Jenson Button may have won the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, but it was Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel who garnered all the headlines.
The young German only needed a single point to become World Champion for a second time; however the Red Bull pilot did it in style by taking a podium.
Yet if one were to watch the first portion of the race, you would be forgiven for thinking it might have been a Vettel walkover, but then there was Button…
A Fighting Start
Button’s first challenge came straight from the line – while Vettel’s start from pole was solid, Button’s launch from 2nd was supreme.
Seeing a gap down the inside of turn one, Button threw his McLaren into the free space, only for Vettel to close the door hard, shoving the furious Button partially onto the grass.
“Sebastian [Vettel] came across at me on the start – he kept coming and didn’t stop, so I got on the grass and had to back out of the throttle, otherwise there would’ve been an almighty shunt into Turn One. He said he didn’t see me until he saw me backing out, so that lost me a place.”
His momentum in check, Lewis Hamilton in the second McLaren assumed 2nd place, with Button now 3rd.
Hamilton, already in the midst of a difficult weekend, stayed close to the rear of the Red Bull throughout the opening tours, but as Button began to recover – bedding his tyres in the process – he drew to the back of Hamilton, with the latter giving Button 2nd on the eighth lap.
Realistically, it was much less a give and rather destabilising offer – Hamilton, his tyres the victim of a slow puncture, could do nothing to hold Button off. A pitstop a short distance later would see the 2008 Champion on another used set of softs.
Button, meanwhile, had just under five-seconds to pull back to the leading Vettel.
With Hamilton emerging in 11th, Ferrari’s presence became apparent. Led by Fernando Alonso, the Spaniard actually qualified behind teammate Felipe Massa in Japan; however five laps behind the Brazilian was enough for Alonso.
A swift order from the pitwall and an imaginary wave of the hand and Alonso had passed Massa for 3rd. It would not be long before Alonso would close on the leading pair.
Crucially Mark Webber in the second Red Bull was struggling to make a way passed Massa – not a positive start when considering Vettel’s lead. With Ferrari quickest on the straights, Webber would need to take advantage in the stops, but it wasn’t to come just yet.
Leading the Change
Once Hamilton fed into the pits, the rest of the lead group began to spill toward their garages.
Vettel was next in on lap nine, with Button, Alonso and Webber following one tour later, yet crucially as they fed into several long-stinting mid-fielders, playing the traffic game would be vital.
By the twelfth lap, Hamilton had already climbed to 4th, (thanks to others stopping and a pass on Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi) having used a single lap undercut to jump Massa (now 5th).
Yet within three tours, the Briton was once again in tyre trouble – and falling back toward the Ferrari. The more Hamilton struggled, the larger Massa grew in the McLaren’s silver-tinted mirrors.
Also on the tail of the Scuderia machine was Webber, his Red Bull looking more and more ominous with each circulation of Suzuka.
Webber, too, utilised his second set of softs to cut through the midfield runners – moves on Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso) and Vitaly Petrov (Renault) brought the Australian to Massa’s tail, ready to pounce should the moment arise.
Both Button and Alonso were also making use of their Pirelli rubber. With Vettel pushing hard, his softs once again began to wear beyond reasonable use, allowing his followers back into the picture.
With eighteen laps in the bag, Vettel’s lead over his McLaren opponent was a mere six-tenths, with Alonso keeping a watchful eye.
Loose Wheels and Slow Getaways
Unfortunately, not all the pit strategies were plain sailing affairs, as Buemi can attest. The Swiss pilot, having stopped on lap eleven, made a grand total of four corners, before his right front wheel dislodged itself. It was a great shame for Buemi, who after starting 15th, ran 11th in the early laps, soaring as high as 7th during the stops.
“I came out of the pits and already at the first corner, I felt some vibration and I saw that the right front wheel was beginning to move. It had not been properly fitted at the pit stop, I’m not sure why and then it came off at Turn 4. There was no way I could drive back to the pits, so my race was over.”
Bruno Senna also fell down the order in the order after sluggish stop. In fact, the race had already been something of a tough prospect for the Brazilian, having been forced off the road on the opening lap.
From starting 9th, Senna fell to 13th, before being passed by both Williams’ on lap five. A slow getaway from his stall on lap fifteen saw Senna plummet further, rejoining the field in a lowly 18th place.
Senna’s Renault teammate, Petrov, was having a slightly better go of it. Lining up 10th on the grid, the Russian played a riskless game as he fought to make his medium tyres last until lap eighteen.
Job done, Petrov rose to 7th, before dropping to 14th for another set of mediums, full in the knowledge that he would stopping fewer times.
Williams, on the other hand, split their strategies, with Rubens Barrichello starting on softs (pitting on lap 12) and Pastor Maldonado on mediums, with a stop for lap 16.
Starting on the seventh row, the pair fought amongst themselves for a time, with Barrichello coming out on top, as Maldonado played the long game. However, their lack of race pace apparent, Suzuka was looking like yet another point-less day for the Grove squad.
Further up the pack, Mercedes were far more confident of points on Japanese soil. Lining up 8th (Michael Schumacher) and 23rd (Nico Rosberg, due to a car failure), Schumacher held his place in the early running, until his first stop on the ninth lap, while Rosberg elected for a tyre change three laps later, after a quick climb to 18th.
A move on Petrov made that 7th for Schumacher come lap fourteen, with Rosberg rising to 15th three tours later to scour the rear of the Williams duo and the sole remaining Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari.
For Alguersuari, a tough day was not about to get better. Starting 16th, the Spaniard suffered a dreadful launch off the grid, falling to 19th after the first tour.
With medium tyres the order of his first run, Alguersuari man stayed out until the seventeenth lap, bringing himself up to 13th, until his stop demoted the Toro Rosso to 18th.
Mixing it Up
It was a slightly more mixed affair for both Force India and Sauber in the early stint. Inhabiting the sixth row, both Force India drivers (Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta) jumped to 8th and 9th respective on the first lap, with di Resta leading the pair.
An early stop for Sutil saw the German relegated to 18th temporarily, but the quick German was back in the top ten by the fifteenth tour and 9th three laps later after pushing past Petrov.
Di Resta, meanwhile unable to draw away from his teammate, dropped behind Sutil following the Scot’s stop on lap ten, leaving the rookie 10th once Petrov pitted for new tyres.
Hoping Kobayashi could bring some home cheer to Sauber, the Japanese pilot started 7th; only suffer a slippy clutch at the start. The slow getaway lost Kobayashi five spots, dropping to 13th after the initial tyre changes played out.
Sergio Perez was unable to make much progress from his 17th place on the grid, but the Mexican – playing the long game – stayed out on his medium compound tyres until lap twenty. Perez reached as high as 9th when he was finally called in to change to softs, leaving him plenty of room to play with strategy.
Those at the front, however, were still engaged in their own personal battles. Still leading by the narrowest of margins, Red Bull brought in Vettel for his second stop on lap twenty, servicing Webber just as Vettel pulled away. It was an example of synchronised pit work, but for Vettel it would not be enough.
Still on track, Button flew in clear air, whereas Vettel rejoined with a so-so outlap. As the McLaren crew serviced Button one lap later, the significance of Jenson’s pace on older tyres became apparent.
His Pirelli’s changed to another set of used softs, Button left the pitlane, with Vettel in his mirrors. In just over three-and-a-half miles, the face of the Grand Prix changed beyond recognition.
Alonso too came in for used softs on lap twenty-two, maintaining his position in 3rd, but he was also sensing Red Bull blood.
Unlike Button, Hamilton’s strategy was getting more askew as the day went on. Massa, keen to jump the Briton, stalked the Briton, edging closer and closer to his rear with every turn – it would be soon.
With the rubbers on his Pirelli tyres ebbing away, each corner became more of a chore for the McLaren pilot, especially through the quicker turns – and on lap twenty-one, Massa chose his moment.
Struggling through the famous 130R left-hand bend, Massa positioned his Ferrari – but then mysteriously attempted to go around the outside lane of Hamilton on the approach to the tight Casino chicane. It was a move that was unlikely to ever be successful.
Hamilton, unsighted, moved over to take his line, clashing lightly with the Ferrari, breaking Massa’s front wing endplate and picking up another puncture. The McLaren crew received Hamilton straight away, while Massa continued for an extra lap, before stopping at the Ferrari garage.
Without losing much time on his extra lap, Massa jumped Hamilton, but as the pair rejoined the race, both lost out to Webber, who must have witnessed the incident from the cockpit of his RB7 with glee.
The Massa / Hamilton fight was complicated further by an out-of-position Schumacher splitting the pair. The German veteran dropped into 6th amongst the melee after a long second stint, however his strategy – and everyone else’s – was about to be altered dramatically.
Noting a clump of Massa’s front wing lingering the chicane, race control issued the safety car, neutralising the race and pulling the rest of the field to the pits like magnets.
Indeed, only Perez, Petrov, Alguersuari and Senna opted to stay on track, keeping their respective two-stop strategies on track. Schumacher, his stop times to perfection, lost a place only to Hamilton, emerging 7th.
For a single piece of debris, the safety car remained on track for quite a length – four laps in this case. As it eventually slithered back to the pits at the end of lap twenty-seven, Button shot into an untouchable lead from Vettel, Alonso and Webber, while Massa, Hamilton and Schumacher readied themselves for another fight.
Behind the Mercedes, the long running Petrov (8th) and Perez looked on, while di Resta, Sutil and Rosberg waited for an opportunity to pounce. And pounce they did.
Petrov – his Renault suffering – dropped backward like a stone, as first Perez and di Resta (lap 28), and then Sutil and Rosberg (both lap 31) forced their way by the Russian.
Unlike Petrov, Jenson Button made it look easy out front. Extending his lead by 0.4 seconds per lap, the Briton was over two seconds ahead come the end of lap thirty-two.
Indeed, the McLaren crew had a position in mind and it was 8th – as long as Button could clear the long running Perez in his final stop, then the rest would play out smoothly – and that is exactly what happened.
Extending his lead sufficiently, Button was called in on lap thirty-six to receive the medium compound Pirelli’s. With his tyres changed for the final time, the Englishman rejoined the race for what would soon be victory at Suzuka, yet the remaining tours were far from simple.
Vettel, meanwhile, was finding life difficult. His mirrors, now full of Alonso’s red Ferrari, the reigning champion, was struggling to keep the feisty Spaniard at bay.
Realising the fight was ripping his tyres apart, Vettel pitted on lap thirty-four, emerging behind a tight battle between Sutil and Rosberg – disaster. It would take the German two laps to clear them, only to find he was not behind Perez. More lost time…
His Ferrari far more stable in race conditions, Fernando Alonso stayed out in relatively clean air until lap thirty-seven, before feeling the need to take on his final set of tyres.
It was a successful stratagem, as Alonso rejoined the race, he could see only clear air ahead and a Red Bull to the rear – 2nd place was his.
As the laps ticked down, Alonso pulled himself close to the leading McLaren, attempting to force a mistake from the wily Englishman, but it was not to come. On the penultimate lap, Button hammered home his advantage with the fastest lap of the race, ensuring the win was his.
“This was a hard race – the last five or six laps were extremely tough, I had to really look after the tyres and try to save a bit of fuel to get the car home, but it was an amazing victory. It’s such an emotional victory for me: there’s so much history at this circuit, and the crowd here has been amazing, this is second only to a home victory for me.”
While disappointed not to claim the win, Alonso still appeared happy with the Ferrari’s race pace:
“Today, we did our best and we came close to winning the race. Here, the others were very strong for the first five or six laps and then we closed up to them a lot. Unlike recent races, today we had a pace that was good enough to fight for the win.”
For Sebastian Vettel, 3rd place would have to do. The Red Bull man found pace on his mediums as the race drew to its conclusion, but with the World Championship waiting, team boss Christian Horner ordered is young charger to settle for the podium… and the title.
“A lot of people have been quite confident about the title, but one of the important things was that we didn’t allow ourselves to drift away with the thought too much. Instead we concentrated on every single step and everything we have done this year and everything we have achieved.
It’s phenomenal what’s happened – we set ourselves the target to win the Championship this year and so, to win it by Japan with four more races to go, is difficult to put into words – it’s as confusing as the first one. I never imagined I would win one Championship and so to win this second one is amazing. I have a lot of good memories from Formula One, from watching it when I was young, to now and I feel fortunate and blessed to experience today.
There were so many excited people when we did the drivers’ parade today and that was my last thought when I put my helmet on. For drivers, it doesn’t get much better than this, a sunny day and all the fans excited to see what you do – I think that’s what life is about.”
More Points For…
Meanwhile, Mark Webber, running 4th, stopped a lap after Vettel emerging behind the German, solidifying his place for the rest of the race. Although unable to attack the current champion, the Australian had little to fear from those behind…
Once Webber had negotiated the like of Sutil, his race was effectively run, needed only to bring it to the flag.
Felipe Massa was having a fight on his hands, as Hamilton’s image fed his rearward view.
Taking his final set of tyres on lap thirty-seven, Massa moved to the medium compound and immediately began to feel the ill-effects of rubber not agreeing with the philosophy of car.
Lewis Hamilton, his Pirelli’s up to temperature having stopped a lap earlier, once again drew to the back of the Ferrari, but this time made easy work of Massa, blasting past the Brazilian on the start / finish straight.
The result would deteriorate further for Massa. Playing a long third stint, Michael Schumacher did not change to mediums until lap forty-one, garnering a few laps at the head of the pack in the process.
Several solid laps from the veteran in this spell played a massive part in the final result – his stop done, Schumacher emerged ahead of the still struggling Massa to claim 6th.
Sergio Perez made his long game work pay off, with a run to 8th. The Mexican once again held solid speed on aging tyres to pick up four more points for the Sauber team.
Fighting to the Last
Behind Perez, the battle for the final two points spots was a confused one – indeed the final six laps saw a mammoth five way squabble to settle 9th through 13th. The group, initially headed by Kamui Kobayashi, also featured Paul di Resta, Adrian Sutil, Vitaly Petrov and Nico Rosberg.
Having made his final stop on lap twenty-four, Kobayashi was the first to feel the ill-effects of dying rubber. Unable to manage the Pirelli’s for such a long period, the home driver began to drop backwards with first Sutil taking 8th, before di Resta and Petrov forced their way through.
His tyres now finished, Kobayashi was defenceless against the pressing group, dropping to 13th within a couple of tours.
Unfortunately for Force India, they too would feel the wrath of destroyed rubber. What looked like being a solid points finish five laps from the end, became a weak epilogue in the following few tours as first di Resta’s rubber gave up, with Sutil’s following suit moments later.
As the Force India’s struggled, Petrov ad Rosberg took advantage – and the final points paying positions. Despite struggling on the mediums immediately after his stop, Petrov regained his pace to peg the group, retaking 9th with lap 49 move on Sutil.
It nearly didn’t happen for Petrov who came close to a late clash with di Resta at Dunlop Curve. The incident forced the gripless Scot wide, allowing Rosberg to sail passed.
Under the power of his works Mercedes engine, Rosberg made easy work of Sutil with three remaining to claim the final point of the day.
Jaime Alguersuari took 14th in the sole Toro Rosso, following a rather anonymous outing.
The Spaniard came home with a two-second lead over Pastor Maldonado (15th), while Rubens Barrichello finished 17th in the other Williams. Bruno Senna split the Grove cars in 16th, following a dreadful race, where little went his way.
Heikki Kovalainen brought his Lotus home 18th, only 13 seconds shy of Barrichello. It was a very good drive by the Finn, who ran much of the race in 16th, ahead of Senna and Barrichello. Jarno Trulli brought the second Lotus to the flag several seconds later, down in 19th spot.
Both Virgin Racing and HRT’s finished, albeit two laps down. It was a day of the uneventful for the foursome, whose only thrill was Vitantonio Liuzzi going off in the early laps in the Esses.
For the record, Timo Glock took 18th ahead of Jerome d’Ambrosio (19th), Daniel Ricciardo (20th) and Vitantonio Liuzzi (21st).
And then he was Champion. And with four races to spare. Cue worried looks amongst the grid as to what Sebastian Vettel might do in 2012…
Race Rating: 3.5 out of 5
2011 Japanese Grand Prix (Rd 15, 53 laps) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1h30:53.427 2. Alonso Ferrari + 1.160 3. Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 2.006 4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 8.071 5. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 24.268 6. Schumacher Mercedes + 27.120 7. Massa Ferrari + 28.240 8. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 39.377 9. Petrov Renault + 42.607 10. Rosberg Mercedes + 44.322 11. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 54.447 12. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1:02.326 13. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1:03.705 14. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:04.194 15. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1:06.623 16. Senna Renault + 1:12.628 17. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1:14.191 18. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 1:27.824 19. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 1:36.140 20. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 21. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps 22. Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps 23. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps Fastest lap: Button, 1:36.568 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 35 World Championship, (Round 15: Drivers) 1. Vettel 324 2. Button 210 3. Alonso 202 4. Webber 194 5. Hamilton 178 6. Massa 90 7. Rosberg 63 8. Schumacher 60 9. Petrov 36 10. Heidfeld 34 11. Sutil 28 12. Kobayashi 27 13. Di Resta 20 14. Alguersuari 16 15. Buemi 13 16. Perez 13 17. Barrichello 4 18. Senna 2 19. Maldonado 1 World Championship, (Round 15: Constructors) 1. Red Bull-Renault 518 2. McLaren-Mercedes 388 3. Ferrari 292 4. Mercedes 123 5. Renault 72 6. Force India-Mercedes 48 7. Sauber-Ferrari 40 8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 29 9. Williams-Cosworth 5