Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is now an odds-on favourite to retain his Drivers’ World Championship after a splendid fourth win of the season in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya.
Vettel’s narrow win from Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes carried the 23-year-old reigning title-holder to 118 points, a margin of 41 over the 2008 World Champion, while Hamilton’s teammate Jenson Button – champion two years ago – drove a calculated race to come home third ahead of Mark Webber in the second Red Bull Renault.
For Australian fans and their hero Webber the race was won and lost before the first corner on the opening lap of 66.
Having halted Vettel’s run of four straight poles Webber was so intent on staying ahead of his Red Bull teammate off the line that he moved left to cover the German, leaving just enough space on his right for the fast-starting Fernando Alonso to squeeze his Ferrari through into the lead.
As Vettel swept past the surprised Webber on the outside, the Australian’s chances of back-to-back race wins in Spain went west. “I didn’t think my start was hideous,” said Webber, “but Fernando got a phenomenal one. It was a bit of a chess game – I really didn’t do much racing on track.”
Once again the new strategies forced on the teams by Pirelli’s tyres came into play, this time principally because of the shortcomings of the new ‘super hard’ compound available to them. And once more Vettel’s speed allowed him to make the most of things in the early exchanges.
Pitting after just 10 laps, Vettel was followed in by Alonso, but when the German emerged in traffic he dealt with it imperiously while Webber was stuck in seventh after his own first stop a lap later.
The second of the three drivers’ four stops apiece came after just 18 laps, Vettel again diving in first, and as Alonso and Webber again followed suit a lap later the German was able to jump them on the main straight. Webber’s race would then be compromised by Alonso as the Australian could not find a way past Ferrari’s local hero.
Just before half-distance Webber and Alonso were in again, and as the Red Bull accelerated desperately out of pit lane it was edged out by the Ferrari in a ferocious but fair fight for track position. Five laps later Webber dived through on Alonso’s inside but ran wide at the following corner and again found himself with a scarlet car blocking the road ahead.
As the two diced, Vettel and Hamilton simply disappeared, though their own duel became a thriller in the closing laps, Hamilton unable to edge the McLaren in front as Vettel defended brilliantly in the twisty middle section of the 4.655-km circuit.
By now Button’s three-stop strategy had played out to perfection, the Englishman able to fend off Webber comfortably for the final podium position. Behind them came a disappointed Alonso, followed by Mercedes duo Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg.
Another candidate for driver of the day was yet another German, Nick Heidfeld. His Lotus Renault started dead last after missing qualifying because of an engine fire but the underrated Heidfeld blasted through to finish eighth, eclipsing teammate Vitaly Petrov after the Russian had started 18 places in front of him.
Rising star Sergio Perez brought his Sauber home ahead of teammate Kamui Kobayashi to round out the top 10 as 21 cars were classified in this new, highly reliable F1 era.
Those who failed to make it home were Tonio Liuzzi’s HRT, Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus – a disappointmant after the Finn’s fine effort in making it through to Q2 for the first time – and, surprisingly, Felipe Massa’s Ferrari.
The Brazilian ended a ragged weekend in a gravel trap after 58 laps, fuelling the already rife rumours that his place is under threat both from veterans such as Webber and the new generation represented by Perez.
Fastest lap of the race went to Hamilton, buoyed by his McLaren’s race pace, with a 1:26.727 on lap 52, an average speed of 193.227 km/h. They all convene again in the unique setting of Monaco – another place where Webber has the chance of back-to-back victories – in less than a week’s time.
1. Vettel 118 points
2. Hamilton 77
3. Webber 67
4. Button 61
5. Alonso 51
6. Rosberg 26
1. Red Bull Racing 185 points
2. McLaren-Mercedes 138
3. Ferrari 75