The two weeks preceding and including the Japanese Grand Prix brought a lot of surprises and some significant changes to this and the following season; one thing hasn’t changed though – we still don’t know for sure, who will be the 2012 title winner.
The early Sunday morning race was likely to be missed by some Western viewers, but it was a real shame for those who have, as this certainly was one of the races not to be missed. There was enough action from start to finish to keep one awake without a strong cup of coffee, and the recent updates on the 2013 season made it even more entertaining to follow the few main protagonists of the Suzuka race.
It’s fair to start with the double-winner of this Japanese weekend: Sebastian Vettel. Why double? Obviously, the faultless run in the lead from red lights to the chequered flag after a stunning qualifying session put him on the highest podium for the second consecutive race weekend: a first of a kind triumph of 2012. Secondly, this win gave him a precious 25 point gain to catch up with the leader of the Drivers’ Championship, Fernando Alonso, as the Spaniard was left to watch the race from the garage without scoring a single point: a contact with Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen and a subsequent puncture of his left rear tyre saw him spun out of the race already on lap number one. This has cut the comfortable advantage the Ferrari driver had over Vettel, second in the standings, to mere four points; so those who have been already seeing Alonso claim his third lifetime title have to bite their tongues and admit that there are still equal chances for Vettel to claim his third title in a row – or for another driver to fight for victory. Because, in the meantime, Raikkonen continues to be the only driver to have completed all races of the season – as he continues to sit strongly in third place in the Championship, 37 points behind Alonso and with five Grand Prix to go.
Although Spaniard did not bring home any points for the team, the Suzuka circuit was the place where his team-mate, Felipe Massa, finally found his former self: his 2. place finish was his first podium in nearly two years, specifically, since his 3. finish in Korea in 2010. This was a much-needed brilliant performance of the Brazillian, who must be feeling the pressure of the nearing the end of his contract with Ferrari without any indication whether he would be wearing the same colours next season – if any at all. “They have been two tough years for me and, sometimes, a million things go through your mind, some of them bad, but finally I can be happy! It’s an important result psychologically and also in terms of my future, at least I think so!” Massa told the Formula 1 website after the race. The second Prancing Horse seat – next to the already confirmed Alonso – is a hotly disputed one and with a lot of fresh talent on the grid, Massa would best repeat the result to secure his precious position in Ferrari.
On the other hand, even without scoring podiums the Brazilian might still be the safest option for his team, aiming for a Constructors’ Championship in the near future, as the already mentioned “new talent” are proving to be black horses of the races. Romain Grosjean, for instance, who has gained Lotus some valuable points, having a few times secured a two-podium finish with team-mate Raikkonen, has equally astonishingly caused a few major incidents that have sent a few leading point-scorers into retirement. After the infamous Spa crash that was grave enough to grant him a one-race ban, in Suzuka he contacted with Webber, costing the Red Bull driver precious time and effectively – points. Although the Australian managed to collect himself and finish the race in 8., he was visibly irritated by the incident and preoccupied for the upcoming races: “We’re trying to fight for results each weekend and it doesn’t help so, yeah, it’s frustrating as a few of the big guys suffered out there today,” but he also added: “I’ll come back in Korea.”
Also Sergio Perez, already viewed through the prism of ‘McLaren’s newest addition’, has not impressed in Japan, despite some astounding Grand Prix finishes earlier in the year. His first successful overtaking was a memorable one: he had squeezed ahead of Lewis Hamilton, the one whose seat he will be taking in McLaren from 2013, a move which could have been another painful hit to the Brit’s pride after a disappointing qualifying and not much more plausible race finish as it later turned out. However, the second attempt of the same manoeuvre ended up in Perez loosing control over his car and spurning out of the Grand Prix on lap 19.
Other retirements of the day included Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, the team’s planted driver, who from next season will be joined by Hamilton – he also had been affected by Grosjean’s bad car handling, as the chaos on the grid that followed the Frenchman’s contact with Webber led to his collision with Williams’ Bruno Senna. The Silver Arrows left Japan with no extra points, as Schumacher, who in the Thursday pre-Suzuka conference admitted he had been lacking “energy and motivation” in the last few races, ended one of his (revived) career in 11. The team said they were looking forward with fresh hopes for Korea, but being 188 points behind the Constructors’ Championship leaders, Red Bull, they are probably looking forward to 2013 and their rejuvenated (although less titled) driver line-up.
But among all the retirements and personal successes, the biggest glory fell on the biggest star for the Suzuka crowd – Kamui Kobayashi, who in Japan bravely defended his position from McLaren’s Jenson Button to the very end to score his first ever podium finish. This was an obvious crowd pleaser, as it was also only the third time in Formula One history that a Japanese driver has won a podium trophy; although there was a proud Vettel on the highest step and a relieved Masssa in second, only the Sauber drier’s name was chanted by the ecstatic crowd.
The Japan 2012 podium is a perfect reflection of the nature of this season – two drivers fighting for survival and between them, the Champion fighting to become a legend. It is all to play for in the few remaining races of 2012, that still have the potential of turning the scoreboard on its head.