Today’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit produced the kind of unpredictability and tension that have been lacking from the sport in recent months. Despite another Vettel win, the rest of the field was very much up for grabs.
Spa-Francorchamps may have the must stunning backdrop and Monza the most interesting heritage, but Suzuka without a doubt, has to be the most exciting circuit in Formula 1. Beloved by the drivers and fans, Suzuka Circuit was originally intended as a test track for Honda (which they still use today). The track was designed in 1962 by John Hugenholtz and features an out and back, figure-8 design. Suzuka is a brilliant mix of high speed straights, flowing S-curves and tight hairpins. Its design can yield high rewards for the most precise drivers, however making a mistake can prove costly, as we all witnessed throughout the weekend.
Sebastian Vettel arrived in Japan with the Driver’s Championship all but clinched and would’ve been crowned today, had it not been for a 4th place finish by Fernando Alonso. Red Bull Racing’s prowess experienced a few glitches early in the weekend with a KERS problem on Vettel’s RB9. The absence of KERS may have given Mark Webber the break he needed as he secured his first pole since Korea in 2012.
The RB9s of Webber and Vettel had lackluster starts from the front row. Amidst the scramble, Vettel made contact with the W04 of Lewis Hamilton past the pit exit. A solid performance from Webber however was not enough and a change in tire strategy saw him pit 3 times and eventually lose P1 to his teammate. Following the race, Webber kept things upbeat but there was little doubt his team let him down. After pitting for the first time in lap 12, Webber was back in on lap 26 which meant a 3rd stop was all but certain. Had the engineers kept the driver out for another 5 laps, Webber likely would’ve taken the car to the end and won his first Grand Prix of the season. A 2nd place finish was the best consolation for Webber, but a disappointing result in contrast to a win that should’ve been his. It was interesting to hear the panic in Vettel’s voice during radio transmissions as he was held up in traffic towards the end. With Romain Grosjean and Webber shrinking the gap, Vettel’s response was a departure from his usually calculated demeanor.
The day saw another fantastic drive from Romain Grosjean in the Lotus. After an excellent start from P4, he took the lead into turn 1 and proved to be a difficult challenge for Webber throughout the race. It’s been a massive evolution for Grosjean over the last 12 months. In 2012, he was branded a lunatic by his rivals after causing numerous racing incidents. Fast forward to 2013 and Grosjean is beginning to exhibit the level of skill and maturity that Lotus will need in a leader following the departure of Kimi Raikkonen next season.
The unpredictable nature of racing at Suzuka provided some excellent shuffling across the field. Nico Hulkenberg and his Sauber teammate Esteban Gutierrez were quick all weekend and out drove the likes of McLaren and Scuderia Ferrari for much of the race. Gutierrez achieved a stunning 7th place finish with his teammate Hulkenberg just a head in 6th.
Hulkenberg has become one of the heroes of Formula 1 and there are rumblings that he’s close to inking a deal with Lotus for 2014. The combination of the German and Romain Grosjean would be fantastic to watch and a great opportunity for Hulkenberg who’s never gotten the big break he so deserves.
Fernando Alonso’s frustration with Scuderia Ferrari continued throughout the weekend. While it seemed unlikely he would ever leave the team, never say never. The F138 continues to struggle against its rivals from Mercedes and Red Bull Racing and a much deserved 4th place finish was the best Alonso could do at Suzuka.
His teammate Felipe Massa performed well in qualifying and started from P5. Ultimately he secured the final World Championship point finishing 10th overall.
Penalties and mechanical errors contributed in large part to a disappointing weekend for Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton qualified behind the Red Bull’s on Saturday, just before sharing a stone-soaked handshake with rival Vettel.
Despite Hamilton’s PR-friendly Twitter feed, his dissatisfaction with Mercedes’ performance is written all over his face. Hamilton suffered another blow today after getting clipped by Vettel at the start of the race. A tire puncture sent him to the pits after lap 1 and the subsequent damage to the W04’s brakes ended his hopes prematurely.
His teammate Nico Rosberg was handed a drive-through penalty after leaving the pits early and nearly colliding with the incoming Sergio Perez. The penalty contributed to an 8th place finish and not the kind of result Mercedes were looking for.
As beloved by the Japanese fans as Jenson Button and McLaren are, their support did little for the team who are in their worst slump in over 20 years. Button spent a majority of today’s race trading places with his teammate Sergio Perez, who was unable to break into Q3 on Saturday.
McLaren have declined to answer questions about their driver lineup in 2014 but at the moment no one is safe. While it’s likely Button will continue on with the team, Perez’s fate is more uncertain.
Overall an entertaining Japanese Grand Prix and one that fans certainly needed. It’s unlikely the rest of the season’s “Tilkedomes” will provide the same brand of racing and Vettel will certainly get his crown by Abu Dhabi. On the other side of things, inconsistent calls from the stewards continue to plague the sport. At some point they forgot it’s called “racing” and an emphasis on safety and over policing the drivers have many up in arms. Today’s controversial penalties provided for some very candid and blunt driver interviews in the media scrum following the race.
There are just 4 races to go in this 2013 season! Formula 1 heads to the Buddh International Circuit in 2 weeks for the Indian Grand Prix.
Photos courtesy of F1 Fanatic.