Japanese GP - Sunday - Race Report
Vettel strikes title blow in Suzuka
Sebastian Vettel took a huge stride towards his ambition of a hat-trick of world titles when he dominated the Japanese Grand Prix from lights to flag on a day when series leader Fernando Alonso suffered just his second non-finish of the season.
In truth, the biggest threat to Vettel came on Saturday night, when Alonso accused the world champion of costing him time on his one and only Q3 run. At a time when Jean-Eric Vergne was given a three place grid penalty for impeding Bruno Senna, Vettel and Red Bull had to sweat for a while as race stewards investigated Ferrari's claims.
Vettel had backed off after yellows came out for Kimi Raikkonen's spin at Spoon Curve. Alonso had been on his run at the time and reckoned that Vettel had cost him a tenth of two.
The difference between starting fifth on the clean side of the grid, ahead of Sergio Perez, or sixth on the dirty side of the grid behind the Sauber, was 0.09s...
The stewards ruled that an offence had indeed been committed by Vettel but saw fit only to apply a reprimand.
Why? A mitigating factor seems to have been that in Vettel's case, it was reasonable to assume that nobody would have been continuing on a fast lap after the yellows, although you could reasonably argue that Vettel shoud have known that those drivers doing only one run (Alonso included) would have had no choice but to continue, having ensured they had backed off sufficiently for the yellow zone...
The decision took time and one wonders whether Ferrari may have overplayed its hand in the stewards room in respect to the time that the incident cost Alonso? Whatever, Vettel excaped and Alonso started sixth.
As expected, Fernando did not get the strongest of getaways and nor, in fact, did he head immediately left to defend from Kimi Raikkonen. whose Lotus was starting directly behind him on the clean side of the grid.
By the time Alonso -- normally so positionally astute -- did go defensive, he was sandwiched between Perez and a Lotus that was already there. Alonso leant on Kimi, who had nowhere to go, and there was contact, the Lotus front wing endplate puncturing Alonso's left rear. The Ferrari looped into a spin and was out of the race.
Further up the road, Perez came around the outside of Grosjean and in his attempt to defend, Grosjean forgot to brake and cannoned into the back of a seriously unimpressed Mark Webber who, post-race, dubbed his assailant "the first lap nutcase" (see separate story).
In an instant therefore, Vettel's biggest threat for the championship and his biggest threat for this individual race, had been removed and the Safety Car was out as Nico Rosberg got caught up in the confusion when he was rear-ended by Bruno Senna.
"I knew the Safety Car was out obviously," Vettel said, "but when we came around it was already clear, so I wasn't sure what had happened." The interruption was indeed brief, the official car not out long enough to allow poor Webber to limp back to the pits for a new set of boots and to recatch the tail!
Once the Mercedes pulled in, Vettel was in a race of his own and 53 laps later took the chequered flag 20s clear of Felipe Massa's Ferrari, having cruised for most of the afternoon.
Which explains why he received a slightly strained radio message after going round in 1:35.774 on the penultimate lap. To put that into perspective, Kamui Kobayashi and Jenson Button, fighting for the final podium spot at the same stage of the race, lapped in 1:36.679 and 1:36.606. Vettel had that much in hand...
The world champion likes to hoover up the race's quickest lap wherever possible and it's always a source of a little nervousness in the team.
"Okay, you've had your fun, there's a lot at stake, now bring it home..." was the slightly irritated message from the Red Bull pit wall.
There would be no denying him though and Vettel became the season's first back-to-back winner as he claimed his 24th career F1 win, equalling the total of a certain Juan Manuel Fangio.
Suzuka did not witness the kind of McLaren performance that might have been anticipated on the back of the team's four pole positions and three wins from the last four races.
Jenson Button, starting eighth after the application of a gearbox change penalty, found that the first corner chaos worked in his favour and was back to his rightful position by the end of the opening lap, behind Kamui Kobayashi, who had jumped Webber from his third place on the clean side of the grid even before the Aussie was clobbered by Grosjean.
Massa had benefited similarly in the confusion and ran fourth on a new set of soft tyres permitted by qualifying outside the top 10 but advantaged by Hulkenberg's gearbox penalty, Then came Raikkonen, Perez, Hamilton, Hulkenberg, Maldonado and Ricciardo.
When the Safety Car pulled off at the end of lap 2, Perez made an optimistic attempt around the outside of Raikkonen into Turn 2, Kimi hung him out to dry and the new McLaren recruit lost a place to the man he replaces.
Perez, no doubt spurred on by the fact that his team mate was running second, was anxious to be back past and shot down the inside of Hamilton again, fronts locked, into the Hairpin on lap 6. Lewis saw him coming and left room.
With 12 laps down and the first stops approaching, Vettel was away and gone, 7.5s to the good from Kobayashi, who had 2s over Button, with Massa breathing doen Jenson's neck and likely to jump both the Sauber and the McLaren with his newer tyres.
McLaren pitted Button after 13 laps, whoch dropped him out into traffic behind Daniel Ricciardo's Toro Rosso, but Sauber still responded next time round and Kobayashi just hung onto second place. Massa ran another three laps and, as expected, emerged second.
Perez pitted at the end of lap 15 but his 'in' lap was not the best, allowing Hamilton to stop a lap later and jump back past him. A couple of laps later, Perez tried to repeat his earlier move at Turn 11 but this time Lewis covered him and Sergio jinked back outside and finoished his race in the kitty litter...
"The first move on Lewis was pretty good," his soon to be team boss Martin Whitmarsh commented, "but the second one, less so..."
The excitment as the race entered its closing stages distilled doen into whether Button could relieve Kobayashi of his first ever F1 podium in front of the home faithful! Thankfully for Kamui, he couldn't, with the Mclaren just half a second down at flagfall.
Hamilton finished more than 20s behind Button, his race hampered by the indersteering balance that had ruined qualifying, but he was still 4s clear of the delayed Raikkone, who had Hulkenberg and Maldonado both within 2s of hims when the chequer fell. A further 2.3s adrift was the luckless Webber, who claimed just two points for ninth, ahead of delighted countryman Ricciardo, who managed to resist the advances of a certain seven times champion, who took the flag 11th.
Time will tell, but after Alonso has led for so long, will Suzuka be recalled as the moment the pendulum swung Vettel's way?