The race day for the Japanese Grand Prix 2014 unfolded as a stark contrast to the upbeat atmosphere that preceded it that weekend. Teams were heavily involved in culture-anchored PR campaigns while the multitudes of fans that gathered in Suzuka boosted drivers’ morale by wholeheartedly showing their support for each and all. But that positive energy in the air could not fend off the typhoon which threatened to spoil the sporting Sunday afternoon – and it did, indeed, bring with it disastrous consequences.
It was clear early on the day that the 15. grand prix of the 2014 season would not be a dry one, with streaks of water pouring down the Suzuka circuit, and heavier rain scheduled for the duration of the race. Indeed, the scene fit the profile of Japanese GPs, most recently best portrayed in the biopic Rush, which showed title-contender Niki Lauda refusing to complete the championship-deciding race in Fuji due to the treacherous weather conditions. In 2014, the event set off to a gentle start, led by a safety car; but the convoy only managed to complete two laps before red flags were pulled out and the afternoon stalled as the weather worsened. There was talk that the race could be concluded there and then, with half points awarded to the front runners according to their qualifying positions – an outcome that would have benefitted Nico Rosberg, who, having secured pole ahead of his team-mate Lewis Hamilton, would have emerged once more on top of the championship leaderboard with a 1.5 point advantage over the Brit.
But after a relatively short delay, and with forecasters promising a better aura, the all-Mercedes-led procession was off again. It took another seven laps before the safety car made its way into the pits and the race could kick off in full swing – although neither the drivers nor the spectators could make out much of what was going on between the walls of water sprayed by the cars.
Although Nico Rosberg seemed to be managing well in the tretcherous conditions whilst he was on wet tyres, a change to intermediate compound put his car off balance making handling it – and defending from Hamilton right on his tail – extremely tricky. Neither of the two avoided making minor mistakes, but the Brit drove with more confidence and despite missing his chance to overtake Rosberg on lap 10 after the safety car’s departure, he eventually got his way on lap 29 when he overtook the German on the start-finish straight, from where he shot ahead to victory.
But although a Suzuka win had been Hamilton’s elusive dream, there was no celebration during the Japanese trophy ceremony – neither from the Mercedes team nor Sebastian Vettel who claimed the third podium step.
The race came to an abrupt stop on lap 46 – seven laps short off the full race distance – due to a combination of factors: another spell of heavier downpour, the need for the safety car on track and, most importantly, a driving accident that has spread fear across the paddock.
The drama unfolded a few laps earlier, when Adrian Sutil lost control over his Sauber and, whilst aquaplanning, was thrown against the wall on Turn 7. The German emerged seemingly unscratched and a crane was despatched to remove his car from the spot; in the meantime, smaller battles were drawing general attention in different parts of the circuit. This, plus a limited visibility, resulted in the majority of the onlookers not realising a tragedy that followed – just one lap after Sutil’s accident, Jules Bianchi spun on the exact same corner – and ended up crashing heavily into the crane which was lifting the Sauber.
Considering the commotion it was a surprise to some to see the medical car being deployed together with the safety car at that time; but the gravity of what had happened quickly became obvious: after the second red flag was waved and the cars were ordered to move into parc ferme, there were no congratulations or smiles exchanged between the drivers.
“In the end we got more rain and it was dark, so visibility was getting less and less and this corner was a tricky one the whole way through,” Sutil told Autosport.
“In the end, when it got dark, you couldn’t see where the wet patches were and that is why I lost the car and it really surprised me.
“It [Bianchi’s crash] was the same as what happened to me – he had aquaplaning but just one lap later.”
It later emerged Bianchi was taken to a medical centre at the circuit before being transported to a hospital to undergo surgery due to a “severe head injury” sustained in the crash.
“Everything that happened with the racing on track is secondary today, one of us is in a bad shape and we don’t yet know how he is,” Vettel said after the race.
“Jules had a bad accident and we hope to have some very good news, very soon. Not knowing what’s going on feels terrible, I think all the drivers really feel with him, as we know how difficult and slippery it was today; we hope for the very best.”
Despite extending the gap to the title leader Hamilton by seven points, in the circumstances Rosberg did not seemed fazed by the loss.
“Congrats to Lewis for winning today, of course with my thoughts at the moment with our colleagues Jules, because it seems quite serious, so I really wish him all the best.”
The accident subdued many other emotions that otherwise would have heated up that rainy afternoon in Japan. A number of veteran drivers were expected to benefit from the wet conditions – including the famous Canada 2011 winner Jason Button, who then drove in equally dramatic conditions from 7. to victory, as well as Fernando Alonso, who is on the verge of officially announcing his departure from Ferrari after a five-year career to a currently undisclosed outfit. Unfortunately for the Spaniard, his streak of bad luck continued in Suzuka when his car experienced an electrical failure and went into complete shutdown straight after the first race restart, on lap 3. This was the two-time champion’s second car-induced DNF (did not finish) this season.
As for Button, the Brit proved his wet-track potential once more by making all the right decisions and adapting to the changing conditions in champion-like style. He was the first to decide to switch his tyres from wets to intermediates, setting a trend for the rest of the pack early in the race, and continued the momentum until the end, trading places at the front with Daniel Ricciardo on laps 40 and 42 to provide a breath-taking spectacle on the flooded Suzuka track. But his McLaren eventually conceded to the greater potential of the Red Bull, leaving the Brit with a 5. place finish.
This might not be enough to secure the 2009 champion a drive for next year as it is widely believed his seat in the new Honda-powered McLaren for 2015 will be taken by Alonso; while the Spaniard’s place at the Prancing Horse should go to Sebastian Vettel.
The four-time champion had announced late on Friday he would be leaving Red Bull at the end of the season, to pursue new challenges. With little to lose, but still a reputation to uphold, the German finished ahead of his junior team-mate Ricciardo – something he had failed to deliver on for the majority of the season – but only just. He made use of the final safety car an a late pitstop to move ahead of the Aussie and claim the last top spot behind the Mercedes.
“Concentration has to be very, very high when it’s wet; it’s so easy to do a mistake,” Vettel said off the podium step.
“In the end obviously we pitted, decided to go for fresh tyres, lost one position only. Obviously I got lucky to have the safety car coming before, so I’m quite lucky to be up here.”
Hamilton’s win has extended his lead over Rosberg in the standings to 10 points – far from being a deciding figure, with four more grands prix to go, and one of them offering double-points, these numbers were nobody’s priority at the end of play in Japan. United by a tragedy, the two estranged Mercedes drivers seemed to have returned to their friendly ways – and the champagne on the podium was drunk in silence.