Vettel Reigns Supreme In Japan


Sebastian Vettel survived a late race safety car period to dominate en route to winning the Japanese Grand Prix.

Since qualifying yesterday the grid order had changed significantly. Button, Barrichello, Alonso and Sutil were penalised five places for not easing off after Buemi's Q2 crash. Buemi himself was given the same penalty for limping his car back to the pits and Heikki Kovalainen took a penalty for a gearbox change. Timo Glock, as expected, did not start after being injured in his accident yesterday, though he was seen waving his blue-bandaged left leg around the Toyota garage.

With all of these changes it was to paraphrase Nico Rosberg, like making up places in your sleep for many drivers.

Vettel's pole, however, remained unchanged and it was he along with second place starting Jarno Trulli and Lewis Hamilton who would fight for the lead into the opening corner.

As the green lights went out the Toyota got a better start than expected and though he never truly (no pun intended) challenged Vettel he did, perhaps, take away the options Lewis Hamilton may have expected.

As the KERS equipped McLaren got off line, Hamilton first seemed to look to the inside of Vettel, only to the car in front really was a Toyota and be forced to look round the outside of the Red Bull. The pair eased left until the McLaren's wheels were almost on the grass, forcing Hamilton to back out, and allow Vettel to run unchallenged into turn two.

Behind, it was all wrong for Jenson Button. From tenth on the grid he had been swallowed by the faster starting Kubica off the line, and found himself being challenged by Giancarlo Fisichella at turn two. The Ferrari's approaches eventually came to nothing, but more than ever Button found himself out of position with his lighter fuel load in the middles of the tight squabbling midfield.

Mark Webber pitted. Meanwhile, Vettel was leaping away from Hamilton at the front of the pack, leading by nearly two seconds after only two laps. Mark Webber pitted again, taping down the protective driver's headrest.

Button was starting to make amends for his poor start (and by extension his qualifying infraction). He worked his way past Kubica into the chicane, and set his sights on Adrian Sutil, who was himself out of position and wedged up behind Heikki Kovalainen's heavily fuelled McLaren.

Mark Webber pitted again.

After a dozen or so laps of following Sutil in the ever present cushion of turbulent air Jenson Button's luck started to change. Into the final chicane Sutil moved to the inside, just as Button had done when overtaking Kubica, and Kovalainen offered little to no defence as the turned into the right hand element of the chicane.

The left hand element was a different matter. Kovalainen suddenly defended like his life (or career) depended on it, trimming the grass as he battle the Force India to the second apex. Ultimately the Finn made it the apex, but his angle forced him wide, and the inevitable happened.

Contact.

Sutil was tipped into a 180 degree spin and Kovalainen found himself face to face with his victim, being forced to circumnavigate him. All of which meant Button skipped from tenth to eighth in one corner and into one point.

The first round of pitstops approached for the front runners and the race settled into the tactical battle of the flying laps that is a hallmark of modern F1 racing.

As the lighter runners pitted Nico Rosberg found himself running second in the chasm that had developed behind Vettel after his lightning first stint. With an estimated 24 laps of fuel onboard, all was looking good for the Williams' driver, with the possibility of a one stop strategy to take advantage of all those he had overtaken in his sleep.

Unfortunately it was not to be, when Rosberg came in it was another set of the hard tyres waiting for him. He would have to stop again, a chance of podium gone, but he would still have a role to play.

Rosberg emerged behind Barrichello and once more the tacticians went to work, calculating the pace and fuel loads needed to take a position in the pits. Button was catching Rosberg, Raikkonen, who had been running fifth the whole race, was catching Heidfeld and Hamilton and Trulli were disputing second.

“You need a three second gap,” the team told Hamilton as the realised the Toyota was fuelled for a longer stint. But the gap refused to budge, or at least budge enough to mean that the reigning champion's stop was pressure free.

When it came the stationary time was normal, but as Hamilton left the pitlane the engine seemed to strain as he accelerated. It seems like the pitlane speed limiter was still on was the response, with the BBC TV team guessing it cost him half a second. So it was little surprise that after Trulli's stop the following lap the Toyota man had leapfrogged Hamilton, and promptly began to pull away.

Vettel was the next to stop, a small problem with a front wheel being slow to come off was the one tiny blot on Vettel and his team's copybook (except for Mark Webber who had made his fourth pit stop by now).

Then the drama.

The cameras cut away to show a car off on the run from 130R to the chicane. Seen in silhouette all that was clear – with the profile of the nose and huge shark fin engine cover – was that it was Red Bull sponsored.

Was it Vettel?

No. It was Alguersuari. He had spun on the outside of 130R, before spearing across the track to the inside wall, bouncing over the tiny gravel trap and ploughing into the tyre barrier at an acute angle, being spat out again towards the track.

“I'm OK,” he said over the radio before first nearly being craned skyward still in the cockpit and then being loaded to the precautionary ambulance after he had walked away unaided.

The Safety Car, of course, bunched up the pack, putting positions at risk. However, one driver who could rest a little easier was Jarno Trulli as reports than Hamilton's McLaren KERS wasn't working – was this a symptom of the same electrical gremlin that cost him time exiting the pits?

Mark Webber pitted.

The four lap shootout that remained when the Safety Car returned to the pits flattered to deceive, there was little to no action by way of overtaking and Vettel simply pulled away again to take his third win of the season and keep himself in the championship hunt.

Trulli and Hamilton completed the podium ahead of Raikkonen, Rosberg, Heidfeld and the two Brawns, Barrichello seventh and Button eighth.

And that's how they remained despite a steward's meeting to discuss whether Rosberg sped through the yellow flag and Safety Car period following Alguersuari's crash.

It eventually came to nothing, and so the drivers' and teams' championship chases roll over to Interlagos in two weeks with Button and Brawn in the driving seat.