To no surprise of the paddock, and to visible delight of the man in question, Sebastian Vettel claimed his fourth career title with a commanding drive at the Buddh circuit. The 26 year old has joined the elite group of Formula 1 four-time champions, making a mark on history as the youngest driver to achieve this fait – while his competitors could only congratulate the winner following another afternoon to forget.
Hypothetically, Sebastian Vettel would have had to finish outside the top five for his title claim to be put into jeopardy at the Indian Grand Prix – unlikely option, considering that he was the single champion of the Buddh circuit, opened to F1 in 2011, or looking at the German’s recent performance this year, including four pole positions and six race wins non-stop since the Belgian Grand Prix.
But that condition would not have been enough to extend the title fight until the next race, in Abu Dhabi – his closest rival, Fernando Alonso, had to finish first or second to keep up the appearances that the result of the championship could still be overturned.
In the end, neither took place, and Vettel performed just as expected – while Alonso finished further from the podium than he got everyone used to with his recent slump in form.
Having taken the pole on softer option tyres with a comfortable advantage over two Mercedes of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton respectively, Vettel shoot out to the front on lap one – but, to add spice to an otherwise predictable afternoon, he made his tyre-change stop on the following lap and fell behind the early-race traffic. This was a short lived demotion for the German, as the majority of the grid made their stops soon after to change for the medium compound – more durable and effective on the Indian circuit; except for a selected few who had qualified their grid place on the harder tyre – among them, Mark Webber.
Vettel’s team-mate was his biggest obstacle on the way to the lead as the Aussie reaped all the benefits of his fourth place grid start and a long-lasting rubber – until he made his own pit-stop on lap 28 out of 66 which demoted him to second. It would have probably been a Red Bull one-two in India – if not for another strike of bad luck for their title-less driver. Webber was ordered over the team-radio to “stop the car now” on lap 39, when an old, unwelcome friend – an alternator failure – made an unexpected return to the Renault-powered car. The Australian’s frustration was tactile, as he threw his gloves in the fence where a crowd of Indian fans was gathering to watch his misfortune.
“In the end I still have a smile on my face, couldn’t do any more today so that’s it” he said, seemingly through his teeth, rushing away from the track.
The fault struck terror in Red Bull garage – or so the public was made to believe, to build up the tension by questioning Vettel’s chances of experiencing a similar issue and ending the race pointless. But the young champion crossed the line just as he had nine other times this season – in first place – and with a near 30sec advantage over the nearest placed competitor, Rosberg.
As the Red Bull garage was celebrating their continuing greatness, the third-podium finisher of the afternoon gave his team another reason to pop the champagne open and look hopefully to the future. After a disastrous misjudged qualifying, that saw Romain Grosjean start the Indian Grand Prix back from 17th place, the Frenchman stunned even himself by charging to the front, and nailing it.
“Starting 17th I had no big hopes. would not have bet a penny on me being on the podium today,” he said.
Albeit celebratory, Lotus also had some other food for thought – served to them by their other driver, Kimi Raikkonen. A strong exchange of words was recorded during the race between the garage, urging the Finn to let his faster team-mate pass, and the defiant 2007 champion demanding not to be shouted at.
“It’s true that we maybe expected a little bit of an easier manoeuvre, let’s say” Boullier said about Raikkonen’s racing.
“We are working for these guys to deliver, but there is a team behind them and you always have to think about the team,” he added.
Interestingly, Lotus were not the only team in India whose “second” driver outperformed the squad’s leading name. Rosberg’s delight of returning into the spotlight following a mid-season slump in performance would have been salt to the wounded pride of Hamilton, who finished sixth. Sergio Perez once again outperformed Jenson Button – this time by a significant margin of nine grid places, with finishes in fifth and 14. – the difference between scooping 12 points for McLaren and none.
But the most significant example came from Ferrari, where everyone’s eyes went, questioning Vettel’s title bid. While Massa has proved to his potential future employers – Williams or other – that he is worth an F1 seat by finishing fourth, Alonso struggled from the start, where two contacts on lap one – with Webber and Button – left his machine bettered and hard to manage. Having spent most of the afternoon mid-pack, the Spaniard only managed 11. over the line – his first finish outside the points since Silverstone 2010.
With three more races to go it could be argued the 2013 season is now a closed chapter, following its champion’s early coronation. But with major changes taking place from next year, and even greater uncertainty surrounding those, it’s almost a given the drivers will do their best to enjoy the remainder of Formula 1 as they know it.