Japanese GP 2008
OCTOBER 13, 2008
Race Report - The mystery of the Renault diamond
Fernando Alonso ran away with the Japanese Grand Prix at Mount Fuji. It was not a fluke like in Singapore. He did not need his team-mate to pile into a wall and a Safety Car to be despatched. It helped that the two World Championship contenders seemed a little overwrought and made mistakes which resulted in penalties for the both of them. It helped too that Kimi Raikkonen's car was assaulted by two different McLarens at the first corner and was not handling well. It helped too that Heikki Kovalainen's McLaren blew up.
But, for all of that, Fernando Alonso was still able to charge to an impressive victory - and set the third fastest lap of the race. His underperforming team-mate Nelson Piquet made it home fourth - and set the fourth fastest lap of the race.
It's a great story of the team that has been all over the place for the last 18 months. The corporate bean-counters at Renault HQ in Paris had been sharpening their knives for months and Renault chairman Carlos Ghosn, a man who will axe a thousand jobs before breakfast, must have had an itchy trigger finger when he looked at the shocking results at the start of the year, when the R28 was barely able to fluke points finishes. It then settled into a regular diet of eighth, 10th and 11th placed finishes. Suddenly, someone comes by and sprinkles pixie dust on the team and the car is transformed into a competitive challenger that can run with the very best of them.
These things just don't happen in modern F1.
Even when the grids are very close. If the engines got better (one can defrost a frozen engine just a little if you can convince the FIA inspectors that the improvement is about reliability rather than performance) then one would expect to see the Red Bull team, which uses Renault engines, also making a similar leap forward. But no. That has not happened.
Call in Inspector Maigret, Herge's Tintin, Hercules Poirot and even Miss Marple. Solving this mystery will not be the work of a moment!
Even Alonso calls it "completely amazing" and has trouble explaining what is going on.
"Obviously the Singapore win was completely unexpected," he said. "There were some special conditions with the Safety Car etc. but today we had nothing and we won again on a circuit that maybe is not particularly good for our characteristics. I cannot believe it right now but obviously back to back wins is a very nice feeling and the team did a great job to improve the car. We are now maybe just behind Ferrari and McLaren."
"This year we keep learning about the new regulations, the new electronics," he said. "Again we did improve the management of the tyres quite a lot in the race pace, in the long runs. We understood the problems at the beginning of the season and we concentrated on working on those areas of the car and now the results are coming with improvements in the season, so I am very happy and very proud of my team to have the key to improve all the problems we had. A great job from everybody in the factory and this is the result."
Great, but don't all the other teams do exactly the same thing, week-in, week-out, trying to iron out the problems and make the cars go quicker?
The only obvious conclusion is that the team must have had a car that it did not understand at all at the start of the year and which the engineers could not figure out. These guys are bright - some of them really are rocket scientists - so you would think they might have worked it all out before now.
The speed is a mystery but there is no doubt that in Fuji Alonso was able to take advantage of moments of madness from the World Championship contenders.
Lewis Hamilton made a poor start from his pole position but he then tried to pull off a monster move on Kimi Raikkonen to get the lead. You cannot fault the guy's commitment or his skill, but one did have to ask why in the world he needed to do that when sitting behind Raikkonen and finishing a dull second would have been a much better option for his World Championship chances.
The problem was that Sunday morning at Mount Fuji the temperatures were low. And this caught out a lot of the drivers as the field funnelled down into Turn 1 at the start. Half the field slid wide. Photographers were able to snap the extraordinary picture of Robert Kubica alone at centre stage as the guys ahead of him all played bumper-cars at the edge of the track. Hamilton had locked up in a cloud of tyre smoke and had then slid across into Raikkonen. Kovalainen did much the same without the tyre smoke
"People in front of me were quite aggressive going into Turn One," said Alonso. "Even me. I went a bit wide. It surprised us, the cold temperatures."
Kubica said that he decided to go on the inside and braked really too late.
"Suddenly everybody went straight," he said. "l locked the fronts and was the only one who really managed to stay on the track, but had anybody ahead of me tried to hit the apex of the corner I would not have been able to avoid hitting them."
As everyone tried to sort themselves out Kubica took the lead. Hamilton bumped Raikkonen and then the Finn was bumped by Kovalainen as well. Behind them cars were bumping into each other with abandon. Sebastian Vettel went off on the grass to explore the world of rallying. Timo Glock was also off the track, while Sebastien Bourdais and David Coulthard indulged in what DC described as "a little bit of bumping and grinding". Rubens Barrichello was hit from behind by Giancarlo Fisichella. As he cars departed the corner there were shards of carbonfibre all over the shop. Coulthard's Red Bull then turned left (something had broken) and piled into a wall, breaking the chassis. Kazuki Nakajima's front wing flew off as he hit the grass.
Hamilton was back in sixth but not intending to stay there. He and Massa went either side of Trulli in Turn 10 with the Ferrari on the outside and Hamilton going on the inside. This meant that Felipe was on the wrong line for the corner and Lewis was ahead. But then Felipe did a dumb thing and ran into Hamilton's left rear with his right front and tipped the McLaren into a spin.
Massa reckoned it was fair. Hamilton said it was "as deliberate as it could be". Immediately after the spin Lewis pitted, topped the car up and replaced his square tyres.
When all was said and done the stewards gave him a drive-through, which most people felt was deserved for being rather incautious first corner, while Massa was also punished in the same way for his assault on the McLaren.
Lewis was not happy.
"A lot of cars went wide, and I just went a bit wider than everyone else," he said.
The afternoon went from bad to worse for McLaren when Kovalainen, who was running third with a big tank of fuel, stopped with an engine problem early on. There were no points for the team.
Up at the front Kubica had Alonso on his tail and Raikkonen third, able to hang on but never looking much of a threat at this point. Later he would make a concerted challenge for second after Kubica had dropped behind Alonso during the first pit stops. The Pole held him off with suitable aplomb.
"It was a great battle with Kimi for three of four laps," he said. "There is no space to go two cars through Turn Three and I was on the inside. I didn't back off and actually I nearly went off the track, but I knew I had to survive those three or five laps and I did. Once the tyres were cleaned up again I was able to pull away. We didn't improve a lot in the last three months, so to be able to beat Ferrari and McLaren is amazing!"
Raikkonen was thus forced to settle for third place but he felt that if the two McLarens had not bumped him he might have run away with the win.
"The car was not quite right," he said. "The steering was a bit light and there was other damage as well. I tried to do the best I could but I was not as quick as I'd hoped,"
But he was happy enough to get some points for Ferrari. He is out of the World Championship now.
At one point the second flying Renault of Piquet arrived behind Raikkonen and looked threatening by Nelson then ran wide and so ended up in fourth.
Jarno Trulli survived to finish fifth and the team made the point that the speed in qualifying was not down to light fuel because Jarno stayed out longer than most and even led the race for a bit. Having said that the race pace was not there. Nor was Glock for long. On the first lap he went over the kerbs heavily at Turn Six and felt something break in the car. It began behaving oddly and in the end he pitted. The problem was a broken seat fixation. It could not be fixed.
At the end of the race Sebastien Bourdais was sixth after a very solid drive, beating his much-vaunted team-mate for the first time. Bourdais had a heavy fuel load and led the race for a time. After his second stop he emerged from the pits just as Massa was coming down the straight. The two men were racing for position and arrived side-by-side with Bourdais on the inside. Massa was in a hurry and tried to drive the corner as though no-one else was there. It was not an intelligent move, but it was a typical racing incident. That is what these guys do. Both men rejoined without huge delays but then up came an announcement of an investigation, which was assumed by most people to be into Massa's impetuous move rather than Bourdais.
There was therefore considerable astonishment at the end of the race when it was announced that Bourdais had been given a penalty. It just did not make sense. There was talk that Sebastien was given a blue light signal in the cockpit, but that should not have happened as he was not being lapped. He was fighting for position. And Massa's lunge left Sebastien with nowhere at all to go. He could not just disappear. How the stewards came up with their bizarre decision was a complete mystery to anyone who has been around racing for a while.
You almost feel sorry of the FIA sometimes. It seems that every time stewards make a decision circumstances intervene and they are perceived to favour Ferrari.
Truly, The Man Upstairs must have it in for the folk in the FIA blazers because this happens all the time!
The perception of the Bourdais incident - inevitably - was that it was just a means of getting Massa another point. The FIA propaganda division always tries to argue that the perception exists only in the minds of a few twisted journalists, but in Japan there was once again widespread irritation, just as there was at Spa a few weeks ago.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped off to buy some sandwiches and mentioned to some fans that Bourdais had lost his position. Without prompting they started muttering the same things one hears all the time in the Media Centre. E-mails come in all the time saying the same thing.
The whole world sees it - whether it is true or not.
It probably did not help that later in the race Massa went screaming down the inside of Mark Webber on the pit straight, put all four wheels over the white line and indeed drove over a red and white hatched box (where even angels fear to tread). There was an investigation but (astonishingly) it was into whether Webber had moved more than he was supposed to move. The question of whether Massa broke the rules did not even come into it.
"I saw a space down the inside and went for it," said Massa. "He moved over on me a little bit towards the wall which might have looked a bit scary but it was not like that from the cockpit."
The matter was closed.
Does this mean that red and white hatched zones are now acceptable places to overtake?
Does it mean that one can cross white lines with impunity?
When wild young men go motor racing they sometimes do stupid things. This is part of the game. There are rules and there are racing incidents, but in order for the referees to be respected, there have to be sensible decisions and people who are seen as being independent. When you have neither, you have a problem.
You are not going to win respect by sticking your fingers in your ears and going "la-la-la" very loudly so you cannot hear the questioning voices that exist.
As a result of Bourdais's penalty Vettel ended up sixth ahead of Massa and Webber.
Nick Heidfeld took ninth place with another one-stop strategy that did not work out. Behind him in the post-race classification was Bourdais with Nico Rosberg in the Williams 11th. Hamilton was 12th. The Hondas of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button were next and way further back came Nakajima.
The two Force Indias failed. Giancarlo Fisichella going out with gearbox failure and Adrian Sutil running suffering a puncture presumably as a result of the debris that seemed to all over the circuit in a couple of places.
And so the F1 circus headed off to China with Massa having closed to within five points of Hamilton. With Kubica within 12 points of Hamilton. And with Ferrari ahead in the Constructors' Championship once again.
Everything is building up nicely for a great showdown. All we need now is some great racing and no controversy.
And an answer to how Renault has pulled off the conjuring trick of the age.