Sebastian arrived in China on the back of two wins and two pole positions and a world championship defence that was looking almost easy. Seb, or course, discourages that sort of talk:
“We’ve obviously had two good races but we come here and we start again. That’s the name of the game at every event. We saw at the last race that it’s getting very tight and you can take nothing for granted. Of course, the day will come when we might finish second, fifth, tenth, but that’s life. That’s Formula One.”
Seb began China where he left off in Malaysia, setting cracking times to lead both free practice sessions on Friday.
“I’m enjoying it and the car’s enjoying it. Obviously it’s Friday, I think we had a good day and, yeah, we found a good rhythm. We’re happy with the car. Obviously there is still a lot to do and I think it will be tight tomorrow and Sunday. We’ll see what we can do to improve, but for today we had no problems, no issues and it’s a good sign so far.”
He was asked: ‘What does your car says to you?’
He said: “It says… 'hello?'”
He continued on Saturday, still top of the time sheets after FP3, and then with a stunning lap that was a massive 0.7s ahead of the field in Qualifying.
“This morning was smooth, so compared to last weekend it was better preparation for quali. In quali I was reasonably happy, as happy as I can be, with Q1 and Q2. Then going into Q3 we were able to get even more out of the car again and I was very happy with the lap I did.
“Tomorrow it all starts again from zero but people tend to forget that. I am very happy with the team at this stage, the way we all remain focussed. I think we did a very good job today. We are happy, but tomorrow is a new day and we’re looking forward to that.”
The race didn’t start so well. Seb was beaten off the line by Jenson Button, and also lost out in turn one to Lewis Hamilton
“My initial launch was not 100%. I probably had problems to really get going; you feel that inside the car. It’s hard to wait then, and I was probably a bit too aggressive later on. You can’t use Kers straight away, you have to wait until you reach 100kph, so I saw that I immediately lost a position to Jenson, which wasn’t nice and then had Lewis behind. I tried to defend hard into turn one, but at some point you have to give up and let the guy go. The fight with him today was very fair; it was quite entertaining and good fun too.”
From there it was a case of staying with the McLarens in the opening exchanges. In an effort to regain the advantage the team switched him to a two-stop strategy
“If we could have stayed ahead at the start I think the race could have been different. We would probably have been able to pull a gap and then react to the people behind, too, and then maybe it would have been a bit more clear whether to do two or three stops.”
Vettel managed to pass Hamilton as the latter’s tyres wore badly, and then immediately followed Button into the pits. Literally followed him, as Button decided to stop in the Red Bull box instead of his own.
“I just got past Lewis on the back straight and came in to pit and thought “what’s going on?”, because Jenson pulled over and into my slot. I was just hoping the front jack man would react and signal him to keep going. It’s not easy for the guys to have the rhythm interrupted like that. Imagine if they’ve changed the tyres? Then it’s a big mess and I have to go one spot further to McLaren and ask them: ‘hello’! If I would have come in at the same time with Lewis and if he was supposed to get his new set it would have been nice, but that way, no way.”
The mix-up allowed Seb to get ahead. Nico Rosberg led on the road, but Vettel was de facto the man to catch.
The two-stopper looked like paying dividends with Seb still leading into the last quarter of the race, but the fresher tyres of the three-stopping Hamilton, Button and Rosberg began to reel him in. Vettel began to defend against Hamilton, but eventually yielded the position. He didn’t lose too much time and was able – just – to stay ahead of the charging Webber.
“You’re waiting to turn the car around, waiting to get the power on when you haven’t got much rubber left on the tyres. It was quite a nice fight with Lewis, twice down the long straight I was able to just stay ahead but I saw that there were seven laps to go so not much that I could do. To be honest I was quite surprised by his move into turn seven. I think he did very well there and surprised me. Congratulations to them. I think we have given it our best and I don’t see second today as a disappointment.”
While there were questions from some about the two-stop strategy, Vettel was philosophical about it.
“I think there is a very important lesson to be learnt today. The strategy that I picked was not the one that was meant to be the best but these things happen. You never know until you cross the line. If the race is a little bit shorter, if the tyres are holding – and we’re talking only an extra two laps each stint – then it could be different. But in the end I was struggling a lot.”
It means F1 comes home (nearly) with Vettel leading the championship and setting up the European season perfectly:
“McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes are obviously not as happy as they want to be. They are pushing very hard, so to stay where we are we have to push harder. Since halfway through 2009 we have had a very, very competitive car and we enjoy running at the front but we still haven’t forgotten how it feels to run at the back. That’s Formula One; it’s competitive. Sometimes you might be in a comfortable situation, other times it will be very tight and other times you will be behind but then again, there are so many races left and so many things can happen. I’m happy as I can be at this stage but I can’t predict the future.”