Easy. Around the fluent twists of Suzuka on Sunday, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel simply made it look easy.
Felipe Massa took 2nd place to claim his first podium for Ferrari since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix, while Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi took home a very popular 3rd place from his home Grand Prix.
For the win… again
It wasn’t easy of course – not by a long shot. This late season charge – reminiscent of the lead-in to Vettel’s first championship – comes on the back of an upturn of performance at Red Bull, compared to Ferrari and McLaren, who have noticeably dropped back.
Meanwhile Lotus’ push for podiums and prizes may have ceased for this year.
Engaged at the front, Vettel’s drive was dipped in a charming subtlety. Improved qualifying certainly helped the reigning champion, not forgetting a perfect start, followed by a set of well-executed laps designed to garner reasonable gaps for his pair of pitstops.
In this instance, all the bases were covered and everything came neatly together. When Vettel and Red Bull sing, the precision must be daunting.
Occasionally toward the race conclusion, the double-world champion could have been accused of flaunting his rather obvious skill as he continued to press home ever faster, but that would be churlish.
On this day, it is arguable few could have come close to touching Vettel and his Renault-powered RB8 machine – and this is something which must surely be playing on the minds of the folks at Ferrari and McLaren.
Smash and bang
This, of course, isn’t even taking into account the safety car period either. Launched almost as soon as the race started, the field was forced to close up before flying again (on lap 4), with Vettel – naturally – retaining the lead.
From the restart onward, there was no challenge, no danger from other runners, nothing to stop the Vettel machine.
“It’s been a fantastic weekend. Yesterday’s qualifying was perfect and today again; the balance of the car was amazing. We didn’t change too much at the stops; it just seemed to work fantastically well. I’m very happy, the guys have been pushing very hard and even though we didn’t have major upgrades here, it still seemed to come together and the balance was there – and that’s what made the difference today.
“It’s a shame for Alonso, it’s not something you hope for and it could happen to us at the next race. We’ve seen this year there are a lot of up and downs and things change quickly – we have to keep our heads down and take it step by step.”
The safety car was triggered by a series of clashes in turns one and two, most notably when Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) and Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) came together as they escaped the grid.
Vying for position amidst Sergio Perez’ Sauber and Jenson Button (McLaren), Raikkonen was squeezed onto the Japanese dirt, clipping Alonso’s left rear as he regained the road. The Finn lost a portion of his front wing, while Alonso spun off with a puncture, losing the engine as he slid to a halt.
The Ferrari man was rather circumspect post-race:
“Today, we were very unlucky: to finish a race like this, at the very first corner is really a shame. Contact from Raikkonen caused a puncture to the left rear tyre and my race ended there. Unfortunately, when you start in the middle of the pack, these things can happen…”
Now only four points ahead of Vettel in the Drivers’ Championship, Alonso knows both he and Ferrari need to bring their A-game to the final races.
“I’m not worried, but we must react to the step forward that the other competitors have made. Now we start a sort of mini-championship, run over five Grands Prix.”
It was a mindless move by Grosjean, who appeared to be paying more attention to Perez as he exited turn one. With acute lack of awareness, the Lotus driver held his speed steady entering turn two; Webber meanwhile had slowed to make the apex…
The often outspoken Webber was less than complimentary about the Frenchman’s tactics.
“The guys confirmed that it was the first-lap nutcase again, Grosjean. The rest of us are trying to fight for some decent results each weekend but he is trying to get to the third corner as fast as he can at every race.
“It makes it frustrating because a few big guys probably suffered from that and maybe he needs another holiday. He needs to have a look at himself. How many mistakes can you make, how many times can you make the same error? First-lap incidents… yeah… it’s quite embarrassing at this level for him.”
Perez, meanwhile, ran wide in turn two as he avoided Webber/Grosjean, tightening the field up and forcing Williams’ Bruno Senna into the side of Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), with Rosberg retiring and Senna receiving front-end damage.
The stewards saw fit to give Senna a drive through (unfairly in my opinion), while Grosjean deservedly garnered a ten-second stop/go penalty.
Back on the podium
Massa made the most of both carnage and a good start. Staring 10th, the Brazilian leapt into 4th after all the bumping and grinding, a spot he would hold until his first tyre stop on lap 17.
The Ferrari man had spent the opening portion of the race chasing Kobayashi (2nd) and Button (3rd), finding an extra few laps from his new soft Pirelli’s, compared the used rubber latched to the Sauber and McLaren pair.
Pitting on lap 13 (Button) and 14 (Kobayashi) cost the duo as they emerged behind the long-running Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso).
It was more than enough and as the first round of stops drew to a close, Massa returned to the circuit (on new hard Pirelli’s) ahead of Kobayashi, with Button now dropped to 4th.
From there, Massa slowly extended his gap to Kobayashi, rarely feeling the pressure from the Japanese racer thereafter. With persistent questions over his drive for 2013, this podium could not have come at a better time for the likeable Brazilian.
“It was a fantastic race! Being back on the podium after almost two years away is just great and I feel really uplifted. They have been two tough years for me and, sometimes, a million things go through your mind, some of them bad, but finally I can be happy! It’s an important result psychologically and also in terms of my future, at least I think so!
“I got a good start and managed to get through the chaos at the first corner unscathed and then I immediately felt I had a good pace and that I could keep close to Button and Kobayashi. I got past them at the pit stop thanks to a great strategy and immediately I realised that, even on the Hard, my pace was competitive.”
Another first in 3rd
Kobayashi brought home his Sauber home 3rd, much to the delight of the home fans, becoming the first Japanese driver on the podium at a home Grand Prix since Aguri Suzuki in 1990.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, it is hard to believe – I achieved my first podium in Suzuka! It was a fantastic race and we have been working really hard to get to this point since we were lacking pace on Friday. But the Sauber F1 Team did a great job to recover from there.”
For much of the race, Kobayashi held a gap of three to four seconds over Button, but strategy would dictate a final change to a new set of hard tyres on lap 31 for the Sauber racer – four tours before McLaren brought Button.
It was a move that could well have cost Sauber its fourth podium of the season:
“I had a very long last stint today and Jenson (Button) changed for fresh tyres later. My rear tyres where really bad in the end and I had a lot of oversteer. But regardless of this I had to push to defend my podium place.”
Button charged in the final stint, bringing the gap to Kobayashi to only half-a-second at the line, yet for all his pressing, the McLaren driver could make no use of either the DRS zone or his KERS unit – and Kobayashi knew it:
“Only during the final lap did I allow myself to really think I can keep him behind me, because then the best overtaking opportunity at the end of the straight was over, and then I saw all the fans and the raised hands. It meant a lot to me and I want to thank the Japanese fans.”
Considering he started 8th, a top four was a decent effort for Button although it matters little in to him in the Drivers’ Championship stakes.
“I ran as high as third during the first stint, but in hindsight it was probably an error to make our first pitstop so early. Both [Kobayashi] and I were compromised behind a Toro Rosso, and that cost both of us a bit of time to [Massa]. Towards the end, I was able to push and start catching Kamui, but he controlled his final set of tyres very well.”
Lessons in overtaking
Lewis Hamilton came home 5th following a couple of feisty duals with Perez and later Raikkonen. The former champion enjoyed an early tussle with the Mexican Perez, which saw the pair swapping places through laps five and six – finished neatly by the Sauber man with a dive down the inside of Hamilton at the hairpin.
Hamilton retook Perez in the first set of stops – despite a brief stall by the McLaren man – however an agitated Perez attempted a repeat of his earlier hairpin pass, only to find the line covered by Hamilton, throwing the Sauber driver into an embarrassing spin and retirement.
McLaren had better prepare themselves for that next year – while fundamentally quick and easy on his car, Perez’ habit of spinning off at key moments could rankle the English team.
Hamilton’s mini-stall allowed Raikkonen to jump ahead. Despite missing a chunk of his front wing, the Finn maintained solid pace throughout, but there does appear to be a lingering feeling that Lotus have lost the edge on the top three teams.
This certainly showed in the pitstops at least. After edging out a four-second gap to Hamilton early in his second stint, Raikkonen began to fall back toward Hamilton as the tyres aged, with less than two-seconds separating as the Lotus peeled off on lap 30.
One lap was all Hamilton needed. A stellar in-lap, followed by an equally astonishing pitstop brought the McLaren out wheel-to-wheel with Raikkonen. Despite having a slight speed advantage into turn one, the Finn lost the inside line – and the position – to Hamilton as the second turn folded out toward the “Esses”. Brilliant stuff.
And the rest
Raikkonen had to watch his back for the duration, as both Nico Hulkenberg (7th) and Pastor Maldonado (8th) followed him home. Both endured difficult qualifying sessions, leaving them 15th and 12th respectively; however their races were saved by a pair of very good starts.
Webber overcame his first lap ramming to claim 9th at the flag. The Australian was left 20 seconds behind the pack at the restart, due to the quick safety car period, yet he Red Bull racer bided his time and carved his way through the field developed – a quiet, but excellent drive.
Ricciardo held Michael Schumacher off for the final points place, thanks in part to an encouraging lengthy middle-stint on used soft Pirelli’s. The German pressed Ricciardo hard in the final laps, desperate to grab that final point from the plucky Australian.
It’s arguable that Schumacher may well have done so and score more points had it not been for a moment of brain fade on the streets of Singapore, which resulted in a 10-place grid drop.
Paul di Resta (12th) and Jean-Eric Vergne (13th) endured rather indifferent days at Suzuka, while an embattled Senna finished 14th only 21.8 seconds outside the points, despite four pitstops…
Once again Heikki Kovalainen won the battle of the minnows, bringing his Caterham back 15th ahead of Timo Glock (16th), Vitaly Petrov (17th) and Pedro de la Rosa (18th). The early-portion of the race saw an impressive run by Kovalainen, holding 11th spot for a time ahead of Vergne; however as expected the Renault-powered machine faded as the race progressed.
Neither Charles Pic nor Narain Karthikeyan made it to the end, with both retiring on laps 39 and 34 respectively.
So now what? With the Korean Grand Prix this weekend, the momentum has swung toward to Vettel and Red Bull.
Alonso’s retirements at Spa and Suzuka may have irreparably hurt his title chances, while the Red Bull machine carries of regardless – and that’s a shame. Vettel will now win this world championship, but he will do so having not being the best driver in the field.
2012 Japanese Grand Prix (53 laps) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h28:56.242 2. Massa Ferrari + 20.639 3. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 24.538 4. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 25.098 5. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 46.490 6. Raikkonen Lotus-Renault + 50.424 7. Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes + 51.159 8. Maldonado Williams-Renault + 52.364 9. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 54.675 10. Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:06.919 11. Schumacher Mercedes + 1:07.769 12. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1:23.460 13. Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:28.645 14. Senna Williams-Renault + 1:28.709 15. Kovalainen Caterham-Renault + 1 lap 16. Glock Marussia-Cosworth + 1 lap 17. Petrov Caterham-Renault + 1 lap 18. De la Rosa HRT-Cosworth + 1 lap 19. Grosjean Lotus-Renault + 2 laps Retirements: Driver Team On lap Pic Marussia-Cosworth 39 Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 34 Perez Sauber-Ferrari 19 Alonso Ferrari 1 Rosberg Mercedes 1 Fastest lap: Vettel 1:35.774
World Championship standings, round 15: Drivers: 1. Alonso 194 2. Vettel 190 3. Raikkonen 157 4. Hamilton 152 5. Webber 134 6. Button 131 7. Rosberg 93 8. Grosjean 82 9. Massa 69 10. Perez 66 11. Kobayashi 50 12. Di Resta 44 13. Schumacher 43 14. Hulkenberg 37 15. Maldonado 33 16. Senna 25 17. Vergne 8 18. Ricciardo 7 Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 324 2. McLaren-Mercedes 283 3. Ferrari 263 4. Lotus-Renault 239 5. Mercedes 136 6. Sauber-Ferrari 116 7. Force India-Mercedes 81 8. Williams-Renault 58 9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 15