Rencken: Only two in the race
TWO-HORSE RACE: Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel might have dominated the last four F1 races, but Ferrari's Fernando Alonso is not prepared to give up the fight just yet. Image:AFP
Author: DIETER RENCKEN
What a far cry from the start of the season: from March through May Formula 1 delivered seven winners in as many races; in the past two months the sport has feted but one, with Sebastian Vettel on Sunday in India scoring not only his third pole-to-flag victory but his fourth win on the trot and fifth of the season.
Where a seven-way showdown was once predicted for the season finale with three races (of 20) to run only two drivers – each a double champion intent on becoming the sport’s youngest triple champion – remain in the running.
WHERE WAS THE EXCITEMENT?
After 2011’s tedium at this spectacular venue on smoggy flatland outside New Delhi, Formula 1 had hoped for better for India’s second race. In vain: one-stoppers across the board after Pirelli went all conservative, specifying Softs and Hards for the 60-lap race; hardly an incident; and no pace-car intervention.
Equally, there was little imagination in the strategies elected by the top eight finishers, with only the swop-over points from former rubber compound to latter varying slightly at the half-distance point, and then by a few laps. Even the crowds stayed away: after a full-house for the inaugural race, the stands were half full/empty; after previously fighting a five-hour traffic jam to the airport, F1 personnel made it to Indira Ghandi International in 90 minutes flat.
That was the only consolation on this hot and muggy Sunday for all save the crew of No.1 Red Bull Racing’s defending champion who set it all up on Saturday, claiming pole by four-thousandths of a second from team mate Mark Webber. From that moment on the result was never in doubt – regardless of what McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button vowed as they lined up on the second row.
Fernando Alonso - before the start six points behind Vettel and the German’s only realistic title challenger - lined up his Ferrari fifth, a half-second down on the Red Bull. But the Spaniard is a formidable threat, even when rooted to the back of the grid; thus Vettel knew it was only a question of time before he would somehow be bugged from behind.
Accordingly he made hay the moment the lights went out, chopping across to ensure Turn 1 was his, then speeding into the distance.
“I enjoyed the race a lot,” the 25-year-old said afterwards, having seen his points tally grow to 240. “It was crucial to open a gap in the first stint, to break [the DRS tow] to Mark [Webber]. It was quite close at Turn 1, I was able to get good exit out of Turn 3, then was able to open the gap, not just to Mark but also the cars behind.”
With that it was over: if, that is, Vettel’s mount proved as reliable as it has since Singapore. The gap opened visibly per lap until it stabilised at around 10 seconds – half a pit stop in teamspeak – as Webber in turn opened his margin over... Alonso, who had “done” Hamilton going into Turn 4 on the opening lap, then Button three laps later.
A CHARGING ALONSO
Thus the Spaniard was headed for the podium – his aim for this and every race he cannot win on merit – and all he could do was hope something, somehow, somewhere would go amiss with either of the two blue cars ahead. Sure enough, it did: Webber’s kers began behaving intermittently, playing havoc with his braking points as rear wheel retardation through energy recovery became increasingly erratic.
“I think it was around lap 19-20, maybe a bit earlier. It was on and off, then completely off. It was a moving target,” the disappointed Australian explained after a race which put paid to his 2012 title challenge.
Give Alonso a sniff of trouble ahead and he goes into matador mode. Gradually the gap came down, a second here, two there, then the Red Bull was in sight. Buddh’s long back straight allowed him to draft the Red Bull’s slipstream then use DRS and kers to hammer home his advantage.
Ten laps from the end second place belonged to the red car and Alonso’s sights turned to Vettel, whose Red Bull worryingly sprayed a shower of sparks as he passed a slower car. However, it turned out to be a one-off, and did not affect the outcome – victory by 10 seconds over Alonso, with Webber, by now fighting off the rapidly advancing Hamilton, a further four seconds in back.
How, though, did Alonso (now on 227 points) feel about his growing points deficit after this race up to 13 points from six after Korea and a lead of six as he left Japan? So, a swing of 31 in three races.
“Nothing changed in one race,” he said defiantly. “There are 75 points and we are 13 behind and we know we need to improve. We are not fast enough, especially on Saturday, but we can improve the situation in Abu Dhabi or USA.
“As we saw with Mark [Webber] with the kers problem, it can happen to Seb, or it can happen to us, so I am optimistic.”
LESS 'TEST', MORE '20/20'
Lewis, who finished less than a second behind Webber, did so with a cushion of 13 seconds over Button in the second silver car, with Massa taking sixth to make it two each Red Bulls, Ferraris and McLarens in the top six. The grid resembled the Ark as the top teams lined up two-by-two, with only Webber’s issue and Alonso’s dogged determination preventing a finish of which Noah would no doubt have been proud.
Kimi Raikkonen, whose set-up wrong-slot on Saturday left him exposed in seventh on the grid, finished in that position to retain third on the log with 173 points, though after robust driving on occasion.
Nico Hulkenberg put in a sterling effort from 11th to finish eighth, with the final two points-paying places being sealed by Romain Grosjean – the only top-10 driver to start on Hards, the Lotus driver putting in a cautious race as he rebuilds his (Rambo) reputation – and Bruno Senna in the sole scoring Williams.
A classic race it was not – one more reminiscent of the five-day cricket marathons the country embraced in colonial times. If Formula 1 wishes to succeed in India it needs to put on the equivalent of 20/20 matches – or face the consequences with increasingly empty stands and dwindling interest in this booming economy.
But, a bigger worry, as F1 heads for next week’s desert race in Abu Dhabi, is that Vettel and Red Bull have the potential to win the next three races on the trot – thus making it one winner of the final seven grands prix.
What an unwelcome turnaround that would prove for all but Red Bull.