In his latest exclusive feature on Crash.net, David Tremayne - three time Guild of Motoring Writers Journalist of the Year Award winner and multi-award winning F1 author - takes a look back over the Japanese Grand Prix...
Will there ever be a Red Bull 1-2 that is completely devoid of some taint of controversy? As Sebastian Vettel took his fifth victory on the bounce, his ninth of the season and his 35th overall, Mark Webber let it be known that he felt that a mid-race change in his strategy had compromised his chances of winning his first grand prix in his final season.
What compromised Red Bull immediately, however, were relatively slow getaways for both Webber, on pole, and Vettel, alongside him. Lewis Hamilton must have been laughing as he speared between them, but that soon turned to chagrin because it was Romain Grosjean who made the best start from position four and as he came barrelling down the inside Vettel had to move left to give him room. That happened just as Webber was coming over to the right to try to protect himself, so Hamilton got squeezed and Vettel's left front wing endplate slashed his right rear tyre.
It turned out that Grosjean didn't quite have what it took to score the first French victory since Olivier Panis in Monaco in 1996, because his Lotus was better on the medium Pirelli tyre as he led early on than it would be on the hard later on. But he kept the initiative during the first pit stops, which were Webber on lap 11, himself on 12 and Vettel on 14. The second round saw Webber stop early again, on 25, and this time he jumped Grosjean who didn't stop until 29. But by going as long as lap 37, running in clean air and thus not compromising his tyres behind another car as Webber had been, the champion also got in position to challenge and pass Grosjean, which he did quickly and crucially on the 41st lap.
By this time Webber, to his surprise, had long been informed that he was three-stopping, and when he came in for the last time on lap 42 and took a set of mediums, he dropped to third. Crucially, it took him until the 52nd lap to get past Grosjean, who was driving beautifully, and thus he had to follow Vettel home by 7.1s.
He let it be known he was unhappy with the strategy, hinting darkly that something might be afoot in the 'helping Vettel' department; Red Bull's Christian Horner explained otherwise and said that the feeling had been that Webber's tyres had become marginal as he pushed Grosjean early on, hence his early stop, and that that, allied to Vettel's subsequent eight-lap stint in clean air, had been the factors that formed the decision-making. You choose.
Grosjean's performance set the seal on his rehabilitation, for once again the change in Pirelli tyre construction had suited him as much as it hadn't Kimi Raikkonen. As the Finn battled up in typically professional manner from tenth on the grid to fifth, Grosjean staked a very convincing claim to become Lotus's team leader next year. And their points haul usefully brought the team back into contention for the runner-up slot in the constructors' stakes, as Red Bull's success all but wrapped up their fourth consecutive teams' title.
The pickings for everyone else were slim. Fernando Alonso did another great job to haul an uncompetitive Ferrari into fourth place after a long battle with Nico Hulkenberg, which included having to play second fiddle for the first 20 laps when Felipe Massa ignored team orders on the eighth lap – “Multi-function Strategy A, now please,” his engineer Rob Smedley had been asked to relay to him. Eventually Alonso passed Massa on the straight, but though fourth maintained his mathematical chance of challenging Vettel, even the never-say-die Spaniard concedes that it is all over. The one good thing for Ferrari was that they stretched their lead over Mercedes to ten points. The latter's disastrous start with Hamilton, who soon retired with unseen aerodynamic damage to his car, was compounded on the twelfth lap. That was when they released Nico Rosberg into Sergio Perez's path, earning him a drive through that dropped him from fourth to twelfth and forced him into recovery mode. He was only eighth by the finish.
Once again, Hulkenberg starred for Sauber. For a long time, he ran fourth ahead of Alonso and Raikkonen but, as he ran out of rubber, they overtook on the 46th and 51st laps respectively. But sixth place for the German, and a great seventh and first points for team-mate Esteban Gutierrez, who held off Rosberg's increasing challenge to the flag, gave Peter Sauber a happy 70th birthday back home in Switzerland.
McLaren looked stronger in practice and qualifying, but Jenson Button rued a late set-up change on the grid which gave him massive understeer until the front wing was reset for his final stint, when he hacked back up to an honourable ninth ahead of Massa, whose race was further hampered by a drive-through for pit-lane speeding. But the best news for the Woking team is that they have prised aerodynamicist Peter Prodromou away from Red Bull, though he won't be able to join them for at least another six months.