Sebastian Vettel stands on the brink of securing the title after claiming his fifth win in a row – and ninth of 2013 – after fending off the advances of Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean at the Japanese Grand Prix.
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Sebastian Vettel continued his romp towards a fourth title by claiming victory in Japan. For the reigning champion has an exemplary record at Suzuka and the Red Bull RB9 was expected to be the fastest package around the iconic figure-of-eight circuit. Vettel did end up as the man to complete 53 laps in the quickest time, but he faced a stern challenge from team-mate Mark Webber and Lotus driver Romain Grosjean.
Formula 1’s effervescent Frenchman departed the Japanese circuit in tears 12 months ago after another clumsy collision that resulted in the infamous ‘first lap nutcase’ moniker, courtesy of Webber. Off the back of a strong drive in Korea, Grosjean made amends for last year by pointing his car in all the right directions into the first corner and snatching the lead from pole sitter Webber.
Webber was joined in the bad start club by Vettel as both Red Bull drivers bogged down and the younger Red Bull pilot made contact with fast starter Lewis Hamilton. The Mercedes driver was squeezed between the duo and picked up a puncture, dropping him down the order as he was forced to complete an agonisingly slow lap of Suzuka. Mercedes fitted a fresh set of tyres to his car, with Hamilton given a target of lap 19 in order to salvage something from the weekend. But the W04 was wounded and Hamilton pulled into the pits to retire just a few laps later.
There was the unusual sight of a Lotus driver leading the first lap of a Grand Prix and Grosjean soon built a comfortable margin over Webber and Vettel. Both Red Bull drivers were being urged to save their tyres, while Vettel was reassured that his contact with Hamilton had not robbed him of significant front end performance.
The top three soon pulled away and maintained their positions after the first round of stops; with Vettel being told that “you are minus 3, Webber…so you can just sit there for a while.” A few laps later, the call came that his pace was good, “don’t go bananas…”
Webber dived into the pits for a second time earlier than expected, confirming his switch to a three stop strategy and signalling the time for Vettel to push. “Sebastian, close the gap progressively, we’re not racing Mark, we’re racing Grosjean.”
Vettel was urged to apply the pressure to the Lotus driver and he duly responded by taking chunks of time out of Grosjean before the latter dived into the pits. Vettel stayed out but was losing time to Grosjean and Webber, who were both circulating on fresher rubber.
Vettel pitted and came out behind Grosjean, but rapidly closed down the gap and used DRS to pass the Lotus driver down the main straight. The stage was set for a scrap between the Red Bull drivers at the end of the race as Vettel managed his tyres in anticipation of Webber storming up behind him on fresher rubber
Webber’s final stop dropped him behind Grosjean and while he charged up to the back of the Lotus, he took several laps to make the move stick, thus removing any hopes he had of a victory at one of his favourite circuits.
“I had great traction after I got past Romain and after that the only threat was Mark who got stuck behind Romain,” said Vettel. “We could then manage the gap until the end of the race.”
Webber was being reassured post-race that a two stop strategy would have been too much for him.
“OK, mate, nice job today, very good job. OK mate, we were pretty marginal on wear, which is why we switched…would’ve been very tight to do a two [stop], which is why we switched, mate.”
Lotus team principal Eric Boullier praised a “brilliant, brilliant drive, Romain,” in marked contrast to the demeanour of the Frenchman 12 months beforehand.
It was Vettel’s fifth successive victory – albeit not the comfortable lights-to-flag drive that he has enjoyed across the last four races – but it wasn’t enough to clinch the championship as Fernando Alonso came home in fourth.
Alonso started from eighth place on the grid but dispatched with team-mate Felipe Massa and eventually overhauled Nico Hülkenberg, but by then he was half a lap behind the race leader. Kimi Räikkönen drove a composed race to take fifth, including a ballsy pass around the outside of Esteben Gutiérrez midway through the race. Hülkenberg held on for sixth, ahead of team-mate Gutiérrez. After a difficult season, the Mexican finally finished in the top 10 and did so with aplomb, racing with a splendid mixture of defence, attack and tyre preservation as he finished a fine seventh. Sauber’s haul of points moves them to within touching distance of Force India in the Constructors’ championship, with McLaren not completely out of reach. Suzuka aptly demonstrated the improvement made by Sauber since the mid-season break, as well as the maturity shown by young Gutiérrez.
Nico Rosberg was alone in fourth place during the opening stint but he was released into the path of Sergio Pérez after his first stop and picked up a drive through penalty. Rosberg dropped down the order but recovered well, although he was critical of Pérez when the two made contact at the chicane.
“It was not right what he did,” said Rosberg. “Definitely dangerous. The rules are clear if you brake and close the door you can’t move out again. I was there and he didn’t leave space so…”
“But it worked out perfectly, he broke his tyre, I was through. So that was good there.”
Pérez ducked into the pits for repairs but his hopes of points had gone out of the window. Team-mate Jenson Button profited and came home ninth, after struggling with the balance of the McLaren during the first half of the race. Button’s issues stemmed down to a set-up change made prior to the start, which the 2009 champion later admitted was his erroneous decision.
Felipe Massa’s job application for prospective employers once again failed to run smoothly as he drove too quickly in the pits and copped a drive through penalty, dropping him to 10th. Massa was in a battle with Räikkönen, and the Finn was confused by who had the drive through penalty. Lotus reassured their driver that it was Massa who had to take a trip through the pits.
Paul di Resta managed to avoid hitting the surroundings for once and just missed out on points by finishing in 11th, ahead of Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo was handed a drive through penalty for going around the outside of Adrian Sutil and exceeding track limits, dropping him out of the points. A furious Ricciardo labelled the penalty ‘unbelievable’ but it was at least a consistent decision by the stewards.
Sutil came home in 14th, ahead of Pérez, Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas. Maldonado stole the position from his team-mate at the final corner, much to the irritation of Bottas, who labelled the move “unfair.”
Charles Pic overcame his pre-race drive through penalty to beat Max Chilton, while their respective team-mates finished their race at the first corner. Giedo van der Garde made contact with Jules Bianchi, with the former crumpling his Caterham in the tyre barriers.
Vettel will wrap the title up in India unless Alonso outscores him by a whopping 18 points. But the Vettel mentality is not to focus on the title, but simply to adopt a race-by-race philosophy. The question should not be whether Vettel will win the title, but whether anyone else will actually win a race again in 2013.