Japanese GP 2007
OCTOBER 1, 2007
Race Report - Mercs in the murk
The 2007 Japanese Grand Prix was a complicated business but when you boiled it all down, it was the day when Lewis Hamilton put himself into a position where it will take a force of nature to stop him becoming the first rookie in F1 history to win the World Championship. Such a thing was impossible to imagine nine months ago and yet as the F1 circus heads for China it will take a major upset to stop it happening.
And this time Fernando Alonso had no-one to blame but himself as he spun and went backwards into a wall, causing considerable damage to his McLaren as he tried to keep up with Hamilton.
Ferrari embarrassed itself with a mad choice of tyres, failing to recognise that the track was awash, failing to notice what everyone else was doing and, oddly, failing to receive an FIA instruction which mandated the use of Extreme Wet tyres. Still, the high jinks of the red cars kept us amused in the first 19 laps of the race as the field ran behind the Safety Car. Kimi and Felipe were all over the place and while some wondered why they team was not punished for failing to obey the rules, other more practical souls asked the very valid question: who on earth gave the order for the cars to run on such tyres in such conditions?
There was a time when such things would not have happened at Ferrari. There was also a time when McLaren men would have respected their rivals enough not to laugh at them. But after the happenings in recent months, that respect has gone. They laughed at them. At McLaren there is a new F-word these days. Ferrari.
On the 20th lap the FIA finally decided that the race could begin in earnest after the lapped Tonio Liuzzi - who had started from the pits after risking qualifying with a dry set-up - was allowed to unlap himself and showed that the cars could go a great deal quicker than they were going behind the Safety Car. Off they went and it was action all the way after that.
When the chequered flag fell on the two-hour time limit, which coincided with the scheduled 67 laps, Lewis Hamilton had won a fabulous victory. His fourth of the year. It was his first in the wet and he barely put a wheel wrong.
"There were so many times I thought they should stop it," Hamilton confessed later. "Sometimes it was very tricky, at others it was drying and therefore easier to drive. I was so eager to get going when we were running initially behind the Safety Car. After that I wasn't particularly feeling any pressure from Fernando, I was saving fuel and driving away. Then we made our stops, I came out, and heard that he'd been off and had got back on and was now several places behind."
Alonso had been the first of the two to pit and that meant that when he came out of the pits he caught himself up in traffic and as the stops unwound he found that he had been blitzed by Lewis.
It was one of those races in which the weather was so awful that all strategy went completely out of the window and it was simply a question of survival and getting to the finish. TV cameras could not catch much of the action in such situations but we did see occasional moments of in-car footage when a car would suddenly appear from nowhere and just miss the car with the camera on board. Both Hamilton and Alonso had incidents: Lewis being punted into a spin by a feisty Robert Kubica. The Pole was later given a drive-through penalty for it, which seemed a little harsh as he had been a lot quicker than Lewis at that moment.
"I apologise," he said, "but I cannot sit around and wait for 20 laps just because he is leading the World Championship. I was quicker and he didn't see me."
After the crash Lewis lost his pace for a while but then things improved and he was off and away.
"I couldn't see anything in my mirrors, my visor was fogged up, and I couldn't see Robert inside me," he said. "I'm not taking the blame for that incident, though. When you are behind you have to take it easy, especially in these conditions. He was not fully up the inside to make the move, and I couldn't see him or hear him. He should have taken me down the straight. After that brush I felt a vibration, and I just thought: 'Shoot, a tyre is going down.' That big vibration continued all the way to the finish, but the team said the car seemed OK so I just had to keep it on the track."
The lap afterwards Alonso cut across Vettel going into Turn One as they fought over eighth place. The McLaren driver spun and dropped down to 10th. And then came his demise on lap 41.
That resulted in another Safety Car. By the end of the race Bernd Maylander, the Safety Car driver had led 24 laps, Hamilton had led 21 while sundry walk-on extras had their moments in the sun during the pit stops.
‘‚"When we were behind the Safety Car for the second time I was constantly on to my engineers, telling them to tell Red Bull to get Mark [Webber] to make a bit more of gap between us. I couldn't go any faster because of the Safety Car ahead of me. Then one time Mark just appeared alongside me braking hard."
Behind them Vettel made an awful mistake, and ran into the back of Webber, leaving bits of Red Bull all over the place.
It was such an awful mistake that Vettel returned to the pits and wept. And rightly so. Webber went to the medical centre. It had been a bad weekend. It had started at 03.00 on Sunday morning when he started throwing up. He missed the drivers' parade because he was feeling so sick. But he took the start and five laps into the race threw up inside his helmet. But on he went and there he was with a chance of glory and then...
Webber should have been the one weeping.
"If he was bigger than me I would probably have hit him," Mark admitted.
All this left Heikki Kovalainen as Hamilton's only serious challenger and that was never really a very serious challenge and Heikki spent the rest of the race watching his back as Raikkonen caught him. Massa went tumbling down the order with a late pit stop and had to charge back and that meant that David Coulthard was fourth after a fairly uneventful race compared to some of the others, although he fought a good rearguard action with Raikkonen for seven laps.
"It's a crazy thing to be a racing driver," he said. "On the one hand you're scared, but on the other, you're having the time of your life because every moment you're right on the edge, even on the straights. I'm glad the race is over, but it was a lot of fun out there."
Behind him, Giancarlo Fisichella took an unobtrusive fifth ahead of a fabulous duel between Felipe Massa and Kubica which saw them rubbing bodywork and swapping places. The fight was only decided exiting the last corner when Robert edged Felipe wide. As the BMW struggled for traction on the wet kerb. Felipe found more on the grippy run-off area, and just got the verdict.
"The fight with Felipe was a bit risky," he said. "We made a bit of action and in the end we laughed."
The final point went to Tonio Liuzzi - the first of the year for Scuderia Toro Rosso - and a book could be written of Tonio's race for he started in the pitlane, was a lap down almost immediately but then fought back with much brio and a couple of lurid spins.
Later Tonio would lose his - and Toro Rosso's first points of the year - having failed to see a yellow flag when he was passing Adrian Sutil. So Spyker got the point instead.
Nick Heidfeld's race was comprised when the race went live on lap 19 when he got jumped by a whole bunch of guys and fell from third to 10th.
"My radio didn't work and I had a misfire," he said. "Fortunately I saw when the Safety Car switched off the lights to come in."
Because of his misfire he was slow on the straight and in the mist there were near-misses here and there until Jenson Button hit him. Despite this Nick was on his way to sixth, when his engine stopped.
Sutil led home the Hondas of Rubens Barrichello (who ran in the points until his final stop on lap 60) and Button. The Briton was fourth as the Safety Car pulled in for the first time, but the clash with Heidfeld cost him his front wing but he kept going without it for four laps without losing too much ground (which says something about the car). Toyota only got Jarno Trulli home in 13th place, after the Italian downshifted at the wrong time and spun behind the first Safety Car, and Ralf Schumacher retired.
The race was also a disaster for Williams. Rosberg ran well initially before a spin, but was halted by an electronic problem which robbed him of traction control and a consistent gearshift. That made the FW29 impossible to drive, so his day was done. He joined team-mate Alex Wurz, who said he got shunted from behind and punted into Massa.