With a back drop of cloudless skies (something that was not assured as the weekend began) and empty grandstands that gave little hope of Formula One making a return to the country next year, expectations were of an entertaining race but no-one expected it to deliver one of the most exciting in the history of the sport.
While Vettel maintained Red Bull’s dominant start to the year, there was overtaking a plenty all the way through the field. Yes the DRS system still needs a little work on as the majority of passing was a little too easy but in the main, this was a motor race to savour.
At the lights, Vettel made the cleanest getaway of his year so far and easily led into Turn 1. Also starting on the clean side of the track in third, Nico Rosberg was past Mark Webber into second place while Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso got the jump on the Australian too. Now on the gearbox of the Red Bull ahead, Lewis Hamilton made a move into Turn 3 but was a little too late on the brakes, got off line and allowed Massa and McLaren team mate Jenson Button ahead.
With the DRS system not applicable for the first two laps of the race, drivers were mindful of the fact that patience was the order of the day and as a result, the opening lap was largely contact-free, Sauber’s Sergio Perez being the only exception and had to pit for a new front wing after a minor collision further back down the field.
Lap 2 and Vettel was already starting to pull away to lead Rosberg by 1.2 seconds with Alonso, Webber, Felipe Massa, Button and Hamilton chasing hard heading into the first turn. Up the hill and through turns 5,6 and 7, a frustrated Hamilton sought a way through before settling on a crazy attempt heading into the daunting Turn 8. Determined to hold his ground, Button slammed the door firmly shut while further back, Michael Schumacher and Renault’s Vitaly Petrov weren’t quite as professional.
Under braking for the hairpin, the German moved left to defend but the Russian was unflinching in his determination to pass and the two made contact with the Mercedes damaging it’s front wing on the right rear tyre of the Renault, necessitating a pit stop to repair the damage and dropping down the field. It was unnecessary for the German to place his car in the position he did and one had to wonder if the old ‘race-savvy’ Michael would have acted differently.
“The incident with Petrov kind of dictated my race,” Michael declared afterwards. “We were very close and I was surprised that we touched but it was mostly my mistake.”
In the midst of the battle in front of him, Massa squeezed through and was now up into seventh, ahead of Petrov while next time by, Hamilton tried to pass Button once more on the outside of Turn 12 but was still unable to pull off the move.
Since first practice on Friday, Barrichello was driving with a renewed sense of purpose in a Williams that finally appeared to be more to his liking. This was admirably demonstrated as the Brazilian forced his way past Heidfeld for ninth under braking for the first turn while behind them, Adrian Sutil was up to 11th with Force India team-mate Paul di Resta in 12th, with the Toro Rosso of Buemi 13th.
Into the sixth lap and now Webber was on a charge, keen to re-establish a Red Bull one-two at the front. Into the slipstream out of the Turn 9 and 10 chicane, the Australian deployed his DRS and breezed past the Mercedes of Rosberg as if he were standing still. While the move to using the new-for-2011 device has undoubtedly added to the race action, when drivers are able to overtake this easily, it becomes a little artificial and unquestionably, the system needs tweaking further still.
Two laps later and while Vettel’s lead at the front was up to 4.4s, the McLarens were really at it. Opting to tail his team mate out of Turn 8 and into the DRS activation zone, Hamilton was soon alongside Button heading into the Turn 12 hairpin. Now ahead but offline, the two former world champions took their charge onto the start-finish straight as Hamilton got too much wheel spin out of the final turn and in doing so, gave Button enough to get alongside and back in front under braking for the first turn.
This overtaking disease was now catching fast as Heidfeld re-passed Barrichello for ninth and a DRS-assisted Alonso flies past Rosberg and takes third in the process while at the back, a recovering Schumacher passed Hispania’s Narain Karthikeyan for 21st.
Mirroring last year’s near-miss, Hamilton eventually dived ahead of Button into Turn 1 and immediately opened the gap and set off after Rosberg’s Mercedes while Massa – who had caught up the McLaren pair during their intense battle, began to seek a way past Button which he managed to do a lap later.
"I got a pretty decent start,” Hamilton said. “But I made a mistake on the opening lap and lost a lot of ground out of Turn 3 when I was trying to go around Webber and the battle with Jenson was good and fair, as always.”
His tyres now ruined, Petrov was the first of the front runners to stop on lap 9 with Massa and Hamilton next in a lap later. Having seen the Ferrari overtake him into the hairpin, Hamilton no doubt raised a wry smile after seeing the Brazilian drop back once more as they raced to the pit lane exit.
Driving like a man possessed, Kobayashi - having started dead last, was now up to 13th while Webber, Alonso and Rosberg all piled into the pits, soon followed by the trio of Heidfeld, Barrichello and Sutil.
Lap 12 and race leader Vettel was in for his first stop, thereby promoting a three-stopping Button into the lead momentarily. Next time by the Brit was only a second ahead of Vettel with Webber third and Alonso fourth before pitting for new rubber two laps later.
While Barrichello was busy putting a forceful move on his nemesis Schumacher into Turn 1, at the hairpin, Hamilton was passing Rosberg for fifth while Vettel continued to pull away and Alonso began to keep Webber honest by matching the Red Bull for lap times over the next few laps.
The battle for sixth intensified as Massa continued to chase Rosberg’s Mercedes before getting a good run on the German exiting Turn 8 and sending down his Ferrari under braking for the following chicane. Not to be undone by the Brazilian’s pass, Rosberg was immediately on the throttle and now with the benefit of his DRS system, managed to re-pass the Ferrari into Turn 12.
So much overtaking already and we were still not even at half distance…
The battle ahead resulted in Button closing the gap in seventh while Hamilton pitted the other McLaren – having clearly spent the best of his tyres.
Two laps later and still the Massa/Rosberg/Button duel wasn’t over with the Ferrari passing the Mercedes into Turn 12 and Button pulling an impressive pass on the outside to slot in behind Massa. Rosberg was soon into the pits though leaving Button to pass Massa a few laps later before both drivers stopping a second time.
Alonso continued to slowly close the gap and by lap 30, was close enough to make a move into the regular overtaking zone at Turn 12.
Lap 35 and with it came Hamilton’s second pit stop. What should have taken around under 4 seconds took over 6 as the right front wheel nut cross-threaded before the Englishman was on his way again, wheel spinning his McLaren in frustration; only to emerge behind his team mate once more.
Back at the front, Alonso was in on lap 37, covering Webber who had pitted a lap earlier with both now on the hard tyres with the Ferrari jumping ahead of the Red Bull in the process.
Also on a charge now, Rosberg – who had already run the harder tyres earlier and was now on soft rubber, was quickly ahead of Barrichello for seventh and looking strong for another points finish.
Now realising that his three-stop strategy was a mistake, Button pitted two laps later and was now being asked to ensure his tyres would last 18 laps – a mammoth task, even for one with Jenson’s silky-smooth style.
Having pitted for the third time on the 40th tour, Vettel’s lead on lap 43 was up to 7.1s with Alonso and Webber trying to work out if they should try to go the distance or pit for new rubber.
Reliability of contemporary grand prix cars has impressed in 2011 and Sunday was no different as Paul di Resta became the second mechanical retirement on lap 46, Timo Glock’s Marussia Virgin being the first to falter after failing to take the start.
“When I was leaving the pits after my final stop, the team came on the radio and instructed me to stop,” confirmed the Scottish rookie. “There was obviously a problem so I pulled up as soon as I could. It was unfortunate because the final part of the race would have been interesting on the fresh tyres."
Meantime, Alonso was in for his stop, comfortably resuming in second, ahead of Webber in third while a lap later, Rosberg's fresh rubber was beginning to pay dividends as he passed Massa at Turn 12.
Covering his nearest challengers, race leader Vettel decided not to gamble and came in for a fresh set of rubber and a fourth stop on lap 48, ready to maintain the gap on the run to the chequered flag.
Hamilton, now on fresher rubber and clearly quicker, received no competition from Button on lap 51 as he went by under braking for the hairpin and into fourth place. Now aware of Button’s plight, Rosberg was given the message to push on the radio while the battle for second became just as intense with Webber all over the gearbox of Alonso.
At this point, everywhere you looked there was action with Schumacher versus Massa for 12th, and Barrichello versus a chasing Sutil for 14th.
Webber was still on a charge and made a move on Alonso at the braking zone for Turn 12 and despite the Spaniard fighting his Australian rival every inch of the way, Webber was quickly ahead. It was firm but fair, with both men giving each other plenty of space. This was racing at it’s very best and a delight to observe.
“It was a good fight,” Webber confirmed. “Both of us used the DRS to get the moves done, so that was part of it, but the tyres play a huge role. In the end I had a fresher set of tyres from qualifying and got the job done on Fernando.”
The overtaking addiction was still prevalent through the field with Massa making a phenomenal late breaking pass on Schumacher into Turn 12, but Schumacher completed the switchback in Turn 13 to retake 12th. Schumacher then made a great move on Alguersuari at Turn 13 on the next lap to take over 11th, but almost immediately Massa sensed an opportunity and passed both of them as they squabbled amongst themselves.
As the flag fell, Vettel did his usual side-to-side car shake to take the applause from his team who were hanging over the pit wall and the German was delighted that his Friday crash in free practice had been forgotten.
“Throughout the race I had this cushion and we were able to react rather than act, so I’m very pleased,” a beaming Vettel declared. “This one is for the guys, as I wrecked the car on Friday, but they got it back together and everyone played his role. Not only my mechanics, also Mark's mechanics helped a lot to fix the car and get ready for Saturday. I have to say, when I walked in on Saturday morning every little worry was gone immediately, as the mechanics gave me the impression that nothing happened, nothing is wrong and we will continue as usual. It was a very good race and I am obviously very, very happy.”
A content Webber was third in the second Red Bull with Alonso a content third.
“The guys did a great job all weekend, maximum result for the team, so we can't do much more than that as a team,” Webber confirmed. “Yeah, wasn't a bad car race, I think. I'll have a look at it on telly and see what it's like.”
“I am very, very happy with the result but this is only the first step,” Alonso added. “We want to win races and first we need to be on the podium as we were today and now we need to keep moving forward.
Fourth was the recovering Hamilton with fifth going to Rosberg who had breezed past the ailing Button on lap 56 who finished a disappointing sixth.
"It's a pity to finish so far back after everything in the first stint seemed to go so well,” a disconsolate Button said. “Strategy-wise, I don't think we got it right today. My battle with Lewis was great fun and there was a lot of excitement on the track, but I was disappointed to finish where I did: the car felt very good but we just went the wrong way on strategy.”
Heidfeld was a disgruntled seventh for Renault – having been hit by his eighth-place finishing team mate Petrov earlier in the race.
Buemi finished an impressive ninth but unquestionably, the driver of the day was Kobayashi whose bravery seemingly knows no bounds after a sterling drive from 24th to 10th and a single point.
Eleventh went to Massa while another lackluster performance in 12th from Schumacher will not have gone down well with the bosses at Mercedes. Force India’s Adrian Sutil was 13th, Sergio Perez 14th in the second Sauber, Barrichello a disappointed 15th and Jaime Alguersuari 16th for Toro Rosso.
Pastor Maldonado was 17th for Williams, ahead of the Team Lotuses of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen and the Marussia Virgin of Jerome d'Ambrosio and the Hispania pairing of Narain Karthikeyan and Vitantonio Liuzzi.
The Formula 1 circus now heads to the land of Alonso-mania and the passionate Spanish faithful will no doubt embrace the performance of their Ferrai-powered hero in Istanbul. Can it continue once the drivers hit the track in Barcelona in two weeks time and will it be enough to help the former double world champion to a home victory?
Not if Sebastian Vettel has anything to do with it.