OSV’s motorsport correspondent, Alex Goldschmidt reports on F1 Suzuka, the Japanese Grand Prix.
The 5.807km track just based 80 kilometers southwest outside of Nagoya would be the final Asian round of the 2013 Formula One World Championship, before the title race would soon be concluded.
The land of the samurai has hosted a Grand Prix on the F1 Calendar since its first inclusion as a non championship round in 1963, along with Fuji Speedway hosting its own fair share of races, before the 10-year hiatus came to an end in 1986. With speeds anywhere between 65 to 320km/h, as well as g-forces being rather high, a driver will have to pay as much attention as possible to make it count
This track is a true test of man and machine, with the Pirelli tyres having to combat the very abrasive surface, as well as the drivers having to manage the Pirelli P-Zero compounds as best they can to maximize any potential chances at any time during the weekend. It is one of the few remaining old-school tracks on the calendar and also has the only figure-of-eight configuration to date that currently is on the F1 calendar.
Infiniti Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel came into this round of the championship 77 points ahead of Scuderia Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, as the fight for the title was still being kept alive as long as possible. The three-time champion, who was defending his crown, could very well sow up the title for the fourth year in succession, but would have to hope that his nearest rivals would falter in the process.
Mercedes AMG Petronas’ Lewis Hamilton had a mathematical chance, but it would all depend on what happened that weekend as to whether the 2008 World Champion was still in the hunt. Both he and Nico Rosberg were leading the way in the first practice session, as Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde clattered the barriers at the second Degner curve. The French driver was not able to make it for the second practice session due to the extent of the repairs.
Charles Pic was sitting out of the session, as Finland’s Heikki Kovalainen was behind the wheel of the Caterham for some well-needed seat time, as he is in the running for a 2014 drive. Pastor Maldonado also went off track as his left rear wheel went awry at Spoon Curve, bringing with it a 60,000 Euro fine for the Williams team. The two Red Bulls of Vettel and Mark Webber, sixth tenths behind, with the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Alonso completing the top six, followed the two Mercedes drivers.
Vettel had other ideas in free practice two, as he topped the times ahead of Hamilton, as both Maldonado and McLaren’s Sergio Perez also ended up in the barriers at the Degner and Spoon Curves, with other drivers pushing too hard at times, including a spinning Kimi Raikkonen.
Webber, himself decided to up the ante for the final practice session, as times had improved by over a second as the track had evolved during the night, with Lotus’ Romain Grosjean also showing good pace in the long-wheelbase E21. Several of the drivers, including Alonso, Grosjean and many others were using as much kerb as possible, especially through the Casio Triangle. Sahara Force India’s Adrian Sutil got away rather lightly, as his car went off line and the rear end stepped out coming out of Spoon Curve, with the car touching the barrier ever so slightly, losing its nose cone in the process.
Qualifying showed that Webber was on the charge, as he secured his first pole position in Formula One since Korea last year, ahead of his teammate Vettel, who even with a slight KERS issue, made it another front row lock out for the Milton Keynes squad. Hamilton seemingly had no answer, as Mercedes’ initial form in qualifying seems to be dropping, as a result of the team’s focus on the 2014 car. Grosjean also made it onto the second row in fourth, but showed that he was pushing the limits of the car as well as the track that would somehow not give him the chance to go for pole position. Massa rounded out the top five, and was clear three places ahead of his teammate Alonso.
The usual suspects of Bianchi, Max Chilton, van der Garde and Pic would be early casualties in the first session, along with Sutil and Toro Rosso’s Jean Eric Vergne, with the German starting dead last, due to a five grid penalty. Pic however, would be the first driver to have to serve a drive-through penalty in the first few laps of the race, as a result of running a red light in one of the practice sessions.
Then the fight intensified, as Perez, Paul di Resta, Valterri Bottas, Esteban Gutierrez, Maldonado and Daniel Ricciardo were those that lost out, especially as Perez was forced out, due to a late run from Massa, who got through by a whisker.
The top ten shoot out showed that no one was really safe, but Webber asserted his dominance, whilst we saw uncharacteristic mistakes from Vettel, who ran wide at Spoon Curve, that unsettled the remaining drivers to calm down and fight for the first time since the half way point of the season.
Race day saw further sunshine, as Suzuka and its entourage bathed in the radiant rays from above, but with varied conditions of the past few days, such as wind direction changes, the drivers were making last-minute changes during the installation laps before the lights went out.
As the drivers lined up the grid, several cars were showing that their brakes were starting to overheat, as Hamilton pointed his car between both Red Bulls, looking to get ahead into Turn 1. The lights went out, but it was Grosjean that really planted his car into the lead ahead of Webber, going around the outside and keeping to the right. Hamilton picked up a puncture on the rear of his car, as Vettel had nowhere else to go, with the front wing of his RB9 making contact.
The Brit would eventually retire with floor damage as a result of the puncture and the fact the Stevenage driver had to guide his car back slowly to the pits, finding himself over a second off the pace due to the aerodynamic efficiency. Van der Garde and Bianchi’s weekends ended pretty much as it began, as the pair collided into turn one.
Grosjean and Webber were pulling away, as Alonso again made it up the order by a couple of places, with the Australian closing even without the assistance of DRS, as the yellow flags were still waving for several laps after the incident at Turn One. Pit stop strategies would be the key to unlocking victory at the Japanese circuit, be it either a two or three-stop affair.
Tyre conservation was a ploy used early as both Webber and Vettel were asked to look after their tyres and keep around a 2-second gap to the car in front. Webber, Grosjean and Vettel pitted from Lap 12 onwards, with all drivers trying to undercut each other, with the Lotus appearing to be kinder on its tyres.
Ricciardo was on a potential 2-stop strategy, being one of the last to pit on around lap 24, but was just one of the drivers that suffered drive through penalties. Nico Rosberg served his penalty for an unsafe release into the path of Perez on Lap 16, with Massa being given the same forfeit as a result of speeding in the pit lane.
Ricciardo went wide at 130R around Adrian Sutil, using the run off area to end up in front of the German, but also got a drive-through for completing an overtake outside of the track limits.
Grosjean, Webber and Vettel were all in the hunt for the victory, with the French driver having to pit twice more before the end of the race, putting him out of contention for even a top-two finish, as he was overtaken by Webber with just a handful of laps left.
The soon-to-be departing Australian decided that he was going for the win, switching to the option tyres with 8 or so laps left, but was hindered by the impressive Frenchman who gave his all to defend his place. This was before the back markers gave Webber his chance to get past, and did so, but Vettel was just cruising his way to the finish, having made his strategy count.
It was another clinical finish for the triple world champion, as he was not yet crowned, but was still not that far away to taking his fourth title. Webber finished ahead of Grosjean, which made it another clean sweep of the podium for Renault power, with Alonso, Raikkonen and Hulkenberg having fought hard for the remaining places in the top six. Gutierrez held off Rosberg for his first set of F1 points in seventh, whilst Jenson Button, the 2011 race winner, overtook Felipe Massa for 9th, as the Brazilian rounded out the points finishers this time out.
So with a fifth place finish or higher next time out in India, it is just a matter of time until Sebastian Vettel takes his fourth title in a row, as Fernando Alonso himself may be powerless do to anything to challenge. The history books are yet to be rewritten.
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