In the first four races of 2011, Sebastian Vettel had a 100% record when it came to qualifying, and had taken 93 out of a possible 100 points on race day. The new regulations – in particular, the introduction of Pirelli tyres – had given us three mad races with copious amounts of overtaking and huge numbers of pit stops. There had been few dull moments.
But race number five, the Spanish Grand Prix, was going to be a real test of the new Formula 1. With most of the teams having already completed eight days of testing at the track with their current cars, finding the optimal set-up was not going to prove too much of a problem, and it is a track that has never lent itself to massive amounts of overtaking.
The weekend began with the two Red Bull drivers taking the top positions in every one of the three free practice sessions, and then locking-out the front row of the grid in qualifying. However, it was Mark Webber who took pole position in Spain, becoming the first person to usurp Vettel from the front of the grid all season.
On race day, there were once again multiple tyre strategies in play, just as there was in China and Turkey. Webber failed to make good use of his pole position; Fernando Alonso jumped from fourth up into first place off the line – to many cheers from the Spanish crowd – and Vettel also got the better of his team-mate at the start.
Mercifully, the McLaren duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button could live with pace of Red Bull during the race, and Hamilton was able to put up a spirited fight for the win although, ultimately, Vettel triumphed. Despite Alonso's stellar start, Ferrari had a shockingly bad race in Spain. Alonso finished a lap down on Vettel, and Felipe Massa retired with a gearbox problem.
Hamilton (along with Button, Webber and Jaime Alguersuari) was called to see the stewards after the race for apparently failing to slow down for yellow flags towards the end of the race. The drivers were all given a reprimand, but escaped any time penalties.
Sergio Perez collected the first points of his Formula 1 career by finishing ninth in Spain, one place ahead of more-experienced Sauber team-mate Kamui Kobayashi. Unfortunately, he could not build on that success in the next race at Monaco, owing to a nasty accident he suffered in qualifying.
It was towards the end of the session that Perez came out of the Monte Carlo tunnel slightly off the racing line. The track was slippery there, and the Mexican lost control of his Sauber, hitting the barrier on the right-hand side of the track. His momentum carried him down the straight and across the chicane that leads into the swimming pool section. He came to a stop only after a heavy sideways impact into a TecPro safety barrier.
The accident was almost a carbon-copy of one that Nico Rosberg experienced in FP3 that morning, but the Mercedes narrowly missed the section of barrier that Perez hit, and instead came to a halt on track.
Qualifying was stopped whilst Perez received medical attention and the barrier was rebuilt. Although he was conscious and talking as he was removed from the wreckage of his Sauber, the resulting concussion meant that Perez was unable to race that weekend. After taking part in FP1 at the in Canada two weeks later, Perez decided that he was still not fit to drive, which allowed Pedro de la Rosa who was, at the time, a McLaren test driver, to make an appearance for his old team. The Spanish veteran finished twelfth in Montreal, a performance that may or may not have been the thing that convinced HRT team principal Colin Kolles to sign De la Rosa on a two-year deal that starts 2012.
The accident for Perez overshadowed yet another pole position for Sebastian Vettel – the fifth in six races – with only Button able to get within half a second of the German during qualifying. Vettel took the win in Monaco as well, but this one was nowhere near as easy as the others he had taken so far in 2011.
Again, pit-stop strategies were the key to success in Monte Carlo but, whereas previous races suggested that it was the case that more stops were better, Vettel won this event with just one trip through the pit lane.
However, he needed a bit of luck to take that victory. Fernando Alonso, who stopped twice, and Jenson Button, who stopped three times, were running second and third respectively in the closing laps of the race, on much fresher tyres than the leader. Vettel would dearly have wished that he could come in for a fresh set, but to do so would surrender his lead. Instead, the Red Bull driver was carefully nursing his set of prime tyres that were put on his car on Lap 16 of 78. He was coming under more and more pressure, and it seemed clear that either Alonso or Button, who were quickly closing the gap to Vettel, would deny him a fifth victory of the season.
But we will never know if Vettel could have held the pair off as, just six laps from the end, there was an accident involving Pastor Maldonado, Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil, Jaime Alguersuari and Vitaly Petrov. This brought out a red flag, and the field headed back round to the starting grid so to wait for marshals to remove the debris.
This stoppage allowed Red Bull to fit new tyres to Vettel's car and, with just six laps left of the race to run, the German could complete a trouble-free sprint to the checkered flag, finishing ahead of both Alonso and Button to take his first ever victory in Monaco.
But just as his pole had been overshadowed by the injury to Perez, Vettel's win was pushed off the back page of the papers by some choice comments from Hamilton.
The 2008 world champion had a weekend to forget in Monaco. He qualified only ninth on the Saturday whilst team-mate Button was on the front row alongside Vettel, and the frustration of being in the midfield showed in the race.
First, he attempted to barge past Felipe Massa into the hairpin, knocking several pieces of carbon fibre of both cars. Mark Webber, who was running just in front of the duo, also managed to lose bits of bodywork as a result of this clumsy move. Undeterred by that failure, Hamilton had another attempt at getting past Massa a few corners later, as the pair headed into the tunnel. This forced Massa off the racing line, and onto the little marbles of rubber that were steadily building up on the side of the track. With no grip available, his Ferrari ended up in the barrier, and that was Massa's race over.
Hamilton was given a drive-through penalty for the incident at the hairpin – a fair punishment in the eyes of many observers, but the Brit seemed to only be getting started:
Jaime Alguersuari ran into the back of Hamilton towards the end of the race as part of the accident that brought out the red flags. The rear-wing of the McLaren was damaged, but the team managed to get it fixed on the grid whilst waiting for the race to restart.
Within just a few seconds of the restart though, Hamilton was in the wars again. He was behind Pastor Maldonado, who was on course to score his first F1 points, and Williams' first of the season. Hamilton tried to dive past the Venezuelan into St. Devote, but Maldonado had nowhere to go, and was spun round by the McLaren, hit the barrier, and was out of the race.
Hamilton was summoned to the stewards again after the race, and was handed a 20-second penalty for causing the crash. Speaking to the BBC's Lee McKenzie after the race, he was clearly not happy. He described his encounter with the stewards as “an absolute frickin' joke”, complaining “I've been to see the stewards five times out of six this season.”
The quote that stole the headlines, however, was Hamilton's answer to the question of why he thought the stewards had been paying particular attention to him in recent races: “Maybe it's because I'm black,” he joked. “That's what Ali G says.”
Over the next few days, there were several attempts by various observers to try and analyse Hamilton's comments, discuss his mood and mind-set, and ask why he had made so many mistakes. This continued for the rest of the season, as did his run-ins with Felipe Massa.
There were hopes that Hamilton would be back to his best at the next race in Canada, a track where he had always excelled. In fact, before this season's race, Hamilton had never failed to get pole position at Montreal, and had won on two out of three attempts. This year, though, it would be Sebastian Vettel on pole, yet again. Neither McLaren driver fared particularly well on Saturday in Montreal; Hamilton qualified only fifth, Jenson Button would start the Canadian Grand Prix from seventh.
As it turned out, starting positions were completely academic come race day. Heavy rain meant that the race started under the safety car, which led the field for the opening four laps. When the racing got underway, Hamilton once again seemed to have some sort of ethereal force drawing him too close to other cars. He sent Mark Webber into a spin into the first corner of the first racing lap and then, four laps later, collided with his team-mate down the start/finish straight. In the poor visibility, Button claimed not to see Hamilton coming up behind him, and just moved across the track and straight into the sister McLaren.
This contact ended Hamilton's race, and was just the latest stage in what seemed to be a very frustrating period for the Brit. There were rumours that he was angling for a move away from McLaren, fuelled by the sighting of him going into Christian Horner's office over the Canadian Grand Prix weekend. The Red Bull team principal would not disclose the nature of the meeting, but the fact that such a meeting took place suggested that Hamilton was not at all happy at this time.
Furthurmore, Hamilton was drawing some pretty strong criticism from some former world champions. Niki Lauda was the most out-spoken: “What Hamilton did [in Monaco and Canada] goes beyond all boundaries. He is completely mad,” said the three-times champion. “If the FIA does not punish him, I do not understand the world any more. You cannot drive like this as it will result in someone getting killed.”
Emerson Fittipaldi, speaking after Monaco but before Canada, was also critical. “Lewis is an exceptional talent but sometimes he is too aggressive when he tries to overtake,” the Brazilian said. “He is spectacular, but you have to respect other drivers.”
Anyway, Hamilton's stricken car brought out the safety car again – the second of five separate appearances that afternoon in Canada. Button received a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the safety car but, in switching to the intermediate tyres just after his collision with Hamilton, he was soon the fastest man on track in the drying conditions.
But the rain did not stay away for long. Soon it was coming down much more heavily, and the weather conditions became too extreme for racing. The red flag came out on Lap 25, and then began a wait of over two hours for the action to commence once again. Hamilton, who was already out of the grand prix of course, spent the time showing pop-star Rihanna around the McLaren garage.
When racing did resume, Button collided with Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard ended up beached in the gravel trap, and his race was over, whilst Button picked up a puncture for his troubles. He recovered to the pits, just as the safety car came out, and emerged back onto the track at the back of the field, and now under investigation for two incidents – the other being the earlier collision with his team-mate.
Button escaped the wrath of the stewards, and began to work his way back up the field whilst others were still colliding and falling off the track. What's more, Button seemed to have found some extra pace, and was comfortably one of the fastest men on track.
At this point it is probably worth mentioning what a sterling job Michael Schumacher had been doing in Montreal. Whilst all around him seemed to be making mistakes or getting into unnecessary battles, the seven-time world champion had worked his way up to second place, behind only Vettel, and was showing some of the fantastic wet-weather driving for which he was well-known back in the day. Unfortunately, when the track dried out, his Mercedes did not have the pace to hold off the likes of Webber and Button, particularly when they had DRS at their disposal.
However, it did take Webber a few attempts to get past Schumacher, and one botched move also allowed Button through. Schumacher eventually finished the race in fourth, collecting his best result of the season. Button was now on the charge to catch race-leader Vettel.
When Vettel crossed the line ahead of Button to start his final lap, it looked as though the German had done enough to claim victory in the longest race – in terms of duration – that Formula 1 had ever seen. But a mistake into the Turn 7 on that final lap allowed Button to sneak through and win the race.
It truly was a fantastic race in Canada. Button, after two accidents, six trips through the pit lane (one of which was a drive-through penalty), and running last at one point, took what he described as his best ever victory. Moreover, that final-lap mistake showed everybody that Vettel was not superhuman; he was fallible. It gave fans hope – admittedly quite short-lived hope – that he could be caught, and Button seemed like just the man for the task.
After seven races – seven incredible races – Vettel had 161 points, 60 more than Button, who was now second in the standings. That lead was significant, but the optimists would argue that it was not insurmountable. In part three of this review, F1 heads back to Europe for what can only be described as a crippling anti-climax after the high of Canada, and there was an awful lot of hot air aboutâ€¦