BUDAPEST // By the 14th of its 70 laps, yesterday's Hungarian Grand Prix appeared settled. Cleanly away from pole position, Sebastian Vettel had been extending his advantage by almost one second per lap and the result appeared to be a done deal.
But then Vitantonio Liuzzi, the Force India driver, lost part of his front wing, which came to rest in the middle of the track at Turn 11. The safety car was scrambled, and as a consequence so was the race. Vettel was just starting a new lap at the time: his radio was not working properly, but he spotted a safety car board and scrambled over the kerbs to come in for his mandatory tyre stop - an entirely logical strategy, and one almost the whole field followed.
The main exception was Mark Webber, who had been beaten away from the front row by Vettel and Fernando Alonso's fast-starting Ferrari. His best chance of getting ahead of the Spaniard, he felt, was to stay out on the track and use the Red Bull's superior performance to build enough of a lead to make a later pit stop without ceding position. He did not figure that it might win him the race. The circuit was swiftly cleared and the race resumed at the end of lap 16. Vettel, who was second on the road, was caught napping, however.
"I didn't see the lights on the safety car go out," he said, "and with my radio not working properly I hadn't heard any message. I honestly thought we had to do another lap behind the safety car." Webber was thus able to restart unchallenged - and, still running on his original super-soft tyres, was able to stretch away. Vettel's medium-compound Bridgestones had yet to reach peak operating temperature and, more significantly, he had dropped more than 10 lengths behind Webber just before the restart.
Cars are supposed to remain bunched together, to prevent teams using one car to delay a rival for strategic reasons: given the competitive edge that exists between them, Vettel would be the last person to bestow Webber with gifts, but his failure to follow protocol led to the imposition of a drive-through penalty, which he served on lap 31. That shuffled Alonso up to second, although he was now in a reversed Red Bull sandwich.
Webber's pace during the middle part of the race was simply sensational. Teams had anticipated that the super-soft tyre might last for about 30 laps, but Webber stayed out for 43. "The front left tyre was pretty much finished by then," the Australian said. "I knew I needed to build up a lead of about 20 seconds, but I was aiming for a bit more to reduce the pressure on the guys during the pit stop."
When he peeled in he was 23.7 seconds to the good and his fourth victory of the year was secure. With Lewis Hamilton retiring early, following a gearbox failure in his McLaren-Mercedes, the Australian has also reclaimed the world championship lead by four points, with seven races of this unpredictable season still to go. Vettel shadowed Alonso for the final 30 laps, but the Ferrari's superior straight-line speed kept it out of reach on the run down to Turn One, the only real overtaking opportunity, and he had to be content with third.
"I'm obviously disappointed," said Vettel. "Last week at Hockenheim, one team [Ferrari] clearly breached a rules but received a penalty that didn't affect the result. "Today I made a small mistake and it cost me a race I should have won." Felipe Massa (Ferrari) was a lonely fourth, ahead of Vitaly Petrov (Renault) and Nico Hülkenberg (Williams), both of whom scored the best results of their fledgling Formula One careers.
Jenson Button, the world champion, was an undistinguished eighth in the surviving McLaren, sandwiched between the Saubers of Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi. It was a particularly good drive by the Japanese, who started 23rd after picking up a five-place grid penalty for missing a mandatory weight check during qualifying. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org