The circuit, designed by Hermann Tilke in association with teams, was deliberately designed to be one of the fastest on the calendar, with projected lap times of less than one minute and twenty seconds. The circuit was officially homologated on 1 September 2011. At 1060 metres, the circuit's main straight is among the longest in Formula One. The pit lane has also been described in similar terms at over 600 metres in length. Time spent in the pitlane is expected to be an important factor in determining race strategies. The race saw the return of two Drag Reduction System (DRS) zones and two detection points, as was the case at the Italian Grand Prix. The first zone encompassed the length of the pit straight, with the detection point on the exit to the penultimate corner; the second zone took in the second half of the long back straight, with its detection point located just before the apex of the third corner.
Indian driver Narain Karthikeyan returned to HRT for the race, having been replaced by Daniel Ricciardo since Silverstone. Ricciardo was moved to Vitantonio Liuzzi's car for the race, while Karthikeyan took Ricciardo's regular car, the car he started the season in. Fellow Indian driver Karun Chandhok had received support from Team Lotus team principal Tony Fernandes to take part in the race, though he conceded that the ultimate decision did not rest with him. On the Tuesday before the race, it was announced that Chandhok would not be racing in the Grand Prix, but would still run during Friday free practice.
Upon arrival at the circuit, teams reported several issues with construction, including power outages, some infrastructure being "incomplete", and a colony of bats living in the pit building. Faced with criticism over the morality of hosting a race in a developing nation, Mercedes GP team principal Ross Brawn praised the circuit, describing the decision to host a race in India as "the right one" and pointing out the benefits the sport would bring to the country. Brawn also relayed the positive response to the circuit layout from teams and drivers. Other personalities within the paddock were less complimentary, with commentator Martin Brundle describing the commentary booth as a "cell" with no window and "nowhere near [the] track", while team engineers reported that there was no gas connection available, the plumbing to the paddock was incomplete, and the entire circuit was still being powered by generators and did not have a continuous electricity supply.
Tyre supplier Pirelli brought its yellow-banded soft compound tyre as the "prime" tyre and the silver-banded hard compound as the "option" compound. This was the first and only race of the season where the prime tyre was the less durable than the option.
Like the Canadian, European, Italian races earlier in the year, two DRS (Drag Reduction System) Zones were implemented in the inaugural Indian race. The detection point for the first DRS zone was located at the exit of turn 15 (10m after), while the DRS activation point was 36m after the final turn (turn 16). This meant that the start/finish straight would be utilised for one DRS overtaking zone. The second DRS zone had the activation point 16m before the turn 3 hairpin while the DRS activation zone was 510m after turn 3 which is about halfway down the back straight prior to turn 4.
Vitaly Petrov was given a five-place grid penalty for causing an avoidable collision with Michael Schumacher at the Korean Grand Prix.
The race was Felipe Massa's 150th Grand Prix start.
The first Friday practice session was stopped after just five minutes when a stray dog found its way onto the circuit. The session was red-flagged while the dog was led away, and re-opened within five minutes.
When the session restarted, the two Force India cars, Karun Chandhok's Lotus and the Hispania of Narain Karthikeyan were queued at the end of pit lane, waiting to be the first cars to take to the circuit. Although most drivers prefer to do an "installation lap", pitting at the end of their first lap of the circuit, Chandhok remained out to set the first flying lap time of the circuit. Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button were the early leaders of the session, while Fernando Alonso's car succumbed to a loss of power halfway through the session. The track surface was noticeably dusty, and despite becoming cleaner as the session wore on, the drivers struggled for grip and several ran wide. Jaime Alguersuari fell victim to this lack of grip, spinning into the barriers at the far end of the circuit fifteen minutes before the chequered flag fell. Pastor Maldonado was also forced out when his Cosworth engine exploded. He had narrowly avoided a collision with Chandhok in pit lane moments before, after Chandhok spun when attempting to lay rubber down in the Lotus pit bay so as to allow the team's drivers a faster getaway from the concrete apron. When the session ended, Lewis Hamilton was fastest, half a second ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. Hamilton however, had set his time when yellow flags had been shown in the final sector for Pastor Maldonado's stricken Williams, and was given a three-place grid penalty. Sauber's Sergio Pérez received a three-place penalty for a similar offence.
The second session saw Felipe Massa top the timesheets, 0.088 seconds ahead of Vettel, and 0.224 seconds ahead of teammate Alonso, who had recovered from his mechanical fault in the first session. Several drivers ran off the road, with Turns 6 and 7 proving to be particularly troublesome as Vitaly Petrov, Kamui Kobayashi, Sébastien Buemi and Adrian Sutil all went off there. Pastor Maldonado experienced further trouble when he spun into the gravel at Turn 9, though his car could be retrieved in time for him to complete the session. The session was red-flagged with forty minutes remaining when Jérôme d'Ambrosio crashed at Turn 12; having run wide at Turn 11, he had gone too far onto the slippery kerbing on the inside of Turn 12 and spun when he applied too much power. Although the crash itself was heavy enough to destroy his rear wing and rear suspension, the damage was largely cosmetic. Jaime Alguersuari was suspected of ignoring yellow flags at Turn 9 and was referred to the race stewards, but escaped penalty when the team provided telemetry that demonstrated that he had slowed down.
The third and final practice session saw some of the fastest lap times of the weekend thus far; this was a by-product of dust being cleaned from the circuit and drivers becoming familiar with the circuit layout. Vettel finished fastest, becoming the first person to set a time faster than 1:25.00, and comfortably inside the projected lap times claimed by Pirelli. Button was second, ahead of Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton. The new front wing of the Ferrari cars attracted significant attention, with commentators observing it to "flutter", rapidly vibrating and sparking off the circuit surface, particularly under braking into Turn 4. This phenomenon attracted the attention of the FIA's technical delegates, and the problem was noticed to have stopped when the team replaced the front wing on Felipe Massa's car.
Qualifying began with the observation that many of the drivers using the softer option tyres drove a slower flying lap to generate heat into the tyres, before starting a faster flying lap. Vitaly Petrov set the fastest time of the session, while Timo Glock was forced out early with a gearbox problem. Glock failed to set a time within 107% of Petrov, and therefore needed permission to enter the race. Permission was ultimately granted on the basis that Glock had set times through free practice that were well within 107% of the fastest times in those sessions. Jenson Button experienced early troubles when he reported that his car lacked rear grip, and he was sixteenth in the final few minutes of the session, just ahead of Michael Schumacher in seventeenth and Kamui Kobayashi in eighteenth. Both of them had demonstrated lap times faster than that of Button's, placing Button in danger of being eliminated. Button was forced to use a set of option tyres earlier than planned in order to advance to Q2, even though Kobyashi ultimately aborted his final flying lap, meaning Button would have been safe whether he had stayed in the pits or not. Michael Schumacher was impeded on his final lap through Turns 10 and 11 by Narain Karthikeyan, who later received a five-place penalty for the infringement. Kobayashi, Heikki Kovalainen, Jarno Trulli, Daniel Ricciardo, Karthikeyan, Jérôme d'Ambrosio and Timo Glock were all eliminated, although those positions were subject to change once grid penalties were applied.
The second qualifying period was topped by Sebasitan Vettel, who remained the only driver of the weekend to break the 1:25.000 barrier. Jaime Alguersuari and Vitaly Petrov set identical lap times to the thousandth of a second, with both drivers recording a lap time of 1:26.319, and finishing the session in tenth and eleventh place respectively. Alguersuari advanced to the third and final qualifying period by virtue of having set his lap time before Petrov. Petrov finished the session eleventh, which became sixteenth when his penalty from the Korean Grand Prix was applied. Michael Schumacher qualified twelfth after complaining of a vibration in the rear of the car, ahead of Paul di Resta, Pastor Maldonado, Bruno Senna, Rubens Barrichello, Petrov and Sergio Pérez in seventeenth. Pérez was later moved back to twentieth place, having earned a three-place penalty for ignoring yellow flags in practice, and started the race behind teammate Kobayashi and the Team Lotus cars of Kovalainen and Trulli.
The third and final session saw the top four drivers separated by just one tenth of a second. Vettel set the early pace, ahead of Hamilton, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso. Having used a set of soft tyres early, Jenson Button elected to do just one flying lap at the end of the session, finishing fifth after Felipe Massa crashed out in front of him and forcing Button to slow down. Massa hit the high kerb on the inside of Turn 8, breaking his suspension and sending him into the wall, damaging his front wing. There was some contention as to whether Button's lap time was legal, as he had set his fastest (and only) lap time while yellow flags were displayed for Massa's crash. Button maintained that he had slowed down as soon as he saw the accident, but that he was following too closely to Massa at the time of the accident to have seen the yellow flags; by the time the marshalls had reacted, Button had already passed the marshall station. The stewards took no action against him. Massa's accident also disrupted the final laps of Webber, Hamilton and Alonso, giving Sebastian Vettel his thirteenth pole position of the season. Hamilton finished second, which became fifth once his penalty was applied. Webber qualified third ahead of Alonso and Button, with Massa sixth and Nico Rosberg seventh, the final driver to have set a lap time. Adrian Sutil would start the race in eighth place, having taken to the circuit to record sector times, but without actually completing a lap. Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were ninth and tenth, making the race the first time all four cars owned by Red Bull had started in the top ten.
After grid penalties had been applied, just seven drivers – Vettel, Massa, Rosbserg, Sutil, Buemi, Alguersuari and Glock – started the race in the positioned they had actually qualified in.
From left to right: Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso on the podium
Before the race, a minute's silence was held in memory of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon and MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, who died in motor racing accidents over the previous two weekends. Sebastian Vettel retained the lead from the start, while Jenson Button also had a good start, jumping Fernando Alonso down into turn 1. He then managed to pass Mark Webber on the back straight to be second by the end of the first lap. By comparison, his McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton dropped down behind Felipe Massa to sixth at the start. Michael Schumacher was another to make a good start, jumping up to eighth, just behind Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, having started eleventh. Bruno Senna, having started fourteenth, now rounded out the points-scoring positions in 10th place, behind Adrian Sutil.
Meanwhile, behind the leading pack, carnage ensued. Rubens Barrichello made slight contact with his Williams teammate Pastor Maldonado. The Brazilian then speared sidewards and collected Kamui Kobayashi. As the Sauber driver returned to the track, he hit Timo Glock. Maldonado's car was undamaged, and he continued, while Barrichello pitted for a new front wing and also continued. Kobayashi, meanwhile, pulled off on the back straight, and Glock retired his Virgin two laps later with suspension damage. There was also contact at turn 3, as Narain Karthikeyan hit the back of Jarno Trulli's Lotus, spinning the Italian off the track. Trulli pitted for repairs and continued, but he was slow for the rest of the race.
On lap 9, Jaime Alguersuari successfully completed an overtaking manoeuvre on Senna, with the aid of the DRS, to move into tenth place. The Renault driver was passed just a couple of laps later by Alguersuari's Toro Rosso teammate Sébastien Buemi. Pastor Maldonado suffered a gearbox failure on lap 13 and became the race's third retirement. However, he parked the Williams far enough off the race track to avoid a safety car. The following lap, Alguersuari continued his charge up the field, passing Adrian Sutil's Force India to take ninth place.
The pitstops began for the top ten on lap 17, as Webber, Alonso, Hamilton and Alguersuari all pitted. Alonso emerged behind Michael Schumacher, but was able to quickly pass the Mercedes driver. The following lap, Massa and Rosberg both pitted to restore the positions up front. After the leaders, Vettel and Button, also pitted, the order from before the pitstops was exactly restored, with the exception of Bruno Senna, who was now in tenth having not yet pitted. When he did, Sebastien Buemi had managed to jump in front of Sutil in the pit stops.
Shortly afterwards, the race's major talking point occurredMonaco, Silverstone, Singapore and Suzuka – the two cars collided. Massa continued without damage but was later awarded a drive through penalty for the incident. Hamilton, meanwhile, was forced to return to the pits to change his front wing. On the same lap, Sébastien Buemi retired his Toro Rosso with an engine failure, maintaining the relatively high level of attrition in the race. At the end of that lap, then, Massa remained in fifth place, but Rosberg, Schumacher and Alguersuari were promoted to sixth, seventh and eighth places respectively. Hamilton was now ninth after his adventures, with Sutil promoted to tenth by Buemi's retirement.
when Lewis Hamilton attempted to pass Felipe Massa in turn five. As had happened already four times before in the 2011 season – in
When Massa took his drive through penalty, he dropped down behind the two Mercedes cars. Meanwhile, Hamilton passed Alguersuari for eighth, leaving the McLaren and the Ferrari nose to tail once again. However, it was only one lap before Massa suffered a suspension failure, just as he had suffered in qualifying, as he this time broke the left front suspension of his Ferrari on the kerb and retired from the race. This left, on lap 32, Hamilton in seventh, Alguersuari back to eighth and Sutil and Sergio Pérez, who had been having a quiet race for Sauber, rounding out the points. The second round of pitstops saw far less action than the first, with the exception of Alonso's better stop allowing him to emerge ahead of Mark Webber's Red Bull Racing in the battle for third place. Also, Bruno Senna was now in ninth, due to being on a different pit stop strategy. Senna pitted four laps from the end, allowing Sutil and Pérez back into their ninth and tenth place.
The race finished, therefore, with Vettel comfortably ahead of Button and Alonso holding off a charge from Webber to round out the podium. Michael Schumacher led home teammate Nico Rosberg for a strong fifth place, while Hamilton was the last unlapped runner in seventh. Alguersuari's eighth place allowed Toro Rosso to draw level with Sauber in the chase for seventh in the constructors' championship, with Sutil leading Pérez home in the last two points scoring positions. Vettel completed his first career Grand Chelem with the race's fastest lap on the final lap, having led every lap from pole position prior to doing so but at the time no one knew this would be Vettel's last win of 2011.