F1 Japanese GP: And This Changes Everything

We all figured that the battle for the World Drivers’ Championship would be tight as Alonso fought to keep his slower Ferrari F2012 ahead of Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull RB8. However, things change quickly in Formula One. Vettel won the race and scored maximum points while Alonso failed to finish. The result is a four point Alonso lead. Elsewhere in Formula One, the silly season picture was clarified as most seats for the 2013 season were filled and there has been quite a bit of news about current and prospective future F1 venues.

The race didn’t need long to add some massive drama to the championship. All of 15 seconds into the race, Fernando Alonso was parked facing backwards on the track. On the run into Turn 1, he was tagged in the left-rear by Kimi Raikkonen, sending him into a spin and stalling his engine. The result was Alonso’s second retirement of the season. Interestingly, both of Alonso’s retirements were as a result of collisions at the start. Also out at Turn 1 was Nico Rosberg who was tagged by Bruno Senna. Mark Webber was spun by Romain Grosjean at the start too but was able to continue en route to a 9th place finish.

Webber’s collision at the start allowed Kamui Kobayashi to assume 2nd but he never challenged for the lead as he was caught napping by Vettel on the restart from the safety car that resulted from the crash at the start. He couldn’t hold onto 2nd for long, though. He lost a spot on the exchange of pit stops to Felipe Massa who had his drive of the season while Ferrari still tries to find a 2nd driver for 2013.

Vettel’s win was the his third of the season and makes him the first driver to score back-to-back wins this season. Felipe Massa scored his first podium of the season and first since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix by finishing 2nd. Kamui Kobayashi’s third place finish gave the Japanese driver his first career podium, best career finish and a career highlight given that this was his home race. Rounding out the top five were the McLaren duo of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. Completing the points were Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado (who score his first points since winning in Barcelona), Mark Webber (who came from 22nd to 9th after his first corner spin) and Daniel Ricciardo.

As I mentioned off the top, the championship chase closed up considerably. With Alonso scoring no points and Vettel scoring maximum points, the gap has closed to just four points than five races to go. Kimi Raikkonen held on to third place in the standings and closed the gap to 37 points. If he’s going to contend for the WDC, he needs wins and podium finishes. Consistent points-paying finishes will just lose ground to Alonso and Vettel. Lewis Hamilton was able to cut 10 points off his gap to the front but is still 42 points behind with five races left. Mark Webber (5th) and Jenson Button (6th) are both more than two races worth of points behind and effectively out of the title hunt.

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So there’s been just a tiny bit of silly season news that’s happened over the last two weeks for us to address. It’s all very minor like two drivers moving teams, a shortlist for a top seat being rumoured and a driver announcing his retirement. All very unimportant.

Anyway, the big news was something I predicted might happen in the Singapore race recap. I thought that Lewis might jump to Mercedes after having a win snatched away from him by a McLaren car failure despite the fact that McLaren was favoured to retain his services. Not to toot my own horn but it turns out that I was right. Of course, the $100 million contract over three years might have helped Lewis make his decision. Martin Whitmarsh said that McLaren would have paid Lewis more but I don’t know how McLaren could have matched that amount of money which already has Hamilton as the highest paid driver on the grid.

As expected, Sergio Perez signed with McLaren to replace Hamilton. Perez was a Ferrari development driver but the Scuderia considered him too inexperienced for one of their race seats. The contract has been described as multi-year which means it’s for at least two seasons. On the plus side for Sauber, Telmex will continue to sponsor the team as they see their partnership with Sauber as a long-term project.

The retirement of Michael Schumacher didn’t come as a massive surprise. I think it was nearly inevitable after Mercedes announced the Hamilton signing. Schumacher’s legacy is a matter for another time when I can devote much more space to it. However, Old Seven-Time will go down as a legend in F1 thanks to having more wins, poles and championships than any other driver. His comeback wasn’t the best driving he’s ever done but he looked quicker than his teammate when his car didn’t break down this year. He may not have gone out at the top of his game but he was still quicker than a good portion of the grid.

Ferrari is rumoured to be down to three drivers for the seat next to Alonso in 2013. They’re down to a choice between retaining Felipe Massa or hiring one of the Force India pair of Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg. Regardless of who Ferrari signs for next season, I think letting Perez go to McLaren says something important about Ferrari’s future. I think that allowing a quality driver like Perez go to a rival suggests that the Scuderia has something up their sleeve for the future. That likely means that the rumoured pre-contract with Sebastian Vettel for 2014 actually exists and we’ll see Vettel in a Ferrari very soon.

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The rumour mill hasn’t been swirling solely around the driver market. We’ve also seen a lot of news over the last two weeks regarding the future of the Formula One race calendar.

As far as current races go, government officials in Australia want to retain the Grand Prix but are unhappy with the current financial state of the race. The government subsidized the race to the tune of $56 million for this year’s Grand Prix. The current contract runs through 2015 but Australia wants a change to the terms when the next deal is negotiated in order to cut costs and the required subsidy. The problem is that Bernie wants the race to be a night race to work in European time zones. That will only drive costs up. With three years still left on the contract, things aren’t looking great for the Aussie GP.

The ongoing drama between Bernie and prospective Grand Prix organizers in the USA continue. After nearly undermining construction of the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, he’s now almost guaranteed the cancellation of June 2013’s American Grand Prix. Last week, Bernie said that he had effectively torn up the contract between his Formula One Group and the race organizers in New Jersey. The Supremo said organizers hadn’t complied with the terms and conditions of the contract. No specifics were given but the race is still on the 2013 calendar but listed as subject to confirmation. I haven’t seen reports of construction of the circuit’s permanent facilities stopping so hopefully something can be worked out to make this race happen.

Two new countries are looking for spots on the F1 calendar. The closest to getting a Grand Prix is Thailand. Bernie has agreed to a deal with a group which includes government officials and Red Bull representatives to host a night race on the streets of Bangkok starting as soon as 2014. The problem is that there are already 20 races with contracts for 2014 with the addition of Russia and Japan not having a contract yet. If New Jersey gets dropped permanently, that leaves 19 races on the calendar. Whether Thailand is given a Grand Prix in place of Japan remains to be seen.

Given the current economic crisis, you would think that the Greek government would be careful with its money. However, they’ve just unblocked a $30 million subsidy which would go toward the construction of a $100 million motorsports facility. I term it a facility because, while the primary goal is to get a Formula One Grand Prix, the track will be designed to host top-level bike and go-kart racing. While this will help create jobs, will the boost to the Greek economy from construction and possible races be enough to make it worth spending money now amidst massive spending cuts? Without space on the F1 calendar and no history of F1 in Greece, it’ll be a tough sell.

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We’ve got a lot of other news in this column so I’ll keep the latest threat to the upcoming V6 turbo engine formula brief. Bernie Ecclestone was in attendance when Ferrari was running their new V6 at their factory and wasn’t a fan of the sound. The F1 supremo described the engine note as “jarring.” As such, he’s talking about getting the FIA to scrap the new engine rules. The new turbo V6s were supposed to be introduced in 2013 but were pushed back to 2014. How bad could these engines be to suggest they need to be scrapped altogether?

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It’s back-to-back race weekends from here on out this season. This weekend’s Grand Prix was the first half of a back-to-back with Korea. So we’re back at it next Sunday at the Korea International Circuit for the third running of the Korean Grand Prix. The drama from the race has less to do with the racing on the circuit (thanks to the bog standard Hermann Tilke design) but if the race promoters will pay the sanctioning fees and the race will be run.

As this is a Tilke-drome, we have an idea of who will be strong. First, McLaren is still the fastest car on the grid. However, neither Hamilton or Button have won on a Tilke-designed track this season (Malaysia, China, Bahrain, Valencia, Hockenheim, Singapore). Both Alonso and Vettel have run strong on Tilke tracks this season with three and two wins, respectively. With four of the final five races on Tilke-dromes, Hamilton has to find his form on Tilke tracks now in order to be in the hunt for a title in Brazil.

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