Japanese Grand Prix - The Suzuka circuit lives up to its past reputation: Demanding, tough and at times more challenging than expected After qualifying was postponed to Sunday morning due to the torrential rainfall on Saturday afternoon, all 24...
Japanese Grand Prix - The Suzuka circuit lives up to its past reputation: Demanding, tough and at times more challenging than expected
After qualifying was postponed to Sunday morning due to the torrential rainfall on Saturday afternoon, all 24 drivers were on a double duty on Sunday. Although there was also rain forecasted for Sunday, it was nevertheless a sunny and warm day at the Japanese Suzuka circuit, the ambient temperature was about 27C, while the temperature of the track was 35C. Bridgestone didn't have to supply their intermediate and wet weather tyres for their last home Grand Prix, the track was dry during qualifying and the race, the skies were clear, and not a drop of rain fell.
A tough day for the drivers: after qualifying they had a few hours to prepare themselves for the race. At the same time they also had to attend the mandatory meetings with the media, and thus had very little time for the usual team briefings to discuss race strategy with their engineers. But after some hard work, also by the mechanics, all cars and drivers made it to the start grid, except the Virgin of Lucas di Grassi. The Brazilian had a big accident at the 130R corner during his reconnaissance lap, and he ended his race in the tyre stack before it even had started. But he wouldn't be the only one to be disappointed that afternoon, right after the start a number of drivers also crashed and the safety car had to be deployed to give the marshals the opportunity to retrieve the stranded cars.
Renault leaves Suzuka empty-handed
Renault driver Vitaly Petrov's race was about 100 meters long, as he collided with the Williams of Nico Hulkenberg, his car took a sharp left turn and hit the barriers in front of the main grandstand, both drivers were unhurt but retired from the race. Of course they had a different view on the events that led to the crash. Hulkenberg gave his view about the crash, "I had a bad start and I didn't get off the line at all. I then saw Petrov coming up behind me. He touched my front right wheel and that was it. You never want to finish a race that early, but today it happened and it was unfortunate for us both."
Petrov's account of the events, "I made a good start and managed to overtake Felipe Massa. I was then going passed Hulkenberg with Heidfeld on my right when he 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." After the race the FIA Stewards handed Petrov a five-place grid penalty for the next event.
Other Renault driver Robert Kubica had a promising start when he took second position after Turn 1 and 2. But when the safety car came out he noticed a problem with his car, he lost speed and finally had to park his car. "In the second lap behind the safety car I was warming up the tyres and I nearly lost the car. I thought to begin with it was a problem with the driveshaft, but apparently it was the wheel. I don't know if there was a technical problem but it became difficult to follow the safety car so I moved to the side of the track and then I lost the wheel," the disappointed Pole later said.
Next two victims were Massa and Vitantonio Liuzzi. Massa, who didn't make it into Q3, chose the inside line at Turn 1, but he went onto the grass, lost control and collided with Liuzzi. "At the start, Rosberg, who was in front of me, got away poorly and at first I tried to move to the left, but Sutil was coming there. Then I moved to the right, but in so doing I found myself on the grass and the kerb. At that point the car took off on its own, I was unable to make it through the first corner and I ended up colliding with Liuzzi's Force India," the Ferrari driver said.
Liuzzi, who retired for the second time in a row, "I had a great start and passed five or six cars before the first corner and thought I was pretty safe but then when I went into turn one I saw Felipe coming up on the inside - I don't know if he had broken something on the car but he seemed to come into my side like a bullet. I don't think he was in control of the car at the time, but it's a shame as it's another first corner accident and then retirement for me."
Last one to retire from the race due to an accident was Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg. Only six laps shy of the finish, the left rear wheel seemed to have detached from his car, and he hit the tyre stack at high speed. Rosberg, who had made a very early pit stop was until that moment sixth, ahead of his team colleague Michael Schumacher, "My tyres were suffering from having done such a long stint so it was tough to maintain a good pace but it was enough to keep Michael behind. Then something broke on the rear of the car and put me into the tyre barrier which ended my race early."
Red Bull unbeatable at Suzuka
Both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber had a good start, no problems with the clutch this time. Webber inherited second place from Kubica, and when the safety car left the track both Red Bulls took off, followed by the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso, and the two McLarens. It became a pretty uneventful race for Red Bull, Alonso initially could keep up with the Red Bulls and pitted for new tyres together with Vettel on lap 24, but he was never a real threat for Webber or Vettel. Webber made his stop one lap later, and rejoined in third position behind leader Jenson Button, who was on an alternative tyre strategy. But when Button pitted 13 laps later, both Red Bulls were again leading the race, and crossed the finish line without a glitch, claiming another 1-2 victory for the Red Bull Racing team.
Vettel about the first part of the race, "Mark was running in second and was trying to put me under pressure, but having track position helps and the race was basically about managing the car and the tyres until the first stop." He wasn't worried about Button ahead of him during the last part of the race, "We were then behind Jenson at the start of the second stint. I wasn't pushing as I was trying to control the gap while waiting for him to make his stop. It wasn't easy today, but it was a nice and controlled race."
Webber, who was never more than a couple of seconds behind Vettel, "You always want to win, but second was okay. The difference between Seb and I this weekend was the half-tenth that separated us in qualifying; that gave him track position at the start of the race, on a circuit where it's very difficult to overtake."
Praise for Alonso, yellow card for Massa
Alonso did the best he could after he had qualified in fifth place, but the Red Bulls were simply too fast at Suzuka, and he crossed the finish line in third position. Alonso was also very lucky, Kubica had to retire, Button's strategy did not work, and Hamilton had a technical problem. Alonso, "We tried to put the Red Bulls under a bit of pressure, but there was nothing to be done. Here they were perfect and when that happens they are really hard to beat." He is confident he can catch up with Webber, "We come out of this weekend with our heads held high, knowing that we must try and beat Webber in the coming races to close down the gap to the top."
While Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo was extremely happy with Alonso's performance, he was less enthusiastic about Massa's recent achievements. Ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix he already hinted that Massa had to up his performance to support Alonso in his title bid. "I'm sorry for Felipe, who was certainly not lucky this weekend: I'm sure that he will be the surprise of the last three races of the season. After this bad day he will be desperately keen to react and we will do everything to give him the possibility to win," Montezemolo said on Monday. Ferrari is still hoping to win the Constructors' Championship, and Italian media are now speculating Montezemolo's words are in fact an 'Italian ultimatum' for the Brazilian.
Difficult weekend for McLaren
Lewis Hamilton had a bad weekend, he crashed on Friday, after his car was fixed it was too late to put a few good laps on the clocks, he changed his gearbox on Saturday which gave him a five-place grid penalty, and during the race he could not keep up with the Red Bulls, and worse, by lap 40 he had a problem with the third gear of his new gearbox. A few laps later he was forced to let Button pass him, and he was actually happy he made it to the finish line.
"With the gearbox, I was running normally, then downshifted into third, accelerated and lost the gear. After that, I had to rely on just fourth gear and above. I didn't think the car would make it -- it was making a lot of strange noises, but I kept my fingers crossed, tried not to shift too much and looked after it to the flag. I'm thankful and so happy that I least saw the end of the race -- it's my first finish for a long time," the disappointed Briton reported after the race.
It was a disappointing race for Button as well, his alternative strategy didn't work, unlike the rest of the top ten he had started on the soft tyres, and was hoping to gain advantage during the first part of the race, but the safety car spoiled his plans when it stayed on track for six laps, and drivers on the hard tyre were equally fast. "I think we stayed out too long for our first stint. As soon as we saw the others were quick on the Option [hard tyre compound], and I wasn't able to pull a gap, or pressure anyone in front, maybe it would have been sensible to pit at that point and fit the Option."
FIA Stewards' report
Apart from the decision involving the postponement of qualifying to Sunday morning, the FIA Stewards had an easy weekend at Suzuka. Surprisingly enough, no single driver exceeded the pit lane speed limits this weekend, and the Stewards only had to deal with the incidents during qualifying and the race. Williams had lodged a complaint after qualifying because they felt Hamilton had impeded Hulkenberg at Turns 16, 17 and 18, but after viewing the video evidence and the data from the cars, the Stewards deemed Hamilton had not impeded Hulkenberg and rejected the protest. After the race the Stewards investigated the crash between Petrov and Hulkenberg, and ruled Petrov could have avoided the accident and gave him a five-place grid penalty for the next event. They also investigated the accident between Massa and Liuzzi, but no further action was taken as they ruled it was a race accident.
Local hero steals the show
Kamui Kobayashi once again stole the show this weekend. During his home Grand Prix he surprised in- and outsiders with a very solid performance, and spiced up the race with many of his, now by the fans beloved, do-or-die overtaking actions. Although some accuse him of driving in a GP2 or kart-like style, the Japanese driver certainly proved he is a thoroughbred racer in the true meaning of the word. The strategy of starting the race on hard tyres and make as many laps as possible, and then near the end of the race when the car is light, chance to the softer tyres and make a sprint to the finish, again paid off.
After the safety car had left, Kobayashi was 11th behind the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari, on lap 13 he overtook him, that was his first encounter with the Spaniard. Not much later in a daring move he overtook Adrian Sutil in his Force India. While all the others made their pit stop, Kobayashi stayed out and by lap 23 he was in fifth position. He was overtaken by Hamilton who had made his stop, and had Rosberg and Schumacher on his tail until he pitted on lap 38. With a light car and very fresh soft tyres he rejoined the race in 12th place, again behind Alguersuari. He again overtook him at the hairpin, but although he gave Alguersuari all the room he needed, Alguersuari banged wheels with the Sauber twice, punched a hole in the side pod and damaged a deflector, but also damaged his own front wing.
The Williams of Rubens Barrichello was his next target, and on lap 48 he overtook the Brazilian at his favorite spot: the hairpin at Turn 11. One lap later he was behind his team colleague Nick Heidfeld, who never put up a real fight, he went too far to the outside of the hairpin and Kobayashi easily slipped past him. His next target was Schumacher, but with only five laps to go he ran out of time to close the 5 second gap and he crossed the finish line in a very well deserved seventh position.
Sauber team CEO Monisha Kaltenborn later commented, "The way he overtook several competitors was absolutely spectacular." Kubica was equally impressed, "What Kamui did with his car was super. Because I had to watch on television, he saved my day." And Kobayashi himself? He couldn't even remember how many cars he had overtaken, and calmly commented, "I only know that there were crashes all around me at the start, and later I made some contacts with my opponents. My car is rather damaged!"
Who lost, who gained?
Clearly Red Bull gained the most this weekend, Webber is still leading the Divers' Championship with 220 points, but has extended his lead from 11 to 14 points. Vettel has gained one place, as he was fourth and is now on third place in the championship, together with Alonso he is 14 points behind Webber. Alonso is still second, but lost three points, he is now 14 instead of 11 points behind the leader, and his nearest rival Vettel has gained 10 points on him. Both Vettel and Alonso now have 204 points, but because Alonso scored four wins, he is classified as second and Vettel, who won three races, as third in the championship table.
Hamilton was third in the championship, but is now fourth, and is 28 instead of 20 points behind the leader. His team colleague's weekend wasn't very productive either, Button is still fifth in the championship, but has lost another 7 points, he is now 32 instead of 25 points behind the leader. Massa has no mathematical chance to win the title anymore, as he is -- with only three races to go -- 92 points behind the leader.
The first three positions in the Constructors' Championship remain the same, Red Bull Racing leads with 426 points, followed by McLaren with 381 points and Ferrari is third with 334 points. But compared to the standings after Singapore, McLaren have lost an additional 21 points, and Ferrari an additional 28 points to the leader. Lotus have again stepped up their performance by securing 12th and 13th place during the race. They are now way ahead of the two other newcomers Virgin Racing and HRT, and are currently tenth in the Constructors' Championship, a very important tenth place, as it will give them a share of the prize money, which could be several million Euros, something the team would very much welcome.