F1: Round 15 – Suzuka, Japan – 4 October

Normally when you say “the race wasn’t as exciting as qualifying” it’s code for “well, that was a bit dull”. But after the astonishing events on Saturday, the race would have had to be an all-time classic to be competition in the excitement stakes. The Japanese GP was no classic – the result was never in doubt – but it was certainly tense and gripping for championship reasons.

Sebastian Vettel leapt away at the front and was basically never seen again. It was a stunning and completely commanding drive, perfect in every dimension and surely confirmation that he really is Schumacher’s heir-apparent as the next German-born world champion.

Behind him, Lewis Hamilton attempted to use his KERS boost to go side-by-side with Vettel but ran out of room and instead had to deploy it to fight off Jarno Trulli into the first corner, which he managed to do. Further back, Hamilton’s team mate Heikki Kovalainen was using his own KERS to make up a couple of early positions – including, crucially, beating a very sluggish Jenson Button battling wheel spin off the grid, as well as Force India’s Adrian Sutil and BMW’s Robert Kubica.

Button found himself blocked and thwarted, overtaken by Giancarlo Fisichella as well as he fell to 12th. He really was making this world championship bid as hard as possible for himself. But Jenson’s always level-headed, and he was able to get around Fisichella on the first lap and then on lap 4 he staged a neat move on Kubica through 130R, dummying the Pole onto the outside line and then flicking back onto the inside line into the chicane to take the spot. Kubica had no choice but to let him through or else take them both out.

That left Button back in 10th, where he’d started, staring at the back of the duelling Kovalainen and Sutil up ahead. Button seemed to drop back from that fight, seemingly struggling with understeer in the turbulent air, but maybe in the back of his mind he was also thinking about Sutil’s rash nature and wondering how long it would be before the two tangled – and not wanting to get involved in it himself.

The answer to the question was lap 14: Sutil staged a similar move to Button’s own on Kubica, but this time Kovalainen made a different choice to the Pole and opted to fight and collide rather than let Sutil through. Kovalainen went off track and Sutil was briefly spun around, but the critical development was that Jenson Button sailed past them both – suddenly he was in 8th place, and his pace picked up rapidly. Button’s luck continued to hold, with a pit stop perfectly timed and executed to put him back out in clear air so that he could make sure he made up enough time to prevent Kubica leap-frogging him again with his own pit stop nine laps later. It wasn’t going to win him the race, but it was going to get him a point or two.

And most importantly this all contrasted with Rubens’ fortunes, who had made a perfectly decent start from 6th place … and then found himself essentially stuck there for the rest of the afternoon. No dramas, just less-than-perfect handling losing him time in the second stint in particular, and Rubens had no where to make up ground.

The middle section of the race was relatively uneventful, with all eyes on fuel strategies and all the main players so close that the positions were too close to call. Lewis Hamilton, for example, was told that he needed to pull out a 3s lead over Trulli in the middle stint to compensate for the Toyota’s later stop. That margin hovered around the 3s mark for lap after lap, with Hamilton and Trulli trading faster lap times, and when Hamilton came in on lap 38 it was right on the knife edge. But then as Lewis emerged form the pit lane the engine appeared to stutter, almost as through the pit lane limiter re-engaged (although the team later blamed a gear selection problem) and it cost him a critical second or two and when Trulli pitted on lap 40 he was easily able to take second spot away. In fact Lewis was now one of the walking wounded, his pace very much slower than before and his KERS system also malfunctioning. He would have to settle for third spot on the podium after all – not bad for his first-ever outing in a racing car at this most demanding circuit, however. “Just wait till next year'” he said afterwards, adding that it felt “weird” that this outing marked his 50th Grand Prix already.

The best on-track move of the middle stint came when Fisichella and Kovalainen (battling for 10th) pitted together on lap 41. Kovalainen had the slightly better stop but the Ferrari was released right in front of him so that the two exited the pit lane almost side-by-side. Kovalinen caught Fisichella napping into turn 1 and the two banged wheels before Heikki emerged the winner of that duel in arguably his finest moment of his entire 2009 season.

By lap 46 things had settled down, Rubens and Jenson were running 7th and 8th and only a few cars left to make their stops, when suddenly the game was changed by Jaime Alguersuari putting a wheel on the kerb through 130R and losing the back end of the Toro Rosso. It spun round and broadsided an advertising barrier in a cloud of polystyrene on its way to a hard impact on the tyre wall that shredded the left hand side of the car and bounced it back half-on, half-off the track.

Any doubts that this would trigger a safety car were dispelled when one of Alguersuari’s wheels was detached and ambled right across the unblocked portion of the track. Fortunately no cars were coming through at the time but it was enough to make everyone shudder. In any case, the marshals needed time to try and rebuild the demolished tyre wall, and the medical team insisted on strapping an ambulatory Alguersuari to a stretcher (health and safety ….) and carting him off in the ambulance.

Running a very long middle stint and yet to pit, Nico Rosberg took advantage of the safety car to come in to pit lane and he exited back out in 5th place where previously it was touch-and-go whether he would emerge in the middle of the Barrichello/Button battle for 7th/8th. Eyebrows were raised at Rosberg’s flying pace under safety car conditions, and the matter duly sent to the stewards after the race for adjudication – who ruled in Rosberg’s favour, the steering wheel display information about the target time he should be keeping within having been overridden by an urgent low fuel message. Despite exceeding the time, therefore, the stewards decided that “the driver from a safety point of view had reacted adequately to the yellow flags and safety car boards. In view of this the stewards intend to take no further action.”

The safety car period left everyone bunched up and incredibly close together at the restart. Of course, Vettel was in a league of his own and was out of touch in second, but it was a different story in the midfield: Button challenged Barrichello for 7th but immediately came under pressure from Kubica behind him. The BMW made several late-braking lunges that risked taking out the world championship leader, and Button was unable to pull away from him because of the slower Barrichello hemming in up front. Right to the last corner Jenson’s single world championship point was at risk – either from being overtaken or taken out – but disaster was averted and Button duly took the chequered flag in 8th position and could breath again.

At the front, while basking in the glory of a dominating win by Vettel, the day proved to be a tale of two very different parts for Red Bull and their junior team Toro Rosso. All their other drivers had nightmares: Mark Webber pitted three times in the first three laps with problems with his head rest assembly being loose and then a puncture; Sebastien Buemi retired in the pits on lap 18 with a clutch problem; and of course Alguersuari provided the only on-track retirement of the day in spectacular but fortunately harmless fashion late in the race.

Still, the critical thing for Red Bull is that Vettel’s win keeps them in the hunt. Just. And it’s well deserved, too, for Vettel is a definite star of the future.

Race results

Pos  Driver        Team                    Time
 1.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        1h28:20.443
 2.  Trulli        Toyota                  +     4.877
 3.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        +     6.472
 4.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +     7.940
 5.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +     8.793
 6.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +     9.509
 7.  Barrichello   Brawn-Mercedes          +    10.641
 8.  Button        Brawn-Mercedes          +    11.474
 9.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +    11.777
10.  Alonso        Renault                 +    13.065
11.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +    13.735
12.  Fisichella    Ferrari                 +    14.596
13.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes    +    14.959
14.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes    +    15.734
15.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +    17.973
16.  Grosjean      Renault                 +     1 lap
17.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +    2 laps

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:32.569

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari        46
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari        13
Glock         Toyota                    

World Championship standings after round 15

In the constructors’ championship, the points Brawn lost to Rosberg’s quick pit stop under the safety car mean that Brawn just fail to clinch the title at Suzuka – although the reality is that it’s all over bar the mathematics and will be duly signed, sealed and delivered in Sao Paulo in two weeks’ time.

Meanwhile, in the driver’s title fight: after last week, we were talking about the championship finally being a de facto two-horse race between Button and Barrichello. This week, it still looks like a two horse race – but maybe the names have been changed.

Time and again we’re seeing Button well able to peg Barrichello. Every move Rubens makes, Jenson seems able to parry it so that the cars end up coming in close together on the track and in the points. Given that Rubens needed to make up more than 5pts per race – and it’s now more than 7pts – it’s increasingly clear that Barrichello just doesn’t have the edge he needs to pull it off. Jenson is, basically, safe from his team mate.

Paradoxically, despite being two points further back than Barrichello, Vettel is now emerging as the man most likely to wreck Button’s year. Okay, so he needs more than 8pts per race to do it – but he beat Button by 9pts today alone, so it’s actually happening. He would have made up 4pts in Singapore as well if it hadn’t been cut to a mere 1pt by a highly controversial pit lane speeding penalty – a penalty that may end up deciding the title. As it is, Vettel would now be in second place in the championship if that drive-thru hadn’t been handed down.

So far Button seems to have been focusing on Barrichello as his main and indeed only rival, understandably; and the strategy has been a cautious one of matching Rubens at every turn. It’s worked admirably until now, but now the problem is that the cautious approach may be bull-dozed if Vettel can repeat his form of today in the last two races and claim two more GP wins while the Brawn duo squabble at the back of the points.

Of course, if Button can score 6pts more than his rivals in Brazil (or in both races combined) then all this is moot – the title is still his to win. Or lose.

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        85        1.  Brawn-Mercedes        156
 2.  Barrichello   71        2.  Red Bull-Renault      120.5
 3.  Vettel        69        3.  Ferrari                67
 4.  Webber        51.5      4.  McLaren-Mercedes       65
 5.  Raikkonen     45        5.  Toyota                 54.5
 6.  Hamilton      43        6.  Williams-Toyota        34.5
 7.  Rosberg       34.5      7.  Renault                26
 8.  Trulli        30.5      8.  BMW Sauber             24
 9.  Alonso        26        9.  Force India-Mercedes   13
10.  Glock         24       10.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      5
11.  Kovalainen    22       
12.  Massa         22       
13.  Heidfeld      15       
14.  Kubica         9       
15.  Fisichella     8       
16.  Sutil          5       
17.  Buemi          3       
18.  Bourdais       2 

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