Japanese GP 2011
OCTOBER 10, 2011
Race Report - Button is Suzuka king; Vettel is champion
BY TONY DODGINS
Jenson Button celebrated his new McLaren contract with a superbly judged win in the Japanese Grand Prix as Sebastian Vettel sealed back-to-back world championships with third place.
McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull proved evenly matched for pace and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari was able to split the pair as just two seconds covered all three cars at the chequered flag.
When Vettel converted his pole position, albeit very physically, ushering Button's McLaren firmly towards the grass, and led through Turn 1, many feared another Red Bull demonstration run.
Button had to back off and it was Lewis Hamilton who swooped around his outside to head the chasing pack.
"He's got to get a penalty for that..." Button said on the radio, no doubt to prompt the stewards into having a look. They did, but no further action was taken.
"I did think he should have had a penalty at the time, I'm not going to lie," Button said. "I felt he kept coming when I wasn't alongside him but I had half my car up the inside. He was coming across more than I expected and didn't give me any room. I was on the grass but maybe when I have a look at it on TV I will have a different opinion. But the stewards said it was fair, so that's it."
In the stewards room was Alan Jones, who could no doubt recall doing similar things to Nelson Piquet 30 years ago...
Last year at high-speed circuits, nothing could hold a candle to the Red Bulls, which disappeared at Barcelona, Silverstone and Suzuka. This year though, such has not been the way of things. Hamilton chased Vettel every inch of the way in Spain, Ferrari beat Red Bull at Silverstone and both McLaren and Ferrari managed to pip the constructors' champions here.
Against that, Red Bull has won at Monza, which would have been unthinkable last year. How much of that is down to the different performance profile of the RB7? And how much is the fact that at higher speed tracks there is more Pirelli degradation and therefore the Red Bull can't exploit its full potential? It's an interesting question. If you'd put them all back on Bridgestones, would Vettel have disappeared?
Whatever, he didn't disappear on Pirellis. He drove his customary superb opening lap, shades of Ayrton Senna in such regularity here, and was 1.35s to the good at the end of it. After that though, Hamilton was able to hang on reasonably well, until his lap times began to drop off after the first five laps.
"He actually had a slow puncture," McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh explained. "We could see the pressure difference as early as lap four but you wonder whether it's a sensor issue. Also, we didn't want to pit him too early because that moves you towards a four stopper. "
On lap 8 Button moved ahead of his team mate and Lewis headed for the pits.
Behind, Massa ran ahead of Alonso for the first five laps before Fernando went by with the aid of DRS. He was just a couple of seconds behind Button on the road and still firmly in the race. Mark Webber couldn't be ignored either. He paid for a problematic final Q3 run with sixth on the grid but was just a couple of seconds behind Alonso on the road.
As the second stint developed with the front runners all on another set of Pirelli options (softs), Button began to close Vettel down and with 18 laps on the board was just 1.6s behind. Red Bull pitted both cars next time around.
"It looks like we were a little heavier on the tyres at the end of the stints than the McLaren but we need to understand it," Christian Horner said. "I think we spent longer in the pit lane today; whether it was our approach to our pit box or our exit, we'll have to look at, because we lost a bit of time.
"The stops themselves were okay -- they weren't superfast and they weren't slow -- and Sebastian set quickest lap on his out lap, so we need to understand how we lost track position to Jenson after the second stop."
Button stopped a lap later and rejoined in the lead. It was a lead he never relinquished, save for the four laps after his third and final stop on 36, when Michael Schumacher headed the field briefly before making his own stop.
"It was a very interesting race because the tyre wear was massive," Button explained. "It wasn't just down to being quick over one lap. You really had to think the race through. I really enjoyed it out there."
It was the sort of race in which he thrives. Hamilton, by contrast, would do no better than fifth. After the first round of stops had shaken themselves out, he'd lost another place to Alonso and was being closed down by Massa in the second Ferrari, on rubber that was three laps fresher.
On lap 21 Hamilton was slow through 130R and Felipe pulled up alongside on the left as they approached the chicane. The McLaren moved across on him and contact was made.
Hamilton made for the pits and a disgruntled Massa (see separate story) continued with damage to his front wing and floor. Hamilton said that the mirrors were vibrating and he hadn't seen the Ferrari but the Brazilian was less than impressed.
Debris from that and some contact between Schumacher and Webber at Turn 7, brought out the Safety Car after 24 of the 53 laps.
Button backed everyone up and drove the fastest lap of the race as we got under way again. Superb consistency (1:37.576; 1:37.527; 1:37.519) opened him a 2.5s margin and things were starting to look good.
Sensing that the McLaren was once again stronger at the end of the stint, Vettel was the first to stop for the prime tyres, with 20 laps to go. Alonso did another four laps on his options and when Vettel lost time behind Rosberg and Sutil and was held up by D'Ambrosio, the Ferrari emerged from its final stop second.
With eight laps to go Button was almost 5s to the good but then Alonso stated to reel him in. With three laps to go the Ferrari was just over one second behind and perilously close to being within DRS range.
Button though, had it all under control and upped his pace by almost a second, recording the race's fastest lap on the penultimate tour. He'd managed the tyres and the fuel perfectly and stopped as soon as he crossed the line to ensure he had sufficient in reserve to satisfy the mandatory fuel sample.
The first three were covered by just 2s at the flag, with Webber just 6s further back. Hamilton was fifth, 16s further in arrears, outdriven once again by his team mate, with Schumacher's Mercedes, helped by the Safety Car, just 2.8s adrift.
Massa got his damaged Ferrari home seventh and Sergio Perez was an excellent eighth for Sauber, scoring them four valuable championship points and closing them to within eight points of Force India in the quest to finish in the constructors championship top six.
Kamui Kobayashi had been the Saturday hero when he qualified seventh, the best position since Peter Sauber bought the team back, but it all went wrong at the start when the anti-stall kicked in and Kobayashi dropped five places.
Perez's Saturday had been spoiled by hydraulic problems that meant he lined up 17th on the grid, not helped by flu-like symptoms.
The team started him on new primes, then bolted on new sets of options on laps 20 and 37. The Safety Car worked in the Mexican's favour but not his team mate's, Kobayashi making his final stop while the official car was out, which sentenced him to 29 laps on the primes. He came home 13th, behind both Force Indias, while Vitaly Petrov's Renault and Nico Rosberg's Mercedes took the final points.
Amid the general bonhommie surrounding Button's win and Vettel's world championship, Jenson forgave Sebastian his start, while cautioning that next time he won't lift, and Alonso was buoyed by Ferrari's improved form.
It's now all about who will finish second to Vettel in the championship, as Button has an eight point lead over Alonso with Webber a further eight points adrift.
Red Bull's aim is to make sure its drivers finish 1-2 while they wrap up the constructors title, which will happen in Korea if they are not outscored by McLaren. Alonso, meanwhile, admits he will happily sacrifice second in the championship if he can win another race.
"I think it's very likely that people may draw the wrong conclusions and say we've had an easy run," Vettel said in summary. "We had a very good car, no doubt, but I actually think that the car this year was less dominant than last year. Last year we had some bad luck and made some stupid mistakes that cost us a lot of points. I think that's where the difference is."
Undoubtedly his rivals would have preferred the 2010 spec Sebastian. To a man they conceded that this time around he's been phenomenal, his second title thoroughly deserved.