F1: Round 16 – Suzuka, Japan – Oct 10

It had been a stormy time at Suzuka even before the red lights went out for the start of the Japanese Grand Prix.

Qualifying conditions on SaturdayPictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

It wasn’t just the weather system on Saturday that had wreaked havoc on the schedule, forcing the postponement of qualifying to Sunday morning for the first time in sex years; nor was it Lewis Hamilton’s practice crash that cost him almost all of his dry running, coupled with a a gearbox penalty that put him five places down the grid. No, we also had the sight of a car not making it around the formation lap: Lucas Di Grassi’s Virgin suddenly shot off at the exit of 130R and hit the tyre wall with considerable impact, enough to write-off the car and detach a wheel that rolled back onto the track in the process.

So it was only 23 cars that lined up on the grid and who got away at the start. But it wasn’t about to get any less stormy, as we had one of the more incident-packed starts of recent times.

Nico Rosberg got a poor start, easily overtaken by Lewis Hamilton who was having a flier. Felipe Massa saw a chance to follow Lewis through, but Nico was finally up to speed and defended the line, forcing Massa to take to the grass down the inside into turn 1. This was never going to end well: denied the traction to slow down, Massa overshot straight over the track, collecting Tonio Liuzzi with a heavy hit as the two ended up wrecked in the gravel.

Felipe Massa smashes into the side of the Force India of Tonio LiuzziPictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

Further back there had already been another accident: Renault’s Vitaly Petrov had got a great start and been weaving through the cars in front when suddenly he ran out of room and got squeezed out, having to resort to moving left to avoid a collision. Unfortunately he hadn’t quite cleared the sluggish Nico Hulkenberg on the left, and the move meant he caught the right front tyre. The impact spun Petrov who ended up crunched into the barrier on the outside of the start/finish straight, and also inflicted race-ending damage on the Williams. Petrov was handed a five-place grid penalty for Korea for causing the accident.

At least it looked like Renault still had one bright spot left in the day – Robert Kubica had had a great start, using the cleaner side of the grid to get the jump on Mark Webber off the grid and take second place behind Sebastian Vettel, before the inevitable safety car was called for the clean-up of the four cars involved in the accidents thus far. The caution period was a lengthy one, and Kubica would have been planning his restart strategy to stay in front of Webber and maybe even challenge Vettel, when suddenly the Renault was no longer handling at all well: and small wonder, because the rear right wheel had just popped off going into the hairpin. As Kubica told reporters afterwards: “I was warming the tyres when I felt something strange at the back of the car …” Yes, like a sudden reduction on the number of vital engineering components, to wit: one wheel.

It was a bizarre incident, resulting in Kubica pulling off and parking the car: Renault’s day was well and truly over. That meant the Red Bulls were one-two at the restart and able to avoid any dramas; Fernando Alonso was third, and initially under some pressure from Jenson Button who – despite his controversial decision to start the race on hard tyres – was able to maintain the pace of the Ferrari and also easily match the speed of his team mate Lewis Hamilton just behind him in fifth.

There was little movement between the top five as racing resumed. Further back, Nico Rosberg – who after his dreadful start had decided to get his pit stop out of the way under the safety car – was determined to rebuild his position and made a brave move round the outside of Sebastien Buemi at 130R, only to run off and risk a Di Grassi-like accident before managing to gather it together and rejoin the race track.

The one man who seemed to have genuine speed and overtaking power was Kamui Kobayashi, pulling off a banzai move up the inside of Jaime Alguersuari at the hairpin on lap 14 and then doing it again – to Adrian Sutil, and in a slightly less scarily out-of-control manner – on lap 18. Sutil reacted to this by coming into the pits on lap 19 for new tyres, and this seemed to signal a majority of the pit stops to start cycling through – Hamilton was in on lap 23, Vettel and Alonso in on lap 25 and Webber on lap 27. Only Button was staying out on those harder tyres, and hoping to keep enough pace to allow him to get to the closing laps with enough of a margin to make a pit stop and maintain position. Meanwhile it was Hamilton’s mission to put in as many fast laps as possible to prevent his team mate’s strategy from succeeding, and he rose to the challenge with some blisteringly fast laps and a terrific, brave move down the inside of the formidable Kobayashi (who was yet to stop) into turn 1 to claim fifth.

By lap 30, Button was in the lead ahead of the Red Bulls but the soft tyres had lasted and performed for his rivals better than Button had hoped they would, and he had a margin of only a couple of seconds over Vettel: a 20s pit stop was going to put him down to fifth place and behind his team mate. It hadn’t worked out – the hard tyre gambit was exposed as being over-thought. But Button wasn’t the only one with team mate issues: Vettel, who had been marching away with the race in the early laps, seemed less at home with the switch to the harder rubber and now had Mark Webber all over the back of him, and it wasn’t until quite deep into the stint that Vettel seemed happier with the state of affairs and was able to maintain a comfortable margin to the chequered flag.

Hamilton continued banging in flying laps and was closing on an oddly nondescript Alonso who would have been irked by messages from pit lane saying in effect that the team would like it awfully if he could manage to pick up the pace a bit. Hamilton’s fast pace did manage to earn him fourth place when Jenson Button finally pitted on lap 40 and resumed behind him, but there was another twist to come.

The team had been warning Hamilton about overheating brakes, but Lewis has worse news for them: he had lost third gear, in that brand new and very costly gearbox. In a sequential gearbox, losing third is A Very Big Problem, and Lewis’ pace suffered immediately, struggling particularly through the hairpin. He was haemorrhaging time to his team mate and on lap 45 the inevitable happened when Jenson was able to cruise past uncontested back into fourth, leaving Lewis to limp home under damage limitation and trying to stay ahead of the two duelling Mercedes drivers.

Talking of which, Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher were involved in a no holds barred private war over sixth place that saw them running side-by-side over the line at one point. Rosberg just about had the edge, but there was no question that this was Schumacher’s best performance for some time and possibly the whole season. The team was just hoping that their drivers didn’t make any contact and maintained the positions to the end: alas, the latter aim proved too ambitious, as Rosberg was suddenly into the gravel on lap 50 as his rear suspension seemed to fail through the S Curve. The car slewed to one side as it hit the gravel and threatened to overturn into a barrel-roll, but finally just managed to stay flat before hitting the tyre wall.

And nor was the race done quite yet, either. Kobayashi was completing scintillating afternoon with more banzai moves into the hairpin, starting with a great pass on Jamie Alguersuari for the second time this afternoon on lap 46: Alguersuari was alert to the Japanese driver’s tactics this time and carefully moved to cover the inside line; but Kobayashi was playing a double bluff and took the outside route, sweeping round to take the position. Alguersuari stubbornly refused to yield and ran wide through the exit, resulting in the two making contact which damaged the Toro Rosso’s front wing. Kobayashi went on to slip past Rubens Barrichello with ease on lap 50 at his favourite stop, and then again on lap 51 this time on his team mate Nick Heidfeld to cap a brilliant afternoon’s racing.

With Adrian Sutil’s engine failing six laps before the end, depositing enough oil down on the track to cause Sutil to spin on his own fluids and bring out the oil flags through 130R, there was jubilation in the Lotus pits as it meant Heikki Kovalainen was set to take 12th place. It might not appear much of a triumph, but in terms of relative standings in the constructors points it would put them best of the “new” teams and give them millions of dollars more from the TV money – a huge and significant boost for the team going into their second year.

Red Bull achieve their one-twoPictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

But there was no question that today was a Red Bull day, a perfect day for them having secured the top two spots in qualifying and now the race on the same day. Mark Webber would have wanted the win but really had nothing to challenge Vettel with – although he did very pointedly make a deliberate run to take fastest lap of the day from Vettel on the last lap, a small but telling psychological victory as the two enter the season end-game locked in battle for the 2010 world championship title.

Race result

Pos  Driver      Team               Time
 1.  Vettel      Red Bull-Renault   1:30:27.323
 2.  Webber      Red Bull-Renault   +     0.905
 3.  Alonso      Ferrari            +     2.721
 4.  Button      McLaren-Mercedes   +    13.522
 5.  Hamilton    McLaren-Mercedes   +    39.595
 6.  Schumacher  Mercedes           +    59.933
 7.  Kobayashi   Sauber-Ferrari     +  1:04:038
 8.  Heidfeld    Sauber-Ferrari     +  1:09.648
 9.  Barrichello Williams-Cosworth  +  1:10.846
10.  Buemi       Toro Rosso-Ferrari +  1:12.806
11.  Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari +  1 lap
12.  Kovalainen  Lotus-Cosworth     +  1 lap
13.  Trulli      Lotus-Cosworth     +  2 laps
14.  Glock       Virgin-Cosworth    +  2 laps
15.  Senna       HRT-Cosworth       +  2 laps
16.  Yamamoto    HRT-Cosworth       +  3 laps
17.  Rosberg     Mercedes           +  5 laps

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:33.474

Not classified/retirements:

Driver     Team                 On lap
Sutil      Force India-Mercedes 45
Kubica     Renault              4
Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth    1
Massa      Ferrari              1
Petrov     Renault              1
Liuzzi     Force India-Mercedes 1
Di Grassi  Virgin-Cosworth      1

F1 championship standings after round 16

Drivers              Constructors             
 1. Webber      220   1. Red Bull-Renault     426
 2. Alonso      206   2. McLaren-Mercedes     381
 3. Vettel      206   3. Ferrari              334
 4. Hamilton    192   4. Mercedes             176
 5. Button      189   5. Renault              133
 6. Massa       128   6. Force India-Mercedes  60
 7. Rosberg     122   7. Williams-Cosworth     58
 8. Kubica      114   8. Sauber-Ferrari        37
 9. Schumacher   54   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    11
10. Sutil        47  
11. Barrichello  41  
12. Kobayashi    27  
13. Petrov       19  
14. Hulkenberg   17  
15. Liuzzi       13  
16. Buemi         8  
17. De la Rosa    6  
18. Heidfeld      4  
19. Alguersuari   3  

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