Grand Prix of Goodbyes

Sebastian Vettel’s dominating win in Brazil came at to surprise to anyone; however, it also brought a bitter disappointment to the fans and friends of his team-mate, who were hoping to see the Aussie send Formula 1 off with one last win – but for a reflection of Mark Webber’s F1 career, he had to settle down for second – for the last time.

Photo: Scuderia Ferrari

Photo: Scuderia Ferrari

With the championship title decided a few races back and Vettel’s Red Bull becoming an irritatingly unchanging sight at the front of the grid, the wet weather at Sao Paulo brought some hopes for a more eventful finale to the otherwise all-too-predictable season. Delays to practice sessions due to rain could have thrown a spanner in the works of some teams; but not the four-time champions, who mastered this grand prix like any other – especially that the race day turned out to be mostly dry anyway. The front-row lock up did not come without a few hiccups, however, namely in the form of atypically long or badly timed pit-stops – neither of which benefitted their second, departing, driver.

A late-stage collision between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Williams’ Valtteri Bottas sparked safety-car fears to which Red Bull responded by calling in their drivers early for a change of tyres – which were not yet ready when Vettel stopped in his pit-box. The delay could have jeopardised both his and his team-mate’s position, as Webber – waiting stagnantly behind the German for his turn in the box – was under threat of Fernando Alonso in third who was setting the fastest lap in his Ferrari – one after another.

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But in the end nothing could rock Vettel’s dominance of 2013 and he claimed the chequered flag with more than a 10 second lead over Webber to beat yet another world record of winning nine consecutive grands prix in one season.

His team-mate seemed happy with the result – the highest possible achievement in this race and the second half of the season, in his view.

“Seb and I have had our challenges over time and it’s easier to have a relationship with Fernando, as he’s in another team, but to finish on the podium with those two guys – well, they have been the best of this generation.

“I have raced them a lot and to finish with those guys was nice for me because it meant a lot, showing that I can drive well at the end of my career and that I got the timing right,” Webber said after the race.

“The difficult part for me today was actually getting in to the car for the final time. I was overcome with some emotion then to be honest.”

As Vettel was performing another donut-show to mark his record streak, Webber celebrated by taking his helmet off in the car, while parading across the track.

“It was nice to take the helmet off for the final lap.

“In this sport it’s not always possible to give things a personal touch. It was nice to get it off and see the marshals and the fans; it was just a really nice thing to experience.”

Reshuffle: while Massa (L) will take over Maldonado's drive in 2014, it seems it's the Venezuelan who is better off with a Lotus seat

Reshuffle: while Massa (L) will take over Maldonado’s drive in 2014, it seems it’s the Venezuelan who is better off with a Lotus seat.
Photo: Sutton Images

Although the Aussie’s departure after 12 years in the sport was the most significant driver farewell of the year, Sao Paulo also celebrated the move of another F1 icon. Despite a controversial spat with the stewards during the race, who handed the Brazilian a drive-through penalty for “illegally” crossing the white track line on the pit entry, Felipe Massa followed in Vettel’s donut-footsteps to sign off his eight seasons with Ferrari in style, in front of his home crowd. The signing of Kimi Raikkonen to partner Alonso in 2014 struck fear across the F1 community that the sport might be left without a Brazilian driver, but sure enough Massa managed to secure a seat for next year – albeit with the painfully under-performing (compared to its early years of greatness) Williams.

“I don’t think I deserved a drive-through and I believe it was very unfair. I am very disappointed because today I could have finished fourth or third.

“However, I don’t want this incident to ruin such a special weekend for me and all my team. In their eyes, I am a world champion and I will never forget them, nor anything about my time with Ferrari,” Massa said.

As Williams decided to keep their impressive rookie Valtteri Bottas for another season, their miraculous (and one-off) Spanish GP 2012 winner Pastor Maldonado looked certain to wave Formula 1 goodbye after Brazil – especially after the shocking accusations against his own squad post-Austin, suggesting his car had been tempered with to rob him of any chances of performing well. Regardless, and to a general surprise, Maldonado has also secured a 2014 drive – with Lotus.

The financially-wounded team had finished the season fourth, which only suggests its potential for greatness – take their once feared and dreaded Romain Grosjean for example, and his account of six podium finishes this year, which hugely contributed to the team’s position in the Constructors’ Championship. The second Lotus seat was the one to fight for, for those drivers who were still left without a contract for 2014 at the time… if not for a certain fear of not being paid one’s wages, which is rumoured to be one of the causes for Raikkonen’s move to Ferrari. Maldonado is believed to be bringing in a boast of Venezuelan sponsorship – but also a lot of trouble. On the other hand, take another look at Grosjean and his transformation from “idiot” to hero, thanks to a huge dose of confidence from Lotus.

The news of Maldonado signing were also surprising for the sake of another bright star of the 2013 season, as it was generally known Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg had his sights set on the remaining Lotus seat. In the end, the German ended up where he left a year earlier, becoming Force India’s only confirmed driver for next year’s campaign for the time being.

“I am happy to come back to Force India,” Hulkenberg told AUTOSPORT.

“The team is aiming high for next year and I believe that the experience I have gained over the years will help us achieve those goals.

“I know this team and I can see their determination; it’s a great bunch of people and we all share the same hunger for success.”

Belgian GP 2012: can the history repeat itself, as both seats at Sauber are still up for grabs?

Hulkenberg (L) and Perez at the Belgian GP 2012: can the history repeat itself, as both seats at Sauber are still up for grabs?
Photo: XPB

Out of this year’s midfield players Sergio Perez is the less fortunate one – following a difficult maiden year in an under-performing McLaren, his career in the sport is yet uncertain, as his seat was taken by an F1 newcomer and Formula Renault 3.5 champion, Kevin Magnussen – and the feat of finding a replacement drive at this stage is made even tougher for the Mexican, who admitted he was not interested in a back-of-the-grid seat. In the meantime, the Brazilian Grand Prix brought a “happy ending” for the team in the words of its lead driver Jenson Button, who claimed his highest finish of the season in fourth – finally back ahead of his less experienced team-mate.

As for the Brit’s former team-mate, Lewis Hamilton promised to “work like a rookie” next year for an even better performance with Mercedes, after the team closed the campaign in second in the constructor’s standings; while his team-mate Nico Rosberg chose outperforming Hamilton as his aim for 2014. However, while the driver set-up remains intact, its is the top of Mercedes’ management that faced a refurb, with the team principal Ross Brawn’s imminent departure from the team.

“We have had long discussions with Ross about how he could continue with the team but it is a basic fact that you cannot hold somebody back when they have chosen to move on,” Mercedes’ non-executive chairman Niki Lauda told AUTOSPORT.

Photo: Sutton Images

Brawn (C) was not ready to share the key decision-making duties with executive directors Toto Wolff (R) and Paddy Lowe – so he decided to leave the team altogether.
Photo: Sutton Images

“Ross has decided that this is the right time to hand over the reins to Toto and Paddy and we respect his decision.

“Toto and Paddy are the right people to lead our team in 2014 and beyond.”

Brawn’s exit is by many seen as a monumental one, but it purposefully precedes the biggest departure from Formula 1 in the last few years: the V8 engine. In the light of numerous changing regulations to facilitate the introduction of turbocharged V6s, one can understand why both the Mercedes and Red Bull bosses said it is a good time to leave the sport for Ross and Mark.

It is hard to predict how the 2014 season will pan out as the teams keep the details on their development programmes under strict secrecy – and, who knows, maybe the drivers who ended up with back-bench seats will be the ones laughing last.

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