• Japanese Grand Prix - The Final Stint

Land of the Rising Seb

Laurence Edmondson and Chris Medland
October 7, 2012

A round-up of the good, the bad and the downright ugly from the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel took full advantage of Fernando Alonso's failure to score © Press Association
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The first back-to-back winner of 2012
May we point you to The Final Stint following the Singapore Grand Prix, and the fact that we said Vettel felt he was due some luck? He got it then when Hamilton retired, and he got it today when Alonso went spinning out at turn one. Alonso's failure to score made it literally the perfect weekend for Vettel, who took pole position, the win and set the fastest lap en-route to erasing 25 of the 29-point lead Alonso held over him prior to this weekend. It was vintage Vettel; dominant in qualifying, rapid in the opening laps (and at safety car restarts) and even audacious enough to ignore his team and ensure he took the fastest lap late in the race too. And there was some vintage Adrian Newey on show as well, as the Red Bull double DRS came to the fore. The device stalls the rear wing through pipes channelling air from the top element to the lower beam, and while it had been on the car in Singapore it really helped on the high-speed Suzuka circuit. The result was a qualifying performance that allowed Red Bull to display that its car has the fastest race pace, and even though Alonso has put on a brave face, the fact that the nearest title challenger has the quickest car and is just four points behind him means it's only a matter of time before he relinquishes his championship lead.

Perez v Hamilton (Round One)
The jibes started in Thursday afternoon's press conference when the FIA rather cheekily sat Sergio Perez next to the man he will replace at McLaren next year. Asked about leaving McLaren Lewis Hamilton, with what looked like a rather forced smile, said: "I know I'm leaving a very, very good car for this guy [Perez] to step into." In his typical Mexican monotone, Perez simply answered: "Thank you." Continuing with the passive-aggressive exchange, Hamilton - still grinning on the outside but with his voice wavering - hit back: "Yeah. Trust me, it will be a good car next year as well, I know. I know exactly what's going on next year with your car." The next public encounter between the two came on the track when Perez launched an audacious passing move up the inside of Hamilton for position on lap six. He somehow made the move stick, making his rival look rather dopey and no doubt evoking some mixed emotions on the McLaren pit wall. Hamilton regained the position at the next pit stop, but soon came under serious threat of being shown up by Perez for a second time. With his ego bruised, Hamilton's eyes became rather more sharply focused on his mirrors and this time he was ready for the banzai passing attempt. He called on his extra four years of experience and casually placed his car half a metre or so further to the left on corner entry. It wasn't much but it placed an element of doubt in Perez's mind, which, slightly overloaded all of sudden, couldn't keep up with the course of events. The rear of the Sauber broke away and the Mexican was powerless to arrest a rather amateurish slide into the gravel. Hamilton had won the battle, but it will likely prove to be just the opening salvo of a fascinating war between the two next season.

Ganging up on Grosjean
One of 2012's recurring incidents took place on the opening lap when Romain Grosjean was involved in contact, this time with Mark Webber. Two weeks ago in Singapore - the first race for Grosjean following his suspension - Webber lined up alongside the Lotus and joked that Grosjean would need his trainers on if there was contact between the two at the start. This time there was, and Webber branded him a "first-lap nutcase" before insinuating that he needed another ban. After that, many drivers were asked for their opinions, but one thing was clear; the reaction was based on the fact that it's happened so often rather than the severity of the incident. Grosjean was defending from Sergio Perez and photo evidence shows that as contact is made with Webber, Perez is still alongside him on the outside. Grosjean wasn't recklessly late on the brakes, nor did he make a sudden move, he simply misjudged closing speed by the slightest margin and had no way of moving to the outside to avoid Webber.

Alonso misjudged the position of Raikkonen to his left by a small margin at the start - much like Grosjean and Hamilton in Spa - and both Button and Schumacher hugely underestimated closing speeds in Singapore, but nobody has called for their banning. Grosjean's reputation went before him, and the fact that he's a repeat offender meant a 10 second stop/go penalty (the harshest available to the stewards before disqualification) was justified. You won't change a racing driver's habits overnight and Grosjean will undoubtedly try to learn from the clash, but being overly cautious on the opening lap could concertina the field up to cause an incident behind, so he's in a tricky situation under so much scrutiny. This weekend the punishment fit the crime. Case closed. Move on.

The Story of the Weekend

© Sutton Images
  • Shock Kamui Kobayashi - It's felt like a long time coming, but finally Kobayashi stepped on to the podium, and at his home race too. Magnificent in qualifying once again, he was calm in the face of pressure from Button and was third on complete merit
  • Shocker Fernando Alonso - It couldn't have gone much worse for Alonso - he misjudged the gap to Raikkonen at the start, got a puncture that put himself out of the race and then watched as his nearest title rival took full advantage
  • Best overtake Sergio Perez - In a sign of confidence, Perez threw his car up the inside of Hamilton (yes, the man he'll replace next year) in to the hairpin from a long way back and held it together. In a sign of over-confidence, he failed to repeat the trick 14 laps later
  • Best lap Sebastian Vettel - On lap 52 of 53 he decided he wanted to ensure nobody took the fastest lap from him and despite being on old tyres went three quarters of a second quicker than his previous best, which was already set to be the fastest lap
  • Worst lap Romain Grosjean - It was always going to be lap 1 for Grosjean. Another incident and another penalty, and after the race his face portrayed a man who was clearly affected by the criticism
  • Drive of the day Felipe Massa - A close one, but it was a day of redemption for Massa who was faultless in every aspect to climb from 10th to 2nd and take his first podium since Korea in 2010. In fact, much like Alonso in Valencia, he was one dodgy alternator from a surprise victory...

Kobayashi crowned king for a day
Rarely has a Japanese crowd been as raucous as when Kamui Kobayashi stepped on the Suzuka podium. The grandstand opposite erupted in wild cheers and frantic flag waving - a big step up from the polite applauds afforded to most top-three finishers. He said the third place finish was his "destiny", and whether you believe in such things or not, you cannot deny it was well-deserved and very popular result. There is little doubt that he also deserves a place on the grid in 2013 (his qualifying laps in China, Belgium and this weekend are proof of that), but he is going up against younger drivers with wealthier backers and his position at Sauber is looking increasingly precarious. The last three days have proved Kobayashi can string a whole weekend together, and in that respect his performance was arguably more impressive than some of Sergio Perez's podiums that have relied on alternative strategies. Such results should be rewarded with more than just silverware, yet Sauber CEO Monisha Kaltenborn wouldn't hint at whether he was staying after the race. Whichever way you look at it, F1 would be poorer without its only Japanese driver. Not just because of his nationality but also because of his flamboyant driving style and unique personality.

Drive first, complain later
It is a remarkable fact that Pastor Maldonado's eighth place was his first points finish since he won the Spanish Grand Prix, and shows that, despite the pressure on him, Bruno Senna has been doing a good job having scored on five occasions since then. However, it's Senna's seat that is most under threat and he's found himself faced with some bad luck, most recently when Jean-Eric Vergne blocked him in Q1 and forced him to drop out in the first part of qualifying. While clearly Senna was held up, the hand waving and gesturing wasn't required. It feels like there isn't a race weekend that goes by without Senna waving his fist at someone, but he needs to focus on the job at hand. Everyone had seen Vergne block him but Senna gestured and slowed out of the chicane when burying his foot to the floor and crossing the line at racing speed may still have seen him make it in to Q2. Just as Senna said any penalty for Vergne "is not going to change anything for me" after the incident, what is raising your hand at another car going to achieve?

The start of a long goodbye
It's been a hectic weekend for Michael Schumacher. On Thursday he announced his second retirement from F1, although Mercedes naming Lewis Hamilton as its driver for 2013 the Firday before rather stole his thunder. There are still questions of whether he jumped or whether he was pushed, with rumours in the paddock that both announcements were made without the other party's knowledge. On the record, both Schumacher and Mercedes say the other side was kept informed during all the negotiations, but somehow the rushed announcement on Thursday didn't quite seem fitting for such a great champion. On the track he was always going to struggle with a ten-place grid penalty and the Mercedes was uncompetitive from the off. With that 92nd win now looking as elusive over the next five races as it has at any point in his comeback, you can understand why Schumacher says his batteries are in the "red zone".