VALENCIA // Sebastian Vettel brushed wheels with Lewis Hamilton during the opening seconds of yesterday's European Grand Prix, but that was the only time anybody got close. The German was in a league of his own for most of the afternoon as he notched Red Bull-Renault's fourth Formula One victory of the season. Problems? They were for other people - and they were manifold.
Vettel made a decent start from pole position to lead Hamilton and the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, but Mark Webber was slow away from the grid in the second Red Bull. The Australian dropped from second to fifth within the space of two corners - and lost another four places before the lap was out. After that disastrous start, Webber peeled into the pits on lap seven to change tyres - a switch of tactics that was worth a risk, given the circumstances.
He came out almost at the tail of the field, down among this year's new teams and right behind Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus-Cosworth. As he and Webber approached Turn 12 for the ninth time, the Finn stuck to the centre of the road as the Australian looked for a way through. Webber's car rode up over Kovalainen's right rear wheel and the car somersaulted once before landing the right way up and continuing into the tyre wall at barely abated speed. He swiftly unclipped his belts, however, and strolled away, his title hopes less seriously damaged than his car, but dented nonetheless. Kovalainen spun left into the retaining wall and his race, too, was run.
The safety car was promptly scrambled - and its emergence conditioned much of what followed. Robert Kubica, in fifth place, and most of the following drivers headed straight for the pits to make their mandatory tyre changes while the race was neutralised, but Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso and Massa carried on. The safety car joined the track just as Hamilton reached the pit exit: the McLaren driver hesitated for a second, then overtook it while the two Ferraris slowed up and tucked in behind.
Hamilton would later be given a drive-through penalty for this misdemeanour, but he had an unlikely saviour: BMW Sauber opted not to pit Kamui Kobayashi during the flurry of tyre stops, a decision that promoted the Japanese driver to an unlikely third place on the road, ahead of Jenson Button's McLaren. When the race resumed at the end of lap 14, Vettel and Hamilton swiftly dropped Kobayashi and were soon far enough ahead for the Englishman to be able to serve his penalty, on lap 27, without losing a position. He resumed 14 seconds in arrears and spent the balance of the race chipping away at the German's lead, but Vettel was always in control.
"Once I knew about Lewis's penalty I just concentrated on conserving the car and bringing it home in one piece," Vettel said. "I flat-spotted a tyre shortly after the restart, which gave me a bit of a vibration, but it wasn't too bad and it just feels nice to win again." Kobayashi frustrated Button until the 53rd of 57 laps before finally making his tyre stop, which dropped him to ninth. But the cocktail of fresh Bridgestone tyres and low fuel gave him a significant performance edge and during the final two laps he rattled past Alonso and Sebastien Buemi to take seventh place, behind Rubens Barrichello (who capitalised on a swift tyre stop to record Williams-Toyota's best result of the campaign), Kubica and Adrian Sutil.
Post-race, the race stewards gave five-second penalties to 10 drivers for driving too fast behind the safety car. As a consequence Buemi and Pedro de la Rosa, the BMW-Sauber driver, both lost positions. Buemi losing eighth to Alonso, and de la Rosa gave up 10th to Nico Rosberg's Mercedes GP. @Email:email@example.com