The European Grand Prix hasn’t typically been one of the more exciting races of the season since the event moved to a new street circuit around the America’s Cup docks at Valencia in Spain in 2008, but there were high hopes that would change this year.
The new-for-2011 Drag Reduction System (DRS) rear wing should promote overtaking, while the rapid degradation of the new Pirelli tyres would surely lead to plenty of passing and intriguing pit-stop strategies. But that was only in theory. When reality kicked in on Sunday afternoon over 57 laps, Valencia largely proved to be a cure for insomnia once more – but one man didn’t mind a bit.
Sebastian Vettel took his sixth win in eight races this season with an untroubled drive from pole on the Spanish streets, and continued to exert his utter dominance over the rest of the field. From pole, the reigning world champion was only ever headed as the field sorted itself out after pit stops, and the Red Bull driver extended his championship advantage to a massive 77 points with his 16th career victory.
Vettel, who took the “hat-trick” of victory, pole and the fastest lap of the race for the second time in his 70-race career, became the first driver in world championship history to finish no worse than second in the opening eight races of a season. The 23-year-old German described his win over the team radio as “the best thing you could ever imagine” as he soaked up the applause from the crowd of more than 85,000.
“I don't know how much there was happening in the Grand Prix; from myself it looked like an absorbing race,” Vettel said after the race, which he won by 10.891secs.
“I enjoy it so much when it is you and your car every single lap. I had pressure from behind with Fernando (Alonso) and Mark (Webber); they were pitting sometimes before and sometimes after (me) and they were pushing hard.
“A faultless weekend, and I am very happy with this result.”
Behind the all-conquering German, a race-long battle for second between Ferrari’s Alonso and Red Bull’s Webber was decided in the Spaniard’s favour to the delight of a decidedly pro-Alonso crowd.
From second on the grid, the Australian led the two-time world champion for the first 21 laps before Alonso pulled off an opportunistic overtaking move into the braking zone at Turn 12, but Webber regained the place after both drivers took their second pit stops just after half-distance.
The race looked set to become Red Bull’s second 1-2 finish for the season before Webber blinked first for his third and final pit stop, emerging from the pits on the slower medium-compound Pirelli tyre on lap 43. Alonso ran for three laps longer on his used softer rubber, and those laps proved to be decisive as he emerged from the pits ahead of Webber with 11 laps to go when he made his own stop for the harder tyre.
The Australian then had to back off in the final laps as he battled a gearbox problem, which came after he’d already struggled with KERS difficulties once again and had issues with brake temperature in the early stages.
Webber, who felt his performance was “probably my best race of the year”, said he lost second place by pitting too early for the slower tyre, and was quick to point the finger at himself.
“It was my fault that I didn’t finish second – (it was) my call on the final pit stop,” Webber said.
The podium finish was Webber’s fourth of the season and by far his best result in Valencia, a circuit where he’d never previously scored a point.
The top three were in a league of their own in Valencia, with fourth-placed Lewis Hamilton more than 46secs adrift of Vettel by the chequered flag after a race where the under-fire Briton engaged in some spirited discussions with the McLaren pit wall over the use of his tyres.
It was even worse for teammate Jenson Button; the winner last time out in Canada was a minute behind Vettel at the finish after battling KERS problems of his own all afternoon.
Remarkably, after a race between the concrete-lined streets on a track that reached 50 degrees in the Spanish sun, there were no retirements, the first time all cars that started a race have finished it since the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 2005.
The 24 finishers were an F1 record, breaking the previous mark of 23 set at the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai earlier this year.
1. Vettel 186 points
2. Button 109
3. Webber 109
4. Hamilton 97
5. Alonso 87
6. Massa 42
1. Red Bull Racing 295 points
2. McLaren-Mercedes 206
3. Ferrari 129