Apart from the obvious fame and glory, winning the F1 World Championship title brings the team that does so a particularly welcome advantage — the right to occupy the number one garage on the pit lane the following year. This has the shortest entry, the most direct access, the prime location.
So when the invitation from Infiniti to spend the day with Red Bull thumped on to the desk, Garage number one was the destination. And thump it did. An invitation to a Grand Prix these days is no mere slip of paper with a tear-off stub. Oh no, this was far from lightweight, and a good early indication of just how massive the modern world of F1 is. Two substantial passes, a windscreen sticker for the car and another to allow access to the specific national press car park.
Security is very tight, and based on a series of zones or perimeters. Every layer of security involves another check, another gate, another control point, and gaining access to the actual garage involved collecting yet another restricted-access pass. But we persevered. At the time of our visit (early afternoon), the pit was a hive of urgent activity, the cars were up on stands and barely recognisable, shorn of all their bodywork.
It was hard to believe at this stage, that in less than three hours they’d be built up into two of the fastest cars on the circuit. But nothing distracted the engineers — they are used to working in a goldfish bowl. Our guide Tilly confided that Vettel’s disqualification from practice for a failure to provide enough fuel to sample had presented an opportunity.
Though relegated to starting last from the pit lane exit, this gave the mechanics a few more precious minutes to implement more aggressive and extreme gearbox and suspension settings. That pit lane start also meant that Vettel was able to avoid any first-corner carnage, which saw the Force Indias tangle with Bruno Senna, and Nico Rosberg and Romain Grosjean collide. Hamilton got away cleanly from pole, but Webber started poorly, and dropped back to fourth behind Raikkonen and Pastor Maldonado.
Alonso then passed Webber on turn eleven to drop him back to fifth. The path seemed to be opening up quickly for Vettel, who was muscling his way through the back of the field, and was up to 13th by lap nine, but it was on this lap that Rosberg caused the first safety car call-out, when his Mercedes was spectacularly launched over the back of Narain Karthikeyan’s slowing HRT; hydraulics problems, apparently.
Fortunately, both drivers were able to walk away from the very serious crash, but the safety car was out for several laps. Unfortunately for Vettel, during the caution period, he ran off track while avoiding Daniel Ricciardo and demolished a marker board. This did terminal damage to his right front wing, which was already battered from an earlier contact with Senna, and he had to pit. Hamilton held on to the lead easily at the restart, only to later drop out when his car ground to a halt with a fuel pump problem.
That left Raikkonen in charge, with Alonso the first of several drivers to pass Maldonado before the pit stops. Webber’s attempt to get past resulted in contact and a spin, but it was judged to be simply a racing incident and no further action was taken. With Vettel changing tyres while in the pit to replace his front wing, he rose as high as second behind Raikkonen as others pitted.
There was speculation that Vettel might try to keep his soft tyres alive until the end, but he pitted for fresh rubber and dropped back to fourth behind Alonso and Jenson Button. Another safety car then followed when a spectacular battle between Paul di Resta, Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez ended with contact between the latter pair, and Grosjean’s slowing car collecting the unfortunate Webber, ripping apart his rear suspension. Cue much distress in the Red Bull garage.
The caution period bunched up Raikkonen, Alonso, Button and Vettel for an exciting 12-lap battle to the finish. At first the pressure was on Alonso, but he was soon pulling away from Button and chasing down Raikkonen. Behind him, Vettel was putting huge pressure on the McLaren driver. He eventually clawed his way to third, with four laps remaining. Alonso was too far ahead to catch, with his Ferrari finishing right on Raikkonen’s tail.
Maldonado finished fifth ahead of Kamui Kobayashi and Felipe Massa, who dropped down the order while fighting with Webber. Senna and di Resta recovered from their dramas to take eighth and ninth, with Ricciardo the final scorer for Torro Rosso. Holding off Fernando Alonso gave Kimi Raikkonen the first win of his Formula 1 comeback.
That victory is his first since he won the 2009 Belgian GP, the first for his Enstone-based team since the 2008 Japanese GP, and the first for a Lotus-branded squad since the 1987 United States GP. Raikkonen’s victory is the 19th of his career and made him the eighth different driver to triumph in the 18 races so far this season.
Alonso’s fight to retain second inches him three precious points closer to Vettel’s lead in the Championship. With two races to go, they now stand at 245 and 255 respectively. Vettel achieved huge respect for his drive through the entire field from last to third. “I went to see Sebastian before the race and he said ‘I’ll see you on the podium’,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “I think it’s one of the best drives of his career. He really went for it.”