Red Bull take flight in the torrent
Vettel and Webber sprout wings to give British-based team their finest hour as Button struggles to get a grip
Monday 20 April 2009
Whenever Sebastian Vettel starts from pole position, he wins. Last year he scored Toro Rosso's first victory, at Monza. Yesterday, the 21-year-old German scored stablemate Red Bull's first, leading his team-mate Mark Webber home in a dramatic 1-2 in the Chinese Grand Prix after a race run in torrential rain from start to finish. The Formula One series leader Jenson Button could manage only third place as his Brawn struggled to maintain tyre temperatures in the wet.
The race started with an eight-lap procession behind the safety car, a move Vettel – often referred to as the new Michael Schumacher – condoned. "It was the right decision, and conditions were very difficult throughout whole race," he said. "Mark and I were on short opening strategies so we really had to push to get away from the pack. We succeeded, but it was a very difficult race, with lots of aquaplaning, which made it so tricky just keeping the car on the circuit. But it was good not having anyone ahead of me for most of the race.
"I'm extremely happy. This is the second time now in the wet I've won a grand prix. A double win for Red Bull is just incredible."
Qualifying had thrown up a few surprises, in the form of the Red Bulls of Vettel and Webber in first and third slots, split by Fernando Alonso's Renault. The Brawns of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button were only fourth and fifth. But they were carrying greater fuel loads and both drivers were expected to start on Bridgestone's medium compound prime tyres.
The other three, however, would do their first stints on the much less durable supersoft compound option tyres. Whether they could sprint away and build up a good enough lead to see them through their first refuelling stops as early as lap 10, by which time their super-soft rubber would likely have grained itself into gripless oblivion, was sadly rendered academic in the extreme when it began to drizzle around noon. It did not let up after that and a steady downpour ensured that the race would require all runners to opt for wet weather tyres.
As if that was not bad enough, the event would be started behind the safety car. In wet and windy conditions, it was the German driver Bernd Maylander in his Mercedes-Benz who led the field for the first eight laps. He had already done more laps this season that Heikki Kovalainen!
As the "leader", polesitter Vettel reported to his team: "There is water on the track, but we've had worse in the past."
Alonso told his team: "When we start running quick. The water will disappear." So did his meagre fuel load.
Lewis Hamilton was told: "Continuous rain, just like on the grid. Radar indicates this will last at least another 30 minutes." Deep water, deep joy.
Alonso indeed refuelled on the seventh lap, just as it was finally announced that the safety car would pull in at the end of the eighth lap. This was not Formula One's finest hour.
What followed was pretty good, however. The Red Bulls led until their stops, Webber on lap 14, Vettel on 15. That put Button into the lead after he had passed his team-mate Barrichello on the 11th lap. Behind them, there was some fabulous fighting as Hamilton and Felipe Massa were on the move. The world champion climbed to fifth, but then spun down to 10th on the 11th lap and had worked his way back up to eighth by the time the safety car was deployed for the second time on lap 18 when Robert Kubica slammed his BMW Sauber into the back of Jarno Trulli's Toyota. While Maylander was heading the field again in the safety car, Sebastien Buemi's Toro Rosso ran into the back of Vettel's Red Bull, unsighted in the spray as they came upon Trulli.
"I was lucky," Vettel said of that incident. "We build a very strong car!"
The advantage now went back to the German, but a slick refuelling stop by Brawn got Button back out in second place ahead of Massa, whose Ferrari rolled to a silent halt on the 21st lap with an electronic problem.
The racing resumed on lap 23 and, with a lighter fuel load, Vettel sprinted away from Button and Webber. "Vettel is only quicker by fuel effect," Brawn told Button, "and Webber is also shorter."
However, the Australian moved ahead as Button missed his braking for turn 14 on the 29th lap, and now it was a Red Bull 1-2. Button snatched second back two laps later when Webber ran wide in the final corner on a track slippier than a skating rink, but when the Australian snatched the place back within a lap in a terrific counter-attack, Brawn saw the warning signs.
When Button found himself only 1.2sec ahead of Vettel on the 40th lap, the German having made his final fuel stop but the Briton still with one to come, the writing was on the wall. A lap later, Vettel drew alongside the Brawn going into turn 14, and took back the lead with a calm reassurance reminiscent of fellow countryman Schumacher in his heyday.
After his stop on lap 42, Button had no response. "Everyone was struggling, all aquaplaning in pretty crazy conditions," he said. "The last corner was a lake, you couldn't brake for it, and I was struggling because the tyres were shuddering with no temperature in them. Every lap I thought I was going to throw the car off, so just to finish the race was an achievement, and it's great to get on to the podium. These guys were extremely quick, their car was working really well – cheeky!
"For me, I felt I was pretty much always out of control! I was just waiting for Mark to appear in front of me, because I was really struggling to get heat in the tyres. In turn seven and eight I had no idea where Mark was, it was such a shock as I couldn't see anything. It was impossible to do anything about it and it would have been silly to try to have challenged him," Button added.
"It wasn't quite do or die," Webber said with a big smile, "but it was one of the best moves of my career because I knew he wouldn't be able to see that I was there."
Chinese Grand Prix: Shanghai details
Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China: 1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1hr 57min 43.485sec, 2 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:57:54.455, 3 J Button (GB) Brawn GP 1:58:28.460, 4 R Barrichello (Br) Brawn GP 1:58:47.189, 5 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren 1:58:48.587, 6 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:58:55.351, 7 T Glock (Ger) Toyota 1:58:57.961, 8 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:58:59.924, 9 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:59:07.794, 10 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:59:15.235, 11 S Bourdais (Fr) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:59:17.641, 12 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:59:19.319, 13 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:59:30.338, 14 G Fisichella (It) Force India +1 lap, 15 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams +1 lap, 16 N Piquet Jnr (Br) Renault +2 laps, 17 A Sutil (Ger) Force India +6 laps.
Not classified: 18 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams +13 laps, 19 F Massa (Br) Ferrari +36 laps, 20 J Trulli (It) Toyota +38 laps.
Drivers' Championship standings: 1 Button 21pts, 2 Barrichello 15, 3 Vettel 10, 4 Glock 10, 5 Webber 9.5, 6 Trulli 8.5, 7 Heidfeld 4, 8 Alonso 4, 9 Kovalainen 4, 10 Hamilton 4, 11 Rosberg 3.5, 12 Buemi 3, 13 Bourdais 1.
Manufacturers' standings: 1 Brawn GP 36pts, 2 Red Bull 19.5, 3 Toyota 18.5, 4 McLaren 8, 5 BMW Sauber 4, 6 Renault 4, 7 Scuderia Toro Rosso 4, 8 Williams 3.5, 9 Ferrari 0, 10 Force India 0.
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