Sunday, August 28, 2011

Vettel underlines title credentials with sublime drive

At Spa-Francorchamps

Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber finished one-two in the Belgian Grand Prix after drives that can compare with many of those that have entered the annals of Formula 1 history from the famous Spa-Francorchamps track.

The two men went into the race on Sunday well aware of their team's concerns that their front tyres could fail.

Red Bull design chief Adrian Newey said it was "one of the scariest races I've been involved in", and the mind boggles as to the bravery of the drivers in that situation.

Spa's high-speed sweeps are arguably the biggest challenge a grand prix driver can face. Although safety has improved immensely at the circuit in the modern age, it remains an old-school race track, on which there are places "you wouldn't want to go off," as Webber put it in his BBC Sport column last week.

The drivers sounded phlegmatic about it after the race, but they were well aware of the potential seriousness of the situation. "We took quite a lot of risk," Vettel said. But, he added, "when there is a chance to win, we go for it".

Of all the many qualities that make grand prix drivers different from ordinary mortals, this has to be one of the most striking.

Call it bravery, call it lack of imagination, but Vettel and Webber went into the race, committed themselves to the 180mph rollercoaster ride through Eau Rouge, having put their lives in the hands of calculations by their engineers about how long their tyres would last.

The height of concern was in the early stages of the race, when the cars were running on tyres that Newey said Pirelli had told them "were very marginal and at five o'clock yesterday they wouldn't say after half a lap or five laps but they were going to fail".

Vettel and Webber's one-two in Belgium continued Red Bull's domination of this year's championship. Photo: Reuters

Red Bull's engineers had calculated that they could be pretty sure Webber's tyres would last two or three laps, and Vettel's five - which is when the two men made their first pit stops.

Red Bull were not the only team to suffer blistering, but theirs was worse than any of their rivals.

The situation caused controversy because they were running their cars with a greater degree of camber - lean away from vertical - on their front tyres than supplier Pirelli recommends.

Pirelli motorsport chief Paul Hembery chose his words carefully after the race, but I understand there were strong words between Pirelli and Newey before the race, and that there may be less tolerance of any team who choose to go beyond Pirelli's advice in the future.

It is yet another example of how Newey pushes every parameter to the limit, an approach that allied with his genius for aerodynamic design, has led him to create so many dominant cars, of which this year's Red Bull RB7 is just the latest in a long line.

With everything that was involved - the bravery, the tyre management, racing and overtaking Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, it has to rank as one of the best of Vettel's 17 victories.

Both Newey and team principal Christian Horner described it as a "mature" drive, and, as Newey pointed out: "Mark's race was every bit as good."

Webber was compromised first by a poor start, caused when his anti-stall kicked in, and then by a radio miscommunication that meant he did not follow his team-mate into the pits under the safety car period that followed Lewis Hamilton's collision with Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi.

That committed him to a long middle stint on the slower 'medium' tyre, at the beginning of which he showed bravery of a different but no less remarkable kind.

On lap nine, Webber passed Alonso on the outside going into Eau Rouge, pulling alongside on the hill down from La Source, nosing in front, and refusing to concede.

The two men are good friends, and they always race hard but fair, giving each other just enough room in such situations, but this incident was right on the edge.

"That boy must have some balls to do that - on the outside into Eau Rouge," Horner said. "Phenomenal. Pass of the day.

"Fernando was professional and gave him enough room to work with. Mark was always going to brave it out around the outside. I think we all closed our eyes."

Of course, Vettel and Webber's one-two was facilitated by the huge performance advantage of their cars.

Alonso appeared to be in the running for victory until his team chose not to stop under the safety car, but he insisted that was an illusion, saying Red Bull had a pace advantage of "one second per lap, maybe towards the end of the race even more, 1.5 seconds".

This is quite a turnaround after Red Bull failed to win any of the previous three races, where McLaren and Ferrari both showed Red Bull-beating pace.

Newey ascribes this to the "very cool conditions and slightly abnormal races" in Britain, Germany and Hungary.

"Hungary we were actually quite competitive in the dry and in those early laps on the intermediate tyres we suffered," he said.

"Germany it was exceptionally cold and we suffered in [tyre] warm-up. Silverstone we were compromised because we believed we had cold blowing (of the diffuser) allowed but it was taken away on Sunday morning."

This does not bode well for what were admittedly faint hopes that one of Vettel's rivals might have a chance of stopping his relentless march to the championship.

Although Alonso starred in the early stages in Spa, the car closest on pace to the Red Bull would seem still to be the McLaren, judging by Jenson Button's remarkable drive through the field to third place on Sunday, which was full of clinical and elegant overtaking moves.

As Button pointed out, though, McLaren's weekend in Belgium was compromised by the mistakes that have characterised their season, and which they desperately need to cut out.

In Button's case in Belgium, that was a "miscommunication" over how many laps he had left in the second period of qualifying that left him stranded in 13th place.

Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, made another of several mistakes by himself and the team this season which have made it impossible to challenge Vettel.

Without them, he would be in the fight, rather than where is now, which is 113 points behind Vettel with only 175 still available, and his title hopes over.

Alonso, who after his fourth place in Spa is in a marginally better position but still 102 points adrift of Vettel, said he would keep battling until it was mathematically impossible to overhaul Vettel.

But even he, F1's most relentless fighter, admitted Ferrari's hopes were "not in our hands, and Red Bull need to make big, big mistakes, and have big problems if we want to win the championship".

Barring a disaster of catastrophic proportions, then, Vettel will win a second consecutive world title this year, and long before the end of the season.

After performances such as that at Spa on Sunday, and many others this year, he fully deserves it.


Massimo Natili Brian Naylor Mike Nazaruk Tiff Needell Jac Nelleman Patrick Neve John Nicholson

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