Sebastian Vettel needed a bit of fortune to put him in touch with Fernando Alonso in the championship fight, and he received just that today. Contact between Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen at the start resulted in a puncture for the Ferrari driver that ended his race in a first corner spin. Vettel won the race from pole position, ensuring that he maximised the opportunity to take points off the championship leader.
Vettel’s drive was masterful, reminiscent of 2011 when he was streets ahead of everyone else. He pushed when he wanted to, although he never really needed to, and finished the race 20 seconds clear of Felipe Massa, who stood on the podium for the first time since 2010. Kamui Kobayashi became the first Japanese driver to feature on the podium at his home race since 1990 by finishing third, holding off the advances of Jenson Button in the final stages of the race.
Romain Grosjean covered himself in anything but glory by causing yet another first lap incident. The Frenchman appeared to be distracted by a Sauber on his outside when he should have been braking for turn two, and hit the Red Bull of Mark Webber, causing Webber to spin in the middle of the track and doing some minor damage to both cars. In the aftermath of the incident, Bruno Senna touched the back of Nico Rosberg’s car, causing damage to the nose and front wing of the Williams and putting Rosberg out of the race with a puncture. Grosjean received a 10-second stop-and-go penalty – the harshest penalty available to the stewards short of disqualification. Considering the frequency with which he initiates pile-ups, Grosjean could find himself out of a job fairly soon if he doesn’t clean up his act.
McLaren had a surprisingly uncompetitive day, with Jenson Button unable to make an impression on the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi in the latter stages of the race. Button finished fourth, ahead of team-mate Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton complained of understeer in his car throughout the weekend, but found some pace late in the race as the balance of the car improved. After having easily the quickest car at the last four races, Mclaren will be disappointed at not even making the podium, although Alonso failing to score will certainly give them some consolation.
Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher had a competitive yet unrewarded drive from 23rd on the grid to finish 11th, missing out on a point only through some skillful defending by Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne in the closing stages of the race. Although Mercedes did not achieve the results they would have wanted from the weekend, they will nonetheless be reassured by the pace of the car in race trim. Schumacher set the sixth fastest lap of the race and was quick throughout the second half of the race. Rosberg’s race lasted only 22 seconds, but he had made a good start and would probably have scored points if not for the first lap drama.
Alonso’s lead in the championship has now been reduced to just four points, with Sebastian Vettel breathing down his neck in the Drivers’ Championship. Considering the form displayed today by Red Bull and the lack of pace from Ferrari in the last few races, Vettel is now the favourite to take this year’s title and thereby become only the third driver in history to win three championships in a row. Of course, with five races remaining anything can still happen, and a single retirement for Vettel would swing the balance firmly back towards Alonso.
Suzuka has seen the crowning of 11 World Champions in its long history, due to it frequently hosting the final race of the season. It has seen Prost and Senna clashing in 1989 and 1990 and was the setting for Schumacher taking his sixth title in 2003 to beat the previous record set by Fangio.
This weekend’s race promises no such drama, as the championship is far from over, but there is nonetheless plenty at stake. Fernando Alonso will be looking for a win to further increase his lead in the Drivers’ Championship, while Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton will all be hoping to take as many points as possible off the championship leader.
The track is a favourite with teams and drivers, and the local fans are extremely enthusiastic. Suzuka International Racing Course is built in an unusual figure of eight configuration and is a great technical challenge for the drivers. The fast flowing esses in the first sector are followed by the fast and difficult Degner double-right-hand curve before the hairpin – the slowest point on the track. Then it’s hard on the power towards the spoon curve, where a good exit is essential for a good run up the hill and onto the crossover before 130R, the famous flat-out left-hander that leads to the final chicane and onto the start-finish straight.
The two weeks leading up to the race have been full of driver-related news. Sergio Perez has been confirmed as a McLaren driver for 2013, in place of Lewis Hamilton who is departing for Mercedes. The news of Hamilton’s move led to speculation over the future of Michael Schumacher, with suggestions that he could perhaps make a sensational return to Ferrari or otherwise find a seat at Sauber.
Schumacher ended the speculation on Thursday in a press conference when he announced his retirement from Formula One as at the end of 2012. Although he has not achieved the aims he set for himself at the start of his comeback, the seven-time World Champion called time on his career due to uncertainty over his own continuing motivation.
Pirelli are providing their hard and soft compound tyres for the race.
Suzuka is one of the greatest challenges of the season for tyre performance and degradation. Long and fast corners including Spoon and 130R place large lateral loads on the tyres, with loads peaking at 3.4G in the turn 7 Dunlop Curve.
Tyre management will therefore be crucial to the outcome of the race. The early phase of the race will be particularly important, as the cars will be carrying heavy fuel loads through the high-speed corners.
McLaren, Red Bull and Lotus have strong aero packages on their cars, which should give them an advantage, particularly in the twisty first sector and through 130R. The high-speed and high-downforce nature of the track should test Mercedes’ recent upgrades thoroughly.
Lewis Hamilton must surely be the favourite for victory. He is the form driver of the last few races and could have won four in a row had he not been taken out by Romain Grosjean in Belgium and mechanical failure in Singapore.
Circuit Length: 5.807 km
Race laps: 53
Race length: 307.471 km
Lap Record: 1:31.540 – Kimi Raikkonen / McLaren (2005)
Race winner: Jenson Button / McLaren
Pole position: Sebastian Vettel / Red Bull – 1:30.466
Fastest lap: Jenson Button / McLaren – 136.568
- Michael Schumacher holds the record for most victories in Japan, with six.
- Ferrari won the race five years in a row – from 2000 to 2004, with Michael Schumacher taking four wins and Rubens Barrichello one.
- All six of the World Champions on the grid for this weekend’s race have won the Japanese Grand Prix at least once in their careers.
No rain is expected this weekend and temperatures are expected to be fairly consistent in the mid-20s centigrade. Conditions will therefore be optimal for set-up work on Friday and Saturday morning.