Sebastian Vettel was able to cruise to victory around the circuit surrounding Valencia’s Americas Cup harbour after his rivals took themselves out of the European GP fight.
The German, having qualified on pole position, out-dragged Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber at the start and then survived a lunge from Lewis Hamilton at turn two, after the Briton had made the most of a lightning start to also see off Webber into the opening corner. By lap ten, however, both challengers had made mistakes that would hand an easy win to Vettel.
Having rebuffed Hamilton’s move, Vettel was able to ease away from the 2008 world champion who, in turn, complained of a vibration resulting from ‘being hit’. The McLaren’s front wing was indeed damaged after rubbing on Vettel’s right rear, but Hamilton could not afford to stop and change it with the pack in close attendance.
Webber, meanwhile, was already suffering from a mistake in the early stages for, having allowed Hamilton to sneak up his inside into turn one, he found himself off-line and being muscled aside by both Ferraris before turn two. Having fallen into the clutches of Jenson Button, a touch between the pair then saw Webber fall further, and he ended the lap ninth, having also fallen behind the two Williams drivers.
With little to lose, Webber became the first driver to stop for fresh tyres – Lotus’ Jarno Trulli had pitted on lap one after contact in the pack – and emerged well down the order after his left front again proved reluctant to depart the car.
As Nico Rosberg pitted next time around, however, Webber’s race came to a violent end, the Red Bull cartwheeling over the back of the other Lotus, in the hands of Heikki Kovalainen, after a misunderstanding while battling for position. Although the Finn admitted to defending his place – a futile exercise given the performance difference between Lotus and Red Bull – Webber, looking to gain as much of a tow as possible, did not appear to give enough room when finally ducking out to pass.
Riding up over the right rear of the T127, the Australian – replicating his Le Mans accident from 1999 Le Mans accident – was turned skywards before coming down on his rollhoop.
The car then rolled back onto its belly and skated at barely abated speed into the turn 12 tyre wall and rebounding into the run-off area. Miraculously, Webber was able to throw out the steering wheel and clamber from the wreckage unaided, before being ushered into the medical car. Kovalainen, too, was unhurt, despite losing his rear wing and being fired into the retaining wall in a sad end to Lotus’ 500th grand prix appearance.
The ensuing safety car caused confusion in the ranks, with the first five runners all being beyond pit-entry by the time they were notified of its presence. Not only did that mean that they missed out on the opportunity to stop for their mandatory tyre change at the same point as the rest of their rivals but, in Hamilton’s case, it would also cost a chance to challenge Vettel for victory.
While Vettel was well past pit exit by the time the safety cars emerged, Hamilton was only approaching the all-important line that would decide whether he could motor on or fall into line. A momentary hesitation cost him dearly, as it allowed the pace car to nose over the marker first. Seemingly unsure of what he should do, Hamilton accelerated past, duly earning himself a drive-through penalty that would drop him well away from the leader.
The punishment wasn’t called for some time, and not until after Fernando Alonso had complained about his nemesis, the stewards taking their time before announcing that he had erred in passing the safety car. By then, and having been told to abandon his fuel-saving strategy, the Briton was far enough ahead of third place to take the drive-through and still rejoin in second place, albeit well adrift of Vettel.
Third place, by this time, was being held by Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi who, along with Virgin’s Lucas di Grassi, had opted not to stop for new tyres. The Japanese was not about to stop any time soon either, and continued to occupy the position until the chequered flag was being readied.
That did little for the ambitions of Button, who had been the first to respond to the safety car boards, and a growing train behind the McLaren, comprising Rubens Barrichello, Robert Kubica, Sebastien Buemi, Adrian Sutil, Nico Hulkenberg and an increasingly irate Alonso, who had seen his hopes of a podium dashed by the pace car and, as he claimed, the tactics of his rivals.
The early drama could not be sustained, and the race returned to familiar Valencia form with queues of cars unable to break formation. A bottle on track created a brief headache for the drivers before being retrieved by a courageous marshal, and the backmarkers continued to add to the show, either by providing an added obstacle for the leaders to negotiate, or battling with each other while doing so. Vettel avoided being held up, but Hamilton was delayed by a duel involving Bruno Senna and Timo Glock, which came to a head with Kobayashi and Button bearing down on it.
The tailenders eventually touched as Glock attempted to sweep around the outside, costing Senna his front wing and Glock his right rear, while Button took a look at snatching third spot from his Japanese adversary. Further up the road, Buemi and Sutil made contact with Alonso in close attendance but, again the order changed little.
Although Hamilton closed slowly on Vettel in the waning laps, the race was all but settled and, when Kobayashi finally pitted on lap 53, the podium was decided, with Button well ahead of the otherwise impressive Barrichello. From then on, it just remained to be seen what reward Sauber would gain for its brave strategy.
Rejoining in ninth, the rookie finally lived up to the hype he had created in his two-race debut in 2009, using fresh rubber and a low fuel load to carve inside Alonso at the hairpin on lap 56, and then dive past Buemi at the very last corner of the race to claim seventh. He followed Kubica and Sutil at a distance, but helped Sauber achieve its first two-car points finish of the season with Pedro de la Rosa completing the top ten.