Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- Red Bull now ready for Constructors’ title
- The ups and downs of the Japanese GP
- Sebastian Vettel - Born to be a Champion
Sebastian Vettel secured his second Formula One World Championship title during the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka last weekend, inevitable as he only needed one point to beat his last remaining rival McLaren driver Jenson Button. With his a back-to-back title, he won the title as well last year, therefore joined the list of eight drivers who previously also achieved this: Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jack Brabham, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Fernando Alonso.
After Schumacher Vettel is the second German to ever win the title, although many Germans have tried to seal the title before, despite their best efforts, only two succeed. In the early sixties Wolfgang Graf Berge von Trips became second in the 1961 championship, but lost his life during the 1961 Italian Grand Prix at Monza in an era Formula One was still a hazardous sport. Heinz-Harald Frentzen came close when he became second during the 1997 season when he drove for Williams, but it was his team mate Jacques Villeneuve who ultimately took the title that season.
“We had a fantastic year. The good thing is it is not over yet. Today's race was not so easy. I think we weren't that quick on the soft tyres as we hoped to be and then it was difficult. We lost two positions,” the 2011 Champion stated after the race. Race winner Button was satisfied with his victory in Japan, “I think this circuit is very special to all of us. We love this place, so to get a victory here in front of such an amazing Japanese crowd really does mean a lot. I need to say a big thanks to the team for the improvements we have had over the last few races and today they have been impeccable. Congratulations to them and congratulations to the fans. I think we put on a good show for them today.”
The race for the Drivers’ Championship
“I didn’t really see him,” is what Vettel claimed after being asked why he pushed Button onto the grass at the start. Vettel’s start wasn’t 100 per cent and he lost a little ground when he left the grid on Sunday afternoon, and immediately swerved to the right and pushed Button onto the grass. Button had to lift and brake to avoid a collision and Lewis Hamilton used the opportunity to get past Button. The Briton wasn’t happy at all and shouted over the radio this had to be reported to the FIA Stewards, but after they examined the incident, decided there was no reason for a penalty.
”From my point of view I felt that he kept coming when I wasn't alongside him but I had half my car up the inside. I thought he was coming across more than I expected and didn't give me any room and I was on the grass but I am sure when I watch it back on TV, I will have a different opinion,” Button said in the press conference.
When Vettel was asked about the incident he replied: “Initially I wasn't sure where he was, I didn't really see him. I thought he was either on the right or he was far away on the left. I saw Lewis and I thought I had a good start and kept moving to the right, looking for him. By the time I saw him, I realized that maybe I was a little bit too far to the right and then he was backing off. Obviously no intention to put him in any danger but I think we can run with two wheels on the grass.”
No penalty for Vettel and the show went on, Button stayed behind Hamilton until the first round of pit stops around lap 10. Hamilton was the first to pit, and was soon followed by Vettel, Button, Alonso and Mark Webber. Hamilton’s stop was a bit too long and Button was then behind Vettel, and was followed by Alonso, Hamilton, Massa and Webber. It soon became apparent the soft Prirelli’s only lasted ten laps and by lap 20 it was again time to switch tyres.
It was again Vettel who entered the pit lane first, followed by Webber, Button, Alonso, Massa and Hamilton. Two laps later the order was Button, Vettel, Alonso, Webber, Massa and Hamilton. The last two again found themselves battling for position and once more it was Hamilton who hit Massa’s Ferrari and as a result the Briton lost his left front wing endplate. Replays showed Hamilton hit Massa at the chicane and again the pair were under investigation by the FIA Stewards.
Massa about his British nemesis, “Once again I finish a race with a very bitter taste in my mouth. I think the footage speaks for itself: he was struggling with his tyres and I had almost come alongside him and for no reason, he moved over and hit me. I let you be the judge… It's pointless for me to say any more about it.” Hamilton in his turn blamed his rear view mirrors, “In the race, I don't really know what happened with Felipe - the car's mirrors vibrate at high-speed, so I couldn't see him pulling alongside me. I want to apologize for our cars' touching, but fortunately nothing happened to either of us. There was no bad intention towards Felipe; I've got the utmost respect for him, he's a fantastic driver and he was extremely quick today.”
With debris on track the Safety Car came out and the whole field was close together again, and Button had to look closely in his rear view mirrors to keep Vettel at bay during the restart. He got away clean and remained in the lead, he then started to pull away from the German and built up a two-second gap. Hamilton was again chasing Massa, this time for seventh place. One could almost feel the tension as Hamilton tried everything to get past the Ferrari, but even with his DRS deployed on the start/finish straight he did not succeed.
Meanwhile it was time for another round of pit stops, and it was now time to switch to the medium rubber compound. Vettel again was the first to pit, and he rejoined the race in 10th position, and when Button pitted, the question was whether he could join the race ahead of the Red Bull. Button made a very quick stop and rejoined in third place, with Vettel who had gained a few places after others ahead of him had pitted, still behind him.
Alonso was now leading with Michael Schumacher in second place, but after both made their stop Button was back in first place again, but Alonso had thanks to his quick stop taken second place from Vettel. By lap 43 Button was leading, followed by Alonso, Vettel, Webber, and Hamilton - who finally had passed Massa, while Schumacher was sixth. Behind him, Massa and Perez were dicing for seventh, Vitaly Petrov and Nico Rosberg completed the top ten.
Alonso decided to launch a last attempt to get closer to Button, but he ran out of time and finally finished just 1.1 seconds behind the Briton who scored his third win of the season. Vettel was third and finally clinched the 2011 title, Webber was fourth and Hamilton, again as a result of his continuing battle with Massa, was fifth, 24.2 seconds behind leader Button.
The ups and downs of the Japanese GP
Mixed fortunes for Mercedes’ Schumacher and Rosberg during the Japanese Grand Prix. Rosberg saw all his chances for a good position go up in smoke during qualifying as his car had a hydraulic problem and he could not set a timed lap and therefore had to start from 23rd on the grid. Schumacher did qualify in seventh place but lost one place to Kamui Kobayashi as he had not attempted to post a time in Q1, while Kobayashi did go out on the circuit but returned to the pit without a timed lap.
The seven-time World Champion had a good start and gained one place and was seventh until the first round of pit stops. After others also had pitted he was back in seventh position and was able to pit for the second time without losing his seventh place. During the second stint he had a nice fight with Vitaly Petrov in the Lotus Renault.
As he had saved a set of softs during Q1, he was able to run on a soft, soft, soft, medium strategy and during his last stop he took sixth place with Hamilton ahead of him and Massa behind him. “The pit stops were perfectly timed and everything worked out according to plan,” Schumacher said. “The team did a great job the whole weekend in finding performance and transforming it into the race. I think there was not more to expect and achieve,” he added.
For Rosberg it became a difficult race, after the start he had problems overtaking slower cars and during the first stint had problems overtaking Sergio Perez and Jarno Trulli who were dicing for position ahead of him. By the time he had to make his second stop he was in 12th place, and pitted without losing that 12th place. He was then stuck behind the Force India of Adrian Sutil until he had to pit. Rosberg had advanced to eighth place when he made his final stop, and rejoined in 13th place just behind Petrov. Both moved up two places after overtaking both Force Indias and he finally finished in 10th place scoring one point.
Rosberg commented, “I had fun out there with a few nice overtaking manoeuvres. This is definitely one of the toughest tracks for overtaking so starting from the back of the grid meant that I had a pretty tough job.” And added, “After this complicated weekend, I hope to have a more normal weekend in Korea and fight in our usual position.”
Local hero Kobayashi impressed his home crowd with an excellent seventh time during qualifying, but a bad start on Sunday robbed the Japanese Sauber driver of a possible points finish. Sauber gave the Japanese star an extra set of softs for qualifying to give him the best possible position for his home Grand Prix, but he had a dreadful start and was passed by five cars, resulting in a twelfth position. “At the start when I released the clutch the car suddenly was in anti-stall mode, and that was why I lost five positions straight away. I tried to fight other cars then but overtaking wasn't as easy as it was here last year,” he explained. Also the Safety Car came out at a very unfortunate moment and ruined his tyre strategy. “I did my second stop when the Safety Car was out, we changed from the soft to the medium compound and with those tyres I then had to go to the end of the race - 29 laps. In the end they were just so bad that I couldn't defend my position anymore,” said Kobayashi who crossed the finish line in 13th place.
For his Mexican team mate Perez the race was a lot smoother, although the rookie qualified in 17th place as a result of a technical problem in Q1, and also suffered from the flu this weekend. Also thanks to his by now famous two-stop strategy -- he started on the medium tyres, then changed to the softs and ended his race on the soft compound after his second stop -- he finished eighth. “Today the strategy with the tyres worked out very well for me, and the team did a very good job on this. Also the car's performance was good. I pushed very hard, and gave my maximum today. Physically it was very hard for me because I am suffering from flu, so I'm totally happy that I brought the car home in a position good enough to score points,” he said after the race.
Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi is the next pair that recorded mixed results this weekend. For Buemi the race was over after his first stop on lap 11. His pit crew failed to properly secure his right front wheel and not much later it came off. “I had a very good start, passing five cars and running P11. I even ran tenth for a few laps before my first pit stop. 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,” the unhappy Swiss said. “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,” he concluded his comments.
Also for both Lotus Renault drivers Petrov and Bruno Senna the race delivered a mixed result. After the fiasco in Singapore, Senna and Petrov had qualified in eighth and ninth position respectively. At the start Senna lost four positions, “It was a disappointing race having started the race in such a promising position. Vitaly squeezed me a little bit in the second corner, which made it tricky for me to recover.” Which is odd as the Russian was in tenth place while Senna lost another three positions the next few laps which of course had nothing to do with Petrov.
The Brazilian suffered from massive tyre degradation and finished 16th. “I encountered lots of traffic problems and my tyres were degrading quite fast. Overall, I think we can learn from this weekend,” Senna said. Petrov did a better job and finished in ninth position and scored two points. He had also made a gamble and had started on the medium tyres, and later towards the end of the race switched to the faster soft tyres. “It was difficult to tell how the strategy was working and it was a challenge for the first two stints fighting against those on softer tyres,” the Russian said. And he smiled saying, “When I put on the soft tyres towards the end of the race I felt so much grip; I smiled then I pushed a lot! Then I overtook I don't know how many cars!”
Good vibrations, bad vibrations
While Button seems to improve race by race during the second part of the season, Hamilton has been losing his grip on the championship and got involved in all kind of incidents, and he has been criticized for his ongoing woes with Massa, who was again his main victim at Suzuka after he already had problems with the Briton during the Monaco and Singapore Grand Prix. Massa was again disappointed and hinted he didn’t even want to speak to the 2008 World Champion anymore, but his team boss Martin Whitmarsh still defends him. When asked about the situation Whitmarsh returned the question, “Sadly they do seem to be magnetized don't they?” Whitmarsh thinks it was just a race incident, “Lewis did not see him. You could say 'well he should have done', but are the mirrors big enough, good enough? Maybe not, but it was one of those things.”
But was it just one of those things? Hamilton had already hit out at Schumacher and Webber as both overtook him during the final stages of qualifying and called it ‘the most ridiculous thing that's ever happened to me in qualifying’. According to Hamilton they were the reason he didn’t make it to the finish line in time to start his flying lap, but both Schumacher and Webber insisted Hamilton had just been too slow and he was in fact the reason they were too late for their final qualifying lap as well.
“I didn't even see Michael as I gave Mark room, but he nearly crashed on me on the left, so it was quite dangerous. I really hope somebody finds the footage for what happened because it wasn't right and it stopped my last qualifying lap,” Hamilton fumed after qualifying. And indeed someone did find the footage and after Hamilton had seen it, he changed his story, “It was my mistake. I should have got out sooner but I was making a wing change and I went out too late.”
Fact is that Hamilton was beaten by Button and Vettel for the fifth time, Button scored 101 points in the past five races, Hamilton only 44. The numbers speak for themselves but Hamilton was apparently at a loss when being asked to explain the current situation. “You're all trying to put out solutions as to why I'm not going well, but there is no solution, there is no answer to it. I don't know what the answer is, so I'd appreciate it if you didn't just jump to conclusions because I don't know what the answer is,” a somewhat annoyed Hamilton said.
Mansell, the 1992 World Champion and occasional FIA Steward did have an answer, “Too many times he has positioned his car where he has caused an incident. He needs somebody who he respects to tell him on occasions that this is how it is and this is how you should conduct yourself. At times, Lewis doesn't always engage his brain before his mouth.”
Sebastian Vettel - Born to be a Champion
Since Vettel officially entered Formula One when he joined the BMW-Sauber team as test driver in 2006, he has impressed everyone. He made his race debut in 2007 for BMW-Sauber during the American Grand Prix at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he replaced Robert Kubica who had heavily crashed during the Canadian Grand Prix one week earlier. The at the time 19 year and 349 days old German became the youngest Formula One driver to score a World Championship point as he landed eight position.
His talents hadn’t gone unnoticed and after he was released from his BMW-Sauber contract he joined Scuderia Toro Rosso that same year as replacement for Scot Speed after the American had failed to deliver decent results and famously clashed with Team Principal Franz Tost. Vettel initially struggled with the Toro Rosso STR2, but during a rain soaked race at Suzuka he became the youngest driver (20 years and 89 days) ever to lead a Grand Prix.
After his pit stop he had, thanks to a number of crashes of other competitors, advanced to third place again before the during the Safety Car period crashed into the back of the second placed Red Bull, piloted by a man who would later become his team mate: Webber. Vettel was handed a ten-place grid penalty but the penalty was reduced to a reprimand after footage of the incident showed his crash was actually the result of the ‘erratic behavior’ of another man who would later become his archrival: Hamilton, who according to some still suffers from erratic behavior.
During the next race in China Vettel beat both sister cars of the Red Bull team, and finished in fourth position. Thanks to his talents Toro Rosso decided to keep the German in 2008, a decision they would never regret. After a disappointing start of the season - he had retired from six of the 11 first races; he became the youngest Formula One driver to win a Grand Prix and won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in his relatively slow Toro Rosso. It was and still is the only victory the Italian team scored.
In 2009 he moved to Red Bull Racing to become Webber’s team mate, won the Chinese Grand Prix and went on to win the British, Japanese and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix as well, and finished the season in second place behind the Brawn GP of Button. From then on it was clear the man born in Heppenheim, Germany, was destined to win championships and became the 2010 and the 2011 World Champion. But it hasn’t always easy for Vettel who so far has scored two titles, participated in 77 races, won 19 of them, and finished on the podium on 33 occasions, scored 27 pole positions, and is now also the youngest driver to secure back-to-back championships.
Last year the in-team battle with Webber ultimately led to the famous crash with the Australian during the Turkish Grand Prix, and at some point the relation with Webber was so tensed that both drivers were no longer ‘on speaking terms’. Their relationship improved thanks to the efforts of Team Principal Christian Horner and Red Bull Advisor ex-Formula One driver Dr. Helmut Marko. This year Vettel won nine of the 15 races, and scored 12 pole positions and together with Webber has completely dominated the season.
But it wasn’t an easy season for Red Bull; the team has been accused of using an illegal diffuser, a flexing front wing, a flexing floor, and have even been accused of using an illegal ride-height system, which provoked the wrath of designer Adrian Newey. And it must be said, during countless meticulous examinations of the RB7 by FIA officials, nothing illegal has ever been found and it perhaps would have been better other teams had examined their own car to see why it was slower than the Red Bull RB7.
Comments on Vettel’s second World Championship title
After Vettel sealed his second World Championship the reactions poured in, and all reactions had one thing in common, all are convinced Vettel is one of the greatest Formula One drivers - despite the fact he has only just begun his already brilliant career.
Sir Jackie Stewart, three-times World Champion wrote in his column for the UK Mail, “My best years were my last three years of racing. I was able to deal with things better because I had more experience, more knowledge and a little bit of wisdom. Sebastian Vettel has that at a younger age than I have seen in any other driver. This year he is unquestionably the most mature 24-year-old racing driver I have seen.” And added, “You can only be the best of your time and right now, make no mistake, he is the best!”
Damon Hill, 1996 World Champion, “From the moment he put his Toro Rosso on pole and won at Monza, that was a sign, a Schumacher moment, where a guy turns up and goes against the form, changes the form.” And Hill continued, “His ability to pop a lap in right at the last minute of qualifying and just turn it on when he needs to show he's got a bit in hand.” Ex-Red Bull driver and now BBC commentator David Coulthard remarked, “There's no question he's got all the foundations to establish himself as one of the true greats of the sport. He's in a very elite club of double world champions, back-to-back world champions.”
Another three-times World Champion, Niki Lauda, last year already praised Vettel and even took his trademark red cap off to congratulate and pay his respects to him during an Austrian TV show, an impressive moment as the Austrian has rarely taken his cap off in public after his dreadful accident at the old Nurburgring in 1976. The now 62-year old Lauda said, “He is this kind of person, every lap he is doing and every race he is doing he wants to get quicker and quicker. It is the best performance so far in Formula One, at his age to win two [titles].”
The UK Telegraph headlined, “Vettel may rule for 10 years”, while the Independent reported Vettel has the ‘hallmarks of a new Prost or Senna’. German newspapers can’t get enough of Vettel, his hometown Heppenheim has for the occasion turned into Vetttelheim. TV stations aired specials about the young German, and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent ‘Baby Schumi’, which is his nickname in Germany, her congratulations.
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner predicted ‘the best has still to come’. “He joins a very elite group now; he has marked himself out as one of the greats. He will continue to grow from here. He is continuing to get stronger and to evolve as a driver and a person. The best is still to come.”
Alonso gave his reaction, “Winning two world titles at his age, in a season in which he has done it all - in qualifying, the races and every other way, so perfectly, is amazing and it is well deserved.” Mercedes boss Norbert Haug, “We take our hats off to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing - not just for winning the title, but also for defending it with an exceptional level of performance throughout the season.” Ross Brawn agreed, “He has driven impeccably all year, and together they have set the standards we must now aim for and exceed.”
Despite all the flattering reactions, Vettel remains calm about his second title. “Surely it will take a little bit of time. In the quiet moments I will have either tonight, tomorrow or in the next weeks for myself or for people who are very close to me. I will take time and let things sink in a little bit.” Vettel wouldn’t be Vettel without a joke about his age and cheekily remarked, “Did you notice that Michael [Schumacher] is the youngest seven-time World Champion -- ever?!”
Not much time to party - next stop: Korea
With the Korean Grand Prix set for this weekend, Vettel and Red Bull have little time to celebrate the title, but Marko and Red Bull have promised he will get a proper championship’s party. “Don't worry. Next we will get the constructors' title and then we will celebrate properly,” Marko said. Which of course means Red Bull still has some unfinished business to take care of this year: winning the Constructors’ Championship.
There are still a maximum of 43 points to earn during each of the next four Grands Prix, in total 172 points. Red Bull is currently leading the championship with 518 points, followed by McLaren with 388 points, a difference of 130 points. If McLaren wants to spoil the party for Red Bull, they have to take first and second place during the next four races, and both Vettel and Webber have to finish outside the top ten, which is possible, but highly unlikely.
The Red Bull RB7 and its Renault power plant have a 100 per cent reliability record, the team has so far finished all races but one, as during the Italian Grand Prix Webber crashed after a collision with Massa. Vettel and Webber are together responsible for the 15 pole positions this year, Vettel has never finished lower than fourth position, while Webber has not finished lower than fifth position. To be continued at the Korean International Circuit near Yeongam …