Sebastian Vettel never let anyone else have a look in as he completed a perfect second half of the 2013 season.
Vettel heads into the off-season undefeated since the summer break, during which time he has won a record-equalling nine consecutive race.
Team mate Mark Webber joined him on the podium as he said an emotional farewell to Formula One after 12 years of competition.
Rosberg’s brief lead
After two days of almost uninterrupted rain, the drivers were in the dark about tyre strategy for a race which started in dry conditions.
When the lights went out Mercedes seized the initiative – but only temporarily. From the front row of the grid Nico Rosberg beat Vettel to turn one and, unlike in Singapore, kept the Red Bull behind him as they plunged downhill through the Senna S.
Behind him Lewis Hamilton appeared in third having demoted the other slow-starting Red Bull of Mark Webber as well as Fernando Alonso. But both Mercedes drivers seemed to have a shaky grasp on their positions, Vettel and Alonso shadowing them symmetrically from corner to corner.
As they tackled the climb from Juncao for the first time Vettel deployed his remaining KERS and beat Rosberg to the finishing line by two hundredths of a second. Behind them Alonso had also nosed in front of Hamilton as lap two began. Alonso didn’t dither behind the other Mercedes either – by lap four he was up into second place.
The Mercedes drivers were struggling with traction and Webber, clearly revelling in being able to start a race on new tyres for a change, caught and passed the pair of them. After breaking clear of Rosberg on lap seven he was almost matching his team mate’s pace and soon arrived on Alonso’s tail.
Webber was at his battling best in his final F1 start. On lap 13 he overtook the Ferrari and Red Bull were running first and second.
Hamilton waved past
Rosberg was struggling more with his rear tyres than team mate Hamilton. By lap eight the pair were under pressure from Felipe Massa, the trio covered by just 1.2 seconds.
“If you have a problem with the tyres don’t hold up Lewis,” race engineer Tony Ross advised Rosberg on the radio. But with Massa looming he was soon ushered aside with the instruction: “Nico we’d like you to let Lewis through, we think you might be holding him up.”
Four laps after Rosberg waved Hamilton by, Massa breached his defences and was through into fifth, though Hamilton had used the intervening period to build up a 2.5-second cushion.
Massa made little impression on that before pitting on lap 19, but two quick laps before Hamilton’s pit stop allowed him to jump ahead of the Mercedes.
Massa fumes at penalty
The pit lane entrance at Interlagos has long been a cause for concern as drivers approach the divide between the track and the pit lane at close to top speed. For this year’s race drivers were warned more than once not to cross the triangular area before the pit entrance with all four wheels to shorten the line around the corner.
After Massa moved in front of Hamilton and Rosberg, both drivers pointed out he was not obeying the instruction. “Our drivers had been reporting that Felipe was consistently crossing the white line at pit entry with all four wheels,” confirmed team principal Ross Brawn.
“We have a message again, please watch the pit entry,” Rob Smedley warned Massa at one stage. “Please don’t cross the pit entry with all four wheels.”
Shortly afterwards came word from the stewards that Massa was being investigated, and a penalty quickly followed. “OK mate unfortunately we have a drive-through penalty for crossing the white line at the entry to the pit lane,” said Smedley. “So there you go.”
Massa, who had been on course for a strong result in his final race for Ferrari on home ground, angrily calling the decision “unbelievable” and “unacceptable”, and shook his hand in frustration when he appeared in the pits to serve his penalty on lap 34.
He continued his criticism after the race and team principal Stefano Domenicali chimed in, calling the penalty “a bit extreme and forced” and adding “I don’t think Felipe’s move gave him any advantage”.
Hamilton and Bottas tangle
While one Ferrari had slipped backwards the other was moving forwards – temporarily, at least.
Red Bull were unable to replicate Webber’s sub-two-second pit stop from the United States Grand Prix when he arrived in the pits on lap 23. Not only that, but he endured one of the slowest of the race, stationary for over five seconds, allowing Alonso to jump back ahead of him.
It didn’t last long, however – after just two laps Webber was through again, though Alonso did what he could to retaliate in the second DRS zone.
Halfway through the race Webber enjoyed a five-and-a-half second margin over the Ferrari driver. But with rain threatening Red Bull were in no hurry to make their second pit stops.
Valtteri Bottas was one of the first drivers to make his second pit stop, coming in on lap 41. On his first lap out of the pits he took over a second off Hamilton, who was directly in front of him on the track but a lap ahead.
As lap 46 began Bottas was close enough to Hamilton to be able to use DRS. Hamilton caught sight of the Williams bearing down on him on the back straight and moved off-line to cover the inside of the corner.
But as he moved back towards the racing line he hadn’t realised how quickly the Williams was bearing down on him. The pair made contact rear wheel to rear wheel, which fired Bottas off the track and out of the race, and left Hamilton limping into the pits with a puncture.
An unhappy Bottas told his team on the radio “Lewis turned into me” and the stewards evidently shared that view, as they handed Hamilton a drive-through penalty for causing a collision. “We have to take that one on the chin,” Brawn rued afterwards, “we should have kept Lewis better informed of just how quickly the Williams was closing, even though he was a lap down.”
Red Bull’s pit drama
The collision between Bottas and Hamilton had other repercussions. Red Bull, alert to the threat of the Safety Car, called both their drivers in. They were separated by 12.5 seconds at the time and the team have successfully performed stacked stops within tighter margins – as at Monza.
But on this occasion Vettel’s tyres weren’t ready in time. He’d only got the call to pit as he rounded Juncao – the last real corner before the pit lane – and in scene familiar from last year’s nail-biting championship conclusion he sat waiting for his new front-right wheel to appear.
“Arguably the team was on the limit and obviously they were preparing a stop for both cars so they had to get both set of tyres out, mine and Mark’s,” said Vettel afterwards. “I think it was just a little bit of a rush, because I think the team was afraid of a Safety Car.”
Meanwhile his team mate was bearing down on him. “I looked on the big screen and I could see that Seb was in the box, saw on the TV that he was pitting and I thought ‘I hope it’s a replay’,” said Webber.
“But it wasn’t. When I got over the top, he was in the bloody box so I thought ‘shit, we’ve got a bit on here now’.”
Vettel’s pit stop was the slowest of the race, costing him around eight seconds, and Webber also lost half as much. But this time at least he was able to leave the pits ahead of Alonso, who Ferrari brought in on the same lap.
McLaren seize the initiative
The setbacks for Massa and Hamilton played into McLaren’s hands – as did the battle between Ferrari and Mercedes for second in the constructors’ championship.
As the second pit stops approached Rosberg was edging closer to Button with Massa not far behind both of them. But when Massa and Button pitted together on lap 42 Mercedes took the prudent decision to bring Rosberg in on the next lap to keep him ahead of Massa instead of trying to jump Button.
Rosberg was happy with that call from the pit wall. “We could have cleared Jenson in the pits but it was better for us to be conservative and focus on our battle with Ferrari,” he said.
In the final stint Massa no longer had the performance edge over the Mercedes and was also unable to close on Perez. That left him a disappointed seventh at the flag – and Domenicali ruing the consequences of the drive-through penalty: “With the points he could have scored the outcome of the constructors’ championship could have been different,” he said. Ferrari ended the season six points behind Mercedes.
Behind Massa the remaining points places were filled by Nico Hulkenberg, who struggled with understeer, Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo.
Charles Pic’s demise due to suspension failure and Giedo van der Garde’s drive-through penalty for failing to heed blue flags ended Caterham’s hopes of beating Marussia to tenth in the championship, though they never looked like scoring the requisite 13th place.
Vettel’s victory, Webber’s farewell
Alonso kept Webber honest as the final stint began and the pair gradually caught Vettel at this point, reducing his lead to just over five seconds at one point. But Vettel increased the tempo long before his position at the head of the field looked like it might be in jeopardy.
Rain had threatened earlier in the race and returned again in the closing laps but never grew intense enough even for intermediate tyres to become a serious option. After the final shower abated Alonso slipped back quickly from Webber.
Vettel completed a perfect second half of the 2013 season with his ninth consecutive victory. It’s an achievement that puts him on a par with Alberto Ascari, though he played down the comparison with the only other F1 driver to do so.
Vettel’s relationship with his team mate has never been what you would call warm, but on the podium Vettel passed the spotlight onto Webber who, draped in the Australian flag, was soaking up the atmosphere having signed off from F1 with a fine podium finish.
Moments earlier he had savoured the drive back to the pits, removing his crash helmet so he could better hear the roar of his V8 engine, something else the sport will have to make do without next year.
“Obviously the marshals, the fans, to see… in this sport, it’s not always easy to show the person that’s behind the wheel,” said Webber. “We can in lots of other sports but in Formula One we’ve always got the helmet on so it was nice to drive back with the helmet off.”
“Only time you’re seen with the helmet off is on the podium if we have a good day which we did both, so nice to get it off.”
“In the last sector, I got it a little bit jammed, so I think the marshals were a little bit worried that I couldn’t turn left but in the end, no it was fine, it was a nice moment to come back, a little bit of a different touch to bring the car back.”
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