Vettel crashes his way to hat-trick of titles in a thrilling conclusion
Formula OneThis circuit, looking as wet as a Brazilian rainforest, gasped for breath here yesterday after a chaotically thrilling grand prix ended with Sebastian Vettel lifting his third Formula One world championship in as many years. The old, retiring gladiator, Michael Schumacher, was the first to embrace his protege, who drove his damaged car to sixth place to beat his great and dogged rival, Fernando Alonso, by three points in the championship standings.
Jenson Button won the last race of the season, just as he had won the first – his dejected team-mate Lewis Hamilton crashed out with 16 laps to go – but the sound of the national anthem in Sao Paulo was so meaningless it was almost surreal, as Red Bull celebrated their second world championship hat-trick in a week, having sealed the constructors’ title for the third time last Sunday.
The remarkable Vettel thus becomes, at 25 years and 145 days, the youngest of the nine three-times world champions, beating Ayrton Senna, who was 31 years and 213 days, by more than six years. He also becomes the youngest of the three F1 hat-trick winners, after emerging victorious for the third year running, beating Schumacher, who was 33 years and 199 days, by more than eight years.
That looked an unlikely scenario after Vettel had collided with Bruno Senna on only the fourth corner of the race, sustaining visible damage to the left side of his car. Alonso, who ultimately finished second to Button, and has now lost three world titles on the last day of the season, had got off to a flier, lifting himself from seventh to fourth by the second corner and into a podium position by the end of the opening lap.
The race, like much of the year, was all about Vettel and Alonso. Alonso started the season with a dog of a car and although that dog is now good enough for Crufts it is still conspicuously slower than the Red Bulls and the McLarens. Yet such is the determined skill of the Spaniard, and such is the unrivalled reliability of the Ferrari, that even Vettel and Adrian Newey’s famous drawing board were not enough to shake him off. Until yesterday.
Alonso’s image as the relentless pursuer feels so ingrained it is easily forgotten that at the half way stage of the season, after Germany, he was 42 points ahead of the Red Bull driver. Both looked nervous before the start. In fact all 24 drivers looked uneasy as light rain began to fall just before the race got under way.
The Brazilian Grand Prix, which has decided five world championships and provided so many extraordinary spectacles, in wet and dry weather, was a sensation from the start. Alonso made a familiar charge, putting a slick move to burst past Felipe Massa and Mark Webber. Vettel, meanwhile, suffered a double collision with Senna and spun on the track on Turn Four, rejoining the action from the back of the pack. He appeared to turn into the Williams driver and was lucky not to suffer terminal damage. At the front Hamilton fended off a challenge from team-mate Button – and all that happened before the end of the first lap.
Alonso came off the track on the fifth lap in the knowledge Vettel was working his way through the field in a reprise of his drive in Abu Dhabi. “Just keep your car on the black stuff,” the world champion was told by his frantic pitwall team a number of times. Vettel had moved to sixth by the eighth lap, while Hamilton had lost his lead to Button.
On the 19th lap Nico Hulkenburg led a grand prix for the first time, when he took Button on the outside. Shortly after that Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel and Webber all trooped in the pits for slicks. At the end of lap 22, almost immediately after Alonso complained of debris on the track, the safety car was deployed. This suited Alonso and Vettel alike, as it closed them up to the McLarens. When the race got under way again, on lap 29, Vettel was caught napping and lost a place. Then Hamilton got past Button to resume the lead.
The action did not relent. After 54 laps Hamilton was out of the race following a collision with Hulkenberg. On lap 62 Alonso went past a rather passive team-mate, Felipe Massa, to take second place. But by now Vettel, who started the race 13 points ahead of Alonso, was running seventh and leading the points table. Two laps later Schumacher let Vettel through. But his compatriot did not need those extra points to join him in the history books.