It all seemed so easy. Having topped both Friday practice sessions and taken pole position in the delayed qualifying, Sebastian Vettel stormed to an emphatic victory in this morning’s Japanese Grand Prix in conditions that couldn’t be more different to yesterday’s wash out. It was enough to bring the 23-year-old German right back into the Championship hunt as he closed the gap on title rival and team mate Mark Webber.
A Chaotic Start
Those that may have been hoping for a quiet day following all of the climatic action of the weekend, may have been left slightly grim faced by an accident before all the cars had lined up on the grid. Virgin Racing’s Lucas di Grassi speared off of the circuit just after the chicane, destroying his Cosworth-powered car in the process finishing his race before it had even started. The pressure is on the Brazilian to retain his seat for 2011 and moments like this will not help his cause.
There was more action as the race itself got under way. With the red lights out, Renault’s Vitaly Petrov made an excellent start, only to clip the front of the slow starting Nico Hulkenberg in the Williams. The under-fire Petrov ploughed into the barrier lining the start / finish straight, while Hulkenberg limped slowly to a safe position with a mangled suspension – the stewards saw enough to slap a 5-place grid penalty onto Petrov, destabilising his Korean Grand Prix before he has even seen the circuit.
The Russian would later explain that:
“I was […] going passed Hulkenberg with Heidfeld on my right when he (Heidfeld) started to move left and so I also had to move left to avoid him. Unfortunately I hit the side of Hulkenberg’s car and this is why I crashed.“
Ferrari’s Felipe Massa would soon see fit to add to the mess of carbon fibre – as the pack soared into the first turn, the Brazilian planted his right-front wheel onto the grass, shooting across the track and striking the side of Vitantonio Liuzzi’s Force India at high speed, destroying both machines. Safety car.
The race neutralised, Renault were looking at one good result, only for the Grand Prix to turn sour on the third lap. As the remaining cars formed a long train behind the safety car, Robert Kubica’s right rear wheel worked loose, dropping off his yellow and black machine. It was a great shame for the Pole – in the brief few seconds that the race was running, he had barged passed Webber and into 2nd place, only to drop out of the race at the early stages.
It was a retirement that left the Pole rather perplexed:
“I was behind the safety car warming up the tyres, I nearly lost the car. […] I don’t know if there was a technical problem. I moved to the side and lost the wheel.“
With Kubica out of the picture, Vettel now led from Webber, Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) and the two McLaren’s of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. Feeling they had nothing to lose, Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Bruno Senna (Hispania), Jarno Trulli (Lotus) and Timo Glock (Virgin) all pitted to change to hard compound tyres, thereby promoting the second Hispania car of Sakon Yamamoto to the dizzying heights of 16th place.
The green emerged at the start of the 7th lap and this time time the getaway was clean. In clean air, Vettel surged ahead, while receiving little pressure from behind, although Webber kept the gap pegged to around two seconds in the early running. Alonso, however, fell backward as the Red Bull’s put in fastest lap after fastest lap – on this day, there was nothing the Ferrari could do. By the 11th lap, Alonso was already five seconds adrift of Vettel.
Neither Mercedes driver were being held back though – in a stunning move, Rosberg attempted a pass around the outside of Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso at the fast 130R turn, but ran out of him before the deal could be sealed. Schumacher was a little more subtle as he attacked the sole remaining Williams of Rubens Barrichello – the seven time World Champion forced his way into the top-six with a precision move at the chicane.
Kobayashi Moves Forth
Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi was also on the move. The Japanese driver had found the perfect spot for overtaking with ballsy moves at the tight turn 11 hairpin – a place he would use to get by Jaime Alguersuari (lap 13) and Adrian Sutil (lap 18). Both Sutil and Kobayashi’s Sauber team mate Nick Heidfeld would use this lap to pit for new tyres, starting a sequence that would the rest of field slowly fall in for stops.
Stuck behind Button, Hamilton decided too to stop for fresh tyres on lap 23 and while his pace was good and the stop clean, the 2008 World Champion still dropped just behind Kobayashi. It would not be for too long though as Hamilton had fought his way passed the Sauber driver within two laps to move back into the top six; the McLaren with its Mercedes power proving too strong on the start / finish straight.
The three leaders followed Hamilton into the pits over the next two tours and while both Vettel and Alonso had clean stops, Webber suffered a momentary stall, quashing any possibility of taking his team; however it left Button in the race lead, albeit with waning strategy. The reigning Champion started the race on the harder compound tyre, but with the soft tyre lasting much better than anyone had anticipated, Button’s strategy was shot.
However, while Button had his problems, Hamilton was gaining – in fact, the McLaren driver was pulling in Alonso’s Ferrari at up to 0.9 of-a-second per lap by the 27th tour.
It helped somewhat that the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher had removed himself from the middle of their battle. The veteran had pitted on lap 24, but would lose a place to his team mate, Rosberg. The younger Mercedes driver was picking up spot-after-spot following his early decision to change tyres and it was enough to leave the silver cars 7th and 8th.
With 6th place Kobayashi still yet to pit, Button’s focus would become Rosberg; however with the McLaren driver already well over 30 seconds clear of Mercedes by lap 34, then an unchallenged 5th place was going to be on the cards. Unfortunately for Button, there was no hope of being close to the front four, but they were certainly reeling him in – if anything, the reigning Champion was beginning to squeeze the top our together; with less than 20 laps remaining Button led from Vettel, Webber, Alonso and Hamilton, with the race leader only 12 seconds ahead of his McLaren counterpart.
Button Slows for a Stop, Hamilton with a Gearbox
Eventually stopping for new tyres on lap 39, Jenson Button found himself slotting into 5th place, albeit a long way behind his team mate. For a time, it seemed as if the top five was set, yet as the race entered its final quarter, Hamilton began to show signs of dropping backwards. It would soon become clear that the McLaren had lost 3rd gear, leaving the 25-year-old to struggle around the ‘Esses’ – a series of turns whereby 3rd gear is a necessity. Whereas the McLaren had previous been catching Alonso’s Ferrari bit-by-bit, Hamilton would quickly fall back, losing 2 seconds per lap to his chasing team mate.
Come the 44th tour of the track, Button finally caught and passed his wounded team mate, to bring himself into the top four. With Rosberg in 6th, struggling with old tyres, Hamilton held onto 5th place in what was now a damage limitation exercise.
Nico Rosberg’s pace was beginning to cause some tension at Mercedes. Having stopped so early, the young German’s tyres were now long passed their best and it was clear that he was holding ‘team mate’ Michael Schumacher behind. It would soon come to nothing for Rosberg – with only a handful of laps remaining, the former GP2 Champion suffers a wheel failure; the Bridgestone tyre and wheel coming clean of his silver Mercedes. A worrying trend indeed.
One driver not worried was Kamui Kobayashi – in fact the Sauber driver was on the warpath. Having pitted with Button on lap 39, the 24-year-old found himself in 12th for a time, but Alguersuari, Barrichello and Heidfeld into the hairpin bought him some positions. The move on Alguersuari was especially noteworthy – having being forced to the outside of the tight turn 11, the Japanese driver drove around the outside of the Toro Rosso to surprise the Spaniard. After some momentary wheel-bashing, Kobayashi came away with minor damage, but not enough keep them back while Alguersuari pitted with a puncture.
Kobayashi made another spot thanks to Rosberg’s retirement, but just prior to that Adrian Sutil’s Force India engine blew (thanks to an ongoing oil leak) gifting the Sauber driver 7th position. It was unfortunate for Sutil – both the Force India cars had struggled prior to the race, but Sutil was on for some solid points until his car stopped.
There Was Always Going to be One Winner…
Unlike the Force India’s, the Red Bull’s never looked like stopping at any stage in the race. Realistically, this was Sebastian Vettel’s weekend as the German driver picked up his third victory of the season, in a time just over ninety minutes.
Mark Webber ran Vettel close at the end, but the reality is he may never have gotten by his younger team mate; although this did not stop the Australian from setting the fastest lap of the race on the final tour. Webber had a relatively quiet run to the flag, never threatening Vettel or receiving much of a threat from behind.
Reflecting on his team’s performance, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said:
“…I am delighted with the performance of the two drivers and obviously hope that they keep performing at this level over the remaining three races. Seb[astian] had a less comfortable summer break than Mark probably did, but in the last few races he has driven extremely well…”
Fernando Alonso secured the final podium spot for Ferrari, but it was always going to be difficult for the double-World Champion.
“We knew that before coming here, third was probably our maximum position coming here, but we are convinced that this was the worst track of the remaining races of this championship so a good weekend overall.“
The result leaves the Spaniard trailing Mark Webber by 14 points in the standing, tied with Vettel.
Coming home 4th and 5th was not the most desirable of results for the McLaren pairing. Button came home first of the two, some 13.5 seconds shy of Vettel – he would later rue a tyre strategy that left him struggling for pace against the leaders. In an interview with the BBC post-race, he countered that:
“I thought the others would struggle on the options at the start of the race, they didn’t. […] to stay out when everyone else pitted was probably the wrong thing. Maybe you should cover the people that you are racing and we didn’t do that.“
Lewis Hamilton seemed happy just to get to the end, as his McLaren shredded its gears late on; however the 2008 Champion remained optimistic with Korea, Brazil and Abu Dhabi still to run.
“Still three races to go, still 75 points available, but these guys continue to pick up points consistently […] but we will keep pushing.“
It may be a struggle for the McLaren’s – this result leaves Hamilton 28 points behind Vettel, with Button a further three adrift.
Michael Schumacher made it three Mercedes-engined cars in the top-six in his works’ machine, eventually finish five seconds clear of Kamui Kobayashi. Nick Heidfeld made it a double-points finish for the Swiss squad as he trailed home in 8th – a vital result as to aim to secure 8th in the Constructor’s Championship.
The Williams team pulled to within two points of Force India thanks to a 9th place finish by Rubens Barrichello – the Brazilian was only just shy of Heidfeld, the veteran’s found themselves separated by only 0.8 of-a-second across the line. Sebastien Buemi picked up a single point for the Toro Rosso squad following a quiet run to the flag.
Outside the Points
Jaime Alguersuari’s late stop dropped the Spaniard to 11th position and a lap down and while he may have come away disappointed, there was joy on the Lotus pitwall as Heikki Kovalainen brought his green and yellow machine home in a season best 12th spot – a result that means Virgin will need at an 11th place to beat them in the Constructor’s Championship. The ecstatic Finn said after the race that
“…it was a wicked race, really absolutely fantastic for me, Jarno and the whole team. Our pace was amazing – we were only lapped once and at this kind of circuit, where we needed to perform, we could not have done any more. An amazing day for the whole team.“
Kovalainen finished ahead of his Lotus team mate Jarno Trulli (13th) two laps down, with Virgin’s Timo Glock (14th) and Hispania Racing’s Bruno Senna in 15th position. Sakon Yamamoto was the final finisher in 16th place and it was, admittedly, a very impressive race from the much maligned Japanese driver.
Despite enormous pressure early on, the Hispania driver first fought off Jarno Trulli and then Timo Glock for many laps, before falling behind after his pit stop; however it is clear now, that the Hispania is clearly some 2 seconds per lap slower than the other new teams on an average circuit. Both Senna and Yamamoto registered their best results of the season.
In the end, it was a decent race, but somewhat processional up front, with Robert Kubica – the potential spanner in the works – removed from the action early on. Much of the entertainment was delivered by home driver Kamui Kobayashi, although accidents removed a number of the competitors.
In two weeks time, Formula 1 travels to Yeongam for the inaugural Korean Grand Prix. Reports from the area now say that the circuit is nearly ready, but that the final layer of track was only laid a few days ago. This could potentially result in a crazy race and it may also be McLaren’s last chance – if they don’t win there, then the title battle will certainly be a three-way battle come Interlagos.
Race Rating: 3 out of 5
*All quotes courtesy of Autosport, the BBC and the team’s respective press releases.
Suzuka, Japanese Grand Prix (Round 16, October 10th)
1 VETTEL Red Bull 53 laps
2 WEBBER Red Bull +0.9s
3 ALONSO Ferrari +2.7s
4 BUTTON McLaren +13.5s
5 HAMILTON McLaren +39.5s
6 SCHUMACHER Mercedes +59.9s
7 KOBAYASHI Sauber +64.0s
8 HEIDFELD Sauber +69.6s
9 BARRICHELLO Williams +70.8s
10 BUEMI Toro Rosso +72.8s
11 ALGUERSUARI Toro Rosso +1 lap
12 KOVALAINEN Lotus +1 lap
13 TRULLI Lotus +2 laps
14 GLOCK Virgin +2 laps
15 SENNA HRT +2 laps
16 YAMAMOTO HRT +3 laps
R. ROSBERG Mercedes +6 laps
R. SUTIL Force India +9 laps
R. KUBICA Renault +51 laps
R. HULKENBERG Williams +53 laps
R. MASSA Ferrari +53 laps
R. PETROV Renault +53 laps
R. LIUZZI Force India +53 laps
DNS DI GRASSI Virgin +53 laps
|1. Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing||220|
|2. Fernando Alonso||Ferrari||206|
|3. Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing||206|
|4. Lewis Hamilton||McLaren||192|
|5. Jenson Button||McLaren||189|
|6. Felipe Massa||Ferrari||128|
|7. Nico Rosberg||Mercedes GP||122|
|8. Robert Kubica||Renault||114|
|9. Michael Schumacher||Mercedes GP||54|
|10. Adrian Sutil||Force India||47|
|11. Rubens Barrichello||Williams||41|
|12. Kamui Kobayashi||Sauber||27|
|13. Vitaly Petrov||Renault||19|
|14. Nico Hulkenberg||Williams||17|
|15. Vitantonio Liuzzi||Force India||13|
|16. Sebastien Buemi||Scuderia Toro Rosso||8|
|17. Pedro de la Rosa||Sauber||6|
|18. Nick Heidfeld||Sauber||4|
|19. Jaime Alguersuari||Scuderia Toro Rosso||3|
|1. Red Bull Racing||426|
|4. Mercedes GP||176|
|6. Force India||60|
|9. Scuderia Toro Rosso||11|