Sebastian Vettel duly delivered his expected ninth consecutive race victory in dry, then trickily wet, conditions but it was not the usual crushing success.
The world champion equalled Alberto Ascari’s record, albeit in one season rather than over two as the great Italian had done in 1952 and 1953. But a kerfuffle during his second pit stop on the 47th lap when the usually superb Red Bull team did not have his new tyres ready, effectively halved the 13.1 second lead he had built over team-mate Mark Webber.
Before the start hugs abounded as the Australian’s Red Bull crew wore Aussie hats as he prepared to start his 215th and final grand prix. Fernando Alonso stopped by to embrace his friend, and there were similar scenes three rows further back where the crowd’s favourite, Felipe Massa, was likewise saying goodbye to Ferrari.
But as Vettel led, Webber again found himself with work to do in the early laps as he was only fifth behind his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. Neither of the Mercedes had the legs to stay in front, and Alonso succumbed to Webber on the 13th lap. But in the confusion of Vettel’s later stop, when Webber also pitted, he lost second place again to the Ferrari and had to fight his way past a second time, on the 48th lap.
Webber bravely kept Vettel honest for a long time, until the German finally began to edge away despite the conditions. He duly crossed the finish 10.4sec ahead of Webber, who had an honourable final run. Alonso, ever forceful in a halfway decent car, was a further 8.4sec down the road.
It was not a great day for Mercedes, however. For some time Hamilton seemed a shoo-in for fourth after catching and passing team-mate Rosberg early on, but then on lap 46 the Englishman clipped the left rear wheel of Valtteri Bottas’s Williams as he was lapping it. The Finn spun into retirement with a broken wheel, while Hamilton lost time limping back to the pits with a punctured right rear tyre, then had to serve a drive-through penalty for causing a collision.
The incident relegated him from fourth to an eventual ninth, and lost him third place in the driver’s World Championship to Webber. Mercedes did, however, maintain their second place over Ferrari in the constructors’ championship.
As Vettel did his now traditional donuts, Massa joined in, and Webber toured home in the warm-down lap minus his famous yellow helmet, soaking up the atmosphere with the wind in his hair.
“Well done Mark, you’ve had a fantastic career, it’s been brilliant working with you,” team principal Christian Horner told him, perhaps a trifle disingenuously, given past tensions. “You can be proud of everything you’ve done. We certainly are. Well done.”
Vettel also paid a belated tribute, insisting that Webber was interviewed first on the podium. “It was a very good finish, a good fight,” Webber said without emotion. “I’ve enjoyed fighting guys like Seb, Lewis, Nico, and I want to thank the team. I enjoyed the last few laps in particular. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable career, one I’m very proud of. And thanks to everyone in Australia. I’d never have got here without their support. Enjoy watching F1 next year.”
As he also celebrated a new record of 13 wins in a season, Vettel admitted he was sad the season had to end. “To win every race since the summer break was unbelievable, the car was phenomenal and it just kept getting better. I was able to come back on Nico straight after he led at the start, but then the confusion in the pit stop made things interesting and obviously the last laps were very difficult with the rain, which made it very difficult to judge things.”