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Rencken: Brazil - and year - wrapped

2013-11-25 07:00

SPRAY IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT: Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel (left) celebrates his 2013 Brazil F1 GP win on the podium with team mate Australian Mark Webber (centre) and Fernando Alonso of Ferrari on November 24. Image: AFP


Forget Mark Webber’s retirements and the mystery of Lotus’s mysterious (and missing) backer; ignore the fact that the Brazilian GP was F1’s last V8-engined race – likely for ever – and the shenanigans surrounding the sport in court rooms across the world; overlook Sao Paulo’s unpredictable weather: there were only two questions ahead of 2013’s finale.

These were: the size of Sebastian Vettel’s qualifying advantage and his winning margin. Not even the fact that the 26-year-old could stretch various records further entered into it.


Red Bull Racing’s quadruple reigning champion emphatically answered the first question with a 1min26.479 lap to Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes-powered 1min27.102 despite the latter having dominated Fridays’ two free practice sessions, with Mark Webber topping Saturday morning’s time sheets in his F1 final race weekend.

Question 1 sorted, even if second spot and the resultant gap were slight surprises.

True, the weather had not played ball; all three practice sessions being wet to various degrees, but nothing in comparison with qualifying, which was stopped four times due to the streaming rivers which are a feature of the prehistoric Interlagos track when it rains – invariably during race weekends – and visibility issues caused by spray. Still, pole position had been predictable enough, if not the margin.

However, third on the grid was the biggest surprise, with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso equalling his best qualifying performance of a dismal season, with Webber in the second Red Bull fourth ahead of Romain Grosjean (Lotus). “Ferdie” reckoned he had been on course for his first front row start of the season but for a small slip towards the end of his demon lap.

All this set the scene for a 71-lap race on the shortest (lap time) circuit of the lot, a race both boring and enthralling, for Rosberg leapt ahead at the “off”, pursued by a bogged-down Vettel, Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes, from fifth) and Alonso, with Webber doing his customary drop-back at the start after being squeezed by the slow-starting Vettel, this time to fifth.


Somehow, though, it was clear the Mercs wouldn’t last, and so it turned out: Vettel blasted past at the end of the opening lap, with Alonso doing same to Hamilton, with Webber following suit two laps later. Thus, by the end of the third tour, after a flurry of passes, the order of the top five was restored to grid position.

When Alonso and Webber eventually “did” Rosberg on laps 4 and 6 respectively, followed by Webber and Alonso on Lap 8, the stage was set for the podium positions.

Romain Grosjean, out to score maximum Constructors’ championship points for Lotus in the beleaguered black/gold team’s three-way fight for second, retired with a spectacular engine blow-up on Lap 4, leaving the way clear for Mercedes and Ferrari to end best-of-the-rest behind Red Bull.

Thereafter it was a game of cat-and-mouse between the Silvers (on 348 points going into this race) and Reds (333) – with 43 points left to play for on a 25 (win), 18 (second) basis.

By this point Vettel was almost eight seconds ahead and extending his lead and it was clear that, failing mishap, rain or pace-car session, there was no stopping the German in his quest to make it nine in a row and so match the record set by Alberto Ascari back in the early 1950’s, although the Italian required two seasons to do so…


With virtually no dry running ahead of the race the teams (and sole tyre supplier, which brought its Medium and Hard compounds) theorised that a two-stopper would be the winning strategy, and so it turned out, Vettel pitting on Lap 24 to switch to Hards and for more of the same on Lap 47. All but five of the 19 finishers followed a similar strategy.

However Vettel’s final stop almost proved his undoing, for in their rush to bring him in lest a potential pace-car phase in the wake of a tangle between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas (Williams) scuppered him, Red Bull’s crew had a set of tyres earmarked for Webber at the ready, and was forced to scramble about for Vettel’s rubber, losing him about five seconds. In the end the silver SLS stayed firmly in the pits lane, but it had been that close.

“As soon as we saw the accident, for all intents and purpose it looked like it was going to be a safety car," RBR team boss Christian Horner explained. “Where Sebastian was on the circuit, if the Safety Car had picked him up at the exit of the pits he would have done a whole lap behind the safety car, and everybody behind him would have had a free stop. So we made a very late call to say 'pit now'.”


Given he was 10 seconds up when he entered the pits lane and his challengers too faced a stop it was no great shakes, and 24 laps later he crossed the line for the final time this year, registering the final win for V8s by a margin of 10 seconds over his team mate, with Alonso a further eight seconds back – with the best Mercedes being that of Rosberg in fifth, behind Jenson Button after the McLaren driver put in a cerebral drive from 15th on the grid.

Thus the Constructors’ placings hinged on Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari, and Hamilton. The Brazilian, driving his last race for the Scuderia after eight years, dropped down the order after being docked a drive-through for crossing a white line in breach of a pre-race warning, but placed seventh behind Sergio Perez, driving his last race for McLaren after a mercurial season.

This meant the only remaining focus of the 19-race season hinged on Hamilton after his Bottas contretemps, for which the Briton also received a drive-through – meaning the second cars of both challengers were equally sanctioned – with Lewis eventually finishing ninth behind Nico Hulkenberg’s Sauber. Final result: Mercedes 360 points; Ferrari 354…

Tenth place went to Daniel Ricciardo, who, of course, replaces the Porsche LMP1-headed Webber at Red Bull after two impressive years with junior team Toro Rosso, while at the back of the field Marussia retained its lead in the Constructor’s to deny Caterham 10th in the championship.


In many ways the race was a microcosm of the season just past: Vettel bogging down at the start, then powering away to a dominant win as he dispensed with the odd hiccough, with Webber so often overshadowed but still ahead of the rest. Mercedes has been up and down all season, at times running at the head, at others being nowhere as its tyre performance ebbed and flowed; Fernando’s third is where his team finished in the Constructors’ list.

Lotus’s blow-up reminds of its very real financial crisis – on Friday staff were told they would be paid later than usual – while McLaren worked its way (well) forward from a poor start, and Force India was virtually anonymous yet racked up points to place sixth in the championship, just beating Sauber, which started badly yet ended strongly.

Toro Rosso had a mixed bag of strong runs and bad luck, as shown by Ricciardo’s points-scoring place and Jean-Eric Vergne’s collision with Pastor Maldonado – which leads us to Williams:  the crashes of Bottas (unforced) and Maldonado perfectly exemplified their seasons, while at the back Marussia and Caterham had a ding-dong battle every race, yet made little progress.

The season’s was Vettel’s, so to him the final word: “I’m actually quite sad that this season comes to an end. I think the last couple of races, really since the summer break, to win every race is unbelievable. The car has been phenomenal. Just kept getting better. I think today was a very interesting race. I had a poor start but then I was able to come back straight away in the first lap, build a gap which was nice to control then…”

But, the enduring image of the season is surely that of Webber driving his final F1 cooling-down lap with helmet in lap and hair blowing in the breeze: The rebellious action perfectly summed up his character and he will be sorely missed.

Yes, nice guys do finish second…


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