This was a tale of two races. The first thirds of the race was dominated by Lewis Hamilton who led from the pole. The final two-thirds was a different story as a gearbox failure ended Lewis’ day and handed the victory to Sebastian Vettel. Meanwhile, the action off-track was even more interesting than the on-track action with the 2013 calendar being unveiled and more silly season news breaking.
Hamilton’s lead from the pole was fairly unchallenged apart from losing the lead on the exchange of pit stops. It looked as though he was going to march to victory without much drama. On lap 23, drama hit him full-force. Hamilton’s gearbox failed going through the first chicane and caused him to coast to a halt. McLaren’s radio transmission to Lewis indicated that they knew there might be a gearbox issue on Saturday but left it to chance. Hindsight being 20/20, that was the wrong decision. This handed the lead and win to Sebastian Vettel.
The win didn’t come without a bit of pressure. Ten laps after taking the lead, Vettel’s lead vanished thanks to a safety car caused by Narain Karthikeyan sliding his car into the wall. This caused a mad scramble as everyone hit the pits for what they hoped would be their final pit stop. On the first lap after the restart, Michael Schumacher locked up and ploughed into the back of Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso after an apparent car failure taking the pair out of 10th and 9th, respectively, and sending the safety car back onto the circuit. (It also resulted in the stewards giving Schumacher a 10-place grid penalty in Japan. It’s good to know that the driver is now at fault for all car failures.)
The final safety car period resulted in the race running to the two-hour time limit. After that final restart, though, there was no catching Vettel as he stretched his lead far enough to earn a nine-second margin of victory over Jenson Button. Fernando Alonso benefited from the retirements of both Hamilton and Pastor Maldonado to score the final spot on the podium.
Thanks in part to the two safety car periods and pit strategy, Paul di Resta scored his best career race finish with a 4th place. Nico Rosberg kept his nose clean all day and got a 5th place finish. Kimi Raikkonen may have missed Q3 but a good drive and a little help from the team got him to P6 ahead of teammate Romain Grosjean who outdrove Raikkonen despite missing the previous rave and finished 7th. Felipe Massa had an epic drive after a first lap tyre change left him 24th. He finished 8th. Daniel Ricciardo finished in 9th for his third points finish of the season (and third 9th place finish this season). After a penalty to Mark Webber for passing off-track, Sergio Perez was awarded 10th place and the final point.
The World Drivers’ Championship standings closed up as a result of today’s race. Alonso’s 37 point lead over Hamilton is now a 29 point lead over Vettel. That’s still a one-race points gap. Kimi Raikkonen remains third in the standings at 45 points off the lead. Hamilton’s third retirement from five races leaves him 52 points off the lead which is over a two race gap with only six Grands Prix left. Mark Webber is 5th in the standings but 62 points adrift while Jenson Button is the only other driver with more than 100 points but is three races behind at 75 points fewer than Alonso.
It didn’t really affect the final outcome of the race but Charles Pic received a 20-second time penalty on Saturday for Sunday’s race. The penalty related to an incident during the Free Practice 3 session on Saturday evening in which Pic overtook a car while the circuit was under red flag conditions. Pic and his race engineer are also required to complete a day of community service with the FIA road safety campaign.
I’ve talked about it before but the FIA’s punishment for incidents is so inconsistent that I’m not really sure what to expect any more. This is the first time that I can recall a driver getting a time penalty from an incident outside the race. I remember Jacques Villeneuve getting a suspended ban in 1997 for ignoring a yellow flag during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix. Apart from that, I don’t have a comparable for this.
The provisional 2013 Formula One calendar was released on Friday. The 2013 season will have 20 races starting in March in Melbourne, Australia, and ending in November at the Interlagos Circuit in Brazil. Changes from the current calendar are minimal. The European Grand Prix at Valencia has been dropped as the race will alternate with Barcelona as the Spanish Grand Prix. In Valencia’s place is the Grand Prix of America at the Port Imperial Street Circuit which will be the second race F1 runs in the US.
Even if the teams and the FIA approve the proposed calendar as is, some work still needs to be done. The Port Imperial circuit isn’t complete yet and Bernie Ecclestone has previously stated his doubts that the track will be ready in time for the race next June. The Nurburgring is listed as the host of the German Grand Prix but the track’s bankruptcy proceedings mean that Hockenheim may host the race next year. The Korean Grand Prix is currently without a contract for next year but negotiations must be on going if the race is listed on the provisional calendar. Singapore was listed as pending signing a contract on the calendar but a new five-year deal through 2017 was announced this weekend.
The music that’s driving the game of musical chairs that is the Formula One silly season is Lewis Hamilton. Where everyone ends up next season is driven by where Hamilton signs for next season. The rumour mill still has him being courted by both McLaren and Mercedes with McLaren being tipped as the heavy favourite right now. After having victory snatched away from him by a car failure, could this be the tipping point that sends him to Mercedes? That’s just speculation but an emotional guy like Hamilton just might be influenced by something like this.
The latest driver that McLaren are talking to for the 2nd seat alongside Button is Sergio Perez. The Mexican driver is part of the Ferrari driver development program but the Scuderia feel Perez is too inexperienced to drive for the team. If Perez doesn’t sign with McLaren, Ferrari and McLaren would both be looking at the same man for their 2nd race seat. Heikki Kovalainen recently paid a visit to the Ferrari factory and we know that McLaren are interested in bringing back Kovalainen if they don’t get Hamilton or Perez. If Lewis signs at Mercedes, the latest rumours have Schumacher becoming a free agent with Sauber as the current most-likely landing spot for the seven-time World Champion.
Elsewhere, Jaime Alguersuari says that he has secured a race seat for 2013. The hints he has given on his Twitter account indicate that he expects to be driving with either Sauber or Force India next year. Alguersuari ran well during the 2011 season so I don’t doubt his race craft. However, I’m not sure where a seat will open up for him unless a driver from either of those teams moves to either McLaren or Ferrari to fill open seats there.
We’re only two months from the end of the season but silly season is definitely only going to get more interesting from here.
The next race is in two weeks time as the F1 season reaches the 6th-to-last race at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. The Suzuka Circuit is unique in that it covers a relatively small parcel of land thanks to the figure-8 layout but it is also a highly technical circuit with elevation change, cambered and off-camper corners and corner speeds of all varieties. The track reminds me a bit of Spa in terms of how fast and technical it is. If anything, Suzuka’s shorter track length makes it a bit busier than Spa.
Using Spa as the comparative circuit, McLaren should be the strongest in Japan. Of course, they found something on their car back in July to move the car to the front of the grid so I don’t think it matters what the comparative circuit is, I’d still tip McLaren to be fastest (gearbox failures not withstanding). Red Bull was fast at Spa as evidenced by Vettel’s charge from 11th to 2nd during the race. Ferrari hasn’t looked great as of late. Alonso has consistently scored points (when not hammered from behind by Hamilton) but definitely hasn’t had the pace of the McLarens. Ferrari needs to find something over this two-week break to keep the World Drivers’ Championship from slipping away. And I don’t mean more lucky failures by the competition.