Vettel chases down his last chance as Alonso can't make advantage count
FORMULA ONE: Abu Dhabi is best known for its sometimes vulgar opulence and the staggering modernity of its buildings, but it was pure history and tradition that blew in on a warm desert breeze here yesterday evening.
A great race, a classic race on this most unpromising of circuits, saw the podium filled with three former world champions and it was the evocative names of Lotus and Ferrari who took the first two places on the dais.
And yet, as the sand settled, it was the performance of a newer team, Red Bull, and a younger driver, Sebastian Vettel – although both team and driver are already tiresomely too familiar for the liking of their harassed rivals – that provided the major talking points.
Vettel was immense. Banished to the back of the field because of a fuel irregularity after qualifying, he had the countenance of a tragedian on Saturday evening (because he is more used to champagne-splattered grins he is less practised in the art of hiding disappointment). But in an admittedly supreme car he cut a swath through the field not once but twice to finish third behind Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso.
He had luck too, there can be no doubt about that. The deployment of safety cars suited his purpose well. But that is not the memory that shines through this morning.
His car’s relegation to the pit lane had handed his only world championship rival, Alonso, an unexpected lifeline and the Spaniard, trailing by 13 points, had to make the most of it. But in the end the Ferrari driver gained only three points on the young German, who remains the fastest and favourite. With two races remaining he leads by 10 points.
Vettel, assisted by some early carnage that saw the Force India cars collide (a dark sin this, in Formula One) was soon up to 14th, even though he was suffering some wing damage after a meeting with Bruno Senna.
His car was damaged again, this time more seriously, when he crashed into a marker board as he attempted to avoid the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo. This required a pit-stop that meant he fell to the back once more; it also meant he faced the prospect of surviving the remaining 41 laps on his new set of soft tyres.
He charged through the field again and got up to second behind Raikkonen as the cars in front of him made much later pit-stops. Ultimately Vettel came in for fresh rubber a second time, which saw him drop to fourth behind Alonso and Jenson Button.
But another outing for the safety car – which had already appeared after the collision between Nico Rosberg and Narain Karthikeyan – allowed Vettel to tighten up with the three cars in front, who then enjoyed a sprint to the finish. Shortly before the end Vettel swept past Button, depriving the McLaren driver of what would have been his fourth third position in succession at this venue.
Button said of Vettel last night: “He was dead lucky. I mean, both safety cars worked for him. But he was still quick. He would have finished fourth, even without the last safety car. So it would still have been a bloody good drive.
“We’ve seen him come through the field before. He’s quick. I was surprised it took him that long to get past me. It was a good move. But it took him six or seven laps.”
Button’s team-mate Lewis Hamilton said: “To start from the pit lane and have to go under a tunnel, come up and then be behind people and end up third in the race is probably unheard of. Great job. That guy has definitely got something on his side.
“I don’t have an answer but the most important thing is that Kimi did an incredible job – it was worthy of a champion.”
Hamilton, who won here last year, had looked set for another victory after dominating the weekend. From his 25th pole position he flew out of the blocks, putting behind him not only the rest of the field but the memory of a number of poor starts in recent races.
On the second lap Hamilton, who complained about the coldness of his tyres, appeared threatened by Raikkonen. But he soon started to pull away from the rest.
By the fourth lap he had got enough heat into those tyres to extend his advantage to 2.3 seconds and at one stage he led by almost four. He set the fastest lap on the 19th but then, in the 20th, he came to a halt because of a problem with his fuel pump. It was a reminder of the Singapore Grand Prix, where Hamilton had once again dominated the field only to retire with gearbox failure.
After that Raikkonen took up the baton, dogged by the consistently dogged and increasingly dangerous Alonso, the worst sight in any driver’s rear-view mirror.
If the race had lasted for another couple of laps Alonso – who like the Canadian Royal Mountie always seems to get his man – might have prevailed. But at the end Abu Dhabi saluted third-placed Vettel, Raikkonen, the eighth winner this season, and the runner-up, Alonso, in that order.