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Hamilton Wins Istanbul GP; Webber and Vettel Collide

The opening lap scrum in turn one, at Istanbul Park

Lewis Hamilton took home the gold for McLaren today in Istanbul, with team mate Jenson Button finishing as runner-up.  Mark Webber rounded out the podium, for Red Bull.  McLaren’s success at closing the gap between themselves and the thus far dominant Red Bull squad was only one of today’s story-lines, however.

The most dramatic moment of the race occurred on lap 40 when Sebastian Vettel made an ill-fated attempt to pass team mate Mark Webber for the lead of the race. Vettel was able to get a tow behind Webber, and he pulled alongside the Aussie, and then slipped by – almost. Depending on whom you ask, Webber either jinked to the left to crowd Vettel off the track, or Vettel turned in for the next corner too soon, before fully completing the pass.  What isn’t disputable is the result: Webber’s front wing slashed Vettel’s right rear tire, and sent the German spinning.

The Red Bull boys seemed to have had the race in hand up to that point.  Along with the McLarens, they were running in tight formation half a second ahead of the next cluster of cars.   They were clearly in a league of their own today, as they were gaining a second per lap on the closest follower, Michael Schumacher.

As for the Webber-Vettel dust up, it was an aggressive overtaking attempt made against an aggressive defender of position (Webber is notoriously difficult to pass).  It was bound to end in tears.  Last year, Vettel was involved in a similar dust up with Robert Kubica in Malaysia, although in that instance, as I recall, he was defending position rather than trying to pass.  In both cases, you could call it a racing incident, however it does show lack of judgment on Vettel’s part.  Ditto, Webber.  In F1, there’s no glory in making the attempt if you can’t make it stick.

I would like to have been a fly on the wall at the Red Bull post-race debrief.  Judging from the body language apparent when Vettel received hugs from Adrian Newey and Christian Horner at the pit wall, I suspect that the intra-team politics will favor Vettel. I suspect Webber senses this as well.  His demeanor in the post-race press conference was more contrite than angry.  He was clearly close to tears, and he refused to point the finger at Vettel, beyond insinuating half-heartedly that he thought the young German had made his turn-in too soon.

The cardinal rule in F1 for drivers, of course, is that you NEVER take out your team mate. The Red Bull boys, who looked very well-behaved until lap 40, suddenly reverted to novice class.  It’s the kind of racing you see in GP2.  As a result, McLaren took the lead in the constructor’s championship, which could end up being very costly if the Woking squad ends up snagging the constructor’s title by a slender margin.  The gap between first and second place in seasonal payout from F1 commercial revenue would be enough to cover the salary of at least one of the Red Bull drivers.

Christian Horner might bear that in mind when he sits down to finalize Mark Webber’s contract for next year.  The Aussie’s contract expires at the end of this season, and Horner has been dropping hints that a one-year extension to Webber’s current deal might be in the offing.  But nothing has been signed yet, and F1 contracts are nortoriously flexible even when they have been signed.

Webber performed flawlessly in the past two races, which spurred talk that he was suddenly on everyone’s shopping list in the drivers’ market. In F1, however, driver reps change like the weather, and clearly Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali and the other team bosses made mental notes of what happened on lap 40 today.  While many onlookers expected the Alonso-Massa pairing to be a volatile one, thus far the two Ferrari pilots, both of acknowledged Latin temperament, have behaved professionally when racing each other in close quarters.

The McLaren and Red Bull stories clearly overshadowed the rest of the action at Istanbul Park today.  Today’s best-of-the-rest honors went to Mercedes.  Michael Schumacher got a jump on Jenson Button at the start, but wasn’t able to capitalize on his gain, as Button, in a clearly superior car, took the place back very quickly.  From that point, Schumi held on to his fifth place position for the remainder of the race until Vettel dropped out, at which point Schumi inherited fourth.

Although team mate Nico Rosberg claimed he was quicker than Schumacher for most of the race, he was never able to pass him, either on track or as a result of pit stops.  In the early stages of the race, Schumacher opened a gap on the younger German, but in the late stages Rosberg closed it up again.  It could be that Schumacher was cruising at that point, to preserve fuel, tires and the powerplant.

Under the current long-life engine regulations, there’s little benefit in pushing your engine to the limit without a tangible points gain as an incentive.  While Rosberg (and Kubica, Massa and Alonso behind him) might have been justified in pushing to catch Schumacher, Schumi had little incentive to try and catch Button up ahead, as the McLarens simply had too much pace.

Robert Kubica in the Renault once again acquitted himself well, coming in sixth.  While I suspect that he flatters the Renault somewhat, it’s also true that the Renault has made great strides this year, which is borne out by the Vitaly Petrov’s performance in the sister car.  Petrov might have finished eighth had Fernando Alonso not punctured the Russian’s front left during a prolonged duel between the two.  Petrov has shown once again that he’s not afraid to mix it up with anyone, and it’s a shame that the incident pushed him back to 15th, one lap down from the leaders.

And while Renault is making its way forward, Ferrari seems to be stuck in reverse.  At the beginning of the year, the relative performance of the teams seem to be parsed into three distinct tiers, with Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes at the top; Force India, Sauber, Renault, Toro Rosso and Williams in the middle; and all the newbie teams at the bottom.

This seems to be shifting a bit, however, with smaller performance clusters emerging.  Red Bull and McLaren are now in an approximate parity at the top, followed at a good distance by Mercedes.  Behind Mercedes (but only just) are Renault and Ferrari, the latter two at this juncture seeming to be pretty closely matched – something which Fernando Alonso must view rather ironically, considering how moribund Renault was last year when he was still on the team.

Of the mid-field drivers, Force India’s Adrian Sutil continues to impress.  He consistently outperforms his team mate, Tonio Liuzzi, by a country mile, and one suspects that Mercedes GP might have them on their short list for Michael Schumacher’s replacement whenever Schumi fixes a date for his next retirement.

At least half of the race was run under a threat of rain, but only a few drops appeared, and they were barely visible.  At no time did any of the teams consider switching to intermediate tires.  I’m sure the fans would have enjoyed a brief shower, if only to mix things up a bit.  That said, the race was nowhere near the sort of dull procession that the season opener in Bahrain proved to be.  There was plenty of close racing throughout the race.

Image by f1photos.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

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