The Japanese Grand Prix provided us with a welcome reminder of what good can come from moving away from the Tilkedromes. Suzuka came up trumps on Sunday: it may have been another victory for Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, but the fashion in which he was made to fight for the victory made it a welcome break from the recent races.
Seb proves why he’s a champ
The fashion of Sebastian Vettel’s victory on Sunday was surprising given that he was actually made to fight for the win – something he hasn’t had to do since the German Grand Prix when Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean put him to the sword. The plucky Frenchman was ever-present once again this weekend, making a rocket start from P4 to take the lead at turn one, and he remained in front for the majority of the race. When Seb made a mistake on the exit of turn two during the first stint, it finally confirmed after all that he is indeed human. Predictably, he then went on to prove his super-human talent behind the wheel. After dropping back from teammate Mark Webber, Vettel bided his time and saved his tyres before putting in some relentless lap times ahead of Grosjean’s second stop. As a result, the gap to the Lotus was minimal after the German driver had pitted for a second time and, with fresher tyres, he was able to pass and take the net lead of the race, eventually moving up to P1 when Webber stopped. It was an incredibly calculated and well-thought-out series of moves by Red Bull and Vettel, and it proves just why the twenty-six year old is a soon-to-be four-time champion. Of his thirty-five wins, this has to go down as one of his best.
Did Red Bull really hamper Webber’s race?
After making an early stop to try and undercut Grosjean at the front, Mark Webber was moved onto a three-stop strategy that – according to the conspiracy theorists out there – ended all hopes he had of winning the Japanese Grand Prix. Having run a comfortable second ahead of his teammate for the majority of the race, to see him come out P3 on fresher tyres but a long way behind Vettel was disheartening for many, and the Australian driver was clearly frustrated to have lost the chance to win a race having started on pole. However, what Red Bull did was, much like Seb’s plotted attack on Grosjean, well thought out and well reasoned. The whole point of three-stopping Webber was to get him ahead of Grosjean – therefore, the strategy achieved its purpose. Webber has been renowned for taking more out of his tyres than Vettel, meaning that it was unlikely that he could have laid down a similar pace to bridge the gap as the German driver did. In fact, even with a three-stop, he couldn’t catch Grosjean until the final stint. Red Bull split the strategies well and ended up with a one-two finish, although it is unlikely that the conspiracists out there will give Vettel any credit without finding an injustice against Mark Webber.
RoGro pleased with P3, and who can blame him?
Romain Grosjean may have missed out on his maiden grand prix victory at Suzuka, but the Frenchman’s demeanour on the podium was not one of dismay or frustration. Instead, it was a result that underlined his status as a future race winner and possible championship contender, not to mention a team leader at Lotus in the post-Raikkonen era. Since Monaco, Grosjean has put in a series of highly impressive and consistent performances. Speaking to journalists in Germany after four successive non-scores, he was frustrated and clearly under pressure. If you watch him in interviews now though, this is a driver at the peak of his powers. He is happy, secure at Lotus and – the most important part – quick. Two podiums on the trot, and you wouldn’t bet against him tripling in India the weekend after next.
Gutierrez breaks the rookies’ duck
Esteban Gutierrez’s charge to P7 during the race on Sunday was a landmark result for the Mexican driver, marking his first points in Formula One after debuting at the beginning of the season. However, it also marks the first points for the quintet of drivers making their debuts in 2013, bringing to an end a rather poor spate of form for this year’s rookies. Valtteri Bottas was widely tipped to take the F1 world by storm, but he hasn’t lived up to the hype, but Gutierrez has in recent weeks proven himself to be a star for the future. In Singapore, he explained how he wanted to be more aggressive in qualifying: he hasn’t come close to dropping out in Q1 since. In the race on Sunday, he took advantage of the poor luck of some, but it was – like Webber’s pole on Saturday – a case of “right place, right time.” A solid performance from the Mexican driver who is doing all he can to prove that he is worth a place on the 2014 grid.
All is fair in love, war and team orders
Felipe Massa has received a lot of stick over the years for being submissive to Fernando Alonso and the orders of his team, meaning that when he said in Singapore that he would no longer adhere to the calls of his team, few believed him. However, the Brazilian driver stuck to his word in Suzuka, finding himself ahead of Alonso before the first round of stops. He was given an order (“Multifunction Strategy A”) which was a thinly-veiled order to allow Alonso past. Massa plugged away though, with his teammate having to – get this - make an overtake. It was a fair move by Alonso and Massa’s refusal to let him past did little to hamper the Spaniard’s race. Massa is in the shop window at the moment, and moves like that will certainly aid his cause to find a ‘number one’ seat at a team in 2014.
Trouble at Williams?
A rather interesting incident took place at the end of the race on Sunday. Scrapping over a lowly sixteenth position, Pastor Maldonado made a rather aggressive pass on Valtteri Bottas heading into the Casio Triangle, forcing his Finnish teammate to miss the corner and take to the rumble strip. Maldonado crossed the line in front, but Bottas made his distaste clear in an interview with the BBC after the race, appearing to be visibly upset his teammate had pulled such a stunt. It was a tough but fair move from Maldonado, and a sign of his ‘feisty’ nature that was so present last season. However, Williams admitted that they would have to sit down with both drivers and talk things out, but Claire Williams stuck to her guns and said that her drivers are allowed to race. With Maldonado rumoured to have signed a fresh deal with fresh investment from PDVSA, will Bottas stick around at Grove?
NBC Sports’ Will Buxton and Jason Swales put together something rather unique whilst in Japan. Seriously, just watch this video, watch it again, perhaps then even a third time… and doff your hat in recognition of this epic tribute.
Raise a smile
The past few days have been particularly dark in the motorsport world following the death of Maria de Villota on Friday and today’s news about Porsche Supercup racer Sean Edwards. However, the Japanese Grand Prix gave us many reasons to smile and embrace Formula One’s most unique weekend of the year. It is a race that is loved by drivers, teams and fans all over the world, reflecting the passion of the Japanese fans themselves who came out in their thousands in an array of team attire (although we doubt the Ferrari banana costume is an official product!), draped in flags and giving great support to all-comers on the grid. On a weekend when we sorely needed cheering up, the Japanese Grand Prix came up trumps. A big thank you, Japan, and we cannot wait to come back in twelve months’ time.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic.