HE admitted it was risky, but Sebastian Vettel one-stopped his way to a dramatic victory in the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.
Despite coming under threat late in the race from Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button on much newer tyres than his own, the championship leader rode his luck as a late safety car period stopped the race with six laps to go, allowing him to change his tyres and cruise to the flag.
In the process, he added his name to the list of winners around the streets of Monte Carlo - considered the highlight of the F1 season.
And Vettel said he was delighted to be named alongside such greats as Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna for winning the event.
“I’m really, really happy,” said the world champion. “It is a fantastic result and a huge honour to put my name on the list of Monaco race winners. We fully deserved this win, we took the risk and we got the reward.
“I’ve seen what it takes to win here. It’s difficult to imagine you can one-stop at this race, but that’s more or less what we did.”
Starting from pole position, Vettel led the early stages, but slipped to second after a rare Red Bull mistake in the pits, allowing McLaren’s Jenson Button through into the lead.
But Vettel was able to make his Pirelli tyres lasted more than 50 laps while others opted to change, allowing him to sit tight in the lead before being hunted down towards the end of the race.
He said: “Our first pit stop was not spot on and we lost the position to Jenson (Button).
“I was surprised when Jenson came in and we had to react, he was pulling away on the soft tyres while I was on the hard tyres.
“I thought ‘don’t give up’ and kept pushing to close the gap. The safety car helped us, but it was no walk in the park to do roughly 60 laps on the same set of tyres. I had 20 laps where I was under pressure from Fernando and Jenson, it would have been a difficult final six laps, but there was another safety car and a suspended race, so we were able to change the tyres.”
Team boss Christian Horner lauded the 23-year-old, who now leads the world championship by a huge 58 points - more than two race victories - over Lewis Hamilton.
Horner said: “He soaked up huge pressure from Fernando and Jenson. It was a classy drive from Sebastian and a tremendous team performance to recover from what looked to be a difficult first stop to win the race.”
One pit stop and a lucky break with a late red flag allowed Vettel to take his first Monaco Grand Prix victory.
His domination in qualifying was overshadowed by the frightening accident had by Sauber’s Sergio Perez at the exit of the Principality’s famous tunnel, hospitalising the Mexican and ruling him out of Sunday’s race. With no drivers able to improve after the session was restarted, Vettel came away nearly half a second clear of second placed Jenson Button and team-mate Mark Webber in third.
Lewis Hamilton, who was among the favourites to win the race before qualifying, wrecked his chances as he failed to put in a quick lap before Perez’s accident and with only one chance at the restart, he skipped the famous chicane and had to start ninth on the grid.
From the start, Webber was sluggish off the line allowing Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari to get the jump on him for the second time in as many races. But this time his charge was halted by Vettel, who led into the first corner, followed by Alonso and Button, with Webber fourth.
Vettel romped away at the front, opening up a five second gap to Alonso behind. Button took the paddock by surprise when he pitted on lap 14 for new super-soft tyres - a tactic which saw him come out of the pits in clear air and able to push to make the ground up he was losing behind the slow Alonso.
Both Ferrari and Red Bull reacted to cover Button’s pace by pitting, but the short notice caused disaster for the Tilbrook-team.
Vettel pulled into the short Monte Carlo pitlane to find that his team weren’t ready with his new set of Pirelli tyres. Vettel was forced to sit in the pits for much longer than he had expected, and dropped behind Button in the process.
Worse was to come for Red Bull though, as Webber pitted on the same lap from his fourth place and was made to wait even longer as his tyres were retrieved from inside the garage, and the Australian dropped to 15th position.
Team boss Christian Horner later pointed the finger at a communications problem for the calamities in the pit lane.
Button, on the softer compound tyre, built up a substantial lead over Vettel on the harder tyre, but the McLaren man had to stop again, while Vettel had used both sets of tyres, meaning he could go to the end of the race, though the short lifespan of the Pirelli tyres threatened to throw spanners into the works.
Webber was slowly making his way through the field, but was caught up in a huge five car battle for fourth place. But with overtaking opportunities at a premium around the tight street circuit, he was forced to circulate much slower than his car was capable of going.
Button stopped again for tyres when Felipe Massa crashed in the tunnel following a coming together with Hamilton, forcing the safety car out on track for the first time this season. However he opted for the super-softs again, meaning he had to make at least one more pit-stop, and he was now behind Vettel on track.
Alonso meanwhile had his made two pit-stops and had used both tyre compounds, so when Button pitted for the final time, he leap-frogged the Brit into second place and began an almighty battle with the German for the lead.
The three circulated nose-to-tail for nearly 20 laps, with Vettel’s tyres barely hanging on as Alonso and Button tried their best to make a move on the championship leader.
But with six laps to go, when approaching lapped traffic, a huge accident between Hamilton, Adrian Sutil, Jaime Alguershuari and Vitaly Petrov stopped the race. Petrov had to be seen to by the medical staff and was taken to hospital.
Fortunately for Vettel, the teams were able to make changes to the car under the red flag conditions without penalty, allowing them to change his wrecked tyres for a new set as he comfortably took the win after the restart.
Further down the order, Webber was able safely negotiate the accident which stopped the race and overtook Kamui Kobayashi with three laps to go to take fourth in another disappointing afternoon for the Aussie.