Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel continued their irrestible form in the Race of Champions Nations Cup, scoring a fifth consecutive victory for Team Germany in the event in front of the home crowd in the ESPRIT Arena in Dusseldorf.
The starry duo's course through the earlier stages – the initial group and the semi-final was far from smooth, as rare chinks in their armoured appeared. Schumacher was beaten by Vitaly Petrov in the first heat of the group to give a win to Petrov's Team Slavic – the Lotus Renault GP driver teamed with Jan Kopecky.
Vettel saw off Kopecky to notch up a first win for the defending champions, before both he and Schumacher won the face-offs against David Coulthard – who jumped the start against Schumacher – and defending individual ROC champion Filipe Albuquerque, the two combined to form an All-Star team in the Nations Cup event.
Germany's main rivals in the group stages were the defeated finalists of 2010 – Team GB. Andy Priaulx returned, Jenson Button taking the second seat filled by then BTCC champion Jason Plato a year ago.
Button and Priaulx swept past the Slavic and All-Star combinations to confirm their semi-final place, where the top two from each group would race against each other. The progress of the German and British teams rendered the final two heats of the group dead rubbers – both had already claimed their semi-final spots, but the honour of topping the group remained.
Schumacher pulled the Germans level on four wins with victory over Jenson Button by just sixth tenths in the NASCAR style World Touring Racecars. The cars appearing huge as the snaked around the track – a lap less than 600 metres.
That pitted Vettel against Priaulx in the final group race, and the newly crowned double F1 champion led at half distance by a tenth before Priaulx pulled back the advantage and built his own, eventually beating Vettel by nearly two tenths.
The multiple WTCC champion – who will move into the DTM next season with BMW – was unable to repeat his victory over Vettel in the semi-final stages. Had he done so the German duo would have exited the competition, Button having gained his own revenge for group stage defeat over Schumacher in the first race.
The tie set up a sudden-death race three, the victorious drivers lining up against each other – Button and Vettel. The race – in KTM X-Bows – was close through half distance but a mistake through the opening left hander put button into a spin, gifting Vettel the win and Germany a place in the final.
Considering their fight to reach to the final the climax against Team Nordic fell a little flat. Schumacher dispatched Tom Kristensen with surprising ease, the eight time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner losing out by 1.5 seconds, one of the biggest margins where contact with the barrier was not involved.
It was left to Vettel to confirm victory, outclassing ROC rookie Juho Hanninen in a mildly unfair fight as the race came in the ROC Car – a machine the Finn had not driven in competition earlier in the evening, unlike Vettel.
“It's special to win five in a row,” said Vettel. “This is a difficult event and a lot of things have to come together. You jump into different cars and it's easy to lose it so you have to push yourself to the limit. Winning at home makes up for the NÃ¼rburgring, which wasn't my best race of the F1 season! I enjoyed tonight. The fans were incredible, giving us a boost when we came into the stadium and when we crossed the line. In fact the atmosphere felt much better than last year so I hope we can carry this through to tomorrow.”
Until his final defeat Kristensen had been the only driver on the night with a 100% record, helping his Nordic teammate to knock out Team USA and a German B team – Timos Glock and Scheider – in the group stage before beating Team France 2-0 in the semi-finals, Hanninen beating WRC driver Sebastien Ogier in the VW Scirocco.
Hanninen described his first ROC experience; “compared to yesterday's practice, I had a more confident feeling tonight. Tom was a huge help today, saying just relax and don't worry, enjoy. I lost my first race, then I won with the Skoda – I think I had to do that! Then we had a nice fight with Ogier in the VW Scirocco. That was probably my best moment today. We didn't quite make it in the final. When I noticed Seb ahead of me on the first lap, I started to push more and made a mistake. But altogether this is a nice feeling.”
While no-one matched Heikki Kovalainen's spectacular crash of 2010 the Dusseldorf barriers were not left unscathed. Both Albuquerque and American Travis Pastrana made similar errors, both in the Skoda Fabia IRC car as they tried to cut a quick chicane. Albuquerque got away with slight damage and the customary warning, Pastrana, however, catapulted the car onto two wheels and into the barriers on the other side of the track.
Albuquerque will be hoping for fewer mistakes when he defends his individual Race of Champions.title on the second day of the event.