Mark Webber just won't go away. Sebastian Vettel wishes that he would, and so does Lewis Hamilton after losing the lead of the world championship to him yesterday in Hungary.
But as Hamilton's McLaren proved well short of its task, and Vettel scuppered his own chances, the Aussie battler just kept slugging away and took a major gamble that paid off spectacularly for himself and the Red Bull team.
A dull affair had been predicted after Red Bull's domination of qualifying and at first that was how it was. Vettel sprinted into the lead from pole position, and as Fernando Alonso pushed up to snatch second from Webber, a battle between the Spaniard and the Australian seemed the only likely salvation from a follow-my-leader race.
Vettel had built a 11.7-second lead by the time the safety car was deployed on the 15th lap while debris was cleared away in Turn 11. It proved a decisive moment, sparking a rash of pits stops. Webber was the only front runner not to pit, and seemed to have been hung out to dry. But as Vettel came out in second place behind Webber, the latter had to change strategy and now his focus became to stay out as long as he possibly could on the soft-compound Bridgestone tyres. It was a huge gamble, given track temperatures as high as 45 degrees centigrade.
Some believe that Webber was gifted his subsequent victory, but the one bit of good luck that came his way was Hamilton's misfortune. The Englishman had regained a place lost to Renault's Russian racer Vitaly Petrov at the start before he passed Felipe Massa's Ferrari for fourth during the lap 15 pit stops. But that was as good as it got.
"I was accelerating out of Turn One when I felt a sudden vibration and then a loss of drive," he reported glumly, after seeing his world championship lead wiped out. "I initially thought it was a driveshaft failure, but it now appears that it was a gearbox problem. Actually, I may have had an issue with the gearbox from the very beginning of the race, when I initially feared I had a brake-related vibration. Whatever, it's a bit of a shame because, as always, the guys had worked very, very hard all weekend, and I think we'd done more than enough in the race to get up to the front and score some decent points.
"It's a pity to have a fault at this stage in the year, but that's racing – when you push the car to the limit, these things can happen. We'll learn from this, though, and we'll just have to work even harder to make sure we don't have any further problems this year, and that we can catch back up to the front-runners – which I'm certain we'll be able to do."
The moment upon which Webber's race turned came when the safety car went back in at the end of the 17th lap. Webber was right up tight with it, but Vettel languished some way behind. Too far behind, the stewards decided, believing there might be some skulduggery in the German falling more than the regulation 10 car-lengths back, as if perhaps he'd been trying to delay Alonso while Webber tried to build the 20 seconds he needed in which to make his subsequent pit stop and still retain second place.
The stewards decided to levy a drive-through penalty, and Vettel was livid, driving down the pit road on the 31st lap gesticulating angrily at his team. "I didn't understand why I was penalised," he explained. "I was lucky to see the SC board as I neared the pit entry, and just managed to get into the pits on lap 15. Then at the restart I was sleeping. Somewhere in the first stint I lost the radio, so I didn't hear anything and was waiting for instructions. I didn't see the safety car lights, and as Mark was close to the safety car I thought there was still a lap to go before it went in.
"I was pretty unlucky, I would have said. I had a penalty already as I lost my rhythm in the first few laps after the safety car. It would have been a walk in the park without that. I should have won, but for some reasons that didn't happen and I finished third."
Now a dull race became a nail-biter. Could Webber build the advantage he needed? And could Vettel catch and pass Alonso? The answers were yes, emphatically. And no.
Lap after lap, Webber drove superbly and was 23.7 seconds ahead before sweeping into the pits for the harder tyres on lap 43. Vettel was at this stage still bottled up behind Alonso, where he would remain, and by the end Webber had rubbed it in and rebuilt that 23-second lead. It was a majestic performance.
"After dropping to third I settled in to see what would happen," Webber said. "It was no surprise to see Seb disappear. Then there was the safety car, and I had to go off strategy to try to pass Fernando. That was asking a lot of the option tyres. I needed those 20 seconds but I told the guys to give me more of a buffer so there'd be less pressure in the stop. The front left tyre was nearly finished, but on fresh tyres I knew I had it in the bag.
"It was a bit of a gift today, but I've not had many of them, so I'll take it!"
As Jenson Button brought his McLaren home only eighth after a lacklustre race, his former Brawn team-mate Rubens Barrichello complained bitterly about the lap 66 move when Michael Schumacher almost drove him into the pit wall while being overtaken by the Brazilian for 10th place. "It was a horrible move, the most dangerous I have ever gone through. He should have been black-flagged!" Barrichello said. The stewards agreed and subsequently awarded Schumacher a 10-grid place penalty for the upcoming Belgian Grand Prix.
Results and standings
FIA Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix, Hungaroring, Budapest (70 laps): 1 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1hr 41min 05.571sec; 2 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:41:23.392; 3 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:41:24.823; 4 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:41:33.045; 5 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:42:18.763; 6 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 1:42:22.294; 7 P de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber at 1 Lap; 8 J Button (GB) McLaren at 1 Lap; 9 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber at 1 Lap; 10 R Barrichello (Br) Williams at 1 Lap; 11 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP at 1 Lap; 12 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 Lap; 13 V Liuzzi (It) Force India at 1 Lap; 14 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 3 Laps; 15 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 at 3 Laps; 16 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 3 Laps; 17 B Senna (Br) HRT-F1 at 3 Laps; 18 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing at 4 Laps; 19 S Yamamoto (Japan) HRT-F1 at 4 Laps. Not Classified: 20 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 23 Laps completed; 21 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 23 Laps completed; 22 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 15 Laps completed; 23 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 15 Laps completed; 24 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1 Lap completed.
Drivers' Championship: 1 M Webber 161pts; 2 L Hamilton 157; 3 S Vettel 151; 4 J Button 147; 5 F Alonso 141; 6 F Massa 97; 7 N Rosberg 94; 8 R Kubica 89; 9 M Schumacher 38; 10 A Sutil 35; 11 R Barrichello 30; 12 V Petrov 17; 13 K Kobayashi 17; 14 V Liuzzi 12; 15 N Hulkenberg 10; 16 S Buemi 7; 17 P de la Rosa 6; 18 J Alguersuari 3; 19 H Kovalainen 0; 20 K Chandhok (India) HRT-F1 0; 21 L di Grassi 0; 22 J Trulli 0; 23 B Senna 0; 24 S Yamamoto 0; 25 T Glock 0.
Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Red Bull 312pts; 1 McLaren 304; 3 Ferrari 238; 4 Mercedes GP 132; 5 Renault 106; 6 Force India 47; 7 Williams 40; 8 BMW Sauber 23; 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 10; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 HRT-F1 0; 12 Virgin Racing 0.