While Sebastian Vettel was cruising to the finish line of yesterday’s Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in his Red Bull Racing car, with the only unresolved issue in his mind being where to do his post-race celebratory doughnuts, Fernando Alonso set the fastest lap of the race.
The Spaniard lapped Yas Marina Circuit in 1 minute, 43.434 seconds as he looked to complete the race as quickly as possible in fear of a potential penalty for exceeding the track limits in a passing move on Jean-Eric Vergne.
Alonso’s closing laps, as he passed Vergne, Lewis Hamilton and Paul Di Resta, were a thrilling sight for the crowd of 55,000 and enlivened what had been a processional affair at the front.
The only sad point was that the attacking endeavours of the double world champion resulted in nothing more than a fifth-place finish, and it is an indictment of how far Ferrari’s pace has fallen during the year.
The Spanish Grand Prix was only six months ago, but it must feel like an eternity to the Spaniard.
A dominant Alonso was triumphant in Barcelona, 38.2 seconds ahead of Vettel that day, and a serious championship challenge appeared likely.
But Alonso has not beaten Vettel on the track since that afternoon in the events in which both drivers finished the race, and he is 130 points behind his German rival in the drivers’ standings.
Vettel’s record-equalling run of seven successive victories is a superb achievement, and was rightly respected by the Yas Marina crowd when they cheered him onto the podium.
But it is somewhat soured a little by the fact he has had such little competition. What spectators saw at Yas Marina yesterday was the story synopsis of the second half of the season.
Vettel leads from the start, opens up a gap over the rest of the field, and then cruises to victory, setting fastest laps at his discretion.
The adage in sport is that you can only beat what is in front of you, and Vettel has done that – although, in fairness, his opposition has not been impressive.
Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes have been huge disappointments this season, the traditional powerhouses of modern F1 each failing to mount challenges to the constructors’ champions at Red Bull.
Ferrari, at least, won twice with Alonso in China and Spain before fading, but McLaren are on target for their worst year since 1980. Drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez have yet to score a podium finish in 2013.
McLaren struggled again yesterday, with Perez in ninth and Button 12th, and it sums up the sort of results the British team typically have taken from an abysmal 17 races this year.
Last season, they won seven times, as many as Red Bull, but a poor decision on car design in the winter has ensured that Button and Perez have been stuck in the midfield for much of proceedings.
Red Bull could have made the same mistakes as McLaren, but they did not, and that is why they have won the drivers’ and constructors’ titles for the past four seasons.
There is some mitigation to Ferrari’s failure, since they have been visibly hurt by Pirelli’s move, for safety reasons, to change their tyre compounds and make them harder after the series of deflations at the British Grand Prix in June.
The Italian team started the season well and picked up two wins in the first five races, but since then, while Red Bull have progressed and developed their car, Ferrari have visibly sagged, to the extent that Alonso had to drive his heart out here simply to take fifth, 67 seconds behind Vettel.
Nico Rosberg was rightfully proud of being best of the rest yesterday behind the Red Bulls, in his Mercedes-GP, and it has been a solid season for the German manufacturers.
It may not feel like it at present, after being beaten regularly by Red Bull, but Mercedes have stepped forward.
In their first three years back in F1 as a team, they had one win and one pole position to show for their endeavours. Three victories and eight poles this year represents progress, and finishing second in the constructors’ standings, which remains in reach, is respectable.
They will need more to compete with Red Bull in 2014, but they can take heart from their season, much more so than Ferrari and McLaren.
All three teams, though, owe it to F1 and to Vettel, to an extent, to be stronger next year.
The negative reactions from the crowds in Italy and Singapore to Vettel’s victories showed what the feedback can be with repeated dominance.
That ire has been wrongly focused on the serial champion. His only transgression was to drive flat out in a fast car and win.
Well, that and occasionally adding a few doughnuts at the end, which cost him a few fines.
The real disappointment this year, and particularly yesterday, was the failure of the other teams to put up a decent fight.
That must change next year, for everyone’s sake.
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