Today’s race could have been a very effective advertisement for Renault powered engines, as Red Bull and Lotus took out the podium. Sebastian Vettel didn’t manage to secure his fourth Word Championship title at today’s Japanese Grand Prix, despite taking home his ninth victory for the season. Team mate, Mark Webber came home an unlucky second after qualifying on pole, while Lotus’ Romain Grosjean had the drive of his career to finish third.
The first two laps of the circuit saw more incident than the rest of the race. Neither Red Bull driver had a particularly quick get away off line line, which immediately put both Vettel and Webber on the defensive. Grosjean executed a well thought out move into turn 1, going around the outside of Vettel, as the Red Bull marked Hamilton. Webber didn’t have the initial pace, and conceded the lead to Grosjean. Vettel and Hamilton made contact coming down the pit straight, resulting in an immediate right rear puncture for the Mercedes, sending him to the back of the grid and forcing him to limp back to the pits. Behind the rest of the field Bianchi and Van der Garde made a mess of each other, both retiring from the race. Hamilton’s damage to the under tray proved to be too much to recover from, and the team retired him on lap 7.
Most of the race was led by Romain Grosjean, who, on a track where tyre degradation plays a key role in strategy, managed his tyres and his pace extremely well. Particularly of note was the Frenchman holding off an attacking Webber during the final stint of the race. Grosjean is a completely different driver compared to this point in the season last year, and I now enjoy watching him race for very different reasons. Team mate, Kimi Raikkonen had a fairly standard race, despite being out of position in the middle of the pack. The Finn had a good battle between Button in the final laps, and finishing well in the points in fifth.
It was refreshing to see a race where not only did Vettel not have his usual head start from pole, but also have to manage his tyre strategy to ensure he had enough fight from third. The championship leader had quite a scruffy race, locking his brakes on several occasions. Webber had a much more controlled race, despite finishing second. The Australian was forced to run a three stop strategy, after using more of his tyres up in the opening laps of the race. Tyre strategy was always going to be the podium decider today, and Webber was unfortunate, but wouldn’t have been able to keep a competitive pace on two stops due to the increased downforce from his rear wing set up.
Massa had a disappointing finish to what had been a good race. The one-man-team kept Alonso at bay for most of the race, despite at times lapping slower than the other Ferrari. Admittedly, Alonso only managed to get close enough to Massa while being stuck in the train of cars following Ricciardo. Later in the race, Massa was handed a drive through penalty for speeding in the pit lane, the Formula 1 equivalent of running in the school corridors. The order for the drive through took Kimi by surprise, misinterpreting his team’s message, thinking that he’d been given the penalty.
Sauber had their best points finish of the season, as Hulkenberg took advantage over the squabbling Ferrari’s and pitted early. Gutierrez delivered the race of his career today, starting from fourteenth, to finish well in the points in seventh. The rookie driver demonstrated some quite controlled battles for position against the Ferrari’s, and Kimi, and finally Rosberg as they approached the checkered flag. Not a bad 70th birthday present for Peter Sauber.
Both Force India’s finally managed to make it to the checkered flag today. Neither Sutil nor di Resta made contact with another driver, or any part of the circuit they weren’t meant to. Quite an achievement for the team, as both drivers were in a constant battle for position with Pastor Maldonado.
McLaren made a mess of their pit stops today, costing first Button, and then Perez valuable time. Button spent most of his race battling for position in the middle of the pack against the Ferrari’s and Kimi Raikkonen. Button made the most of a less than ideal race for the team, and finished just inside the points in ninth. Perez had a less than fortunate race, irritating several drivers, and making contact with Rosberg. The Mexican might have been the recipient today a rather dodgy sounding radio message from Vettel to his pit wall. “Keep him away from me, even if he’s on fresher tyres”, went out over the radio as Vettel approached to lap him. There are some thoughts that this may have been directed at Webber, who at the time was fast gaining on the leader. On the one hand, Perez was on fresh tyres, and particularly reckless earlier in the race, having already made contact with Rosberg (suffering from a puncture and sending himself to the back of the grid in the first place). If I were Vettel I’d want to make sure Perez well and truly obeyed the blue flags. On the other hand, Vettel could have been feeling the pressure knowing that Mark too was on fresher tyres, and putting in faster lap times.
Further getting caught up in the Perez debacle was Toro Rosso’s, Daniel Ricciardo. Although this time it was Ricciardo who fared second best. Ricciardo overtook Perez on the outside leading into 130R, but failed to keep traction and ran off track. The Toro Rosso managed to get back on track, and still ahead of Perez. The stewards, however, viewed this as gaining an advantage by leaving the track, and awarded him a drive through penalty. An interesting decision by the stewards, as this time the punishment outweighed the offence, and cost Ricciardo his race.
So, at Suzuka we were once again treated to the never-ending German National Anthem, as Vettel took the top step. Had Webber been able to overtake Grosjean sooner, maybe we would have heard the Australian National Anthem*, alas, Formula 1 is not a sport of “ifs”. I’d like to see Webber take at least one victory in his retiring season, possibly when Formula 1 moves across to the subcontinent.
* Ours is much shorter, I think you’d enjoy it.
||Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing-Renault)
||Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing-Renault)
||Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing-Renault)
||Romain Grosjean (Lotus-Renault)
||1:34.587 Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing-Renault)