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Rencken: 2013 Japanese GP wrap

2013-10-14 07:34

SUPER TEAM: Red Bull's drivers Sebastian Vettel (right) and Mark Webber (left) celebrate their 1-2 finish on podium at the 2013 Japanese GP on Sunday, Oct 13. Image: AFP


SUZUKA, Japan - For proof of Red Bull Racing’s current superiority over the rest, just consider the team’s dominant performance during the entire Japanese GP weekend. Sebastian Vettel suffered mechanical failure during Saturday’s crucial FP3 practice session, his woes then compounded by the loss of kers during his first Q3 qualifying run, yet still managed to grid second alongside team mate Mark Webber.

Come the start, both bogged down; Vettel’s front wing was then damaged in a Turn 1 skirmish with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, yet the German still managed to win by seven seconds from Webber, with the best of the rest being Romain Grosjean (Lotus) placing third from fourth on the grid, a further nine seconds down the road.


There was more to come: their 1-2 finish hides the fact that Webber’s race, too, was severely compromised after Grosjean jumped the trio at the start, obliging Webber to harry the Frenchman – whom he in 2012 here called a ‘first-lap nutcase’ after Grosjean got involved in a string of controversial incidents - for the first 10 laps, in the process destroying a set of tyres and meaning an early stop for the Australian.

This in turn forced Webber, who’s heading for sports-car racing with Porsche in 2014 after a fractious relationship with his team, into a demonstrably slower three-stop strategy if he were not to become a sitting duck in the closing stages of the 53-lap race, held under windy but clear 26C skies – which, in turn caused higher-than-expected tyre degradation.

Despite carrying an additional pit-stop penalty of almost 25 seconds, Webber finished less than a third of that behind the winner – taking his ninth flag and fifth consecutive victory of 2013 to become just the fifth man in Formula 1 history to achieve the latter – and nine seconds on the initial leader, who drove a superb race. Fourth place? A whopping 45sec further back.

Still, there were those who believed Webber had been shafted again, as he had too often been by being switched to inferior strategies, but, post-race, RBR team boss Christian Horner was adamant the team had no choice but go for triple stops, that Mark had brought the switch upon himself.


Horner explained afterwards: "We went into the race thinking it was going to be marginal for a two-stop but that, in clear air, we could do it. The first stint dictated everything for us though. Webber put Grosjean under quite a lot of pressure and went through tyre phases pretty quickly to the point that he had run out of tyres by the lap he (Webber) pitted.

"That was too short for us in our own minds to make a two-stop really work because you would have effectively run out of tyres in that last stint."

Suzuka’s surface is one of the most abrasive on the world championship trail so sole tyre supplier Pirelli had specified its two hardest (dry) compounds, Medium and Hard, with the latter being the ‘prime’ tyre. Grosjean found that, unlike Friday when the ‘Hard’ was the preferred specification, it went away from his car unexpectedly rapidly during his final stint.

A third stop to switch to Mediums a la Webber would, though, have dropped Grosjean off the podium, so he got on with minimising the damage, nursing his rubber. However, he was still the real winner of the day, having this season rebuilt his career race by race after last year seeming destined for F1’s scrapheap.

Vettel was the first to praise him - calling his race “great” and “fantastic” - and it really was an outstandingly mature drive from the Frenchman who at last seems a worthy replacement for Lotus No.1, Kimi Raikkonen - returning to Ferrari in 2014 - who could finish no better than fifth after qualifying 10th to Grosjean’s fourth. By contrast, Grosjean has taken two podiums in a row despite having been instructed to let Kimi by in Korea a week earlier.

This time, though, Kimi finished behind, a place head of Vettel’s only remaining championship challenger Fernando Alonso, who needed to finish better than ninth to stay in the fight. However, for all the good his fourth ultimately did him, the Spaniard may as well have not bothered rising above his grid position of eighth, for team mate Felipe Massa, fighting for his F1 career after being dumped by Ferrari in favour of Raikkonen, simply refused to obey instructions to move aside after starting fifth.

Before Alonso forced his way robustly past his team mate, the two red cars circulated as one behind the Ferrari-powered Sauber of Nico Hulkenberg, enjoying another impressive race as he decides between the Swiss team, Lotus or even Ferrari for 2014: the last a possibility if the increasingly demotivated Alonso does decide to leave the Scuderia, either for McLaren (as is increasingly rumoured) or take a sabbatical.


Hulkenberg - who had jumped both Ferraris through the first round of stops by dint of superior strategy – plus Massa and Alonso, thereafter found themselves stuck behind Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso), who started on Hards instead of the Medium/Hard/Hard choice elected by most, and thus stayed out longer. Indeed, where most first stopped around the 12-15 lap mark, the young Australian, replacement for Webber in Red Bull’s main team in 2014, pitted on Lap 21.   

By the time they had hustled their way past the Toro Rosso the rest were far down the road, with Massa suffering a further blow to his CV when he was given a drive-through penalty for pits-lane speeding. He placed an eventual lacklustre 10th behind Jenson Button’s recalcitrant McLaren, the Briton obviously not enjoying his afternoon on his favourite track.

To rub in Sauber’s new-found form, though, Esteban Gutiérrez in the second white/grey car placed seventh behind his team leader, the Mexican in the process scoring his first F1 career points and doing a fine job of holding off the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, which found itself in the wars all afternoon.

First he was released unsafely by his team after his first stop, almost sideswiping Sergio Perez’s McLaren in the pits – thereby earning a deserved drive-through - then the Mexican and German tangled when the former defended against the silver car, in the process suffering a puncture. Perez, who destroyed a chassis on Friday, is under fire at McLaren for not pulling his weight, and this latest incident cannot have done him favours.

All this left the final destination of this year’s championship beyond all reasonable doubt, for Vettel’s win puts him on 297 points to the 207 of Alonso, who thus needs to win the remaining four (of an original 19 rounds) with Vettel failing to score better than a fifth. A well-nigh impossible task given Red Bull’s superiority: consider that this year Alonso has won two races to Vettel’s nine, and the steepness of the Spaniard’s task becomes apparent...

Thus the title will likely be done and dusted (latter the operative word) in India in a fortnight, leaving the final three races without championship interest, save for squabbling over Constructors’ placings, for Alonso is seemingly firmly ensconced in second in the Drivers’, while the rest either suffer continued motivation (Raikkonen 177) or kit (Hamilton 161) to take the fight to Alonso.

The bright point is, though, the resurgence of such as Grosjean and the Sauber twins, who kept the capacity crowd in Japan fully entertained for the duration of the race despite the continued dominance of the Red Bull Steamroller, which
forges inexorably upwards and onwards.

Stay with Wheels24 for the 2013 F1 season – fresh reports every day.

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