F1 Japanese GP: Seeing Red (Bulls)

This weekend was all Red Bull Racing all the time. They dominated practice, qualifying and the race as Sebastian Vettel led Red Bull home in the team’s third one-two finish and first since the Monaco Grand Prix in May. While the race may never have been in question, the result did shake up the World Drivers’ Championship picture. Outside of the top five, the race didn’t disappoint as we saw a superb drive from a mid-pack driver and a demolition derby in the first turn of the race.

We all knew that the Red Bulls would be fast around the twisty Suzuka Circuit but I don’t think anyone would have believed that they would have outclassed the field by this much. Sebastian Vettel led the race from lights to flag and his dominance was never in question at any point during the weekend. Mark Webber’s run to 2nd was a bit more difficult. A slow start allowed Robert Kubica by the Aussie for second place. However, under the safety car for a pair of first lap incidents, Kubica’s right-rear wheel fell off which forced him to retire. That bumped Webber into second where he would remain. The only blight on the day for Vettel was that Webber stole fastest lap of the race from him on the last lap of the race.

Behind the frontrunners, things weren’t much more interesting. Fernando Alonso started fourth, held position off the start, was promoted to third thanks to Kubica’s problems and finished the race there. Lewis Hamilton looked like he was going to overcome a gearbox change that dropped him from third to eighth on the grid. He jumped to 6th off the start and got ahead of teammate Jenson Button to 4th thanks to pit stops. However, he finished 5th after he lost third gear which made him a sitting duck for Button.

Webber’s second place allowed him to stretch his championship lead but only by a scant few points. His championship lead grew from 11 points over Alonso to 14 points over Alonso and Vettel.

  1. Mark Webber 220 pts.
  2. Fernando Alonso 206 pts.
  3. Sebastian Vettel 206 pts.
  4. Lewis Hamilton 192 pts.
  5. Jenson Button 189 pts.

All the pundits were saying that Red Bull had to pick a horse in the championship battle and throw all their resources behind him. They can’t really do that now with both of their drivers at the head of the table. It looks as though Alonso finds himself in a favourable position, though. We’ve seen how well the two Red Bull drivers get along when battling for the front in Turkey. If they fight tooth and nail like that again, Ferrari’s twice World Champion finds himself in perfect position to pick up the pieces and steal a championship.

As for the two McLarens, they see themselves on the outside looking in at this point. Hamilton is 28 points out while Button is 31 back. While a race win is 25 points and they’re technically not out of it yet, they have to pick up the pace to have a shot a picking up a title that seemed almost certainly theirs earlier in the season. It’ll be even harder for Hamilton who will have to change his gearbox and lose five spots on the Korean GP grid.

•••

This race had one of the more action-packed starts in recent memory. When Lewis Hamilton can go from 8th on the grid to 6th without the BBC commentary team not making a big deal of it, you know that there was all hell braking loose. But the fun didn’t start on the grid. Lucas di Grassi binned his Virgin in the 130R on his lap out to the grid. He didn’t even have to make it to the grid to have a spectacular crash. The general consensus is that it was a mechanical problem which is a polite way of saying that the car is a pile of shit and shouldn’t have been on track in the first place.

Anyway, the start was where it all went to hell in a hand basket for four cars. First, Vitaly Petrov got a bit ambitious while slicing through the middle of the field just after the lights went out. He cut across the nose of Nico Hulkenberg’s Williams thinking he was clear. Instead, the spun himself on Hulkenberg’s left-front tire, sending him into the wall and the Williams out of the race. A little further up the track, Felipe Massa didn’t stay cool and got a bit ambitious into Turn 1. He looked up the inside of Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes but didn’t get any space to work. The Ferrari bounded across the grass on the inside of the turn and torpedoed Vitantonio Liuzzi’s Force India as he came back on the track.

I know F1 is supposed to be the highest level of motorsport in the world but sometimes it’s fun to see it turn into the world’s most expensive demolition derby. That’s what makes NASCAR so popular in America.

•••

I can only hope that we saw a new star cement his place in F1 this weekend. Kamui Kobayashi has already put in a few good drives and has recorded some memorable moments during his year in an F1 car but he must have caught everyone’s attention in this race. Overtaking was at a relative premium at Suzuka (for a race at Suzuka, anyway, not relative to a 2010 race) but Kobayashi seemingly could slice through the field at will. He was making amazing banzai moves up the inside and outside of cars at the hairpin all day. If you gave out driver of the race awards, I don’t think you could give it to anyone but Kobayashi. He has to be considered for a top drive at some point in the near future because he really is that good.

•••

Qualifying was more interesting this week than it usually was. That’s because it was postponed from its usual Saturday afternoon time slot to Sunday morning thanks to a torrential downpour. The conditions at Suzuka were better suited to running a boat on track than a race car. So some of the teams had a bit of fun and built some boats out of parts lying around the garage. I don’t think this will catch on as much as the Canadian Grand Prix’s spare parts raft race in the old Olympic rowing basin but it’s still a bit of good fun. Pictured here is the S.S. Sauber floating down what was once the pit lane. Red Bull also created a boat out of a couple of empty Red Bull cans and a makeshift sail.

They eventually held qualifying on Sunday morning with Q3 wrapping up less than four hours before the start of the race. It was the first time that qualifying had been rescheduled since the 2004 Japanese Grand Prix.

•••

One wheel failure during a race is odd. Two is like something out of the Twilight Zone. We never saw Kubica’s under the safety car but I think he and everyone else was thankful that his right-rear wheel fell off behind the safety car and not at green flag speeds. With five laps to go, Nico Rosberg lost his left-rear wheen at the exit of the Esses sending him into the tire wall at the Dunlop Curve. Unlike Kubica’s which failed almost straight away, Rosberg’s wheel was on for over 45 laps before it fell off. For all the talk about extra wheel tethers for next season, there’s nothing they can do with the wheel if it works itself off instead of ripping the suspension off.

•••

Meanwhile, in Korea, race organizers are starting to lay the second layer of asphalt at the Korean International Circuit. Track inspection of the track will take place sometime today with the race scheduled for 13 days from now. Bernie Ecclestone seems fairly confident that the race will take place. Of course, he won’t give the time of day to rumours that he was trying to line up a replacement venue in case the track failed inspection or wasn’t complete on time. I suppose if they cancel the race, they can have all the drivers play the new F1 2010 video game and the results from that count toward the championship. Hell, trying that might even get HRT into the points.

Perhaps the most interesting about this track will be the state of the tarmac. Apparently, freshly laid pavement needs a couple of months to properly set and cure. Without that time, the track will be slick to the point of being like running a F1 car on ice. I can’t recall F1 having been able to prove that anytime in the recent past but that’s because most new tracks are ready more than two weeks ahead of the first race. If this is right, then we could be in for our most interesting dry weather race since the Canadian GP.

•••

And speaking of the Korean Grand Prix, Vitaly Petrov will have a better view of the field than expected because of his first lap collision. The stewards handed him a five-grid-spot penalty for the next race for causing the accident at the start of the race. I never agree with penalties for accidents and don’t expect me to like this. Petrov wrecked a car and finished at the back of the pack. I don’t think he needs anymore punishment. For that matter, I don’t think he needs any discouragement from making daring overtaking maneuvers either.

•••

The next race might be the inaugural Korean Grand Prix from the still sort of under construction Korean International Circuit. As I said above, FIA race director Charlie Whiting will be at the track today to inspect the circuit. Unless there aren’t garages or the tarmac comes apart under his feet as he walks the circuit, I doubt that the race will be called off. If they’ve waited this long and not postponed the race, I doubt they’re going to cancel a race only 13 days out.

Based on the layout of the circuit, it looks like it had enough medium speed corners that it should favour the Red Bulls. However, it has a straight that’s over a kilometre long which would seem to favour the McLarens. The Macca boys will have to take advantage of that to get back in to the championship chase. As for Ferrari, I’d say that this won’t be their track but momentum is on their side. It’s probably worth noting that McLaren and Ferrari were the best cars at a very slick Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

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