Japanese GP 2009
OCTOBER 5, 2009
Race Report - No surprise for Vettel
Sebastian Vettel completed a highly successful weekend in Japan with a dominant victory for Red Bull racing at Suzuka. With two races left this means that the German has moved to within two points of second placed Rubens Barrichello, who has edged one point closer to championship leader Jenson Button. The Englishman remains 14 points ahead and with a maximum score of only 20 available. Button is in the driving seat, although his performances in recent races have been decidedly lacklustre. He says that the car is not competitive against the opposition but he has been overshadowed by Barrichello as well. Button's early season domination means that he does not need to take risks.
In the Constructors' Championship Brawn GP has almost completed the job but still needs half a point from the final two races. Vettel's victory means that Red Bull is 35.5 points behind Brawn, with a maximum of 36 available.
There was general agreement in Suzuka after a complex qualifying and a series of penalties that scrambled the grid, that the race would be decided between pole position man Vettel and third-placed qualifier Lewis Hamilton. It was expected that the McLaren star would use his KERS to pass second-placed Jarno Trulli and that was exactly what happened. Hamilton had hoped to get Vettel as well, but even if he did that he knew that he would almost certainly lose the lead later in the race because Vettel's Red Bull was the fastest car at Suzuka.
"We were the favourites," Vettel admitted, "but first of all you have to do the start and that was closer than I thought. The getaway was good, so I looked left and right and stayed in the middle of the road. Then all of sudden I saw a silver arrow on my left-hand side but I had the advantage. After that I just got my head down and tried to push every single lap, and was able to pull a big gap quite quickly."
Hamilton was disappointed but reckoned that Vettel had done it right and had no complaints.
As Vettel began to pull away and Hamilton held on, Trulli was third and charging with Nick Heidfeld's BMW next, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari, Barrichello's Brawn and Adrian Sutil's Force India, which got ahead of the fuel-heavy Williams of Nico Rosberg. Then came Heikki Kovalainen, Kazuki Nakajima, Jaime Algersuari and Tonio Liuzzi in the second Force India, who had impressed with an outside pass on Fernando Alonso.
It was quickly clear that Hamilton and Trulli could not hack it with Vettel and they were left to trade lap times all afternoon. Trulli was down in the mouth because he had hoped to make a better start, no doubt believing that a win would convince Toyota to stay in F1. Hamilton struggled with a failed KERS system after a while and was in no position to hold on to his place. At the second pit stops Trulli moved to second.
Towards the end of what was a rather dull race for spectators, there was a Safety Car after Alguersuari had a major shunt at 130R. This gave Trulli the chance to catch up with Vettel and Hamilton.
At the restart, however, Vettel did some quick laps and left his pursuers for dead. It was over.
"I had a bit of a cushion with Grosjean's lapped Renault right behind me, and when we restarted I did three fantastic laps and pulled away again," he said.
Hamilton's chances of challenging Trulli again evaporated when his KERS stopped working.
"When we were preparing for the restart I was on the radio for the last couple of Safety Car laps to see if they could get the KERS working again," Hamilton said. "I really needed that, but they weren't able to do that."
But at the end Hamilton was joyful about their fight.
"Jarno and I had a great battle," he said. "Shaving tenths of a second a lap off each other, and Sebastian drove fantastically all race. Well done to him. I couldn't match these two in the first sector, but we were quite quick in the last two."
Trulli warmed to the subject.
"I really enjoyed qualifying-type laps with him," he said. "We were pushing all the way. I really, really enjoyed that and the car was very strong. Eventually thanks to team and strategy we got him in the last pit stop and from then on it was easy for me."
For once Trulli did not lose interest in the race, as often he seems to do, and second place was good for Toyota, particularly as it came just seven days after Glock did the same in Singapore. Sadly at Suzuka Glock was out of action with a gashed leg.
Suzuka is a great racing circuit but the F1 cars of today are now so evenly matched that all overtaking is tough.
Kimi Raikkonen ended up taking fourth place for Ferrari, which was better than expected.
"We got the most out of the F60 as it stands today and, thanks to yet another great drive from Kimi, we also managed to stay third in the Constructors' classification," said team boss Stefano Domenicali.
"The car wasn't bad," said Raikkonen, "but it was not quick enough to fight for the podium. I was unable to make up places at the start, especially as the first corner is not that far from the start line and so I was unable to make the most of the KERS. In the first stint, when I was on hard tyres, the situation was a bit difficult, but then, once on the softs, things improved considerably. I managed to close on Heidfeld and pass him at the pit stop."
Giancarlo Fisichella was less convincing, although he did set the eighth fastest time of the race, albeit half a second off Raikkonen's pace. He finished 12th.
"I had a better feel for the car this weekend and I think the effect from that could be seen, although maybe not in terms of the results," he said. "Today, I could run at a good pace, especially in the middle part of the race. It's a shame I lost a place in my battle with Kovalainen. We managed to get ahead of him in the pit stop, but then he swerved across to the inside at the only point where I left the door slightly open and he leaned on me, managing to get by."
Towards the end of the race Fisichella had to fight off Sutil and his KERS came in very handy.
Williams was happy to pick up four points for Nico Rosberg's fifth place, a good effort. Rosberg was able to jump Heidfeld when his second pit stop coincided with the Safety Car. The Stewards investigated claims that Rosberg had driven too quickly but after checking all the telemetry decided that Nico had behaved in an acceptable fashion.
"That was the best I could do," Nico said. "The car wasn't as quick as we wanted it to be but we got the best out of it. I had a really good strategy which helped deliver this result. I'm pleased."
After the disaster in Singapore it was a decent return to form.
Kazuki Nakajima showed much the same form as he has all year. Fifteenth was a disappointing result.
For BMW Sauber there was a decent result with Nick Heidfeld finishing sixth and Robert Kubica just missing out on points in ninth.
Heidfeld said he was "very disappointed" with the result and reckoned that he might have finished fourth if the rear right wheel nut had not got stuck during his pit stop. It cost him a couple of important seconds. And then he felt cheated that Rosberg was able to pit when the Safety Car came out, which gave him an advantage.
Kubica said that he was again unable to show his true pace because of heavy traffic and a car that was understeering badly. When the car got lighter so Robert became faster and faster but he lost out to Raikkonen and Heidfeld and then found himself stuck behind Button after the Safety Car period.
"I was quicker than him in the corners, but was not able to overtake as we were missing some top speed on the straights." he said.
Robert set the seventh fastest lap of the race, three-tenths faster than the best lap by Heidfeld.
This mean that the Brawn-Mercedes men were scrambling for crumbs. As it turned out Rubens Barrichello finished just ahead of Jenson Button. Both had been given grid penalties for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags during qualifying, but it was Button who lost out more and he made a slow start. He overtook Kubica on the third lap, then got a break on the 13th when the duelling Kovalainen and Sutil ran into one another, and thereafter he was in contention for a point.
The incident was an unnecessary one. Sutil was flying along having started with very little fuel. He then made a mistake a dropped two places so his strategy was really in trouble and so he had an air of desperation when he came up to Kovalainen. We remarked that it would end in tears because this often happens with Sutil and, sure enough, it did. He went for the inside line at the chicane. Heikki refused to let him have the place and Sutil refused to back off. The result was a bump and Sutil spun.
He complained that Kovalainen had cut back across him, but Heikki said that there was nothing he could do.
"Adrian tried to make a move but only went half way," he said. "I was able to stay beside him and when he tried to turn in, I was already on the kerb and I had no more room to avoid him, so I had to lean on him."
One can blame it on whoever but the bottom line was that Sutil was about the pit and would have lost little by using a little patience. Perhaps that is not what racing drivers do, but sometimes it is wiser to lose a battle in order to win a war.
So Force India had a disappointing day again.
"It's obviously very disappointing as I thought we could have done really well today and got some points," Sutil said.
Tonio Liuzzi said that starting at the back made it very tough for him to make any impression. However he did his fair share of overtaking, passing both Renaults on the first lap but then lost his place to Alonso, although he got the double World Champion back again on lap 13. Later in the race he overtook Satoru Nakajima on two separate occasions, having lost ground between the moves with a pit stop. The pace was there and he never gave up, but he had been screwed in qualifying.
The same was true of the Brawn duo.
"Today was really about picking up points," said Button. "Starting from tenth on the grid was always going to make for a tough race but my pace was really good in the race and I was very happy with the performance of the car. I was pulling massive amounts of time out of the guys in front me but they were on heavier fuel loads which held me up as it's difficult to overtake here. I did the best that I could in the car that we had this weekend and we got the maximum performance out of it with a points-scoring finish. I only lost one point to Rubens today, which is my main priority. Obviously we lost a few points to Sebastian but we were expecting them to be strong here."
Alonso was also in trouble after his qualifying penalty and the Renault was not on the pace. He did what he could. His one-stop strategy took him from 16th on the grid to 10th, a decent effort.
"We have to make sure that we qualify well because if we do that I am sure we can score some strong points and have a good end to the season," he said.
Romain Grosjean started 17th and finished 16th.
"The car was very heavy on fuel and was difficult to drive," he said. "The Suzuka circuit was also a new experience for me this weekend, but I did my best to complete the race without any problems. I'm now looking forward to the next race in Brazil."
Here's hoping he doesn't get ditched before that happens...
Kovalainen ended up 11th after sorting out Fisichella when they made their final pit stops on lap 39. The right front wheel on the McLaren stuck momentarily, so the Ferrari was ahead as they exited the pits. But he left a huge gap as they went out of the pits, being careful to avoid the white exit line. Kovalainen saw a gift horse with its mouth open and grabbed it.
"I was able to release the pitlane speed-limiter earlier and immediately got on the KERS," Heikki said. "He gave me some room, so it was quite an easy move - nothing too dramatic."
Fisichella had some excuse but no-one was listening.
Behind the recalcitrant Nakajima and Grosjean came Mark Webber who started from the pits after his crash on Saturday morning and went back several times trying to get his car sorted out. His head rest came lose and then he had a puncture. It was just a horrible weekend for the usually chirpy Australian.
"We tested some things after that, for future races," he said. "That's all we could really do from there."
In the closing laps he decided to go for fastest lap, if only to cheer himself up. He pipped Vettel by a tiny margin, the pair four-tenths faster than Raikkonen and the rest.
The only retirements were the two Toro Rossos. The weekend had been a bodywork-bash fest and in the race the team was hoping that the two youngsters would try not to bend any more bits. Sadly, it was not to be. Buemi avoided damaging his car, but the team would probably have hoped for rather more than a DNF resulting from a clutch problem, which left him on the grid at the start.
"The car was quick enough to get me into Q3 before the accident, so maybe I could have scored points today," said the Swiss driver.
Jaime Alguersuari's demise was rather more dramatic. On lap 44 the Spanish driver was out on new soft tyres and they obviously caught him out in 130R. He spun through 180 degrees, went sideways through an advertising hoarding and then had a sizeable impact with the wall. It was a very big hit and it was a relief to see the Spanish driver emerging unscathed, although he looked decidedly dodgy on his pins and was then shipped off on a stetcher for a bit of a lie down.
"I know this is a very expensive country," team boss Franz Tost. "That was certainly the case for us this weekend!"