F1: Round 16 – Fuji, Japan – Sun Oct 12

Critical mistakes by the championship rivals opened up the Japanese Grand Prix and allowed Fernando Alonso to take one of the most unexpected back-to-back victories of the season – and of his entire career.

The mistakes by Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa both came on the first two laps. In Hamilton’s case it was a poor start, too much wheel spin off the grid that meant Kimi Raikkonen easily got past him into the first turn, and Heikki Kovalainen was alongside his team mate on the inside.

Lewis showed that, for all his prodigious skills and preternatural maturity, he is still only in his sophomore year in Formula 1: and when the pressure is at its most intense toward the sharp end of a season he can still fall foul of the red mist. All he had to do was finish ahead of Felipe Massa who was still two positions behind hm: but in that split second, Lewis forgot that and made a rash move of potentially devastating consequences for his championship bid, pushing Kovalainen out side and late-braking to block Raikkonen from taking the turn into the first right-hander.

Well, it did that okay. But both Hamilton and Raikkonen ran off the track, causing a jumbling of the cars behind them and releasing Robert Kubica and Fernando Alonso into first and second. Lewis recovered to the track in sixth right behind Massa, but with badly flat-spotted tyres that threatened to shake the car apart. Even hanging on to the back of Massa seemed like an optimistic plan, but then on lap 2 going into the hairpin Massa badly misjudged his approach and went well off line. It was simply too easy for Lewis Hamilton to coast around him – until Massa decided to recover by cutting the corner and hit Hamilton’s left rear wheel, spinning the McLaren around. Massa carried on without problem, but the Briton had to sit there while the entire field went past.

This was an utter disaster for Hamilton, now soundly out of the points and not a factor for the rest of the afternoon. To make it worse, he had to pit at the end of lap 2 for new tyres to cure his flat-spotting problem and to check for suspension damage from the collision; and then he got a drive-thru penalty for the first corner incident with Raikkonen. And to make the day a complete write-off for McLaren, Heikki Kovalainen – who had been setting fastest laps in third place and looking set for a strong podium finish – ground to a half on lap 17 with steam coming from the engine.

But there was a silver lining to Hamilton’s disastrous day, when Felipe Massa was also handed a drive-thru penalty for tapping Hamilton into a spin. That penalty seemed well deserved, frankly, with Massa colliding with Hamilton while being completely (all four tyres) off the race track – the definition of an avoidable accident. Hamilton’s penalty for the usual sort of first turn incident – which was collision-free – was more questionable and more evidenc of a worrying nanny state mentality among race stewards this season which seems to result in any racing move being penalised. The best one can say is that the stewards, knowing that they were handing a penalty to one championship contender, decided to duck accusations of favouritism by also penalising Hamilton. In any case, it really didn’t matter to Lewis who was emphatically out of the running long before the stewards handed out their rulings.

Hamilton conceded that he should have been more cautious into the first turn. “You can always look back and wish you’d done something (differently) – I made a mistake and I paid for it,” Hamilton said. “That sort of thing happens, you’ve just got to keep your head up and keep going.” But while he admitted his move on Raikkonen was incorrect, Hamilton was not happy that he received an equal penalty to Massa. “We both got the same penalty, but I didn’t hit anyone and he did,” he said. “I guess that’s just the name of the game.”

Massa on the other hand had a target: to get into the points. Even one point could make all the difference come the end of the season. It looked as though he might have blown it on lap 51 when he saw Sebastien Bourdais exiting the pits in the Toro Rosso right in front of him and tried to squeeze him to one side and force his way past. Boudais wasn’t having it and this time it was Massa who was tapped into the spin, losing vital seconds. But he picked himself up and laid chase to Mark Webber whose Red Bull was running in 8th place; and thanks to Webber running a one-stop strategy that had left him running on completely shot soft compound tyres in the closing laps, Massa was soon able to wipe out Webber’s lead and blast past him. The precious single point was his – the stewards choosing not only NOT to penalise him for being off the official race track and into the pit exit lane when overtaking Webber, or for the collision with Bourdais, but finding against Bourdais and dropping the Toro Rosso driver down four spots with a 25s time penalty and gifted Massa an extra point by boosting him to 7th place . Funny how the stewards can look away at key moments where Ferrari’s concerned, but invent entirely new offences to catch out McLaren with.

So much for the title race – what about the ever-so-slightly important battle for the victory of the Grand Prix itself?

Kubica led comfortably in the early laps through to the first round of pit stops – both he and Alonso pitted early, confirming that they had been running quite light in qualifying, to good effect. Alonso was fueled shorter than Kubica for the second stint and had track position, but now his Renault pit crew were telling him to go like hell if he was to convert that to a winning advantage.

Fernando Alonso is a former double world champion: he doesn’t need telling twice. As we saw in Singapore, give him a sliver of an opportunity and he’s going to throw his heart and soul into the campaign and that’s precisely what he did here, putting in shatteringly perfect laps time after time after time. Kubica couldn’t match this and was struggling with understeer AND oversteer; when the second pit stops were over and done with on lap 47, Alonso was still in the lead – comfortably so. Putting his former team mate Hamilton a lap down as well was just the icing on a pretty massive cake at this point.

Instead of fighting for the lead, Kubica was now battling to keep second. Kimi Raikkonen had been rather sullen in the first half of the race, like a sulky teenager who doesn’t really want to come out and play if there’s no chance of winning the title any more. But then mid-race he came alive and started setting fastest laps, and when Kubica emerged from his final pit stop he found the Ferrari all over the back of him. Lap after lap, Kimi made overtaking moves down the start/finish straight only to have Kubica fight them off by the skin of his teeth; finally, Raikkonen’s tyres went off and he had to settle for third after all. Not ideal, but his podium finish is a good boost for Ferrari in their battle for the constructors’ championship given McLaren’s pointless outing.

Nelson Piquet responded to recent criticism from his own team boss with an excellent run to fourth place just ahead of Jarno Trulli in the Toyota, proving that Renault’s two successive GP victories were no flukes, and no one man show flattering to deceive, but a genuine renaissance for a team that had been struggling so badly coming into the 2008 season.

“It’s difficult to believe,” said Alonso afterwards. “Obviously the Singapore win was completely unexpected after a very sad Saturday coming from retirement in qualifying. “Okay I won with special conditions with the safety car, but today we had nothing and we won again and at a circuit that is not particularly good for our characteristics. I cannot believe it right now, back-to-back wins. The team did a great job to improve the car and we are right now behind Ferrari and McLaren and this is something is completely amazing.

“The start was probably the most exciting part of the race for sure, I saw the people in front of me going quite aggressive into Turn 1,” he continued at the post-race press conference. “Even myself I locked the front tyres and went a little bit wide. These cold tyres surprised us, we locked up and everyone went long. I took the benefit of that and put myself behind Robert and from this point the race was easier. From then we had some free air. The car was very, very nice to drive again, I pulled a nice gap and maybe part of the victory was because of the second stint. Obviously we were P2 when we stopped for the first time, I asked the team if we could manage to exit the pits in front of Robert because I wanted some free air, so they had to do less fuel. The problem is that you have to open gap in second stint and sometimes you can do it and sometimes not, but today the car was perfect and I was able to do it.”

The Toro Rosso drivers, the two Sebastiens Bourdais and Vettel, finished 6th and 7th – and while they should be happy with getting both cars in the points and ahead of their senior team counterparts, chances are they will be thinking they could – and should – have done better, especially when Bourdais got demoted  to 10th by the stewards for his clash with Massa. But no question that the mood at Red Bull will be distinctly gloomy: not only did Mark Webber get bumped out of the points by Massa in the closing laps, but David Coulthard was the first – and most spectacular – retirement of the day, when he got sandwiched between Bourdais and Piquet coming out of turn 1. The bumping that ensued broke the Red Bull’s still rather suspiciously delicate suspension, and Coulthard sheared off into a heavy impact with the barrier at turn 2, taking Kazuki Nakajima’s front wing along with him for the ride – which consigned the Williams to the pits for a new one, and saw the only Japanese driver in the field running last for the rest of the day at his home track.

Honda confirmed their dire pace by being little more than mobile chicanes for the afternoon – even though the first turn mêlée had seen Jenson Button opportunistically rise to 10th place at one point. And both Force India cars retired with technical problems, Adrian Sutil getting up to 10th place before having to pull off with a puncture, and Giancarlo Fisichella later retiring with a gearbox failure while battling with Nico Rosberg’s Williams and the two Hondas toward the back of the field.

Thanks to the early Hamilton/Massa incidents jumbling up the field, and Alonso’s terrific drive, and the excellent battle between Kubica and Raikkonen, and Massa’s determined efforts to finish in the points – this turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining race. Almost (and I can’t emphasise “almost” enough here) worth getting up for at the ungodly hour of 5.30am for the start.

Hey, why don’t we do it all again next week. Say – in Shanghai?

Race classification:

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Alonso        Renault               (B)  1h30:21.892
 2.  Kubica        BMW Sauber            (B)  +     5.283
 3.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               (B)  +     6.400
 4.  Piquet        Renault               (B)  +    20.570
 5.  Trulli        Toyota                (B)  +    23.767
 6.  Vettel        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +    39.207
 7.  Massa         Ferrari               (B)  +    46.158
 8.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +    50.811
 9.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber            (B)  +    54.120
10.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +    59.085 (25s PENALTY)
11.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota       (B)  +  1:02.096
12.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +  1:18.900
13.  Barrichello   Honda                 (B)  +     1 lap
14.  Button        Honda                 (B)  +     1 lap
15.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota       (B)  +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Massa, 1:18.426

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Fisichella    Force India-Ferrari   (B)    22
Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      (B)    17
Sutil         Force India-Ferrari   (B)    9
Glock         Toyota                (B)    7
Coulthard     Red Bull-Renault      (B)    1

World Championship standings, round 16:                

Drivers:                    Constructors:            
 1.  Hamilton      84        1.  Ferrari               143
 2.  Massa         79        2.  McLaren-Mercedes      135
 3.  Kubica        72        3.  BMW Sauber            128
 4.  Raikkonen     63        4.  Renault                66
 5.  Heidfeld      56        5.  Toyota                 50
 6.  Kovalainen    51        6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     34
 7.  Alonso        48        7.  Red Bull-Renault       29
 8.  Trulli        30        8.  Williams-Toyota        26
 9.  Vettel        30        9.  Honda                  14
10.  Glock         20      
11.  Webber        21     
12.  Piquet        18      
13.  Rosberg       17      
14.  Barrichello   11      
15.  Nakajima       9      
16.  Coulthard      8      
17.  Bourdais       4    
18.  Button         3
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