Japanese Grand Prix Ends in Another Vettel Victory, But It Wasn’t So Easy This Time
Sebastian Vettel added another notch in his belt today by taking first at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, one of the best tracks on the Formula 1 calendar. With a second place start on the grid behind pole sitter/teammate Mark Webber (!) and stunning takeoff by Romain Grosjean, Vettel had to bide his time in third place for the first half of the GP. As opposed to the last few races where Vettel’s early lead allowed him to keep the others from nipping at his heels, the German really felt the pressure to perform well at Suzuka. He was able to pull it off, however, and Webber’s victory over Grosjean late in the race allowed Red Bull to take a 1-2 victory in Japan.
The Japanese GP was the one of the most thrilling races of the season, and not just because of the excellent racing; Suzuka is loved by fans and drivers alike because the track combines extremely technical sections with a long straight and sweeping corners that demand graceful exits. The long sweeper that marks the conclusion of the straight is Turn 1, and that turn ended the weekend for both Giedo van der Garde and Jules BIanchi shortly after race start.
When the lights went out, Grosjean rocketed ahead of the pack from 4th place as both Red Bulls got a slow start. Turn 1 not only took out van der Garde and Bianchi, but Vettel’s wing clipped Lewis Hamilton’s right rear tire, puncturing the Brit’s Pirelli and causing it to disintegrate just a few seconds later. Hamilton hobbled back to the pits on his rims to attach some fresh rubber, but his recovery didn’t last long. The stint on the wheels caused sufficient damage to Hamilton’s floor, forcing him to retire after just 8 laps.
With Grosjean leading Webber and Vettel in the front, there was even more nail-biting drama further down the line between the Ferrari drivers. Massa sat in front of Alonso on the grid and led his teammate for the first third of the race. Of course, this being his last season for Ferrari, Massa was in no hurry to allow Alonso to pass; it wasn’t until Lap 20 that Alonso was able to dispatch Ferrari’s number two.
In front, Daniel Ricciardo saw himself leading a pack of superior cars that just couldn’t find a way around, including both Ferraris, Kimi Räikkönen, and Nico Hulkenberg. For several laps Hulkenberg had been breathing right on Ricciardo’s neck as the German desperately searched for an opening. Lap 20 finally saw Hulkenberg overtake Ricciardo to pull ahead in 4th place, and the rest of the drivers pounded away to do the same.
By Lap 25, Webber had zeroed in on Grosjean enough to come within the one second DRS deployment window. Then, all of a sudden, Webber was called in for a third set of tires seemingly very early on in the race. Indeed, Webber’s three-stop strategy compared to Vettel’s two-stop is more than a little questionable; if Webber hadn’t pitted twice in the first half of the race, he would have finished ahead of Vettel by race end.
With Vettel closing in, Grosjean pitted on Lap 30 to change rubber and set quicker laps. Vettel had to change relatively soon as well, but stayed out on the track until Grosjean started to grow in his rearview mirror. Lap 35 saw Vettel pit, and by Lap 40 he had regained his lost position but both drivers still had to catch up to Webber in the lead. Red Bull took care of that for them, and Webber threw on his fresh set of Pirellis on Lap 43.
By Lap 45, the top three were Vettel-Grosjean-Webber, and Webber was fighting valiantly to penetrate Grosjean’s defense. The Frenchman tried as hard as he could until the bitter end, but Webber finally overcame Grosjean in the penultimate lap with the help of DRS. The lineup lasted all the way to the checkered flag, and Vettel claimed his fifth straight victory and his ninth overall win this season.
Alonso and Räikkönen finished in 4th and 5th, respectively. The Saubers of Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutiérrez were next, making his 7th place finish the first time rookie Gutiérrez has ever earned Championship points. Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, and Massa rounded up the top 10.
With this latest victory, Vettel’s status as 2013 Champion is all but assured. Although it is still technically possible that Alonso could earn enough points to finish the season in the lead, Alonso himself has said that this outcome is extremely unlikely. The competitions for 2nd and 3rd are still wide open, however, with Alonso 30 points ahead of Räikkönen, who in turn leads Hamilton by just 16 points.
The next Formula 1 race is the Indian Grand Prix, which will be held on October 27.
Photo courtesy of Red Bull