Red Bull, McLaren, McLaren, Mercedes
, Ferrari... a quick glance at the qualifying sheets from Saturday may have revealed few surprises. After all, Sebastian Vettel sat on pole position – the same place he's been every race so far this season and most of the last as well. But finding his wingman – who's usually just a step behind at most – sent the observer scrolling way down the list to 18th place. The Australian was saddled with KERS trouble and poor tire strategy during the first of the three qualifying sessions and never made it to the next round.
Meanwhile Lewis Hamilton opted, in his words, to save the car for the race rather than push it in the third qualifying session. So his team-mate Jenson Button qualified second behind Vettel, Nico Rosberg placed his Mercedes impressively in fourth place, Alonso and Massa seizing fifth and sixth for Ferrari. Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari admirably qualified seventh, his wingman Sebastien Buemi in ninth to sandwich Force India's rookie Paul di Resta solidly in eighth, with Renault
's Vitaly Petrov rounding out the top ten. Adrian Sutil (Force India), Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), Michael Schumacher (suffering from further DRS rear wing issues on his Mercedes), Rubens Barrichello (Williams), Nick Heidfeld (Renault), Pastor Maldonado (Williams), Webber, Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli (Lotus
), Jerome d'Ambrosio and Timo Glock (Virgin), and Tonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan (HRT) rounded out the grid.
Hamilton's strategy almost came to naught as technical issues put the McLaren mechanics into overtime, finally getting his car up and running just in time for the race start. And what a start it was, as both he and his wingman in front of him passed Vettel, who unfortunately veered right in a failed attempt to block the approach, to take first and second. Rosberg quite nearly made it past his fellow German as well, but Vettel managed to fend him off to hold on to third. Meanwhile Massa squeezed by his teammate to take fifth place as both Schumacher and Webber proceeded to scythe their way through the midfield over the course of the opening laps.
Button now lead the field ahead of his team-mate Hamilton, Vettel following in third, Rosberg in fourth, Massa and Alonso in fifth and sixth, di Resta in seventh, Sutil eighth, Schumacher ninth and Alguersuari tenth. Kobayashi, Petrov, Buemi, Heidfeld, Barrichello, Perez, Webber, Kovalainen, Trulli, Maldonado, Liuzzi, Glock, d'Ambrosio and Karthikeyan followed.
The subsequent laps held little action, Petrov moving past both Kobayashi and Alguersuari for eleventh position, Buemi closing in right behind, as Hamilton and Button traded fastest laps one after the other. Alguersuari made the first pit stop on lap 10, but the Toro Rosso pit crew apparently failed to properly secure the right-rear wheel which subsequently came off on the track, forcing him out of the race in what would, remarkably, be the only retirement of the day.
The ascendant Schumacher and Webber made their pit stops next, while up front they ran in packs: Button, Hamilton and Vettel in close proximity in positions 1, 2 and 3, Rosberg, Massa and Alonso further adrift from the front but close to each other in positions 4, 5 and 6. Rosberg then entered pit lane from fourth place only to re-emerge in tenth, soon after passing Heidfeld for ninth. But all eyes were up at the front as Vettel passed Hamilton, only for Vettel and Button – now running first and second – to head into the pits. Button accidentally went into the Red Bull pit box but quickly advanced to McLaren's just in front, but Vettel emerged ahead out of the pit lane to rejoin in eighth place to Button's ninth.
Next in were Hamilton and Massa, who were now running first and second, re-emerging ninth and seventh, respectively, as the Ferrari pit crew also got the better of McLaren's. Both drivers then passed Heidfeld to further advance, as Alonso pitted from the lead to rejoin in ninth place. Meanwhile Renault's fortunes were further trounced as Vettel took second from Petrov, who then went into the pits, followed by both Schumacher and Alonso who came from opposite sides to overtake Heidfeld, who likewise followed into the pits only to rejoin way down in sixteenth place.
With everyone but a few backmarkers having made their first pit stop by lap 19, it was Nico Rosberg who surprisingly emerged in the lead. Vettel ran second, followed by Button (third), Massa (fourth), Hamilton (fifth), Schumacher (sixth), Alonso (seventh), di Resta (eighth), Sutil (ninth) and Kobayashi (tenth). Webber led the rest of the pack: Petrov, Perez, Heidfeld, Trulli, Kovalainen, Barrichello, Maldonado, d'Ambrosio, Buemi, Karthikeyan, Glock and Liuzzi.
The subsequent laps saw heated action between longtime rivals Schumacher and Alonso in sixth and seventh places respectively, as the two-time champion stayed glued to the seven-time champion's tail lap after lap. It would take until lap 26 before the Spaniard would get past the German. By that point Button had stopped a second time, dropping from fifth to seventh, and Rosberg pitted from the lead to rejoin in fifth place. Webber and Schumacher followed for fresh rubber as well.
Lap 29 and 30 saw both Rosberg and Button pass Alonso for third and fourth places, with Vettel soon to pit from the lead and rejoin in sixth place. When Alonso made his second stop on lap 33, he fell from fifth to tenth place, followed by his team-mate Massa who was running in the lead but dropped post-pit to fifth, drifting over the line on exit from pit lane.
By the time the second round of stops was done, 34 laps out of 56 total were completed, and Rosberg was again running in the lead. Button followed second, Hamilton third, Vettel fourth, Massa fifth, Schumacher sixth, Webber seventh, Petrov eighth, Alonso ninth and Perez tenth. Barrichello, di Resta, Kobayashi, Sutil, Heidfeld, Kovalainen, Maldonado, Buemi, Trulli, d'Ambrosio, Glock, Karthikeyan and Liuzzi followed.
With less than a second between them lap after lap, Hamilton finally closed in and overtook Button for second place in a hard-fought battle that nearly took them both out of the race. Alonso then overtook Petrov (who had still only stopped once) for eighth and Button started it all over again with his third stop on lap 37, leaving third place to rejoin fifth. Hamilton soon followed suit to leave second for fourth, but not before Webber overtook Schumacher for sixth place.
Rosberg was the next to pit, once again from the lead, rejoining third as Hamilton closed in right behind. A close fight followed for several laps, but Hamilton finally squeezed by on lap 42. Further adrift Heidfeld, Petrov and Perez were running in close formation, leading to the latter rookie Sauber driver to hit the back of Petrov's car only to bust the right side of his front wing. Perez was then faulted with running into Sutil and getting a drive-through penalty. Meanwhile up near the front it was Massa, Button and Rosberg fighting for third, McLaren's Brit finally getting past Ferrari's Brazilian on lap 50, followed by Rosberg's move on Massa to force him off the track heading down the front straight.
With Vettel now in the lead but running on two stops, Hamilton – on fresher tires after his third – overtook for the lead. Meanwhile Webber, who astonishingly fight his way up from 18th place on the grid, passed Rosberg for fourth and then Button for third to land incredibly on the podium.
Across the line it was Hamilton who took the checkered flag, followed by Vettel and Webber in a Red Bull two-three finish. Button emerged fourth, Rosberg fifth, Massa sixth, Alonso seventh, Schumacher eighth, Petrov ninth and Kobayashi tenth. Di Resta, Heidfeld, Barrichello, Buemi, Sutil, Kovalainen, Perez, Maldonado, Trulli, d'Ambrosio, Glock, Liuzzi and Karthikeyan all finished outside the points.
The results still see Vettel and Red Bull at the top of both championship standings, followed by Hamilton and McLaren. Button and Webber stand third and fourth respectively, Alonso and Massa fifth and sixth to land Ferrari third in the constructors' standings. Join us again for the fourth round in Turkey the weekend of May 6-8.