RENCKEN: Suzuka wrapped up
SUZUKA, Japan – They came to Suzuka on a roll after winning in Singapore a fortnight earlier and everything about Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull pointed to the team’s third victory from pole in four years.
Vettel’s stated intention was to erase the “blot” on his copybook – 2011’s third place (from pole) en route to securing his second consecutive title in Japan. Smart money was piled on the German.
Adrian Newey’s cars have always revelled in the multiple challenges of Suzuka – be they wearing Williams, McLaren or Red Bull livery – and from first practice it was clear the blue car was painted to the resurfaced track, whether at 70km/h through the hairpin or 320 km/h in the daunting Spoon.
The circuit’s unique figure-of-eight layout played to Red Bull's strengths but it took genius to extract the most from it. Come qualifying, Vettel’s mastery over team mate Mark Webber panned out at a quarter-second.
The Australian was the same split ahead of Jenson Button (McLaren), 2011 winner in Japan, aware his five-slot grid penalty for an out-of-sequence gearbox change would mean a long afternoon. Championship leader Fernando Alonso and challenger Lewis Hamilton? They gridded sixth and ninth respectively, the former more than a second slower despite giving it his all in a recalcitrant Ferrari; the latter ninth after he and McLaren screwed up his qualifying set-up.
But, if the grid promised much, it was all over within 10 seconds – the time required for Alonso to squander 25 of the 29 points he had in hand over Vettel in the title race. While the German headed comfortably downhill and into Turn 1, Alonso squeezed the hard-charging Kimi Raikkonen. They touched; Kimi’s front wing punctured the Ferrari’s left rear - sending Fernando careering straight into the face of oncomers and upsetting the black/gold Lotus’s aero balance – fortunately without further contact.
SCUPPERED IN VENICE
It was a rare error by the most complete driver of his generation but one that changed the face of the championship in a flash. Within a corner, the two drivers sandwiching Vettel in the title hunt no longer posed a challenge, leaving the 25-year-old to deliver what he does best: lead from the front.
Better (for him) was that, where before he needed to take points off Alonso at the rate of five per remaining round, now the average was only one – if, that is, he managed to evade mechanical malady of the type which scuppered him in Valencia and Monza, and bag maximum points.
He did just that after the pace car had done its thing for a lap, Sebastian taking (only) his third win this season by 20 seconds from a resurgent Felipe Massa, the Ferrari driver having initially found himself third (from 10th on the grid) coming out of the first corner after the Alonso/Raikkonen and Webber/Romain Grosjean contacts comprehensively reshuffled the midfield.
The latter incident caused little damage other than dropping the Australian to the back of the field (thus destroying whatever championship chances remained) and eliminating Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes after he and Bruno Senna found themselves tangling in the chain-reaction.
However, it certainly cast further doubt on Grosjean’s sanity – the French-Swiss was banned from Monza after causing a huge pile-up at Spa – while giving Felipe a vital break at a crucial stage in his career, one he put to good use as he shadowed Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber, the Japanese delivering the race of his life on home soil.
However, Massa jumped him during the first round of stops by dint of a longer strategy, and thereafter it was all over bar the shouting at the sharp end, with Vettel keeping the gap constant and Felipe maintaining a comfortable cushion over a Kobayashi intent on equalling the best result by a Japanese – Aguri Suzuki’s third on the 1990 podium, coincidentally also at Suzuka.
On the tyre front, after a season of topsy-turvy strategies, things in Japan were pretty predictable, with virtually every driver starting on softs then switching to hards for their final two stints - with the only differentiator being new or used and thus creating thrilling duels as those on new rubber held the upper hand over used, or shorter/longer final stints came into play.
This was shown best by Button who emerged from the final reshuffle in fourth with 18 laps required of his NH set as Kobayashi aimed for 22 from his identical rubber. With five laps to go it was nip-and-tuck as they circulated nose-to-tail, Kamui determined to have his day in glorious domestic sunshine and Button equally intent on grabbing a podium in his adopted homeland – partner Jessica Michibata is a top Japanese fashion model.
Eventually White held off Silver by precisely 0.5sec to the whooping of the otherwise inscrutable crowd as Sauber closed on Mercedes for fifth in the Constructors’ championship. Imagine Lewis Hamilton, off to the three-pointed star for 2013 after edging out Michael Schumacher, bearing 11 on his car next season…
The Briton was next up after fighting understeer throughout the race and was the first to admit his title hopes were now in tatters, with sixth going to Räikkönen, who spent 90 minutes concentrating on his mirrors.
Nico Hulkenberg, slated to replace Massa at Ferrari - although the Brazilian’s performance on Sunday could force a rethink, for he remains extremely popular in Maranello - once again impressed in the Force India. The German started 15th after being docked five grid slots - albeit self-inflicted after damaging the original in a Saturday FP3 crash - but thereafter kept a cool head to move up eight places as he resisted pressure exerted by Pastor Maldonado’s Williams from the stern.
Ninth and 10th places were an Aussie benefit, with Webber “doing” Daniel Ricciardo in the Toro Rosso, the latter increasingly likely to replace the elder in Red Bull’s main team when/if Webber moves on. Michael Schumacher, the only H/S/S runner, claimed 11th from 23rd on the grid in his Japanese swan song – the former seven-times champion having been docked 10 grid places for his Singapore crash.
A nail-biter on a classic circuit which usually delivers such, it was not, but for Vettel the 15th round (of 20 in the championship) more than served its purpose, bringing him up to 190 points versus the 194 of Alonso as Raikkonen slumped to 157 and Hamilton (152) dropped out of realistic contention. Webber and Button are out of it with five races remaining.
'SHAME FOR ALONSO'
Vettel’s summary said it all: “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 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 - 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 ups and downs and things change quickly - we have to keep our heads down, and take it step by step.”
But, rest assured, Alonso may be down but he is far from out.