It’s a festive season and there cannot be a better time to visit India for an international extravaganza. The unique atmosphere accentuated by the festive mood prevalent at this time of the year, makes this as one of the stand out rounds of the Formula 1 season. It was time for the 17th round of the season and this race had the onus of providing some clues as to where the silver was going this year as we were running out of races and the situation was getting critical. After Korea, the contest had narrowed down to two drivers – Seb Vettel and Fernando Alonso. While Vettel hadn’t set a foot wrong all weekend, Alonso is one clever and unrelenting character – sure Vettel knew that anything short of perfect could land him behind the Spaniard.
In the pre-race coverage article, we offered a cursory insight into the Buddh International Circuit and promised a more detailed overview here. It’s a 5.125 km circuit laid out in a clockwise fashion, punctuated by 16 corners – 9 right-handers and 7 left-handers. With an average speed of around 210kmph, it is the second fastest track on the F1 calendar behind Monza and the cars spend 64% of the lap duration on full throttle. It has a couple of long (Tilke trademark) straights – including the 1.1km back straight where the engines run full throttle for 14s, hitting the 320kmph mark and breaking heavily into turn four. This region offers maximum potential overtaking opportunity for the drivers slipstreaming behind the car in front, and also opening up the DRS advantage to slip ahead into the right-hander. Elevations and a sprawling range of corners and cambered turns make the circuit a special challenge for the drivers and also push the engines. The track has a decent mix of slow and flowing corners, including a quadruple-apex starting around turn 10. Elevation changes are around 8% downhill and 10% uphill around the track with a specially undulating zone falling steeply from turn one, before rising up to 14m before turn 3.
There are two DRS-assisted overtaking zones. One being on the start finish straight with detection located about 10m after turn 15, and activation 36m after the last corner which gives the pursuer the entire stretch down the start-finish straight dive, down the inside turning right into turn 1. The other zone was stretched by 80m from last year – detection located at turn 3 and activation 430m down the 1.1km straight heading into turn 4. The tyres on offer this weekend were the soft options and hard prime compounds, and the tyre-wear was accepted to be on low, based on the evidences from the runs on Friday and Saturday. While last year, a two-stop was a reasonable strategy, this time around the teams were expected to be a little less conservative, deploying a one-stop winning strategy. The majority of the field chose to start on the soft options, with the 25-28 laps the likely pit-stop window.
The grid did not see any changes overnight. The starting grid top 10:
1. S. Vettel (Redbull), 2. M. Webber (Redbull), 3. L. Hamilton (McLaren), 4. J. Button (McLaren), 5. F. Alonso (Ferrari), 6. F. Massa (Ferrari), 7. K. Raikkonen (Lotus), 8. S. Perez (Sauber), 9. P. Maldonado (Williams), 10. N. Rosberg (Mercedes)
We had Gagan Narang, the London 2012 Bronze medallist to flag off the race. Vettel made a clean start off the box, leading into turn 1 ahead of a determined Webber but starting P5, Alonso already showed signs that he meant business and all his defiance was not just juvenile blabbering. He pulled an aggressive move over the McLaren duo in a three-wide drive down the back straight, successfully overtaking Hamilton and almost Button. But that did not become a liability for the Spaniard as he opened up a DRS advantage on Button down the longest straight and made the move stick underbraking for turn 4, and moved into P3. Meanwhile, Schumacher had a sad beginning to his last Indian Grand Prix when he made contact with Eric-Vergne, both picking up a puncture and a damaged front-left wing for Vergne. The race was effectively over for the veteran at this point of time, but it grew more forgettable until his eventual retirement from the race as he will be investigated for flouting a series of blue flags. Button’s woes increased when Hamilton blazed past him on the DRS, dropping him to fifth and having to indulge in a tripartite battle for P5 with Massa and Raikkonen, all within a second of each other. Perez, Hulkenberg with a good start from P12 for Force India, and Rosberg rounded up the top ten around the Lap 10 mark.
Vettel proves he’s unconquerable upfront
Let’s draw one very simple baseline for this discussion – Vettel’s a very quick driver, exceptionally quick. His drive in the last three races and especially in India, is a riposte to all those denigrating and labelling him as a lucky driver who happens to have the benefit of Newey’s genius at his disposal. True, the car has been at its best behaviour in recent times than at any time in the past in 2012, but if we compare his lap times with his teammate, who arguably runs an equally capable machine, in India (and otherwise) we get a fair idea of how fast he really is. Much can be attributed to the fact that he has spent a mammoth share of time in a team that has been technically superior or a frontrunner, if we may add, but his skill at winning races is unsurpassed by any yardstick. He owns the art of pitch-perfect driving from the lead and to ensure he gets to do that, he keeps his end of the bargain by dominating the qualifying. Even this time around, it was a lonely drive for him up ahead of the order, starting from pole, and his stint after the pits was nothing more than a cruise control.
Considering the fact that Redbull (read Adrian Newey, man for whom RB8 is his ninth championship winning car) and Vettel have reclaimed their mojo, the German finds himself on the verge of greatness, so to speak – a third world championship and the youngest to achieve that. Now it’s a matter of great debate whether or not he warrants a place amongst the legends of the sport, because he still has to prove his game outside of the frontrunner domain – whether or not he possesses the skills that an Alonso as a driver brings into the race. But all those apprehensions can be parked for the moment because currently the 25-year old is unstoppable – three poles, four wins and 205 laps in the lead, all on the trot. He’s now 13 points clear of Alonso going to Abu Dhabi and if we are to make an informed guess, he wouldn’t let it slip now that he has things the way he likes them.
Alonso is a phenomenon, period
What does a man have to do, to inspire his team to give him a car capable of winning races? For Ferrari, Alonso’s genius perhaps cloaked the need of winning development battles as constructors – in fact that was true up to Singapore, such was the skill with which he finished in positions he shouldn’t have to begin with. If you believe that’s an exaggeration, just flip through the results that Massa has been able to produce this season. The Spaniard’s sheer skill in the cockpit is unsurpassed by any among the current lot of drivers and his bloody-mindedness has been the operative trait this season, because his patience has been tested and that hasn’t changed as yet. He has seen his lead being knocked off in a space of a month, while he still waits for the day Ferrari can give him a car worthy of his calibre.
If we consider his performance in this race, it was nothing short of inspiring, again. From the moment he stepped on the gas, he deployed every trick up his sleeve and began his march up the order. His move to usurp Hamilton, going three-wide with the McLarens, was top-drawer and his unremitting pursuit of the Redbulls finally paid dividends when Webber’s KERS decided to misbehave. He did everything in his power to minimize the advantage that Vettel could garner and he has been using every smidgen of his talent to create an opportunity at winning the championship. Just seeing his child-like exuberance to not let go of the title, it’s only fair he walks away with honours.
Eric Boullier has come out and conceded that in all likeliness, Lotus isn’t going to win a race this season. “Realistically, I would be kidding people if I said we would win a race this year”, admitted Boullier, but was pleased to have Kimi in the hunt for championship (mathematically) given they had a new package and two new drivers this season. They’ve managed eight podium finishes with four runner-up positions being the best they could make out of this year. A win has been eluding them in spite of looking threatening in the first half of the season. Again, it boiled down to development battles and unfortunately for Kimi and Lotus, they finished on the wrong side of the contest. As for this particular race, they had the race speed, but being stuck behind Massa all along didn’t help his case. The Finn went nowhere with a potentially fast car but only had himself to blame, having made the fatal error of rejigging the car setup just ahead of a crucial qualifying. Hard luck Kimi, better luck next season!
While Alonso’s move over the McLarens was exemplary, the overtaking manoeuvre of the race came from Bruno Senna and coincidentally, it was very Alonso-ish, so to speak. On lap 16, Grosjean and Maldonado headed into turn 4 with Senna in close company. While Grosjean opened up a DRS advantage, Senna grabbed the moment as Grosjean kept Maldonado honest and got on the power early on the exit, to weave his way past his Williams teammate. He made an equally impressive move on Rosberg later on to end up among points. Though this race was the kind of performance that the bosses would get up and take notice, this season has been a wasted opportunity, barring maybe a couple of performances here and there like Hungary. He has been resoundingly outperformed by his teammate and one sublime overtaking in a bit and pieces fashion isn’t going to make much of a case for him.
Among points: S. Vettel (Redbull), F. Alonso (Ferrari), M. Webber (Redbull), L. Hamilton (McLaren), J. Button (McLaren), F. Massa (Ferrari), K. Raikkonen (Lotus), N. Hulkenberg (Force India), R. Grosjean (Lotus), B. Senna (Williams)
Red Bull(407 pts), Ferrari (316 pts), McLaren (306 pts), Lotus (263 pts)
Published with permission from The Rational Pie.