When the grid lined up at the Autódromo José Carlos Pace in Brazil there were just 71 laps, almost 306 kilometers, until the end of the 2013 season. Sometimes the circuit in Interlagos is deciding a Championship winner or showcasing new talent, and sometimes it's merely deciding a winner. This year was the latter.
2013 World Champion Sebastian Vettel in the first Infiniti Red Bull Racing lined up in front of Nico Rosberg in the first Mercedes-AMG Petronas, Fernando Alonso in the first Ferrari, Mark Webber in the second Red Bull and his final Formula One race, Lewis Hamilton in the second Mercedes, Romain Grosjean in the Lotus, Daniel Ricciardo in the first Toro Rosso and his final race for the team before moving to Red Bull, his teammate Jean-Éric Vergne, Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari and Nico Hülkenberg in the Sauber.
There were numerous theories about what surprises might occur, with race day being the first dry running of the weekend and rain predicted to fall at some point during the running. The first surprise came when the lights went out and Vettel, the consummate starter, got beat to the first corner.
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And that was almost it for surprises. Vettel suffered wheelspin just after his launch and Rosberg got by him into the first corner. Vettel retook the lead after the pair crossed the line at the end of the first lap, and that was the race. Vettel's only incidents came in a couple of lockups during the race, and when he came into the pits before the team was ready for him and he endured a lengthy stop. Otherwise he maintained his lead and finished an easy 11 seconds ahead of second place.
That went to Webber, who got off to his final poor start in F1, falling behind Lewis Hamilton and into fifth. He passed Hamilton, Alonso and Rosberg by lap 14 and wasn't troubled for second place until his pit stop on Lap 24, when a slow stop saw Alonso get past. Webber would repass him on Lap 26 and hold onto the position until the end.
The only other exciting drives came from the McLaren duo of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez, the Mexican on his last go-round as a McLaren driver. Button started 15th, Perez qualified 14th but a gearbox change after a crash in qualifying dropped him down to 19th. Through a combination of passing and strategy, they would cut through the field, Button finishing fourth and Perez finishing sixth. Button's final position was the best McLaren has done all year.
Beyond that, the action was as dry as the sky. The rain never came, and by Lap 27 the race was almost chiseled in granite. The order on that lap was Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Massa, Hamilton, Button, Rosberg, Perez, Hulkenberg and Ricciardo. That was just over one-third of the way into the race.
The order at the finish was Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Button, Rosberg, Perez, Massa, Hulkenberg, Hamilton and Ricciardo. The two drivers who swapped positions, Massa and Hamilton, did so because of drive-through penalties. An irate Massa was called in for crossing the hatched white lines at the pit entry with all four wheels after being warned about it. Hamilton was called in for causing an accident with Valtteri Bottas, when the Mercedes man didn't notice the Williams had pulled alongside to pass and he drifted to the right and into the Williams. Bottas, for his part, didn't realize he wasn't racing Hamilton since he was a lap down, and he was spun out of the race with a destroyed left rear wheel. Hamilton popped his right rear tire and damaged his floor but made it back to the pits for a new set of wheels.
Vettel's win gives him 13 for the season, matching the record set by Michael Schumacher, and nine in a row, matching the record set by Alberto Ascari – although Ascari's came over two, much shorter seasons. Vettel was in the lead for more than 90 percent of the laps raced during the latter half of the season. For all that, it's incredible that Vettel gets nothing like the respect he deserves (from this writer included) – he's like the Nissan GT-R of drivers: awesome performance and a core group of fans, but the at-large response is mostly shrugs, apathy and suspicion.
When Schumacher won his 13 races during the 2004 season, he was going up against teams at their nadirs and a bunch of dogs masquerading as F1 cars: BMW Williams, West McLaren Mercedes, Mild Seven Renault, Lucky Strike BAR Honda, Sauber Petronas, Jaguar Racing, Panasonic Toyota, Jordan Ford, Mindardi Cosworth. Schumacher finished 34 points ahead of his Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button finished in third, 63 points behind – and this was back when there were only ten points given for first place and eight for second. That's no knock on Schumacher, but one could argue that Vettel and Red Bull have had tougher competition.
People can say it's the Red Bull that's made Vettel what he is, but no one said the Ferrari made Schumacher. On top of that, if it's the car that's the star, then that must mean Mark Webber is a far worse driver than anyone would want to admit.
And that's how the V8 era came to an end. Next year there will be turbocharged V6s with larger KERS. There'll be no more Mark Webber. Rookie Kevin Magnussen (son of Corvette driver Jan Magnussen) will be at McLaren, while Sergio Perez is rumored to be headed to Force India. Paul di Resta is said to be leaving F1 for IndyCar, while Hülkenberg is either staying with Sauber or going to Lotus or Force India. Pastor Maldonado will be taking his sponsorship money somewhere, but we don't know where yet, and his Williams seat will get filled by Felipe Massa. Two Russians will join the field in Daniil Kyvat at Toro Rosso and Sergey Sirtokin at Sauber. Williams gets Mercedes engines, Marussia gets Ferrari. Oh, and Marussia beat Caterham for tenth place in the Constructor's Championship.
The whole caboodle gets turned over for next year. We'll see you then.