Sunday, 4 October 2009

Vettel takes a dominant win at Suzuka while Toyota get a crucial podium finish in their home race

After the night race on the street circuit of Singapore last weekend, Formula 1 was back this week to a real driver's circuit. For the first time in three years, the wonderful figure of 8 layout of the Suzuka race track in Japan hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix. The last Japanese Grand Prix to be held at the Honda Motor Company owned Suzuka was in 2006. Since then, the Toyota owned Fuji Speedway did the honours as Suzuka underwent a modernisation program. After opening an entirely rebuilt pit and paddock complex, the Formula 1 circus was delighted to be back at this legendary circuit.

Traditionally being the last race of the calendar, Suzuka has hosted many Championship deciding races in the past. The well known battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989 and 1990 and then Michael Schumacher battling it out with Mika Hakkinen in 2000 all took place right here at Suzuka. Besides the history, it is a very tough and demanding circuit, which is why it is fun to drive on and is thoroughly enjoyed by all the drivers. Some even say that Suzuka is Asia's equivalent of Spa-Francorchamps, and that is not exaggerating at all. Coming into this year's race Suzuka once again promised a Championship battle, but this time it was a three way battle between Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. The man to take to the top step of the podium was Red Bull's German driver Vettel, who drove a dominant race from lights out to the Chequered Flag. Jarno Trulli came home in 2nd, taking a crucial podium for his Toyota team in their home race while last week's winner Lewis Hamilton completed the podium.

After the Friday practice sessions were completely washed out thanks to torrential rain, the teams only had the one hour of 3rd Free Practice on Saturday morning to get some dry weather running. This limited practice time in the dry, which meant that teams barely had enough time to get the aerodynamic set up of the cars right, clearly showed later on in Qualifying. Red Bull's Mark Webber was unable to take part in Qualifying when he crashed in the closing moments of 3rd Practice and completely wrecked his car. Red Bull had to built an entirely new chassis for him which meant that the Australian had to sit out the rest of the afternoon. Webber started the race from the pit lane.

Things started badly for Toyota's Timo Glock as well as he failed to take part in the Friday practice sessions due to flu. Toyota's reserve driver Kamui Kobayashi filled in for Glock and did some laps in the wet on Friday. Although Glock was back in his car on Saturday, he had a massive crash in the second part of Qualifying Q2. Glock was on a fast lap when he went wide and straight into the barriers in the final turn, carrying a bit too much speed into the corner. The session was red-flagged as the on site medical team attended Glock in his car. It took a while for them to get him out of the car as a piece of debris from his car's front wing hit and injured his left leg. He was then taken to a nearby hospital by helicopter, where the doctors plastered his left leg and confirmed that the wound is only superficial and nothing serious. However, Glock was not fit enough to race meaning that Trulli was the only Toyota left running in Sunday's race.

That incident with Glock was not the only disruption in Qualifying though. In the first part of Qualifying Q1, Toro Rosso's Sebastian Buemi and McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen both spun and went off the track at Degner, the same place where Mark Webber had his crash earlier on in Practice. However, Buemi and Kovalainen were able to continue in that session. Then in the early part of Q2, the other Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari had a massive crash at Degner again, prompting the first red flag of the session. However the young Spaniard Alguersuari was ok. It was clear that the limited practice running and the lack of set up time meant that the drivers were trying perhaps a bit too hard, sometimes carrying too much speed through the faster Degner corners.

Then in Q3, Kovalainen went off at Degner again but had a massive crash this time. So the session was red flagged for the third time. Although Kovalainen was unhurt, the red flag meant that most of the cars had just enough time left to do only timed lap. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was lucky because he got a fast lap in before the red flag came out in Q3. Then after the red flag, in the dying moments of Q3, most of the other cars were going for their one and only hot lap. Right at that moment Toro Rosso's Sebastian Buemi went wide and crashed into the barriers in the very fast section of the 130R. The yellow flags were out meaning that no one was allowed to improve their sector times. However, since many of the cars had not set any times, some of them continued on to complete their fast lap despite the yellow flag. All these drivers were called in by the FIA Race Stewards afterwards for investigation. Later on in the evening, the Stewards decided to give the offending drivers a five place grid penalty each. That meant that Adrian Sutil, Rubens Barrichello, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso all started further down the grid than where they originally qualified in. Heikki Kovalainen got a five place grid penalty of his own after changing his gearbox. Sebastian Buemi got a five place grid penalty and a reprimand because of driving back to the pits with a damaged car after his crash, that potentially could endanger the safety of other drivers.

This meant that everyone was very confused about what the final starting grid would look like. Only after the FIA published the official starting grid on Sunday morning before the race could everyone be totally sure of their starting positions.

Sebastian Vettel had a very good start and held his line through the middle of the track to fend off the charging Hamilton going into the first corner, as Hamilton easily overtook Trulli off the line thanks to KERS and was pushing Vettel as well. Although once past the first corner, through the Esses and the middle sector Vettel started to pull away into the distance. The Red Bull's aerodynamic superiority on this track really started to show as in spite of KERS, Hamilton never had a chance to get anywhere near Vettel. The German immediately started setting fastest laps after fastest laps as he built a decent lead over the rest of the field. Throughout the race, Vettel kept his race lead and comfortably won it the end. It was a supreme drive from the young German to get his third victory of 2009.

Behind him, Hamilton and Trulli had a race long battle. As Hamilton overtook Trulli at the start due to KERS, he held his position for the first part of the race. Hamilton was still ahead after the first pit stop, but Trulli was on his tails all the time. Just before the second round of pit stops, Trulli set some personal best lap times which meant that when he made his second pit stop one lap later than Hamilton, he managed to come out of the pits just ahead of the Briton. The defending World Champion then had some problems with his KERS as well on top of having a slow getaway from his second pit stop, as the car went into neutral before going back into gear, and because of all that was not able to challenge Trulli for 2nd place.

BMW's Nick Heidfeld was on course to finish in 4th ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, but a brilliant middle stint from the Ferrari driver meant that he managed to get ahead of Heidfeld during the second round of pit stops. Raikkonen's strong 4th place finish mean that Ferrari still hold on to 3rd place in the Constructors' standings, albeit leading McLaren by just two points.

Another very important battle was betweent the BrawnGP duo of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button. Barrichello started in 6th ahead of Button in 10th, but Button was much faster during the race as Barrichello struggled to get the right balance in his car. In spite of having a poor start and losing a place to Kubica off the line, Button drove very well in the second part of the race to eventually finish in 8th place just behind Barrichello.

All the drivers who finished in the points had a two-stop strategy for the race. However, 5th place finisher Nico Rosberg had a long first stint after starting from 7th. With just about 8 laps to go before the end of the race, Jaime Alguersuari of Toro Rosso spun and crashed into the barriers on the 130R. This forced the safety car to come out. Rosberg made his second and last pit stop just as the safety car came out on the track. By then, all the other drivers had already made their last pit stops which is why Rosberg was in a hurry to make a short and quick pit stop under the safety car and rejoin the race. BrawnGP complained to the Stewards after the race that Rosberg failed to slow down sufficiently during this safety car period, when the yellow flags were out, and he raced back to the pits while building an advantage over Button and Barrichello. However, the Race Stewards found afterwards that Rosberg did follow his lap delta (a small screen on the steering wheel that tells the drivers the minimum sector times they have to maintain during a Safety car period; this is to ensure that drivers do not use the Safety Car as a way to gain an advantage over opponents) correctly. It was discovered that Rosberg's lap delta was hindered with a low fuel message (as he was due in for his pit stop on that lap anyway) which meant that he could not know exactly how much he needed to slow down, but he still took sufficient action to follow the yellow flag rules. Hence no action was taken on that incident.

So with just two races to go before the end of the season, today's result means that the Drivers' Championship remains wide open. Jenson Button now has a 14 point lead over Barrichello, who is a further 2 points ahead of Sebastian Vettel. Both Barrichello and Vettel remain optimistic on their title chances, as any mistakes from Button in the next two races could easily hand the title over to either one of them. As far as the Constructors' title goes, BrawnGP needs to score just 1 more point to wrap it up although Red Bull say they are not going to give it away that easily.

I said after the Singapore Grand Prix that although Vettel mathematically remains in the title hunt, realistically his chances are next to impossible. This weekend proved that it is never over until it is over, and if Vettel can win both the next two races and Button faulters, he could still possibly win the title this year and become the second ever German to win a Formula 1 Driver's World Championship. The first ever German to win the World Championship was of course Michael Schumacher, and Vettel has never tried to hide the fact that he sees the legendary seven times World Champion as his idol.

In two weeks' time, we are off to Interlagos where the Brazilian Grand Prix will possibly have Button wrap up the title or will take the World Championship down to the wire for the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi. Until Sao Paolo, drive safely everyone!

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