German GP: Sebastian Vettel is the one constant in F1
Sebastian Vettel just keeps on filling in those gaps in his CV - what few there remain.
Until Sunday's German Grand Prix, Red Bull's three-time world champion had neither won his home Formula 1 race nor one in July. Now both those anomalies in a record already amazingly complete have been erased. It was, Vettel said, "a great relief".
victory at the Nurburgring,
the spiritual home of German motorsport, was far from his most dominant, but that did not make it any less impressive.
He led from the start - passing Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes off the line - and, barring the fluctuations of race strategy on a
day of tension and uncertainty,
Vettel always stayed in control.
Vettel, who celebrated his 26th birthday on Wednesday, also won despite not having the fastest car - he was under pressure throughout, and bore it superbly.
Vettel's victorious season
It initially came from team-mate Mark Webber, whose challenge was removed when a pit-stop problem
led to a rear wheel coming loose
as he tried to return to the track, and then from the Lotus drivers.
Kimi Raikkonen had been the leading Lotus from the start, although unable to pass Hamilton before jumping him through the first pit-stop period, but the team's decision to keep Romain Grosjean out for longer made him the main pursuer when he rejoined from his own stop eight laps later than Vettel.
Grosjean, on fresher tyres, initially closed the gap but Vettel had it stabilised before the safety car was sent out for the most bizarre of reasons - Jules Bianchi's Marussia gently rolling backwards across the track after the Frenchman parked it just before the final chicane following an engine failure.
The safety car effectively reset the race, bringing Raikkonen - who had been delayed passing slower cars after his first pit stop - back into the picture.
The three of them circulated together, blue leading black and gold, with the red of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso a couple of seconds behind. There was stalemate until Lotus called in Grosjean for his final stop with 20 laps to go.
Red Bull had no option but to respond, bringing in Vettel on the very next lap, and that opened the door for Lotus to try something different with Raikkonen.
“His car has been phenomenally quick for the last four years and every year they seem to pull it out again”
Lewis Hamilton on Sebastian Vettel
Still going quickly, they decided to leave him out, and he made a final stop a full nine laps later, at the same time as Alonso. It set up a grandstand finish, with Raikkonen and the Ferrari, now on the faster but fragile 'soft' tyres, hauling in Vettel and Grosjean at a rate of knots on their mediums.
Ultimately, both Raikkonen and Alonso ran out of time. Lotus moved Grosjean out of Raikkonen's way with five laps to go but, with his tyres losing their edge, the 2007 world champion's rate of progress slowed. On to Vettel's tail at the final chicane on the last lap was as close as he got to his first win since Australia at the start of the year.
Behind them, Alonso's progress mirrored Raikkonen's. He caught Grosjean at the start of the final lap, when his tyres cried no more.
As Vettel celebrated his 30th grand prix victory - a landmark passed in the most emotive place - Alonso and Raikkonen were both left to rue the realities of which both must surely be all too clearly aware, but which
only Alonso voiced.
Form is fluctuating from race to race this season, with different teams emerging as the main contenders, but through it all there is one constant - Vettel.
Apart from his
retirement from the British Grand Prix,
Vettel has not finished lower than fourth all season. Even on the weekends when Red Bull are perhaps not quite there on ultimate pace - as in Germany - he is delivering big results. And sometimes, as in the case of Sunday, the biggest possible.
Of the nine races so far, Vettel has won four. No-one else has taken more than two.
If that carries on, the prospects of anyone else mounting a serious threat to his championship lead, and preventing a remarkable fourth consecutive title, are remote indeed.
But as it is Alonso faces the awkward prospect of trying to close a gap that at 34 points is again out to more than a race victory - it would take a win and a fifth place without Vettel scoring for Alonso to take the lead.
As Alonso pointed out himself, although he was given a gift by the clutch-shaft failure that stopped Vettel in Silverstone, he is now effectively back to the position he was two races ago, but with time ticking by - nine of the 19 races now gone rather than seven.
Until now, Alonso has been expressing his confidence that he can catch up. He was still saying the same on Sunday, but with an important proviso and a noticeable shift in tone.
"If you have the package to fight everything is possible," Alonso said. He drew a parallel with Vettel making up 39 points on him within "two or three races" after last year's Italian Grand Prix, before adding: "But to recover you need to win two or three races and at the moment it seems we are not able to do so."
As if the message was not clear enough, he added in his BBC TV interview that he did not want to go into the four-week August break after the Hungarian Grand Prix any further behind. "We have to do something and we have to do it now," he said.
Raikkonen is a further seven behind but although the Lotus was definitely faster than the Ferrari in Germany it, too, has not been a consistent enough challenge to Vettel to make a title challenge look any more realistic.
Of the front-running teams, only Mercedes seem to have the out-and-out pace to worry Vettel but, after a strong race in Britain, where Hamilton looked set to beat Vettel until suffering a puncture, their problems with heavy tyre usage recurred in Germany.
Afterwards, Hamilton referred to the yawning 58 point-gap to Vettel and said: "I'm not even thinking about the championship."
He said he felt it was still "on" for Alonso, but also summed up the scale of the challenge for anyone taking on Vettel and Red Bull.
"He has it quite easy," Hamilton said. "His car has been phenomenally quick for the last four years and every year they seem to pull it out again.
"There's not one weekend where they seem to struggle. It's phenomenal."
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