Sebastian Vettel stands a mere ten points away from his fourth Formula One World Championship title after taking his ninth victory of the 2013 season at the Japanese Grand Prix.
The German worked his strategy to perfection to overcome a stiff challenge from Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and team-mate Mark Webber, whose three-stop strategy saw him miss out on victory after failing to pass Grosjean in the final few laps.
Vettel and Webber both made shoddy starts, finding themselves swamped by row two starters Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton; however, Hamilton nicked his right-rear wheel on Vettel’s front wing as he powered past the Red Bull, puncturing his tyre. He dropped to the back of the field, and in his haste to return to the pits damaged his F1W04 beyond repair. His retirement left Nico Rosberg as the sole surviving Mercedes, but things got even worse for the Anglo-German team as they accidentally released Rosberg into the path of the incoming McLaren of Sergio Perez – earning themselves a drive-through penalty.
Grosjean’s flying start netted him the lead during the first stint, but the Red Bull duo refused to be shaken off and Webber jumped the Frenchman with the first of his three scheduled stops. Behind them, Nico Hulkenberg was again punching above his weight and running strongly early on, mixing it with the likes of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa as his Mexican rookie team-mate Esteban Gutierrez also made ground in the first lap chaos. Van Der Garde and Bianchi made contact at turn one that ended both their races, while Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button were caught out by the slowing car of Hamilton and dropped behind Gutierrez.
As the strategies began to play out, Vettel’s role in proceedings became increasingly clear; holding his distance from the Grosjean/Webber battle enabled the German to run deeper into the race on his soft tyres despite his front wing damage from lap one, and his second stint moved him ahead of Grosjean as he flexed the muscles of his RB9. Webber led for much of the second half of the race, but his final stop saw him exit the pits some seven seconds behind the flying Vettel and trailing Lotus. He closed rapidly, but there were just two full racing laps left on the board by the time he pulled the pass on the start-finish straight and Vettel’s superb victory was assured.
While the podium battle was a perfect study in strategical battle, the resulting points positions fights resorted to brute force to settle arguments. Rosberg and Perez got reacquainted at the chicane when the Mexican moved over on an aborted move by Rosberg, suffering a puncture that necessitated an unplanned trip to the pits. Daniel Ricciardo also took a drive-through penalty after passing Paul Di Resta on the outside of the infamous 130R corner. The Australian didn’t quite see where he’d gone wrong though, and branded the decision to penalise him ‘unbelieveable’ post-race.
Force India’s day was another point-less one, with Di Resta’s last-minute deference to a recovering Button costing them vital points in the battle with McLaren and Sauber in the constructor’s championship. Adrian Sutil’s 14th position was another disappointment for the ailing team.
Even outside the points the aggression flowed, as Williams team-mates Maldonado and Bottas joined battle on the very last lap at the chicane when the Venezuelan forced his disgruntled Finnish rival off the circuit, stoking rumours that the South American is leaving the distinguished team at the end of the season.
What They Say
“It was a horrible start to be honest; we found ourselves sitting in third place and then tried to go longer in the first stint. I had great traction after I got past Romain and after that the only threat was Mark who got stuck behind Romain. We could then manage the gap until the end of the race. The Championship is the big target of course, but the season is very long still and the best way to wrap it up is not to think about it.” Sebastian Vettel, DEU, Red Bull
“We were on the back foot a bit after Romain’s great start. I wanted to put pressure on him for the win. Sebastian was on a different strategy to me and in the end it worked out pretty similar. It’s hard to know which was right, as we were trying to cover off Romain. I did my best and in the end it was a good result.” Mark Webber, AUS, Red Bull
“It was superb to go past both the Red Bulls like that and it’ll be one of my best memories of the year. The car was fantastic on the first set of tyres and we managed to pull away, but then the Red Bulls were able to reel us in later on. Ultimately, we were the only car to almost catch the bull. It’s been a great home race for my engineer; it’s always good to come to Japan and it’s really good to be back on the podium again.” Romain Grosjean, FRA, Lotus
“Mark moved right, so I had to move as well, which sandwiched Sebastian between me and Romain. Seb’s front wing clipped my right rear, cut the tyre and that was that. It wasn’t his fault at all, just one of those things that wasn’t meant to be this afternoon. I feel most gutted for the team – the guys here at the track and in the factory – because they are doing an amazing job right now and we’re just not getting the reward for it.” Lewis Hamilton, GBR, Mercedes AMG
“The first two stints of the race were pretty difficult as I had massive understeer. That was my fault: on the lap-to-grid, it felt like I had too much front-end, so I took some wing out of the car. It was the wrong thing to do – it left me with too much understeer, and I kept locking up the fronts, which destroyed the front tyres. For the third set, we added some front-wing, and the balance came back to me. In the end, the car was really good to drive – especially my final stint on the Option tyre, which was a lot of fun, especially as I was able to chase down and pass a couple of other cars.” Jenson Button, GBR, McLaren
“At the start of the race I didn’t get a good launch and a few cars came by me, and then we lost out at the first pit stop because the Williams of Bottas jumped us. That compromised the second stint, which is why we went very aggressive with an early second stop to get track position and move ahead of the Williams. The car felt better for the final stint and it looked like we were on course for a point. In the end we were about five laps too short with the tyre life because I couldn’t defend from Jenson.” Paul Di Resta, GBR, Force India
“Generally this has been a really positive weekend for me and one where we’ve made all the right moves. It was great to qualify ahead of my three nearest competitors for the first time yesterday and today I held position for most of the race, so it was pretty disappointing to lose out just a few laps from the end. I was happy with the way our race was panning out but on the prime tyre in the final stint I struggled a lot more and made a small mistake going onto the marbles, which caused me to go off. From then on, with those tyres, there was little I could do to recover. Although we lost out in the end, I think we have to focus on the positives. The car is a lot stronger and we are in a good place for the fight with the Caterhams.” Max Chilton, GBR, Marussia
Red Bull – Despite one of their worst starts – ever – they played the strategical game to perfection. Vettel’s ‘copycat’ tactics of mimicking the strategies used by Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso to beat him here in 2011 was an inspired move and proves there is more to the German than many believe, and Webber also played his three-stop excellently despite nearly missing out on passing Grosjean at the end of the Grand Prix. There are rumours that the Australian’s strategy was deliberately compromised to ensure a Vettel win, but that is a story for another day.
Lotus – Taking the lead at the start of the race was always going to be the way Lotus would take a win at this late stage of the year, but in the end even that wasn’t enough for Grosjean whose mastery of his situation was superb nonetheless. The Frenchman fought hard but fair to retain his positions and was the only real challenger to Red Bull, while Raikkonen quietly moved his way up to a solid 5th place by race’s end.
Ferrari – Alonso has kept the title ‘fight’ alive to the next race in India with his 4th place, although the Spaniard admits his chances of stopping Vettel are pretty much non-existent. Massa ran strongly early on and defied his team leader when push came to shove, and only backed down after a firm Alonso pass put him in his place. The Brazilian deserved more than a single point, but Alonso’s 4th was probably the best Ferrari could hope for.
Mercedes – Damn! Another race gone, another lost chance; Hamilton was blameless in the start-line incident that saw him lose his right-rear Pirelli to the tender mercies of a viciously sharp front-wing endplate, and Rosberg too was entirely innoncent in the pitlane blunder that saw his chances of a podium scuppered by a badly-timed green light. His post-race outburst at Perez was a little ill-judged, while Hamilton seemed resigned but serene with his retirement. The Briton is now mathematically out of title contention for another year.
Sauber – Proving Korea was more than a flash-in-the-pan, Hulkenberg was once again on top form in Suzuka. Leading both Ferrari’s early on was a good start, while Gutierrez made some inspired moves to ensure his swift ascent through the order. The Mexican scored points for the first time, which is exactly what the team needs in the constructor’s championship, while the double points finish is an excellent 70th birthday present for Peter Sauber.
McLaren – Pitstop problems were back with a vengeance this weekend, with the ever-troublesome right-rear proving the sticking point that lost both drivers time. Button suffered with ‘no front end’ on the opening two stints, a mistake the Briton later admitted was his after changing the setup just before the start, while Perez’s brush with Rosberg snookered any chances of his own car socring points. Button’s 9th was a reasonable recovery, but it was once again too little, too late.
Force India – Quickly being reeled in by Sauber, Force India have now scored a paltry three points in the last seven races. Suzuka again proved this was down to the tyre changes made post-Silverstone, and Di Resta coming within two laps of a single point for 10th will, in the grand scheme of things, have made no difference to avert their plight. Sutil struggled the entire race and, put simply, it was another awful weekend.
Williams – The struggle continues for one of F1’s most revered names, and the only TV exposure came when Bottas and Maldonado came to blows at the chicane on the final lap. Bottas duly blamed the Venenzuelan, whose position in the team was the centre of attention much of the weekend amidst claims his relationship with team owner Sir Frank has broken down. Almost taking himself and his team-mate out the race will do nothing to repair that rift, but when it’s over 16th and 17th place it doesn’t really matter.
Toro Rosso – After the weekend got off to a bad start in qualifying, the Red Bull ‘B’ team needed a bold move to regain some lost ground. Starting Ricciardo on the prime Pirelli tyres was the right choice to make, and he did a good job to hold off the train of cars that formed up behind him as he ran deep into the race as long as he did. Once Hulkenberg was past, it seemed to throw him a little and his first pitstop was well-timed to avoid a potentially race-ending incident. The drive-through for passing Di Resta on the outside run-off area of 130R was deserved – even if the Australian didn’t think so – and it was that mistake that ultimately ruined his race. Vergne was solid throughout, but never made an impact on the fight for points.
Caterham – Van Der Garde was cleared of error in his turn one collision with Bianchi, and the incident might have drawn parallel’s with Senna and Prost’s infamous 1990 antics had it not been largely ignored in the first lap chaos. Thereafter, Pic was Caterham’s sole focus as he did battle with Chilton for the final scraps of honour that come with fighting for last position. Winning the fight was as much as could be asked for.
Marussia – With Bianchi out at turn one, Marussia piled all their efforts into Chilton’s car in a bid to turn the British rookie’s excellent qualifying effort into an equally good race result. It was not to be and the Englishman finished last, but in doing so ensured he is now the only driver in the field to have finished every race thus far of the 2013 season.
CLASSIFICATION – RACE – JAPANESE GRAND PRIX
|11||Di Resta||GBR||Force India|
|21||Van Der Garde||NED||Caterham||Crash|