg and at Turn 6 blew past him to take P3. Massa too was now on the rear wing waiting to make his move from P5 which he duly accomplished in the next couple of turns.

Felipe Massa drive a great race to stay in the top 3.

Felipe Massa drive a great race to stay in the top 5 throughout the race.

Rosberg’s misery was not over because now Raikkonen started to gain on him. By Lap 15, the Finn made his pass on Rosberg to snatch P4. As in Bahrain, the Mercedes was now being gobbled up by the cars behind!

Within a span of a few seconds, the leader board had changed drastically with Alonso leading followed by Vettel, Massa, Raikkonen and Rosberg. But the race was now becoming increasingly about tyre management rather than flat out racing. All the drivers were now intent on saving their rubber rather than battling for track position.

However, Vettel and Webber in the Red Bulls were now flagging with Massa rapidly gaining on the German and Perez in the McLaren and Paul Di Resta, Force India starting to threaten Webber. Before that could happen, Daniel Ricciardo who until now had been driving a superb race, slotted past Di Resta to put himself in P8. Di Resta however, pitted in the same lap.

End of Lap 20: 1. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 3. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 4. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) 5. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 6. Mark Webber (Red Bull) 7. Sergio Perez (McLaren) 8. Daniel Ricciardo (STR-Ferrari) 9. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) 10. Nico Hulkenberg (Sauber).

Race Laps 21 – 40

Felipe Massa came into the pits at the top of Lap 21 for his second stop allowing Kimi Raikkonen to move into 3rd place. He was fitted with another set of brand new hard tyres and rejoined the field at P11. Race leader Alonso followed in the very next lap released. With a rash of pit stops at the middle of the field, Massa too managed to work his way up to P5.

The Ferraris were yet again back in contention for the podium spots considering that the current leaders, Vettel, Raikkonen and Rosberg (P4) had only made one pit-stop each and were due for tyre change. However, with Massa having opened up the slot for Raikkonen, the Finn was now flying in clean air and had come within 7/10ths of a second behind the current race leader, Vettel.

The German world champion made his second stop in Lap 24 and finally released Raikkonen to lead the race for the first time in the Spanish Grand Prix. Alonso meanwhile, was lapping some three seconds faster and had now come within 5.8 seconds of the leading Lotus.

Towards the back of the field, Webber started to make steady progress after easily passing an increasingly dejected Hamilton. To make matters even worse for him, Di Resta in the Force India breezed past with effortless ease. In yet another Mercedes-Red Bull shoot-out, Vettel blasted away from Rosberg in Lap 26. The Mercedes campaign after a great qualifying was now in tatters!

Raikkonen finally relinquished his hard-fought leadership position in the same lap to free up Alonso at the top of the field. Interestingly though, the Iceman was put back on medium compound tyres and rejoined the race at P4.

By Lap 30 Kimi was hot on the heels of P3 Vettel. The intriguing, edge-of-the-seat dogfight continued well into Lap 33 when the Finn finally made a stupendous pass on Turn 14 to wrest the position. Raikkonen was well and truly flying on his medium tyres but still 18 seconds behind the Ferrari of Alonso.

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus, yet again proved that he was the master of tyre management.

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus, yet again proved that he was the master of tyre management.

Alonso duly made his third stop at the start of Lap 37 yet again yielding the first place to Raikkonen but with the advantage of being on a fresher set of hard tyres overtook him on the main straight at the start of Lap 39. Raikkonen was now into 13 laps on the same set of medium compounds yet again proving that he was the master at tyre management.

End of Lap 40: 1. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 4. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 5. Mark Webber (Red Bull) 6. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 7. Daniel Ricciardo (STR-Ferrari) 8. Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) 9. Jensen Button (McLaren) 10. Paul Di Resta (Force India).

Race Laps 41 – 60

Lap 41 witnessed a battle royal between Gutierrez, Sauber and Button in the McLaren. The rookie driver managed to hold off Button but had to finally concede the place towards the end of the lap when the 2009 World Champion slipped past him to put himself in 7th place.

The remainder of the field remained pretty much the same by Lap 44 with Alonso leading the race followed by Raikkonen (+7.656s), Massa (+9.252s), Vettel (+14.033s) and Webber (+8.937s). But Alonso was pulling away quickly from Raikkonen and widening the gap in every sector and Massa too was putting in some truly fast lap times to close in on Kimi.

Given the pressure applied by the Brazilian driver, Raikkonen was called in on Lap 46 for his third and possibly his last pit stop of the race. He was fitted with a brand new set of hard compound tyres and rejoined the field at P4 – the first time in the race that he was on the harder prime rubber.

By the start of Lap 47, Alonso was ahead of Raikkonen in P3 by 29.498 seconds and Massa by nearly 19 seconds, thereby making it a foregone conclusion that he could make his 4th pit-stop and still continue to lead the field quite comfortably. Massa and Vettel – both their cars on medium compound tyres – were due for their last stops with 19 laps still to go.

Alonso made his final pit-stop in Lap 49 and came back out on hard compound tyres and stayed ahead of Raikkonen and team-mate Massa at the pit exit.

The Ferrari team finally got Massa in for his last stop at the head of Lap 52 as did the Red Bull team with Vettel. Both went back on hard tyres and rejoined the race at P3 and P4 respectively.

Enjoying the traction and grip that the fresh rubber was affording Alonso, the two-time World Champion had opened up a 10 second lead at the top of the field ahead of the second placed Raikkonen. He increased that to over 12.6 seconds by the start of the 56th lap.

Paul Di Resta, Force India drove another brilliant race to threaten the likes of Mercedes' Nico Rosberg.

Paul Di Resta, Force India drove another brilliant race to threaten the likes of Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg.

At the centre of the field, there were a couple of mini battles taking place between the Mercedes and Force India teams. Rosberg was defending 6th place from Di Resta while Lewis Hamilton and Adrian Sutil were scrapping it out for 12th.

The other interesting contest was between the old suspects and team-mates Button and Perez for P9. As was witnessed in Bahrain, Perez was not going to let the more illustrious partner to dictate terms being as he was on hard compound tyres which were 4 laps fresher than Buttn’s. However, team orders were sent out to the Mexican driver requesting him to hold station

End of Lap 60: 1. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 4. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 5. Mark Webber (Red Bull) 6. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 7. Paul Di Resta (Force India) 8. Jensen Button (McLaren) 9. Sergio Perez (McLaren) 10. Daniel Ricciardo (STR-Ferrari).

Race Laps 61 – 66

The top 10 maintained their positions in Lap 61 as the time gaps between cars remained constant with Alonso taking full advantage of the clean air in front of him as did Massa who was driving wonderfully at this stage. The Ferrari strategy was to allow Massa to go as fast as he could in order to catch Raikkonen in 2nd place thereby making it a one-two for the Italian automotive giant.

The strategy was fraught with risk considering that Massa could blow his tyres in the bargain leaving him little leeway in the race in terms of pit-stops. The fight was all but given up with his left rear tyres showing heavy graining that resulted in him lapping almost three seconds slower.

In a race where ttres mattered, Guido Van Der Garde of Caterham lost one!

In a race where tyres mattered, Guido Van Der Garde of Caterham lost one!

Meanwhile, the joust between Rosberg and Di Resta continued through to Lap 64 when the Scot narrowly missed a passing chance on the main straight. At this point, Di Resta was a mere .339 seconds behind the Mercedes driver.

There were no last-minute spills or thrills in the final lap as all the cars held their positions leaving Alonso a clear winner followed by Raikkonen and Massa.

Although not a great race by any standards, considering that it was more about tyre management and pit stop strategies rather than pure racing, the championship had been spiced up just enough to keep all the front-runners – read Vettel, Raikkonen and Alonso – within sniffing distance of the 2013 World Championship.

Final Standings: 1. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 4. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 5. Mark Webber (Red Bull) 6. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 7. Paul Di Resta (Force India) 8. Jensen Button (McLaren) 9. Sergio Perez (McLaren) 10. Daniel Ricciardo (STR-Ferrari).

Next edition: The Spanish GP Stats Sheet

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Bahrain GP 2013: Stats and Fun Facts

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel may have made the contest one-sided, but there was enough excitement down the field to keep everyone watching hooked.  

Here are some of the highlights, stats and fun facts.

Bahrain fountain.

Bahrain fountain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Winner’s Time

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing-Ranault: 1:36:00:498 (h:mm:ss:000)

Fastest Lap of the Race

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault Racing: 1:36:961 (m:ss:000)

Sebastian Vettel stormed to an easy win in Bahrain.

Sebastian Vettel stormed to an easy win in Bahrain.

Pole Position

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes: 1:32:330 (m:ss:000)

Longest Tyre Stint

23 Laps: Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus-Renault

Best Total Pit-Stop Time (2 Stops)

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus-Renault: 43.988s

Kimi Raikkonen has mastered the art of managing the 2013 Pirelli tyres.

Kimi Raikkonen has mastered the art of managing the 2013 Pirelli tyres.

AWARDS

Bahrain’s Brilliant

  1. Sebastian Vettel, RBR-Renault for a tactically flawless race.
  2. Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus-Renault for taking P2 after qualifying at P9.
  3. Romain Grosjean, Lotus-Renault for taking 3rd after qualifying at P11.
  4. Paul Di Resta, Force India-Mercedes for a career-best 4th place on a two-stop pit strategy.

Bahrain Surprises

  1. Sergio Perez, McLaren-Mercedes for taking on team-mate Jensen Button and finishing at P6.
  2. Paul Di Resta, Force India-Mercedes’ first pit-stop which was neither here nor there!
  3. Paul Di Resta, Force India-Mercedes for leading the race albeit for 3 laps.

Bahrain Shunts

  1. Valtterri Bottas, Williams ploughing into Jean-Eric Vergne, STR-Ferrari, which resulted in the Frenchman driving into the Caterham of Guido Van Der Garde!
  2. Mark Webber, RBR-Renault for touching wheels with Nico Rosberg, Mercedes and getting summons from the race stewards.
  3. Felipe Massa, Ferrari’s joust with Adrian Sutil of Force India-Mercedes that practically wrecked the race for both drivers.

Bahrain Disappointments

  1. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes for not being able to capitalise on his pole position and dropping down to 9th place.
  2. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari for having a mechanical failure on his DRS flap on the rear wing which destroyed his race.
  3. Felipe Massa, Ferrari for suffering two tyre failures and a damaged front wing that kept him out of the points table.
PIT-STOP AND TYRE STRATEGIES: TOP 10 DRIVERS
POS. DRIVER TEAM START LAP STOP 1 LAP STOP 2 LAP STOP 3 LAP STOP 4
1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull MEDIUM 10 HARD 25 HARD 42 HARD
2 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus MEDIUM 16 HARD 34 HARD
3 Romain Grosjean Lotus HARD 16 HARD 27 MEDIUM 42 MEDIUM
4 Paul Di Resta Force India MEDIUM 14 HARD 36 HARD
5 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes MEDIUM 10 MEDIUM 22 HARD 38 HARD
6 Sergio Perez McLaren MEDIUM 10 HARD 20 HARD 39 HARD
7 Mark Webber Red Bull MEDIUM  8 HARD 21 HARD 37 HARD
8 Fernando Alonso Ferrari MEDIUM  7 HARD 8 HARD 24 HARD 39 HARD
9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes MEDIUM  9 HARD 20 HARD 33 MEDIUM 44 MEDIUM
10 Jensen Button McLaren MEDIUM  9 HARD 21 HARD 34 HARD 46 MEDIUM
PIT-STOP TIMES
POS. DRIVER TEAM STOP 1 STOP 2 STOP 3 STOP 4 TOTAL
1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 21.660 21.290 21.906 0 1:04:856
2 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 22.715 21.273 0 0 43.988
3 Romain Grosjean Lotus 24.605 21.608 21.556 0 1:07:769
4 Paul Di Resta Force India 22.009 22.475 0 0 44.484
5 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 22.072 21.444 21.600 0 1:05.116
6 Sergio Perez McLaren 21.471 21.161 21.319 0 1:03:951
7 Mark Webber Red Bull 21.798 21.221 21.031 0 1:04:050
8 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 23.055 21.436 21.123 21.189 1:26:803
9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 22.237 21.331 21.183 21.267 1:26:018
10 Jensen Button McLaren 23.093 21.894 21.696 21.230 1:27:913
BAHRAIN DRIVER STANDINGS
POS. DRIVER TEAM PTS.
1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 25
2 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 18
3 Romain Grosjean Lotus 15
4 Paul Di Resta Force India 12
5 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 10
6 Sergio Perez McLaren  8
7 Mark Webber Red Bull  6
8 Fernando Alonso Ferrari  4
9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes  2
10 Jensen Button McLaren  1
OVERALL DRIVER STANDINGS (4 RACES)
POS. DRIVER TEAM PTS.
1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 77
2 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 67
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 52
4 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 45
5 Mark Webber Red Bull 32
6 Felipe Massa Ferrari 30
7 Romain Grosjean Lotus 26
8 Paul Di Resta Force India 26
9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 14
10 Jensen Button McLaren 13
11 Sergio Perez McLaren 10
12 Daniel Ricciardo Torro Rosso  6
13 Adrian Sutil Force India  6
14 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber  5
15 Jean Eric Vergne Torro Rosso  1
CONSTRUCTORS STANDINGS
POS. TEAM PTS.
1 Red Bull-Renault 109
2 Lotus-Renault 107
3 Ferrari  58
4 Mercedes  66
5 Force India  36
6 McLaren  16
7 STR-Ferrari*   7
8 Sauber-Ferrari   5
*Torro Rosso

 

The Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix: Vettel Storms the Desert!

Defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel had a Bull run in Bahrain even as the Lotuses bloomed in the desert.

(Race 4: April 19, 20, 21, 2013)

Vettel, Red Bull drove a faultless race to win the Bahrain GP.

Vettel, Red Bull drove a faultless race to win the Bahrain GP.

Qualifying

Qualifying for the Grand Prix was a lot more relaxed for the teams with Pirelli having announced the use of their two relatively long-lasting compounds for the race – the medium tyres and the hard. Initial speculation was that the Red Bull Racing team would run away with the pole position and the second but there was always the 3-place grid penalty incurred by Mark Webber in the last GP to consider.

Qualifying went to form with all the top drivers and teams expected making the grade to Q3 with the exception of Romain Grosjean of Lotus, Sergio Perez, McLaren, Daniel Ricciardo, Torro Rosso and Nico Hulkenberg of Sauber.

While the Vettel expectedly put in a dominant run with a blistering 1:32:584s, what caught everyone by surprise was Nico Rosberg’s equally blazing time of 1:32:330s to take pole position. His team-mate, Hamilton claimed P4 with an impressive 1:32:762s only to be pipped by Fernando Alonso with 1:32:667 at P3.

The Lotuses meanwhile, had a torrid time with first Grosjean dropping out of Q3 to be placed finally at P11 and Kimi Raikkonen dropping down alarmingly to P9 with hardly any qualifying pace to match the front-runners.

The final line-up for the race was: 1. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 2. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 3. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 4. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)* 5. Mark Webber* (Red Bull) 6. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 7. Paul Di Resta (Force India) 8. Adrian Sutil (Force India) 9. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) 10. Jensen Button (McLaren).

* Hamilton received a 5-place grid penalty for a gear box change and Webber was already under a 3-grid penalty for the accident he caused with Jean-Eric Vergne in Shanghai.

Race Laps 1 – 15

Nico Rosberg got off to a reasonable start but immediately was being put under the twin pressure of Vettel’s RBR9 and Alonso’s Ferrari F138. Characteristic of the men, it was an explosive start by the two championship rivals. Very soon, they had started to swarm around behind the leader. Rosberg defended gamely to stay ahead but the Bull and the Ferrari had far too much pace and grip. First Alonso came through from the outside to squeeze Vettel into P3 and move just behind the Mercedes. However, Vettel got better traction out of turn 4 and made a clean pass past Alonso. It was a fantastic piece of racing!

At the back of the grid, Felipe Massa made contact with Adrian Sutil of Force India and immediately damaged his front left wing. Sutil suffered a puncture and from then on, it was downhill for both the drivers – and it was only Lap 1! Massa lost one grid position and was down to P5 with Di Resta getting ahead. At this stage it seemed like yet another edge-of-the-seat thriller of an F1 race.

At the start of Lap 2, Rosberg was a mere 2/10th of a second ahead of the German champion and even though there was no DRS as yet, Vettel moved to the inside and tried a pass. Rosberg somehow held him off. The dogfight continued into turn 4 and both drivers were now racing wheel to wheel. Alonso too was awaiting his opportunity but stayed a couple of car lengths behind to avoid a repeat of Sepang where he managed to smash his front wing.

It was in Lap 3 that Vettel finally swept into the lead zipping past Rosberg to claim the lead. This was the signal that Alonso was waiting for to make his move. Just at the top of Lap 4 that Alonso made full use of his KERS and went past the Rosberg, but the German driver snatched the position right back at the second turn. Having the benefit of clean air in front, Vettel now set the fastest lap time of 1:41:960s.

Meanwhile at the middle of the racing order, Jensen Button, McLaren-Mercedes (P7) and team-mate Sergio Perez (P8) were doing a great job defending their places against the Lotuses of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Gosjean.

As the cars commenced Lap 5, Alonso used the DRS to full effect on the straight and rocketed away from Rosberg to snatch P2. More misery was to follow when Di Resta who was running a steady P4, squeezed his way past at the apex to move up one place. In a few short bursts of action, Rosberg was now trailing at P4. His medium compound tyres were now wearing alarmingly and the performance degradation was to the tune of around 2.5 seconds a lap. As if on cue, with his front wing flapping in the wind, it was now the turn of Massa to start harassing Rosberg.

Alonso's DRS wing stayed open forcing him to pit.

Alonso’s DRS wing stayed open forcing him to make an unscheduled pit-stop.

Up ahead, disaster struck for the other Ferrari when Alonso’s DRS wing got stuck in the open position due to a glitch in the automatic system. This forced the Spaniard to make an unscheduled pit-stop in Lap 8. The pit crew engineers did a great job by slapping back the errant wing into place and fitting on a new set of hard tyres but Alonso rejoined the race way back at P16 thereby practically wrecking his race and a prospective podium finish. He had also lost use of the DRS wing because he could not further risk using it in the race – a major handicap for a driver trying to work his up from the fag-end of the grid.

Lap 8 also saw the start of the Button-Perez drama with the latter playing the aggressor and the more experienced driver shutting him out. However, matters could have got embarrassing on more than one occasion with the Mexican driver sniping at Button’s rear wing and tyres.

At the start of Lap 10, Rosberg finally limped back in for his first pit-stop as did Button who decided to take a break from the dogfight he was involved in with Sergio Perez. Raikkonen and Perez, meanwhile, continued to stay on track and moved up into the slots vacated by the two. Fitted with sets of hard compound tyres Rosberg and Button rejoined the race at P12 and P13 respectively.

The start of Lap 11 saw Vettel make his first pit-stop along with McLaren’s Perez and Ferrari’s Massa. While Vettel rejoined at P5, Massa came out just behind Jensen Button. At this point in the race, Di Resta was in the lead for the first time in his F1 career followed by Raikkonen and joined by the ever-enterprising Nico Hulkenberg of Sauber. Like Raikkonen, Hulkenberg too seemed to be working on a two stop strategy and was making his tyres work longer.

Lap 13 saw Valtterri Bottas, Williams and Hulkenberg make a tyre stop and vacating two positions in the top 6 and allowing Sebastian Vettel to get into P3.

Meanwhile, the battle for P6 was hotting up with four cars chasing the luckless Rosberg – two McLarens (Button and Perez), Massa’s Ferrari, Grosjean in the Lotus and Hamilton in the other Mercedes! Each of the drivers threatened and challenged the other in an effort to wrest the slot with the most thrilling contest coming from Massa and Grosjean.

Back at the top of the field, in Lap 15 the Force India team made the call to race leader Di Resta to make his first pit-stop. It seemed like a puzzling decision at the time considering that the Scot was posting reasonable lap times and the wear on his medium set was not too drastic. Perhaps the fact that Vettel was fast closing in on the now-flagging Raikkonen in P2 was the cue they needed and before Vettel could continue his storming run in the desert, pulled Di Resta in.

Sure enough, Vettel swept past the Lotus being as he was on the fresher tyres to yet again lead the race. Team-mate Mark Webber, who until now had a relatively quieter race in comparison to the disastrous sequence of mishaps in Shanghai, had moved in to P3 and it now seemed that the Red Bulls were in a position to dominate the race at the Sakhir Circuit because the Finn had yet to make his first stop.

End of Lap 15: 1. Vettel (Red Bull) 2. Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Webber (Red Bull) 4. Rosberg (Mercedes) 5. Button (McLaren) 6. Massa (Ferrari) 7. Grosjean (Lotus), 8 Perez (McLaren) 9. Di Resta, Force India 10. Hamilton (Mercedes).

Race Laps 16 – 30

Lap 16 started uneventfully with enough daylight space between the top 6 cars. But Vettel was in a different dimension having opened up a 3.583s lead from Raikkonen and 4.330s from Webber. The Finn finally decided to make his first stop at the start of Lap 17 and he rejoined the field in P11. However, it was clear at this stage that he would make one stop less than some of the other drivers out in front thereby guaranteeing a podium or at least a high points finish.

The midfield jostle continued as Perez, McLaren easily overtook Massa who was beginning to look more and more leaden-footed with heavy tyre degradation. His fall down the field continued with Force India’s Di Resta now sweeping past him followed quickly by the Mercedes of Hamilton. Massa had enough and made his way into the pits for a tyre change just before the start of Lap 18. Interestingly, he was fitted back with medium compound tyres in an effort to get him up the field quicker, but by the time he rejoined the race, he was down to P15. Ferrari’s afternoon was going from bad to worse!

Grosjean used excellent tyre strategies to stay in the top 3.

Grosjean used excellent tyre strategies to stay in the top 3.

Lap 20 saw a relatively minor tussle between Button (P4) and Rosberg (P3) with the British driver easily passing the German to claim track position. It was then Grosjean’s turn to take on Rosberg and make his pass stick. The Mercedes driver was now under threat from Perez in the second McLaren. Like Massa, Rosberg’s race had begun to unravel now struggling as he was with tyre wear and consequent performance degradation. At the top of Lap 21, both drivers decided on a cease fire to come into the pits for a tyre change. When they went out again, Rosberg was just ahead of the Mexican at P12.

The end of Lap 21 and the start of Lap 22 saw a flurry of pit action as both Lewis Hamilton and former team-mate Jensen Button came into the pits for their second stops. Just a lap earlier, Mark Webber too had to come into the pits for fresh compounds leaving Vettel to charge the front of the field with little or no competition by now.

By the time the drivers rejoined, the battle for the 10th was on in right earnest between an array of cars – Perez, Rosberg, Button and Massa, all battling for the place. Perez took the position albeit briefly, only to lose it yet again to Rosberg in Lap 23. Lap 24 saw the three cars of Button, Perez and Rosberg line up side-by-side with the Mexican gaining by a nose-length to surge ahead. Button followed suit, but avoided a direct confrontation with his team-mate to stick right behind.

At the end of Lap 25, Vettel finally came in for his second stop after making his hard tyres last out comfortably for 15 laps. A typical Red Bull pit-stop in terms of time consumed and the significant cushion that he enjoyed in terms of lead time, meant that Vettel rejoined the race at P1 and retake the lead. He was followed by Grosjean, Lotus, Di Resta, Force India and Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus with the Frenchman in the Lotus still to make a second pit-stop.

Meanwhile, down the field, Perez continued to hold back a marauding Button who in turn was being hunted down by Nico Hulkenberg. The three drivers were now stacked at P6, 7 and 8. The tussle was split up with Rosberg pushing past Hulkenberg to slot himself in at P8.

At the front, Di Resta began to storm all around Gorsjean and managed to blast past the latter on the main straight to claim P2. It was superb driving from the Scotsman who was enjoying his best run of his life and a testimony to the great straight-line speed that Force India had developed over the end of the last season and the beginning of the new one. Losing the track position to Di Resta was cue for Grosjean to come into the pits in Lap 27. He went back in on a set of mediums which meant that he was in for a three-stopper.

Back in the middle of the field the mini McLaren war which had been brewing the whole afternoon, was won by Button with him sweeping past the younger driver. Or was it?

Button was harassed by his team-mate Perez throughout the race.

Button was harassed by his team-mate Perez throughout the race.

Perez continued his relentless attack on Button and in Lap 30 using DRS, he made yet another overtaking move stick. But Button wrested back the lead on the turn and in a way showing Perez who the boss really was. Perez responded by tailing Button again and clipped a portion of the former’s rear right tyre and losing a portion of his wing instead. While it was fantastic racing for the fans, Button was not amused forcing the British driver to radio call to his team telling them to ask Perez to back off!

End of Lap 30: 1. Vettel (Red Bull) 2. Di Resta (Force India) 3. Raikkonen (Lotus) 4. Webber (Red Bull) 5. Button (McLaren) 6. Perez (McLaren) 7. Rosberg (Mercedes) 8. Grosjean (Lotus) 9. Hamilton (Mercedes) 10. Alonso (Ferrari).

Race Laps 31 – 45

By the middle of Lap 31, Vettel had opened up a massive 13.9 second lead from Di Resta and nearly 15 seconds from Raikkonen. There was no way that these two were ever going to catch the champion unless there was a calamity of sorts for the Red Bull team at the last pit-stop. But there was good news for the Lotus camp as Raikkonen begain gaining rapidly on Di Resta. A P2 podium finish was now looking like a distinct possibility.

Just behind, Sergio Perez had now started to feel the heat from Romain Grosjean’s Lotus even as the Frenchman stormed all over his back wing. Rosberg in turn, was in hot pursuit of Grosjean. At this stage there were four cars line up on the track barely 25 metres from each other!

In Lap 34, Kimi Raikkonen made his final pit-stop yet again changing into a set of hard compound tyres and rejoined the race at P7. But the likes of Di Resta, Grosjean, Button and Perez were due for their last pit-stops which would automatically get him back into the top three or four positions. Meanwhile Hamilton in his Mercedes had sneaked his way up the field and finally put an end to the Button-Perez dogfight by sweeping past the Mexican from the left side of the track to the right with a brilliant pass, to P5.

Di Resta made his final stop at this time and rejoined the race in P8 behind Raikkonen (P6) and Alonso (P7). There was more disaster for Ferrari in Lap 37 as Massa suffered a second puncture and had most of his rubber shorn off the right wheel. There was no question of the Brazilian being able to gain any points for the day after that.

On to Lap 39 and Raikkonen on his set of fresh tyres made his move on Hamilton to go past and claim P3. As if on cue, Hamilton made the decision to make his final pit-stop and leaving the Finn free to chart his way to the podium. The field at this stage was: Vettel, Grosjean, Raikkonen, Di Resta, Webber, Button, Rosberg, Hamilton, Perez and Alonso.

Di Resta, Force India and Grosjean, Lotus produced some thrilling racing.

Di Resta, Force India and Grosjean, Lotus produced some thrilling racing.

Vettel came in for his last pit-stop in Lap 43, perfectly timed to keep him well out in the lead considering that he had by now a 26-second advantage over second-placed Grosjean and around 30 seconds clear from Kimi Raikkonen in P3. Grosjean too followed suit and pitted in the same lap ceding his position on the track to team-mate Raikkonen.

Lap 44 saw a bunch overtaking manoeuvres going on at the same time – Rosberg got past Button, but Alonso attacking but staying behind Perez, and Grosjean on fresh medium compound rubber simply blowing past his much slower competitors on worn tyres. It wasn’t long before the Frenchman was back at P4 and challenging Di Resta for a podium spot. In the interim, in Lap 45, Hamilton went cleanly past Button on the turn to take P6. His team-mate, Nico Rosberg meanwhile, made a fourth stop by now and rejoined at P10. The afternoon couldn’t have been any worse for the German!

End of Lap 45: 1. Vettel (Red Bull) 2. Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Di Resta (Force India) 4 Grosjean (Lotus) 5. Webber (Red Bull) 6. Hamilton (Mercedes) 7. Button (McLaren) 8. Perez (McLaren) 9. Alonso (Ferrari) 10. Rosberg (Mercedes).

Race Laps 46 –57

If anyone believed that the Button-Perez saga for the day was over, they were mistaken! At the start of Lap 46, Perez yet again moved hard on Button, made the move stick and forced the Englishman to concede the position. That scrap helped Alonso as he squeezed in on Button’s side to pass him and put him into 8th place. Button reacted by pitting at the end of the lap even as Alonso, now showing some typical form albeit sans the DRS advantage, blew past Perez to take P7.

By Lap 50, Vettel was comfortably ahead of Raikkonen by a shade less that 9.5 seconds who in turn had a cushion of some 9.5 seconds from Di Resta. The top two finishers had been decided but the third podium place was up for grabs with Grosjean eating into the lap times of Di Resta by almost 1.5 seconds per lap. Di Resta’s lead had now been cut to a mere 2.2 seconds and the question was whether the Force India driver could hold the Frenchman’s charge.

The final piece of action among the leaders came in Lap 52 when yet again Grosjean lined himself next to Di Resta down the main straight, and then exploded past to the turn for the last podium place available. It was better tyre management from the Lotus outfit and heartbreak for the Force India team.

Down the middle, Perez continued his most aggressive performance ever by taking on Alonso, squeezing him out on to the chicane and into the sand on turn 4 and then blowing ahead of the more accomplished of racers in the world.

Alonso, Ferrari is pushed on to the sand by Perez, McLaren.

Alonso, Ferrari is pushed on to the sand by Perez, McLaren.

Even more excitement was on with the Webber-Hamilton duo racing wheel-to-wheel to usurp the 5th place; the hot pursuit continuing right through into Lap 56. In the last lap of the race Hamilton finally got around the outside of Webber and passed him. It was absolutely on-the-edge racing from the two magnificent drivers and completed what was a truly thrilling race!

Vettel duly completed the formalities with Raikkonen and Grosjean following in P2 and P3 with Di Resta coming in at P4.

Bahrain may have been Vettel’s lone Bull run  but the rest of the action was enough to keep the legion of F1 fans hooked and happy!

Final Standings: 1. Vettel (Red Bull) 2. Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Grojean (Lotus) 4. Di Resta (Force India) 5. Hamilton (Mercedes) 6. Perez (McLaren) 7. Webber (Red Bull) 8. Alonso (Ferrari) 9. Rosberg (Mercedes) 10. Button (McLaren).

Next edition: The Bahrain Stats Sheet

The Formula 1 Shanghai Grand Prix: Surprises…and Delights!

The Shanghai Grand Prix was more about team and driver-strategy rather than all out racing and speed. Here is a detailed race review of the high-voltage tactical shoot-out over the weekend.  

(Race 3; April 12, 13, 14, 2013)

Fernando Alonso drove a masterful race to take the 2013 Shanghai GP.

Fernando Alonso drove a masterful race to take the 2013 Shanghai GP.

Qualifying Quandary

Qualifying was a messy, messy affair. With Pirelli offering only two tyre compounds – Soft and Medium – for the race, the teams were extremely tentative. The soft compounds were wearing far too quickly for comfort which forced the top 10 drivers to conserve them for the race.  For Q3, all of them, without exception, waited out a full eight minutes of the 10-minute session, before a few dared to put in a couple of cursory laps.

World Champion, Sebastian Vettel started his run in the last-minute in an effort to best Lewis Hamilton’s lap time of 1:34:484s to wrest pole position, but ended up on the grass after a brake failure that caused some damage to the set of medium tyres that he was to start the race with. Vettel scraped through in his only timed lap of Q3 to P9.  His team-mate, Mark Webber had it worse! His car was short-fuelled by some 3kg thereby relegating the hapless Australian to a pit lane start at P22.

After a none-too-impressive set of runs in Q1 and Q2, Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen put in a flying lap that clocked 1:34:761s to place him at P2. This was the first time since 2009 that the Finn was to start at the top of the grid. Team-mate Romain Grosjean too was impressive and garnered a respectable P6 start raising hopes of a high points finish for the Lotus Team in their assault at the 2013 Constructors Championship.

The Ferraris showed consistent performance during all three qualifiers and both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa slotted themselves at P3 and P5 respectively with Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg splitting the pair at P4.

If there were any surprises, it was the vastly improved showing by Torro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo who came in at P7.

The last two positions – P8 and P10 – were taken by 2009 World Champion Jensen Button and Nico Hulkenberg of Sauber.

The major disappointments in qualifying were Force India, the team which despite showing a lot of promise and pace in the last couple of races, ended outside the top 10. Paul Di Resta ended his charge in Q2 to be placed P11 while Adrina Sutil slotted in at P13.

Race Laps 1 – 15

Hamilton made a decent getaway to maintain pole position at the start of the race. However, Kimi Raikkonen had an electronics failure and a resultant wheel lock that delayed his start and allowed the two Ferraris of Alonso and Massa to easily overtake and claim P2 and P3 respectively. When Raikkonen finally got going, he had to fight off the marauding cars at the back in order to somehow maintain his position at P4 – it was an excellent recovery.

There was a mêlée of sorts between the mid-runners with Grosjean (Lotus) and Rosberg (Mercedes) battling for the 5th place. Rosberg managed to hold track position briefly, and lost it to the Frenchman in the very next lap. The Lotuses were now running at P4 and P5.

Force India drivers Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta have an early mishap

Force India drivers Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta have an early mishap

Meanwhile, Force India’s race was going awry when Sutil knocked Di Resta off the track forcing the Scotsman to lose a couple of grid positions in the bargain. By the time Di Resta recovered and moved up a place, the two were running at P13 and P14 respectively.

At the back of the grid, Webber was the first of the drivers to pit (Lap 2). The idea was to get rid of his soft tyres and get on to the mediums with the hope of going longer and consequently work his way into the middle of the pack as other drivers pitted.

It was in Lap 5, that the Shanghai Grand Prix exploded to life. Alonso blasted in right behind Hamilton and used the outside race line to the Englishman’s left to take the lead in one swooping overtaking manoeuvre. Almost simultaneously, Massa cut to the right of Hamilton to take the inside line and zip past him to take 2nd place. Within a fraction of a second, Hamilton had lost two grid places and his race seemed to be headed downhill with Raikkonen now monstering all over his back wing!

His team-mate Rosberg was faring no better! Struggling with tyre-wear and hardly any traction on his soft compounds, the German was forced to concede track position – first to Hulkenberg and then to a rapidly advancing Vettel. The champion’s strategy of starting on mediums was beginning to pay dividends.

This forced the Mercedes drivers to double-stack in the pits! Hamilton was released first and he rejoined the race at P16 while Rosberg had to be content with P18. Meanwhile, Sauber’s rookie driver, Esteban Gutierrez ploughed into the back of Force India’s Sutil effectively ending the race for both. Sutil limped back into the pits with a broken rear wing and fire spitting out of his rear brakes.

Lap 7 saw Alonso make his first pit-stop while Massa decided to stay out thereby putting him in the lead for the first time. Raikkonen too came in for a tyre change in the same lap. The leader board now read Massa, Hulkenberg, Vettel, Button, Grosjean, Sergio Perez (McLaren), Di Resta, Pastor Maldonando (Williams), Valterri Bottas (Williams) and Jean Eric Vergne (Torro Rosso). However, every one of them bar Vettel, was due for their first stop.

In the interim, Webber had worked his way to P14, but his medium tyres had started to wear alarmingly considering that his gear and rev settings were cranked up to the maximum in order to facilitate overtaking. He was asked to come in to pit on Lap 8.

Massa too was now lapping almost two seconds slower in some sectors and was asked by Team Ferrari to box at the end of Lap 7. The pit-stop was a disaster as it lost Massa 11 positions and he had to rejoin the race at P12.

This put Hulkenberg in the lead for the first time, hotly pursued by Vettel. The top two were followed by a steady Button, Perez and Di Resta. During the frenetic pit-stops and shunts, Alonso (P7), Hamilton (P8) and Raikkonen (10) had quietly moved back up the field and into the top 10. By Lap 9, both Alonso and Hamilton duly passed Vergne and Raikkonen glided past Bottas. The top 5 drivers at the 13-lap stage had not pitted for tyres even once but Di Resta now flagging considerably, was passed by Alonso who then began to threaten Perez’s 4th place. It was only a matter of minutes before Hamilton followed suit.

It wasn’t until Lap 14 that both Hulkenberg and Vettel decided that they had enough and made their first pit-stops for the race. When they were released, Vettel sneaked ahead of the Suber driver, thanks again to an excellent pit-stop (2.5s) by Red Bull crew pushing him back in at P9 while Hulkenberg rejoined at P11.

The Webber-Vergne (Torro Rosso) collision

The Webber-Vergne (Torro Rosso) collision

Just when everyone thought that the action for the first quarter of the race was over, Webber made contact with Vergne’s Torro Rosso ending the Frenchman’s race whilst himself suffering a badly damaged front wing! With the car losing downforce rapidly, Webber was forced to make an unscheduled pit-stop at the end of the lap to replace the broken wing.

End of Lap 15: 1. Button (McLaren) 2. Alonso (Ferrari) 3. Perez (McLaren) 4. Hamilton (Mercedes) 5. Raikkonen (Lotus) 6. Massa (Ferrari) 7. Vettel (Red Bull) 8 Webber (Red Bull) 9. Rosberg (Mercedes) 10. Hulkenberg (Sauber).

Race Laps 16 – 30

The start of the 16th lap was no different in terms of the chaotic action witnessed in the first 15 laps. It started with Raikkonen chasing down a much slower Perez whose tyres were by now shot to bits. As the Mexican slowed on the corner, Raikkonen went straight into the back of the McLaren which resulted in a damaged front wing and a broken car nose!

A small portion of the tip of the Finn’s car was ripped and flapping in the onrushing air. The worry for Team Lotus at this stage was whether this would seriously impact and compromise Raikkonen’s race but after brief chat over the radio decided it was best for him to soldier on without change in the team’s original race strategy of three stops. However, he couldn’t resist remarking, “What the hell is he doing!” It was classic Kimi!

Raikkonen duly completed a pass on Perez to get back into P4.

Webber loses his right tyre and retires to cap a miserable weekend!

Webber loses his rear right tyre and retires to cap a miserable weekend!

Meanwhile, Webber who had just pitted and rejoined the field began to lose pace and was sputtering down to a crawl. And just when every one thought matters couldn’t get any worse for him, on his limp back to the pits one of his rear tyres broke free from the wheel and began a precarious roll across the middle of the track and right in the way of the following drivers – one of them being a certain Sebastian Vettel!  (To make matters even worse, the race stewards later found Webber guilty of the accident with Vergne earlier, and have penalised him with a 3-place grid penalty for the next race in Bahrain!)

At the top of the grid, Alonso was now the race leader having overtaken Button, who remarkably was continuing on his start tyres and had now gone 20 laps without a change. Vettel continued his resurgent run and cleanly passed Perez to get back into contention for a podium. He was now chasing Raikkonen for P4, who in turn, was hot on Hamilton’s heels at P3! This epic battle continued into the pits when both drivers made their second stops on Lap 22. Vettel had by now passed a fast-fading Button to slot himself behind race leader Alonso at P2.

Hamilton and Raikkonen rejoined at P9 and 10 in that order but were on fresh new medium compounds. Very soon, they were all over the likes of Ricciardo but the slower cars bunched up in the middle were creating problems in terms of race pace for them. It took some doing before regaining their places at P4 and P5 respectively just behind Hulkenberg who was driving a terrific race to sneak his way back into P3.

A while earlier, on Lap 21, Rosberg made yet another pit-stop, a terrible one at that. He did not have to rue that mishap because he was forced to retire after a couple more laps with a mechanical failure.

On Lap 23, Button finally came into the pits behind Alonso who made his second stop of the race. While Alonso joined at P3, Button gained tremendously with his fewer stops strategy by re-entering the fray at P5. This put him just ahead of Raikkonen at this stage of the race.

Jensen Button, McLaren made his tyres work for 24 laps in the first stint.

Jensen Button, McLaren made his tyres work for 23 laps in the first stint.

The lead was back in the hands of the world champion, Vettel. In the middle of the field, former team-mates Button and Hamilton were locked in a dogfight which the latter won comfortably at the start of Lap 29. Using the faster pace of the Mercedes and the DRS zone, Hamilton clipped past Button effortlessly to get to P4.

At the same time, the top end of the grid was seeing a fantastic battle between Vettel and Alonso or pole with the Spaniard relentlessly attacking the former. His opening came soon enough when on one of the later turns, he cut to the inside of Vettel and blazed his way past to snatch the lead. His tyres at this stage were nine laps fresher than Vettel’s.

Hulkenberg who was at P5 by this time having been passed by both Hamilton and Button now decided to get back into the pits to change his tyres to the soft compounds with the view to do a quick middle stint and probably get back to the top of the leader board. The stop dropped him back to P8.

End of Lap 30: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Vettel (Red Bull) 3. Hamilton (Mercedes) 4. Button (McLaren) 5. Raikkonen (Lotus) 6. Di Resta (Force India) 7. Massa (Ferrari) 8. Hulkenberg (Sauber) 9. Grosjean (Lotus) 10. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso).

Race Laps 31 – 45:

This is probably the most sedate phase of any Grand Prix race (by F1 standards that is!). The cars are evenly spread out with the leaders enjoying comfortable distances between them and the middle of the pack. If there are any apprehensions for those at the top of the grid, it is about encountering the back-markers that have been lapped or then making an untimely pit-stop and ending up behind the pack of middle runners. In both cases, accidents or being held up by the slower cars is common.

Back in the thick of the action, Lap 31 saw Raikkonen on the tail of Button and passing him easily on the last turn of the Shanghai circuit.

Vettel pitted on Lap 31, his second stop of the race and as he went out again, encountered Massa’s thundering Ferrari. The champion, however, stayed ice-cool to execute the pass just on the turn after the pit lane exit. On the very next turn, he simply blazed past Force India’s Di Resta. His sights were now trained on Hulkenberg’s Sauber in P5. That pass was easily achieved on the DRS straight and Vettel in a short span of less than a lap was comfortably ensconced at P5. The champion was back driving at his very best!

Nico Hulkenberg, Sauber led the Shanghai GP 2013 briefly, but ended up at P10.

Nico Hulkenberg, Sauber led the Shanghai GP 2013 briefly, but ended up at P10.

During the same time, Raikkonen had narrowed the gap with Hamilton to within 1.2 seconds. The Finnish legend gave up the chase temporarily and made his third pit-stop on Lap 35. When he returned he had lost 4 grid places to P8, but was one of the first to get on to a fresh set of rubbers among the top runners. It was clear that Raikkonen was going to stay on the new set of medium compounds for 21 laps until the end of the race. His longest stint had been saved up for the last leg of the Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, Vettel had started to close in on Button, whose only second set of tyres were now running out of grip and life. The German had far superior traction and on Lap 36, put the hammer down in the DRS zone and made the pass stick. Massa by now had faded away from the top five now decided to take a final gamble by pitting before team-mate Alonso on Lap 37. Hulkenberg too came in for a change of compounds and settled for a final stint on medium tyres.

By the start of Lap 38, Alonso had opened up a 13.4 second lead from Hamilton 19 seconds from Vettel, 21 seconds from Button and 30 seconds from Raikkonen. But the Spaniard was due for a final pit-stop.

It was Hamilton, however, who decided to relinquish P2 to come in for his last tyre change with a view to make an all-out final charge to the finish line. On release, Hamilton joined in just behind Kimi Raikkonen in P6 which meant that the Mercedes pit strategy was spot on.

In quick succession, both the drivers swept past Ricciardo who by staying out late was in 4th place, thereby relegating him to P6. At the lead, Alonso was absolutely flying by now and extended his lead to 19-odd seconds from Vettel, 24 seconds from Button and 30 seconds from Raikkonen. With all of them yet to make their final stops, Alonso and Team Ferrari were pretty confident that he would rejoin the race yet again in the lead. It was near perfect pit-stop strategy from the Italian outfit. The Spaniard was finally called in for his last tyre stop at the end of Lap 40 and came out to rejoin at P2 just behind Vettel.

By lap 42 it was Hamilton who was doing all the flying having just set the fastest lap of the race. At the top of the grid, Alonso, now on a set of fresh medium compound tyres, swept past Vettel to regain the lead at the start of Lap 43. It was enthralling stuff!

IN Lap 44, Raikkonen finally made his move on Button, overtaking him to claim P3. It was only a matter of time before Hamilton was going to do the same to his former team-mate and after a short chase on his fresher rubber, eased past Button on the sweeping Turn 4.

Driving with a broken car nose, Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus holds off Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Driving with a broken car nose, Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus holds off Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

End of Lap 45: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Vettel (Red Bull) 3. Raikkonen (Lotus) 4. Hamilton (Mercedes) 5. Button (McLaren) 6. Di Resta (Force India) 7. Massa (Ferrari) 8. Hulkenberg (Sauber) 9. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso), 10. Grosjean (Lotus).

Race Laps 46 – 56: End Game!

With the last 10 laps of the Shanghai Grand Prix remaining, drivers had enough clean air between each other. It looked like the order at the end of Lap 45 would be maintained but there was the small matter of Vettel and Button having to pit for their final tyre changes, and that was going to jumble up the leader board yet again! There was speculation at this stage on whether Vettel would continue on his fraying medium tyres to complete the race with just two stops in order to claim a 2nd place podium finish. Button too looked like he might hold position and risk the final 10 laps on the same rubbers.

While Raikkonen and Hamilton continued on their epic racing saga at P3 and P4, Button eventually came back into the pits for his final tyre change on Lap 50. He conceded P5 to Di Resta and by the time he came back on track, he was down to P7. In Lap 51, Team Red Bull called Vettel in for his final pit-stop and sent him out on the soft compounds for a final concerted assault on the podium position runners. The radio message as he rejoined the field was, “Race to the finish!” It was going to be offense from the German, a fight to the finish. He moved past Di Resta to get P4 and then began his attack on Hamilton by setting the fastest lap of the race.

With two laps to go, Vettel was still around 6.5 seconds behind Hamilton but gaining rapidly thanks to the faster soft compounds that he was on now. Quite expectedly he cut the lead between the two down to 4 seconds by Lap 55 and 2 seconds in the final lap! Hamilton was under tremendous pressure from the German now.

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel blazes his way across the track in the last lap

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel blazes his way across the track in the last lap

Fernando Alonso eventually cleared the line to take the chequered flag with Raikkonen comfortably cruising into second place; fittingly too because this was Ferrari’s 500th Formula 1 race.

But the Hamilton-Vettel dogfight still had some sting left in the tail. Into the last straight, Hamilton’s wheel locked up emitting plumes of smoke even as Vettel closed in for the kill. In the final few paces, Hamilton barely scraped through at P3 with the 3-time World Drivers Champion a mere 2/10th of a second behind in 4th place!

Shanghai had delivered!

Final Standings: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Hamilton (Mercedes) 4. Vettel (Red Bull) 5. Button (McLaren) 6. Massa (Ferrari) 7. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso) 8. Di Resta (Force India) 9. Grojean (Lotus) 10. Hulkenberg.

Next edition: The Shanghai Stats Sheet

Part III: F1 Season 2013 – It’s time for Predictions!

The final edition of  the Predictions Series with the last two contenders – Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing and Felipe Massa, Ferrari.

5. Mark Webber, RBR (Australia): 2012 Season – Wins 2; Podiums 4; Points 179

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 26

Mark Webber on the big screen. Photo Credit: CKK

Mark Webber on the big screen. Photo Credit: CKK

To many F1 racing aficionados, Mark Webber being touted as a title contender might sound a trifle incongruous. At 36, he is the veteran driver on the grid, has made 200 race starts and yet, never won a World Driver’s Title since he made his début for Minardi way back in 2002.

Webber’s class as a F1 driver has never been in question, but his ability to go for the kill and close out the competition in the latter stages of the season, has. As if to make matters more difficult for Webber, Helmut Marko, the team’s consultant and right-hand man of owner Dietrich Mateschitz, went on record at the start of the 2013 Season by declaring that Mark Webber “can’t maintain form throughout an entire F1 season” and that he had “a little trouble” handling pressure! Webber hit back promptly stating that he knew he wasn’t part “of Marko’s agenda”! Vettel’s recent pronouncements about Webber not deserving to win at Malaysia has further fuelled the already volatile situation within the team.

Webber’s rivalry with fellow driver and world champion Sebastian Vettel, dating back to 2010, has been well documented and analysed will have a major bearing on his fortunes this season. The public spat between the two after Sepang and his criticism of the team principals with regard to providing the German special favours and “protection”, has resulted in the Red Bull Racing team management withdrawing all team orders for future races – at least in the early part of the season. Multi-21, the term that trended on Twitter, is history. While this does reflect on the fact that Christian Horner and Adrian Newey have lost all control over their battling drivers, it does leave Webber freer than in previous seasons to assert himself. But, on the other hand, that could be a dangerous proposition in situations where they might be fighting for a win during any of the impending 17 races! Tremendously exciting for the fans but a sure-fire recipe for disaster for RBR!

Mark Webber - Queanbeyan 2

Mark Webber – Queanbeyan 2 (Photo credit: Kincuri)

To many of us die-hard Formula 1 fans, Webber continues to remain an enigma wrapped in a paradox. He can be as smooth and as explosive as any of the great F1 drivers over the years, and yet, despite having a wonderfully engineered championship-winning car, the results have belied his awesome talent. It must be acknowledged that he has had his fair share of terrible luck as well – simply hark back to the races in Abu Dhabi in 2012 and the one at Austin, Texas. In the first, he got caught in the middle of a chaotic pile-up and had to retire, and in the second, suffered an alternator failure forcing him to beach his RB8 in the early laps. More recently, at Melbourne, he had another electronics failure which compromised his start and pushed him to the middle of the grid.

It is now a foregone conclusion that 2013 will probably be the last season that Mark Webber drives for the Austrian outfit. Simply from that perspective, he has nothing to lose and that elusive title to gain in the bargain. While Vettel has struggled with tyre-wear and more recently at Shanghai, excessive vibrations in his car, Webber has a machine that seems to be a lot more stable and the fastest on the grid over a single lap. Another indication of the Aussie’s grit and determination to establish his legacy at RBR was seen at Shanghai’s second practice where he consistently hit the top of the time-sheets even as his champion team-mate struggled. The Shanghai Grand Prix will provide an excellent indicator of how the Vettel-Webber saga will play out for the rest of the season.

6. Felipe Massa, Ferrari (Brazil): 2012 Season – Wins 0; Podiums 2; Points 122

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 22; Points

Felipe Massa Ferrari single-seater during Bahr...

Felipe Massa Ferrari single-seater during Bahrain 2010 GP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just a year ago, if anyone had predicted that Felipe Massa would be a title contender, he/she would have been laughed out-of-town. Worse, the person might have lost his right to earn a livelihood in the sports writing business. How things change!

The diminutive Brazilian has turned the form book on its head and if the last season and the early part of 2013 have been any indicator, he is well on his way to getting back to his best.

After his horrific accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009 when a spring from another car broke loose and pierced his helmet, cracked his skull and got lodged above his right eye, Massa was never the force that he was before that unfortunate incident. Medical experts have stated that the skull injury impacted his brain in a way that it hampered his concentration and coördination levels in a high-performance race car. There was also the psychological aspect that probably crept into his mental make-up wherein he expected the worst every time that he stepped on the track. It made him look tentative and wary – definitely not categorized as virtues for a Formula 1 race driver!

It is credit to Ferrari that they waited for him to recover from the major surgery and reinstate him in the team albeit as the Number Two driver alongside former world champion Fernando Alonso. While race fans and pundits were extremely relieved with his return to the fold, the results were not forthcoming. Massa had to endure the ignominy of being the first driver ever in the history of Ferrari to not earn a podium in an entire season, in 2011. At the start of the 2012 Season, speculation was rife that Massa would eventually have to go and would be replaced by a younger, higher-performing driver. Sergio Perez, the Mexican who impressed one and all with the resurgent Sauber team (and part of Ferrari’s young drivers program) was touted to be at the top of list to take Massa’s place.

This air of uncertainty played havoc with Massa’s performance in 2012. In 14 Grand Prix starts, he managed only 51 points with 4th pace finishes in Silverstone, England and Monza, Italy being his only notable results. With Massa in the doldrums, the writing was on the wall and everyone believed that a team such as Ferrari would or could not continue to persist with such a poor-performing driver in its ranks. That was when the Maranello giant confounded the Formula 1 racing world by extending Massa’s contract by another year. The results were immediate and incredible! It was as if Massa had rediscovered his groove.

A happier Massa and now almost fully recovered from his debilitating head injury was back to his best. The driver that the racing world admired and respected was back with a bang, driving with the same grace, control and panache of his yeomen years. Massa exploded to a 2nd place podium finish in Japan and then placed P4, P6, P7 and again P4 in the next four races at Korea, India, Abu Dhabi and the U.S. respectively. He ended the season in style at his home race in São Paulo with a 3rd place podium. In all, he had racked up 71 points thereby reaffirming his place among the top 10 F1 drivers in the world.

It has been rumoured and reported that Ferrari is concerned about the impact of Massa’s resurgence on the team’s fortunes this season because even though he is the designated Number Two driver, he is showing signs of dominating his more illustrious counterpart – Fernando Alonso. Proof is available in his performances over the last five races (three last season and two this year) wherein he has out-qualified Alonso. He completed the race at Sepang even as the Spaniard crashed out in lap 2 thereby narrowing the gap between the two further. And only today, Massa topped the time sheets at Shanghai in the second practice.

Massa being back to the best is great news for race fans the world over. However, while it increases the headache of the Ferrari team bosses, it is sure to spice up Season 2013’s championship stakes.

Part I: F1 Season 2013 – It’s time for Predictions!

Just two races into the season and the champions, Red Bull Racing are in complete disarray on both management and driver fronts; there’s an unsaid but palpable unease over at the Mercedes garage, and the second driver at Ferrari seems to driving the pants off his more illustrious counterpart. That’s the top six of the seven contenders right there for you! Add the mercurial Finn from Lotus to the mix and you have a most intriguing of Formula 1 season at hand. 

The following is a three-part review of the seasons profiling two contenders each. Once we get through that we’ll look at the final `Predictions Table’ for both the Driver and Constructors championships.

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A live shot of Sebastian Vettel (P24) taken from an Apple iPhone at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

1. Sebastian Vettel, RBR (Germany): 2012 Season – Wins 5; Podiums 11; Points 281

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 1; Podiums 2; Points 40

Despite a podium at Melbourne and a win at Sepang, the 3-time World Drivers Champion is an unhappy camper these days. A furious team-mate, more-than-just-miffed bosses, and the loss of a large dollop of goodwill around the paddock are just some of the fallouts of Vettel “disregarding team orders” and passing team mate Mark Webber after a fairly intense bullfight in the dying laps at Sepang. The question on every fan’s mind, as a result, is whether this will have a bearing on the German’s charge towards the fourth World Driver’s Title in 2013.

The answer is simple: Of course it will! Fact is that however much the team principals try to bring about an amicable rapprochement between their warring drivers, the seeds of mistrust have been sown far too deep to be quickly ripped out – starting with their infamous Turkey-shoot in 2010, carrying on to Silverstone in 2011 and culminating in the race-start stampede at Sao Paulo in 2012.

Fact also is that Vettel will be driving this season with a bull’s eye painted on his diffuser. Not only will Webber, now in his last season with Red Bull, want to reassert his importance in the team, he faces the strongest possible competition from the likes of Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Felippe Massa who are all showing ominous form in their 2013 race packages. Given Vettel’s current state of mind; his possible apprehension with team orders on the one hand and his burning desire to remain world champion on the other, it doesn’t take an F1 expert to predict that this year is going to be one intensely tumultuous roller coaster ride for him.

So what is the silver-lining for the 25-year old? Vettel polarises opinion among pundits and fans. There are those that love him and those that love to hate him. But that is only because there are, clearly, two distinct but diametrically different Vettels that everyone is confronted with in a race season.

The first one is almost childish, petty, selfish and arrogant to the point of considering himself the anointed one, above the team or team-mate. This is the Vettel one usually gets to see when he has pole and then does everything in his power to keep it that way, or then is stuck in midfield and would scrap, scratch, bite and claw his way to the front of the grid. No threat is brooked and he is not averse to railroading his team-mate if required in order to maintain his dominance and supremacy. This is the bully, the heavyweight champion who believes in winning at any cost – even if it meant chewing off the ear of an opponent! Yet, no one can deny his skill and concentration levels when it comes to controlling a race from the front. And more often than not, he wins.

The other Vettel is the one that turns up every now and then at an Abu Dhabi Circuit or the one at São Paulo at the end of the season – gallant, fearless, determined and simply brilliant. In this avatar, Vettel is irresistible and a sheer joy to watch. At Abu Dhabi, he qualified at P3, but was pushed down to P24 for the race owing to his car showing insufficient fuel after qualifying. It would have been a body blow to any driver on that grid. Undeterred, Vettel pushed gallantly from the back of the grid, blowing past the back-markers to reach a respectable P12. That’s when the second tragedy struck. A damaged front wing forced him to pit yet again and he restarted at P18. What followed was yet again an exhibition of the highest quality of pure racing. In a spectacular display, the defending world champion cleared the field notch-by-notch, to end up at P3. It was a race wherein that result has to be categorised as nothing short of miraculous.

The Brazilian Grand Prix was yet another reflection of the true champion qualities that Sebastian Vettel possesses. A shunt with Bruno Senna of Williams in the very first lap of this crucial championship race turned Vettel a full 180 degrees – his car’s nose pointing the wrong way – and resultantly relegating him to the end of the field. But Vettel was not one to give up at this stage and promptly turned things around. Sound pit strategies and a steady race pace and amazing control in the rain, saw Vettel come in at P6 and netting him the required number of points to stay at the top of the driver’s standings.

That then is the story of the two Sebastians. A lot of his fortunes in 2013 will rest on which of them turns up on each of the race days over the next eight months. In just two starts this season, he has shown both personalities in equal measure, which does not auger well for him or the team – the race wins at Sepang notwithstanding.

2. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari (Spain): 2012 Season – Wins 3; Podiums 10; Points 278

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 18

Fernando Alonso started season 2013 with the same kind of tenacity and consistency that saw him come within a handful of points of the 2012 World Driver’s Championship. His performance at Melbourne was outstanding even as he chased down a dominant Kimi Raikkonen in the last few minutes and laps of that Grand Prix.

Last season, Alonso was severely handicapped by a terribly designed car. The Ferrari F2012 was essentially a jalopy on wheels that did not stand a chance to win a single race had it been in the hands of a lesser driver. But under Alonso, what started out as a snorting, misbehaving pony was gradually cajoled, coaxed, tuned and pushed until it meta morphed into a thoroughbred and began to purr, glide and then run like the wind on the race track by the end of the season.

It was virtuoso stuff and Alonso produced some spectacular results in 2012 – 3 wins and 10 podiums with that lame duck of a chariot! The thought on every racing fan’s mind was, “Give this man a decent car, and just imagine what he might be capable of!” No question that everyone expected him to easily replicate his Renault heroics of 2007 and 2008, but on a much, much more grandiose and dominant scale considering he was driving for Ferrari now.

On the face of it, all prayers were answered at the start of testing at Barcelona in February 2013 after Ferrari took the wraps off the spanking new Ferrari F138. Pre-season testing in Spain proved that the latest Ferrari package was vastly improved, better-looking and much faster than its 2012 sibling. The verdict among race fans and analysts was almost unanimous in that Alonso had his first solid opportunity since 2008 to wrest the WDC. And if Australia was an indicator, Alonso was well and truly on his way to achieving that goal.

But things and matters still aren’t all that rosy for the 32-year-old Spaniard. Contrary to expectations, the sheer race pace of Alonso’s Ferrari F138 is still up for question. Then there is the little matter of his team-mate, Felipe Massa, not only out qualifying him in the two concluded Grand Pris but looking distinctly more threatening in the races. At the start of the season, it is Massa who seems more likely to actually win a race than Alonso. But that perception may have been exaggerated by Alonso’s crashing out in the very second lap of the Sepang Grand Prix in Malaysia. With the requisite updates on the way and the car being continually tweaked and tuned, it shouldn’t be long before Alonso comes into his own and even begins to dominate the front of the grid.

So what does Alonso require to do in order to beat Vettel to the post this season? For starters, he can’t afford another DNF. Given the minuscule difference in points between the top two, Alonso has probably already reached the maximum limit in terms of races he can afford outside of the points table. He had only two of that last season and so will need to eschew bravado and risk of the type he took in Malaysia in order to stay in contention for the rest of the season. Two, and for this he will need all the help from his race engineers and pit crew – is to somehow get ahead of Vettel early in the season and open up a substantial points gap between him and the German. Easier said than done, but we all know how desperate Vettel can get when he is a follower and not the leader! Also, leading the table could have a liberating effect on Alonso freeing him from the pressure and tension that he was under throughout the two previous seasons.

Alonso has all the tools and weapons in his armoury to dismantle the German juggernaut and hold off challenges from the likes of Lotus, Mercedes and McLaren. This season he will need a little more luck than has been bestowed upon him of late. Couple that with his remarkable consistency and what was a struggle in the last season could end up being a canter to the top in 2013.

Next Edition: Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus and Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes