What a racetrack Suzuka is. Perhaps the last real unforgiving track bar street circuits. In 2009, Timo Glock cut his leg and cracked a vertebrae in an incident on the track. Luckily no such injuries this weekend. But there were a fair share of incidents and ventures into the tire wall or the graveltrap.
Kimi was one of those in FP2. No contact, just beached his car in the gravel and thus missed some long runs. The change to the 2012 tire construction has not been good news for the Finn. Ever since the Pirelli rubber was changed after Hungary he has been struggling in qualifying. This Saturday was no exception. “He doesn’t like the front end,” Permane told AUTOSPORT. “He doesn’t like the turn in. It is not sharp enough for him. But, if you try to sharpen it up too much, you then lose the rear.”
Story here: http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/110635
So the car is more understeery but some improvements have been made. Sadly, that didn’t come through in Q3. As he usually does (which is kinda unique in F1, let alone the world we live in) he admits when he makes a mistake. And he screwed his final lap a little and ended up in 9th. Without the mistake, he would have started at least 7th, and likely even higher since the grid was very tight. The Suzuka track is not an overtaking bonanza of a track so once again I went into race day not hoping a whole lot. Vettel with KERS trouble misses out on taking his 5th consecutive pole in Japan and Webber thus gets his first pole position of the season. Hamilton is 3rd while Grosjean lines up beside him in 4th.
As the lights go out, both Red Bulls seem to bog down while Hamilton and Grosjean surges forward. Hamilton gets overambitious as he tries to cut across in front of Vettel. His rear tire catches some front wing and immediately ruptures. Game over for the Brit. Grosjean has a good start and is lucky to be able to take advantage of his competitors misfortune and he surges to the front. As another stroke of luck for the Frenchman, it is Webber who is in
close pursuit and not Vettel, who is in 3rd.
Our protagonist gets a bad start. Lots of wheelspin which lost him some places. So he finds himself in 11th behind Button. Again making his race a lot more difficult than it had to be. This is the nature of racing though. And when it comes to starts, you win some and you lose some. He spends a few laps behind the McLaren but gets by on lap 7.
Up ahead, there are two Red Bulls in close quarter behind the other Lotus. Mark Webber tries for an undercut by pitting earlier than the Lotus on lap 11. Romain pits the next lap but Webber, as expected, fails miserably to make any jump on Grosjean when he had the chance. Even though he had 7 or 8 seconds of clear air when he exited the pit lane. Vettel stops 3 laps later and a slightly different strategy is shaping up.
A line of cars are starting to form behind long-stinting Ricciardo. Hulkenberg, Massa, Alonso and eventually Kimi and Gutierriez. The Toro Rosso is defending well but the cars make their way past and we get the treat of seeing Kimi pass Gutierrez on the outside in 130R. Ricciardo pits and Hulkenberg is again in front of Alonso just like in Korea. The Hulk proving his worth.
Mark Webber has closed right up to Grosjean and pulls into the pits on lap 25 as the 3 stop strategy is coming into play. Grosjean, being on a 2-stopper has to keep it going 4 more laps. By that time, Webber is ahead of him and has a golden opportunity to win this race. Which he naturally fails to capitalize on. He could have gunned it like Vettel did in Singapore to make up enough time to negate an extra stop. But he didn’t. And you know why? Because he is unable to. That speed is long gone if it ever really was there.
Grosjean pits on lap 29 and loses the lead of the race. Vettel keeps going until lap 37, making good use of the tires for a final quick stint on fresh hards. Kimi makes his final stop on lap 31 and comes out in 7th place marginally ahead of Ricciardo and Rosberg. Massa ahead gets a drive-thru penalty for pitlane speeding so that’s one less competitor to worry about. It did cause some confusion on the radio for Kimi:
Slade: “Massa has a drive through penalty”
Kimi: “Why we have drive through penalty?”
Slade: “Massa, has penalty, Massa, Massa” :D
Angered by this exchange, he immediately sets a fastest lap to cool off. Or something like that.. 1.35.5 was very quick for that stage of the race though.
Vettel comes out 3,5 seconds behind Grosjean after his stop. He wastes no time in closing the gap which was done in about 2 laps. The very next lap he gets past the Lotus down the straight. In spite of Grosjean making another idiot chopping move in trying to “defend” himself. It was so bad in fact, that Sebastians DRS closed, as he had to take evasive action to avoid contact and only opened it again for the final part of the straight. Job done in a
swift manner though.
Webber pits and gets the softer tire for his final 10 lap stint. He is 5 seconds behind Grosjean when he should have been well ahead of him. But he now has the absolute fastest package on the track. A Red Bull with fresh soft tires and only a few laps to go, so no real tire preservation needed. In effect there should have been fire trails after his car as he was chasing down the Lotus. It takes him 4 laps to catch Grosjean on worn tires. On top of that he is unable to get past Grosjean. Lap after lap he fails doing what Vettel did in one try..
It actually takes him 6 tries and some help from traffic to get past the Frenchman. But he finally takes 2nd place as Vettel is almost 10 seconds up the road.
Meanwhile, the Sauber, Ferrari and Lotus fight is going on. Alonso got past the Sauber but Kimi has no chance in doing the same down the straight. Even with the DRS wing open their top speed is almost the same. So Kimi has to get smart once again. And he does. He passes Hulkenberg for 5th place at the chicane, thus having DRS down the straight to keep his position. A brilliant move, reminiscent of his calcualted move on Schumacher in Spa last year. Video here. (no audio)
So Vettel crosses the line to win the Japanese GP for the 5th time in a row. I can only tip my hat to such an achievement. The championship is not secured but will be in the next race unless he has a DNF and Alonso scores a 2nd place I think. Kimi turned a bad start to the weekend into a good one. His qualifying and start was poor but his race pace and race craft was flawless. He fought his way up from 11th to 5th. Helped a little by a retirement and a penalty of course. Remember that he started 7th last year and finished 6th. You will probably call me biased and I know I am at times. But Kimis race really was an impressive display of how to cope and make the best out of a very tricky situation. Which brings me to my next point. How to make a mess of a very favorable situation.
GROSJEAN AND LOTUS ANALYSIS
So Grosjean is now hailed as some sort of wunderkind. This because he has qualified well and kept out of trouble a few races. Well, I have another view. And I will testify to the fact that although his antics and first lap incidents have decreased, he is far from a clean racer
and he still has serious problems with his spatial awareness. His defensive moves are dirty at best and he is now the number 1 boy at Lotus. Why? Because Lotus desperately needs to big up Romain as much as possible to sell their team to sponsors for next year. And Kimi is currently reduced to a measuring stick for Romain. If he matches or beats Kimi, then he is as good as Kimi or better. Alan Permane is one of the forerunners in this PR campaign. If Kimi finishes ahead of Grosjean, it is to be expected and reasons for that are given. Safety cars and what not. Something that is conveniently left out when it is the other way around.
Kimi has also been cut out from the technical meetings as well as banned from access to the factory. Expect race strategies and any remaining parts to favor Grosjean for the last races. The tech meetings and factory access is expected due to Kimis switch to Ferrari of course. Im just mentioning it. Eric Boullier touts that Kimi would have been forgotten if he had not come back to Lotus: http://www.motorsport.com/f1/news/raikkonen-perhaps-highest-paid-driver-in-2013-boullier/
That is not only preposterous, it is a fallacy. It would be the other way around in fact. Although Lotus has had a decent car the past two years, their popularity would not have SOARED like it did without Kimi. As for points? Where would they have been in the championship? RG has less than half the points of his teammate this year. Even with his latest upturn in performance. 2012? Less than half the points there as well. But now that there are financial troubles and Kimi get points bonuses, Lotus are desperate to get Grosjean to finish ahead of Kimi. Not only due to sponsors but also because of money trouble. I thank Lotus for getting Kimi back to F1 but this is getting ridiculous. Give credit where credit is due.
THE WEBBER FACTOR
What about Grosjean in Japan? Was it the fantastic race that so many so-called pundits are saying? No it was not. Why? Let me count the reasons. He got a good start, yes. But only due to the Red Bulls both starting badly and Hamilton getting a puncture. That’s okay. It happens sometimes. But don’t make it sound like it was a “stroke of genius” or an “out of this world start” or some other nonsense that I have seen.
He is now leading the race. That is very good. What is even better is that he has an aging and over the top Webber behind him and not a 4-time champion. Let me tell you what that is. That is an open goal. Webbers pace in the Red Bull is nothing short of pathetic. Speaking of points? Mark Webber also has half the points of his teammate this year. Anyway, this is where Grosjean should have opened a gap big enough to control the rest of the race in comfort. This is obvious. He could not have done that with Vettel on his heels.
But he sure as heck could have with Webber behind. But he didn’t. That is not impressive. That is depressive. Had it been Vettel in 2nd chasing him down, I would not be writing this. Because that would be a different story. Clear air and a Lotus with a racepace proven to be on par even with Vettel in the Red Bull at times this year, (at least in the hands of Kimi) should have been a slam dunk. Webbers racepace have been worse than the Mercs, the Ferrari and the Lotus this year. Which is why he is 5th in the WDC. And which is also why Romain should have nailed it. Don’t forget that Grosjean also had the advantage of DRS not being enabled until lap 6 effectively, as the marshals had to clear away the Marussia and Caterham from the turn 1 crash.
But instead he wasted his golden opportunity and not only loses the lead but 2nd place as well. Slips down to 3rd and it is still hailed as a great drive. That baffles me because it just wasn’t. Ok, compared to how he drove last year in Japan it was a great drive. But that really shouldn’t be the norm a driver should be judged by. But Lotus is quick to step up and hail his drive as the second coming, which was expected of course.
Fun tidbit. Edd Straw awarded Grosjean a 10 in the Autosport drivers ratings for Japan. Kimi didn’t even get that in the Australia ratings when he came from down in 7th to win the race. Go figure..
Ok, enough of that. India is coming up so Im hoping for no mistakes in qualifying for Mr. Raikkonen. Time to close it down until then. But feel free to leave a comment ;)
Images © Photo4/XPB Images
Do not hesitate to contact me if you need any of these photos taken down for any reason.