The classic Suzuka circuit delivered another Red Bull victory – in fact, in the form of a 1-2, somewhat surprisingly, only for the second time this season. Unsurprisingly, it was Sebastian Vettel once more who claimed the top spot on the podium; and yet, the Japanese Grand Prix was the first race in a while when the winner was hard to predict until the final stages of the event – promising a very bright future for one of the afternoon race leaders.
You have to look back to the second race of the season in March for the only other Red Bull front-row finish in 2013 – infamously known as the Multi 21 affair. Just like then it seemed Mark Webber was on the path to victory, after stepping up his game in Suzuka’s qualifying to snatch the pole from his team-mate. Similarly to Malaysia, different strategies and slight differences in performance gave the triple champion the edge to force his way to the front and remain victorious, to the Australian’s dismay. This time, however, it looked like fair-play; the coded team messages related strictly to running of the package and not driver position, and the actual reshuffle took place in between pitstops, so there was no direct interaction between the two team-mates that could have caused a pre-podium ceremony storm. According to the team principal, Christian Horner, Webber’s heavier use of the tyres called for an early pitstop, which then resulted in a three-stop strategy; unlike Vettel, who pushed his second set of tyres to the limit before making his second and final stop that afternoon – a bold decision that bought him enough time and traction to claim a fifth consecutive win, and his ninth this season, bringing him on the brink of clenching another championship title.
And yet, when Webber made his second stop which moved him from first to third, the team had to remind Vettel who his real opponent was: “You are not racing Mark, you are racing Grosjean”…
Indeed, the “other” Lotus driver is gradually becoming “the” Lotus driver, perfectly responding to Kimi Raikkonen’s imminent departure to Ferrari. He impressed on Saturday, having out-qualified his champion team-mate by five places, to start from fourth; and then took everyone by surprise when he stormed ahead of the two front-row Red Bulls before the first corner of the race. It was an eventful start to the afternoon which saw Giedo van der Garde’s Caterham and Jules Bianchi’s Marussia collide, sending them both out of the race; while a charge for the front by third-placed Hamilton ended in a start-up contact with Vettel – a puncture and resulting damage to the Mercedes’ floor plus overheating breaks meant the race was finished for the Brit as early as lap 9.
At that stage Romain Grosjean was still in the lead, ahead of Webber and Vettel; in fact, he remained there until his second pitstop on lap 30. Predicted as the race winner, Webber did not get his shot at the lead until lap 38, after Vettel went in for his second pitstop – which was a short lived sensation for the Aussie, who knowing his older tyres would not last, stopped on lap 42 for a final set of faster medium compounds.
The remaining 10 laps were a nerve-wracking spectacle of the Australian doing his best to overtake the Lotus in hopes of regaining the top podium step; but it soon became clear that was a dream lost, as the Frenchman clung onto the second finish until the penultimate lap of the race.
Given the financial disadvantage against Red Bull – a fact pointed out eagerly across the paddock – the Lotus driver did a Herculean job of keeping the constructor champions at bay throughout the afternoon – an achievement so much sweeter for Grosjean who could look down from a podium step on his team-mate. Raikkonen did a good job himself, advancing four places from his starting position to finish fifth, behind his future team-mate, Fernando Alonso.
The fourth place finish for the Spaniard means Vettel needs to wait a bit longer to win his fourth consecutive championship, as mathematically Alonso still stays in contention for this year’s title. But the Ferrari driver has no illusions.
“I don’t think [the title fight is still on],” Alonso told AUTOSPORT.
“Even if Sebastian retired from all four [remaining] races, I would have to win all of them. We keep doing the best possible, but it’s a matter of time.”
Ferrari works did not stick as well as they used to, as Felipe Massa becomes a man of his own at the end of his Prancing Horse career, fighting to secure his future in F1 and not his team-mate’s win. Having once more outqualified Alonso, he kept his ground to the limit; however, a mistake of speeding in the pitlane cost him a drive-through penalty, which demoted him to the last point-scoring finish in 10. place.
Although it was Jenson Button who he lost an extra point to on the last straight, McLaren cannot really classify Suzuka as a happy afternoon – and neither can Mercedes. The two cars: of remaining Nico Rosberg and Sergio Perez clashed on two separate occasions, both impairing their performance. During the first round of pitstops, an unsafe release of Rosberg meant that Perez had to swerve his McLaren in split-second to avoid a crash with the Mercedes as the Mexican went in for a change of tyres on lap 14. Then, 30 laps later they made contact again on track, which left Perez with a puncture and Rosberg worrying over his front wing – and that on top of a tyre-change issue for the former and a drive-through penalty for the latter earlier in the race. Out of the two, only Rosberg came out with points, finishing in eighth.
But a team that did make it stick in Suzuka came as another revelation: the two Sauber drivers finished confidently in the points. Reminiscent of the Korean GP one week earlier, Nico Hulkenberg fended off stronger competitors for some time, but eventually gave in to Alonso and Raikkonen to finish sixth. He was closely followed by his rookie team-mate Esteban Gutierrez who claimed his first championship points, having narrowly missed out on the glory with his 11. finish in Korea. The result puts him ahead of the Spanish GP 2012 winner Pastor Maldonado in the season standings, who so far claimed the single Williams’ point this year.
As the circus moves to the 15. race of the season – in India, there are still a few key seats to be filled for 2014; and while the front-runners have little to fight for at this stage, with Vettel’s title bid a mere formality, the contract-less mid-fielders have all to play for in the four remaining grands prix – and some of them are visibly responding well to that call for action.