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Monday, 10 October 2011

Formula 1 - Japanese Grand Prix 2011

Suzuka Circuit. Dunlop Curve at Turn 7, Degner at T8 & 9, Esses = T3-6, Spoon = T13/4, 130R = T15
The Race In a Nutshell:
- Vettel forces Button to put two wheels on the grass off the line, dropping him into 3rd
- Hamilton and Massa rub cars, leaving debris, bringing out the Safety Car
- Michael Schumacher leads a Grand Prix for the first time since Japan 2006
- Button beats Vettel in the pits, Red Bulls suffer with tyre wear
- Alonso passes Vettel, closes in on Button, fails to pass him
- Vettel wins by finishing third

Top 5 Finishers: Button, Alonso, Vettel, Webber, Hamilton

Over the years, Suzuka Circuit in Japan has played host to ten F1 championship wins, including the likes of Damon Hill, Ayrton Senna, Mika Häkkinen and Michael Schumacher, and early this morning (by which I mean late in the afternoon), it became eleven. It's a good place for Formula 1, partly because Japanese fans are as dedicated as the most hardcore of Tifosi and partly because the drivers absolutely love this track, particularly the likes of the Esses section after turn 1 and the flat-out-if-you-dare 130R. Other testing corners include Spoon corner and the turn one-and-two combo, both of which are about carrying as much speed through the two parts as possible without running wide and being punished. The two "Degner" turns are just as unforgiving, even catching out Sebastian Vettel in Friday practice as he went wide out of T8 (Degner 1) and was sent straight into the close tyre wall. Not that he should feel bad about it, as over the years all the best F1 drivers and many besides have been in that wall at some point (Rubens Barrichello also slid off there on Friday, catching two wheels on the grass under braking for Degner 1 and gliding over the gravel into the tyres). It's one of the all-time great racing circuits, as well as a previous Honda test track, which explains the variety of different corner types. One sign that it's a true driver test is that all five of the world champions in the 2011 grid finished in the top six places.

Starter Button: Jenson Button got off to a great start, but Vettel, keen on securing the World Driver's Championship with a win, was determined to keep his lead, and leapt over from the grippier right-hand side of the circuit to fend him off, forcing him to put two wheels on the grass and back off, subsequently letting team mate Lewis Hamilton past and into 2nd place. Button was quickly on the radio asking for a penalty, but moves like this have been pulled before, and it's not uncommon at the very start of the race. Besides, if Vettel wasn't punished for forcing a Ferrari halfway onto the grass at Monza, there was no way doing the same to someone else at a different track would get him in trouble. Meanwhile, Kamui Kobayashi - who had done a great job all weekend in being an ambassador for the sport in Japan, important now he's the only Japanese element left in F1 - went into anti-stall mode, meaning the car bogged down and his career-best grid spot of 7th place quickly became 12th, which was a shame really, as he was never able to climb back up to 7th.

Early Pit Stops: Due to high degradation of the Pirelli tyres on this track (which, being a figure-of-eight, wears them roughly evenly), the first pit stop was only on lap 9, with Hamilton struggling for grip and changing onto another set of Option tyres. Prior to pitting, he had slid wide at the first part of Spoon Corner, and Jenson Button got past him, back into 2nd place. The following lap saw Vettel sacrifice his 5-second lead over Button, who came in a lap after him, returning to the track with less road between them than before. Fernando Alonso pitted on the same lap as Button, and managed to sandwich himself between the two McLarens. Mark Webber and Felipe Massa also pitted, and by lap 16 the gap from Hamilton to Webber was just 1.5 seconds.

Later, Vettel had to dive into the pits again, as the Red Bull cars were apparently eating their tyres. That said, even tyre-saver Button wasn't going to stay out much longer on his Options, but he didn't waste his time, setting a fast in-lap and then exiting the pits just ahead of the German, clinching the lead of the race.

Safety Car or No Safety Car? On lap 13, Sébastien Buemi exited the pit lane to find his right-front wheel wasn't attached properly, and had to park it on the edge of turn 4 and watch it flop off the wheel bearing. There was a question mark over whether or not the Safety Car would need to be called, because on one hand it was comfortably off the racing line, but on the other hand, if he wound up there, maybe someone else could too, and trying to put two into one always ends in an expensive mess. In the end though, Bernd Mayländer kept his AMG SLS in Park for the time being, until...

Hamilton vs Massa... Again: Later, on lap 22, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa crossed paths, and this year we've learned that when this happens, something gets damaged, Felipe gets mad and Lewis gets penalised. Thankfully this time it wasn't so bad, but it did still bring out the Safety Car.
Going into the final chicane, Massa went down the left of Hamilton from behind, but Hamilton didn't see him (blaming vibrating mirrors at high speed after the race), and the two rubbed cars. The only outcome of this was that Hamilton's left-rear tyre knocked off one of the two end-plates on the right of Massa's front wing, which ended up in a hard place to get to safely, right in the middle of the entry to turn 16, which is dangerous for marshals because it's just after 130R, a blind corner taken resolutely in 7th gear, with only a short straight after it before T-16. This, along with other debris taken off the right side of Mark Webber's front wing by Michael Schumacher at Dunlop corner, was enough to warrant the Safety Car slowing things down so they could be retrieved and those corners could be swept up by keen Japanese marshals.

Prime Time: Near the end of the SC period, Button was bunching them up pretty tight, which he has every right to do, but Vettel was getting impatient in second, getting very close up behind him. That didn't stop Button leaving him for dead out of the final chicane and instantly pulling out a lead, while Vettel slowly fell into the eager cluches of Fernando Alonso. On lap 34, Vettel was the first to put the harder, more durable Prime tyres on, as the leaders were now fresh out of Option tyres for the weekend. After the other leaders pitted in, Michael Schumacher ended up in the lead of the race. Sure, he wasn't going to stay there - not unless he could get his Prime tyres to last for about half the race - but it was the first time he had lead a Grand Prix for exactly five years, when he was in a Ferrari at Suzuka. I'm sure that was nice for him to do. It wouldn't have lasted anyway, however, as by lap 41 Button was really on him as the headed towards the DRS zone (pit straight), so Schumi pitted for more Primes. Meanwhile, Alonso managed to get ahead of Sebastian Vettel, which wasn't shown on TV, so was most likely done in the pits. Despite only needing to finish 10th to win the championship, Vettel wasn't keen on giving up and pressured the Ferrari for a few laps, to no avail. Overtake of the day looked like it would go to Mark Webber for slipstreaming past a Force India (Di Resta) while heading at 200mph towards 130R, but then Adrian Sutil (the other Force India) did the same thing on local hero Kamui Kobayashi, cutting it even finer before moving back over to take the corner, and making it stick in a car that's not massively faster than the Sauber C30.

Final Phase: Towards the end of the race, the focus became the battle for 10th position between Kamui Kobayashi, Vitaly Petrov, Nico Rosberg (who started 23rd after failing to qualify and had risen to 12th) and Paul Di Resta. Petrov running wide at Dunlop corner (T7) on lap 47 of 53 meant that Di Resta had to lift off, and Rosberg pounced on the exit, going down Di Resta's inside round the long, sweeping left-hander and immediately challenging Petrov into Degner 1, althoguh it would take a brave or delusional man to try overtaking someone there. Kobayashi unfortunately slipped down into 13th place in all this, meaning that the only Japanese driver finished out of the points despite starting in 7th place. A tough race for him then, and perhaps he regrets bogging down off the line and letting four or five cars past him.

At the front though, things were hotting up in the last 5 laps, as Alonso in 2nd place had caught right up to the back of Jenson Button, who previously had a big enough lead to turn the engine down and generally bring it home until Alonso closed the gap from 3 or 4 seconds to around 1 second, putting him in DRS range with Vettel still not far behind. As soon as Button was alert to this, he responded by setting the fastes sector 2 time of the race so far, and setting a time for lap 51 that was 0.3
seconds faster than Alonso's keeping just out of arm's reach. Just to make sure, he set the fastest lap of the race on lap 52, and that was that. Winning by just 1.1 seconds, Jenson Button had to immediately bring his McLaren MP4-26 to a halt outside the pit lane exit, because he'd driven the car clean out of fuel. This also gave him the chance to wave at the crowd while wearing what's now a race-winning helmet that he's auctioning off for charity to aid Japan after the terrible earthquake on 11th March. He needed to do that to be in with even the slightest chance of winning the championship, but Sebastian Vettel only needed 1 point to win it right then and there, and he scored 15 points for 3rd, concluding a truly one-sided battle for the championship and giving Red Bull Racing four races to just enjoy themselves after being ferociously competitive. The youngest ever back-to-back world champion (a record he took from the man who beat him to 2nd this race), Vettel has won 10 of the 15 races so far, and wanted to make it 11, but in the end it doesn't matter.

So there you have it. Just as we all expected, and probably just as everyone in the paddock expected this weekend, Sebastian Vettel has won the 2011 Formula One World Driver's Championship, and it didn't seem as euphoric as previous years. It's like he had almost come to terms with it himself, so while he made sure to run around the steel fence and hug his team members, it didn't feel as exciting as the last three or four champions. Maybe because he alson won it last year, maybe because everyone was sure it was going to happen already, but the bigger story (on the BBC at least) did seem to be about Jenson Button winning the race, when normally it's the other way round. He has a very strong affinity with Japan, as he spends a lot of time living there with his girlfriend Jessica Michibata, and raced for Honda for many years, before it became Brawn GP in '09 and he then moved to McLaren last year, so it clearly meant a heck of a lot to him and his significant others.

Next race, however, will take place in a place that Japanese people hate: Korea. It shares the same time zone with Japan (so an early start to Saturday and Sunday for Europeans watching it on TV), and now we shall see how the racing changes when there's no longer a championship in it. Will the drivers be looser? Are they still fighting for points with the people around them? We shall see this coming weekend.

Results and points below, click to enlarge

1 comment:

  1. In this game Alonso's gives tough competition to Jenson Button. The race was quite interesting.

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