It was an emotional race. And a good race. Okay, Sebastian Vettel won for the 13th time in 2013, his ninth in succession, but in many ways that was an appropriate sign-off to the F1 season.
The World Champion reminded everyone of just why he has dominated everything by taking pole with a lap that surprised even himself. Intermittent rain, typical of Interlagos and a contributor to epic races in the past, had plagued the teams throughout practice and into qualifying. With the conditions changing by the moment but the racing line drying in the closing seconds, Vettel came from nowhere to take pole. This was as anticipated. But not by 0.6 seconds, an extraordinary margin that paid tribute to Vettel’s ability to extract the maximum from an admittedly good car.
The knock-on effect of a wet two days was all 22 drivers starting 71 laps with zero knowledge of how the Medium and the Hard tyre would perform in what looked like being a dry race. Everyone except Jenson Button (15th on the grid) and Esteban Gutierrez (18th) chose the Medium for a start under heavy clouds.
When Vettel’s Red Bull bogged down briefly as the red lights went out, Nico Rosberg grabbed his chance on the outside of the front row to take the lead, followed by Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton as he emulated his Mercedes team-mate by pushing the other Red Bull of Mark Webber into fifth.
Mercedes moment in the limelight would not last long. The set-up guestimate was wrong, too much downforce costing them in a straight-line and exacerbating a balance problem for Rosberg and a tyre issue for Hamilton. This may have been his last Grand Prix but Webber went into attack mode, taking Hamilton with a brave move around the outside of the blind crest at Ferradura and then sitting it out with his old mate Alonso to take third, the pair of them then dealing quickly with the struggling Rosberg.
Red Bull were now one-two, and separated by 10 seconds. Webber would slip back to third when a problem with his left-rear during the first pit stop dropped the Red Bull behind Alonso once more, Webber having to fight the Ferrari all over again to regain the place.
Given their history, there was no chance of Vettel giving Webber the parting gift of a win – not that the Aussie would accept such charity – but there came a moment when it began to unravel for Red Bull, courtesy of a collision between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Trying to unlap himself, the Williams driver drew alongside the Mercedes into the braking area at the end of the back straight. Hamilton defended the inside line and then, in the view of the stewards, moved too far when he assumed the line into the corner, the two cars touching, causing Bottas’s retirement and a rear puncture for Hamilton.
Believing the Safety Car would appear and anxious not to have Vettel trapped behind it when a pit stop was due, Red Bull called him in immediately – just as Webber was due to stop. Vettel came in to find the crew waiting with his team-mate’s tyres. Webber duly arrived and had to queue while this was sorted out. No harm was done, Webber getting out just in time to avoid having to fight Alonso for a third time.
The subsequent drive-through for Hamilton was crucial in Mercedes battle with Ferrari for the lucrative second place in the Constructors’ Championship. Even though Alonso was ahead of them on the road, the Mercedes cause had been helped by an outraged Felipe Massa being forced to take a drive-through after being warning about crossing the hatched marking on the line defining the pit lane entrance. Massa had been fourth at the time and the points might have made the difference to Mercedes eventually taking the runner-up spot by six points.
As Vettel celebrated another win, Webber enjoyed his last moments in a F1 car by taking off his crash helmet and allowing the breeze to blow through his hair on the slowing down lap. Against the rules, of course. But no one was going to dare issue a fine at the end of a long and dramatic season and the last shout for one of the most popular drivers in the paddock. As ever though, Webber had to give best to the man who has set an extraordinary benchmark, not just in 2013, but in the history of F1.
It’s all change for 2014 with totally new cars and engines. Brazil was the end of an era, technically. And for Vettel and Red Bull? The opposition hope so.