Sebastian Vettel dominated the European Grand Prix in Valencia, his sixth win from pole of the 2011 season and extended his championship lead to 77 points.
A week short of his 24th birthday, he gave himself a present of pole position, win and fastest lap and he has the championship in his hands. It was also a great response to critics after he made a rare mistake on the last lap in Montreal two weeks ago.
He also became the first man to finish either first or second in the first eight races of the season. He has only dropped 14 points this season.
What’s helped him build his massive championship lead is that is no single main challenger this season; in the six races he has won four different drivers have finished second.
It was the German’s 16th victory in 70 Grand Prix starts.
He beat off a determined challenge from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who managed to get the better of Vettel’s Red Bull team mate Mark Webber, through a mixture of overtaking and strategy. Webber’s third place gave Red Bull its 50th podium in F1.
Alonso managed to match the pace of the Red Bulls for much of the race, but Vettel was always able to keep him at arms’ length, opening a gap when he needed to without taking too much out of his tyres.
It wasn’t as dramatic a race as the first seven this season, but was a decent race by the standards of the recent Valencia races as the DRS and Pirelli tyres made a difference.
Track temperatures were 47 degrees at the start of the race, the hottest they had been all weekend. Only Petrov and Perez decided to start the race on the medium tyres. The rest of the field went for the soft and the leading drivers ended up making three pit stops.
It wasn’t a good day for McLaren or Mercedes; they simply didn’t have the race pace and Lewis Hamilton sounded despondent at times on the radio, unable to go slower when his tyres were overheating, nor to speed up, when another set had lost grip. He finished over 45 seconds behind the winner. Meanwhile Rosberg’s Mercedes was 100 seconds behind Vettel.
At the start, Vettel got away well as did Webber, while Massa shot past Alonso and Hamilton, but then got boxed in on the inside of Webber, allowing Alonso to go around the outside of him, into third place.
Rosberg had an excellent start up to sixth place, but Jenson Button was faster in the early stages and was able to pass him on lap six.
Alonso looked faster than Webber in the battle for second place but couldn’t make the DRS wing count to overtake him.
The first stops came on laps 13-15 with Hamilton and Webber coming in first and Vettel, Alonso and Button reacting. Hamilton’s early stop got him into fourth place ahead of Massa who pitted four laps later.
Schumacher’s race was compromised when he broke his front wing on his outlap from the pits, smashing it into one of the Renault cars on his exit from the pits.
On lap 21 Alonso was able to use the DRS wing to pass Mark Webber and move up to second place. Vettel responded immediately, setting his personal best lap of the race to that point.
He held the gap to Alonso to three seconds.
Webber pitted on lap 29 for the second time and took another set of soft tyres. Ferrari reacted to the move bringing Alonso in, but he had lost time on that extra lap and Webber went past him, back into second place.
Meanwhile McLaren did its best to slow Hamilton down, his rear tyre temperatures were high. “I can’t go any slower,” said a frustrated Hamilton. McLaren seemed to be using its rear tyres up more than the opposition.
Massa stayed out the extra lap again and Webber passed him, as did Alonso. Massa lost five seconds in his pit stop with a left rear problem. This gave Jenson Button a chance, but he couldn’t take it as his KERS wasn’t working.
Vettel pushed to open a gap to Webber in the third stint as only Alonso’s Ferrari could match them for pace. The McLarens were a second a lap slower, as was Massa. Vettel eased away from Webber as he took less out of the rear tyres lap after lap.
Hamilton’s pace in the third stint was poor and he started to fall into Massa’s clutches.
Webber pitted on lap 43 for medium tyres, as did Hamilton. Alonso on the used softs was faster than Webber. He was 19.9 seconds clear, not enough to make a stop and rejoin ahead. He delayed a lap and pulled it off, pitting on lap 47 and holding second place.
Alguersuari put on an excellent performance, running much of the race in the top ten, making a set of soft tyres last longer than most. He started 18th but his two stop strategy got him up to eighth place, ahead of Adrian Sutil. After three consecutive poor qualifying sessions this was his best race result of the season and a good response to the pressure on his drive from reserve driver Daniel Ricciardo.
It was a day of astonishing reliability, with all 24 cars finishing the race. Webber had to nurse a gearbox problem in the closing stages.
Vettel could afford to take a holiday during the British, German and Hungarian Grands Prix and still be leading the championship after the summer break.
EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX, Valencia, 57 laps
1. Vettel Red Bull 1h39:36.169
2. Alonso Ferrari + 10.891
3. Webber Red Bull + 27.255
4. Hamilton McLaren + 46.190
5. Massa Ferrari + 51.705
6. Button McLaren + 1:00.000
7. Rosberg Mercedes + 1:38.000
8. Alguersuari Toro Rosso + 1 lap
9. Sutil Force India + 1 lap
10. Heidfeld Renault + 1 lap
11. Perez Sauber + 1 lap
12. Barrichello Williams + 1 lap
13. Buemi Toro Rosso + 1 lap
14. Di Resta Force India + 1 lap
15. Petrov Renault + 1 lap
16. Kobayashi Sauber + 1 lap
17. Schumacher Mercedes + 1 lap
18. Maldonado Williams + 1 lap
19. Kovalainen Lotus + 2 laps
20. Trulli Lotus + 2 laps
21. Glock Virgin + 2 laps
22. D’Ambrosio Virgin + 2 laps
23. Liuzzi HRT + 3 laps
24. Karthikeyan HRT + 3 laps