x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Valiant Sebastian Vettel worthy of his podium position

Graham Caygill examines an astonishing evening in Abu Dhabi for Red Bull's German that confirmed him as one of the most skillful drivers on the Formula One grid.

Sebastian Vettel waves to the crowd at the end of the race after a thrilling comeback drive at Yas Marina Circuit. Paul Gilham/ Getty Images
Sebastian Vettel waves to the crowd at the end of the race after a thrilling comeback drive at Yas Marina Circuit. Paul Gilham/ Getty Images

So, just how did he do that? Sebastian Vettel, starting last from the pits in yesterday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, ended up on the podium 105 minutes later, stood next to Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, with his championship lead reduced but nowhere near as drastically as it could have been.

The first smart thing his Red Bull Racing team did was decide to start from the pit lane rather than the back of the grid.

This eliminated the chance of being caught up in a first-corner skirmish, a good call, given such a collision ensued, with the Force India cars of Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta coming together with Bruno Senna.

It also allowed them to make set-up alterations to the car, changing the gearbox and the ratios within it to improve their chances of overtaking, and switching to the hard tyre – meaning, in theory, Vettel could go quite deep into the race and get some free air when cars ahead of him on the soft tyres made their stops.

What was not in the plan was making contact with Senna's Williams on the exit of Turn 8 on the opening lap, damaging the Red Bull's front wing sufficiently that a pit stop was considered by the team, before they thought better of it.

It was not serious, but enough to hurt the handling of the car, not what Vettel needed on a day when he wanted a perfect car.

However, it was not all bad news. Vettel had been given a bonus by the aforementioned incident with the Force India cars, and a collision between Romain Grosjean and Nico Rosberg, that had left their respective Lotus and Mercedes machines with punctures.

Five midfield cars, all of whom Vettel, who had won here in 2009 and 2010, would have expected to overtake, but not easily, were out of his way, and once he was past the backmarkers in the Caterhams, Marussias and HRTs, he was 13th without having broken sweat.

The safety car period after the recovering Rosberg crashed into the back of Narain Karthikeyan was the moment Red Bull really needed.

It allowed Vettel to pit, switch to the soft tyres and get his front wing replaced without losing significant time - while the rest of the field was held up behind the safety car.

He lost track position as he fell from 12th to 21st but, crucially, almost all his rivals ahead still had to make their compulsory stop to change on to the hard tyres. Now on the faster tyre, Vettel began trying to go back through the field again. If this had been a processional race it would have been difficult for Vettel to make as much progress, so quickly.

Luckily for him half the field seemed intent on making contact with other cars, and the two DRS (drag reduction system) zones were helping him as well.

More places came his way, some through overtakes, some through luck as the unfortunate Lewis Hamilton retired while in the lead.

Now Red Bull's good strategy came into play. One by one, the cars in front of him pitted, and Vettel moved up place by place, and Alonso came out behind him after his stop on the 29th lap.

When Raikkonen stopped while in the lead, three laps later, he only just made it back out in front of Vettel.

Now running second, Red Bull had two options.

They could try to push to the end of the race on tyres which would be 40 laps old and leave Vettel open to attacks from opponents on fresh rubber, or they could pit again.

Given the championship situation, Red Bull were not going to take risks in an attempt to finish ahead of Alonso.

They waited until the 38th lap, when he was 22 seconds ahead of Grosjean in fifth, the time needed for a pit stop at Yas Marina Circuit, and he came back on to the track in fourth, behind Raikkonen, Alonso and Jenson Button.

Result. At that stage he was losing just six points to his championship rival Alonso. Vettel and Red Bull would have taken that beforehand.

But things fell his way again. The second safety car, after Grosjean had collided with Vettel's teammate Mark Webber on lap 39, bunched the field.

Vettel had been 15 seconds behind Button in third but, now on fresher tyres, he was right behind when the race restarted, and he made his extra grip count three laps from the end when he dived around the outside of Turn 11 to take third.

Yes, he had luck. If there had been no crashes elsewhere or safety cars ahead of him and it had been a straightforward race it is unlikely he would have made the top six, given the time he would have lost coming through the field. But Vettel and Red Bull still had to make the most of that good fortune and they did so by being flexible enough to change their strategy to fit the circumstances, giving Vettel free air during the middle of the race.

That allowed him to demonstrate the speed that would have had him fighting with Hamilton and, in all probability, winning the race, had he not been penalised on Saturday.

As it was, third place, under the circumstances, was like a victory in its own right.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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