Sebastian Vettel was, once again, imperious in his journey to 2013 title success as he dominated the Indian Grand Prix. With tire strategy, particularly surrounding the soft tire’s durability, the focal point of the race, the fight for the win could have ended up going to either Vettel or teammate, Mark Webber. The Australian, who’s Formula 1 career is quickly drawing to a close, started on the medium compound tire in the hope of building an early gap to the cars starting on the soft tires.
The two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg made good starts behind Vettel, but not as good as Felipe Massa who, from fifth on the grid, finagled his way up to second by the fourth corner of the opening lap. The Ferrari, however, was no match for the Mercedes on pace, but the layout of the Buddh International Circuit made passing much less straightforward than anticipated.
Drivers starting on the soft tires were already pitting by the end of the second lap, the durability of the rubber ranging from marginal to better than expected for many cars. Indeed, some drivers went all the way to lap 10 or 12 before disposing of the soft rubber.
Those early stops left those starting on the medium tires, like Webber, Sergio Perez, Daniel Ricciardo and Adrian Sutil, at the front of the pack. Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso also started on the harder of the two compounds, but contact with each other on the opening lap meant the rest of their races were hugely compromised. Both would not feature in the top-10 for the rest of the race, and ended pointless.
One of the drivers maintaining his soft tire life very well was Romain Grosjean. A shock elimination from Q1 on Saturday meant the Frenchman’s race would be extremely difficult, but the data from Friday practice showed he was the best of the rest behind the Red Bulls on heavy fuel. Grosjean made his one and only stop on lap 13, switching from the soft tires to the mediums and resuming in the back of the midfield, just behind the struggling Alonso. It was a straightforward fight to the end from there.
By lap 41, all the drivers had finally made at least one pit stop, the latest coming from Sutil after a monstrous stint of 41 laps on the Medium compound. He changed to the soft tires with the aim of going on to the end on that set of tires. But those who started the race on the soft tires had one more stop to make, as most chose to run 20-25 lap stints on the mediums before changing to another set of mediums for the last run to the finish. Vettel, Rosberg, Massa, Perez and Hamilton all made stops at around lap 30 meaning they would be in good shape compared to those trying to run to the end, like the Lotus drivers of Raikkonen and Grosjean.
It was at this point that Webber suddenly pulled off the track just before turn 3. Alternator issues had taken control of his day, necessitating a retirement when the win was still on the cards, if unlikely. This left Vettel without a challenger which made his eventual championship a mere formality in the grand scheme of things.
With Raikkonen and Grosjean attempting one-stop strategies, they should have been sitting ducks compared to the drivers on fresher tires. In the end, the only sitting duck was Raikkonen, as his teammate kept up his pace, and eventually passing, with much difficulty, his world champion teammate for the final podium position. This was a fantastic effort from such a lowly grid position and bodes well for 2014 when he will be the likely team leader. He was unlikely to catch Rosberg up ahead in second, so his only task was to keep the charging Massa at bay.
Raikkonen was really struggling at this point. Perez and Hamilton disposed of the Finn on the back straight in one fell swoop, with the former coming out two positions better, in fifth. Raikkonen’s tires eventually gave up completely, necessitating a pitstop two laps from the end. He at least had enough space to not lose a position in the event.
But all the attention was on Sebastian Vettel who, through sheer dominance and consistency, has become the youngest ever, consecutive four-time world champion. He joins the likes of Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Juan Manuel Fangio as the sport’s greatest ever, and there seems no stopping the young German anytime soon.