Sebastian Vettel springs a surprise

Published : Apr 25, 2009 00:00 IST



The 21-year-old German not only defied the downpours to give Red Bull their first win in 74 attempts, but also led home a one-two for the team from Milton Keynes. By Maurice Hamilton.

Rain throughout the Chinese Grand Prix made the 56 laps extremely treacherous but the conditions contributed in more ways than one to a historic win for the Red Bull team and added another variable to an already fascinating season.

Not only did Sebastian Vettel give the team from Milton Keynes their first win in 74 attempts, the 21-year-old German led home a one-two for Red Bull as Mark Webber fended off an early attack from Jenson Button’s Brawn-Mercedes. Button, the winner of the young season’s first two GPs in Australia and Malaysia, had no answer to Red Bull pace in an extreme environment the Englishman described as “scary — conditions for which the winning team were quietly thankful.

After qualifying first and third, Vettel and Webber went to the line expecting to be sidelined before the two-hour race had reached its conclusion. Both cars had been hobbled by driveshaft failures during practice on April 18, a fundamental problem so serious that Vettel had been restricted to just one lap of final qualifying, a handicap that made his first pole position all the more meritorious.

A rubber boot containing grease around a mechanical joint had become prone to splitting as each driveshaft delivered the Renault engine’s power to the rear wheels. Overnight research at the Red Bull headquarters offered a cure that was likely to be no more than temporary, Webber saying the team was “shit scared” that a possible good result could well be squandered by a part costing £5. In the event, the slippery conditions and slower speeds did not allow the drivers to tax the transmission to the limit and probably saved the day. But that should not detract from very impressive performances by drivers and cars alike.

Had conditions remained dry, Button would have pinned his hopes of a hat-trick on the fact that the Red Bulls were fast in practice because they were carrying much less fuel and, therefore, all-important weight. The plan was for both Button and his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, who had qualified fourth, one place ahead of Button, to make up sufficient ground during the six laps between the Red Bulls stopping early and the scheduled refuelling for the Brawns. The rain put paid to that as the Red Bulls proved to be in a league of their own on a track that resembled a skating rink.

“The conditions were crazy,” said Button. “It was just like a lake in places. I was struggling all the way and the tyres were shuddering because I couldn’t get temperature into them. Just finishing this race was an achievement because the car was trying to go off the road every lap.”

“The Red Bulls had very good pace and they seemed to be very strong from the word go. They could really get their car working, particularly on cold tyres. They seemed to break through the water, whereas we seemed to float on top. I felt like I was really slow trying to miss every river, and the problem was the position of these rivers was changing every lap. It was so easy to throw the car off the road. We’ve had wet races before but I didn’t expect so much aquaplaning everywhere — in the corners, down the straight. There was nothing you could do. It was scary.”

There were several incidents — including four off-course excursions for Lewis Hamilton as he fought his way into sixth place with a McLaren-Mercedes that was even more difficult to drive in the wet — but only one collision was serious enough to have the safety car take control of the field as wreckage was cleared from the track. It was during this four-lap period, just after one-third distance, that Vettel was extremely lucky to escape elimination.

Even though he was travelling slowly while looking for the safety car, Vettel was caught by surprise when Jarno Trulli’s slow-moving Toyota, minus its rear wing, suddenly emerged from the gloom. Unaware that he was being followed closely by Sebastien Buemi, Vettel backed off and was struck from behind by the Toro Rosso. The collision forced the Swiss to interrupt an excellent drive by visiting the pits for a new nose but, remarkably, the rear of the Red Bull was undamaged.

“It was impossible to know when other cars were near you,” said Vettel. “You could have run that race without mirrors because they were useless: you couldn’t see a thing. It was so difficult, just trying to stay on the road because you could slide off every lap. Ten laps from the end, I tried to adapt my pace and bring the car home but that meant I lost focus. So, I just tried to take it corner by corner, not looking too far ahead. To win this is unbelievable. I want to say a massive thank-you to all the guys here at the track and back at the factory who worked so hard to give me such a good car.”

The one-two for Red Bull comes two races after a similar result marked Brawn’s spectacular debut in Australia. Given the bitter recriminations following the approval of the double diffuser on the Brawn, the result in Shanghai adds more intrigue — if only because the Red Bulls do not have the contentious device and yet the dark blue cars literally left the rest slithering in their wake.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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