Vettel charges to Suzuka success
4 October 2009
Sebastian Vettel fully embodied the mascot of his Red Bull team by stampeding to a dominant victory in the Japanese Grand Prix, keeping both world championship battles alive with two races still to run on the 2009 Formula One calendar.
Having been fastest in every phase of qualifying, the German - who started the weekend 25 points adrift of championship leader Jenson Button with 30 to play for - carried his speed into the 53-lap race, pulling out enough of an advantage over his pursuers to be able to return to the lead after both of his pit-stops. He appeared to be headed for a crushing win until the intervention of a late safety car, which slashed his lead with just ten laps remaining.
Despite the presence of KERS-enabled Lewis Hamilton on row two, Vettel made the perfect start to lead into turn one, and was never headed thereafter. Hamilton's bid for the lead was thwarted by second-place starter Jarno Trulli, who initially managed to block the McLaren man's advance before succumbing to the inevitable. While the Italian then had to contend with Nick Heidfeld, however, Hamilton found it tougher to close the gap to the fleeing Red Bull as Vettel pulled out an early gap.
Further back, Jenson Button stuttered as he went for second, allowing Heikki Kovalainen to pass him for tenth, adding to the existing problem of having the more heavily-fuelled Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica promoted ahead of him by Saturday's post-qualifying penalties. Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, had held on to fifth spot, with Rubens Barrichello and Adrian Sutil filling the remaining top ten places.
Button quickly followed Kovalainen past Kubica to ease his worries, but found it harder to catch the McLaren, particularly when Kovalainen also put Sutil between them. Confident that he may be able to deal with the Finn if the slippery Force India wasn't there, the Briton tried to keep in touch until Sutil made his expected early stop, but found the handling of his Brawn not to his liking.
Once again, however, Button's luck while struggling held firm, as Sutil's lap 13 move on the McLaren at the chicane attracted a stiff response from Kovalainen that resulted in both of them tangling, allowing the Brawn free passage into eighth spot. Blame for the incident appeared to lie with the Finn who, far from ceding the corner to the marginally ahead Force India, bounced off the kerbs and collected it.
At the front, the order appeared pretty static, but the monotony was interrupted when Hamilton headed for the pits on lap 15. An 8.9secs stop returned him to the fray in seventh, and Trulli was unable to overturn the gap when he produced a near identical performance. Vettel, meanwhile, came in two laps after the Toyota, was stationary for nearly four seconds longer - as the Red Bull team played it safe instead of releasing him into the path of Heidfeld's BMW Sauber - and still had enough in hand to rejoin in the lead.
In the midst of the leaders stopping, Button made his call - the timing of which had been determined before the stewards wielded Saturday's red pen over the grid order - dropping to 14th behind a handful of longer runners, but carrying the same improved pace with which he had ended his opening stint.
Approaching half distance, the order was skewed by the presence of late-stoppers Rosberg, Kovalainen and Kubica in second, sixth and seventh but, when they finally made the call for fuel and tyres - surprising many by adopting two-stop strategies when one had been anticipated - normality was restored, with Vettel out front from Hamilton, Trulli, Heidfeld, Raikkonen and Barrichello - the top six unchanged from the opening lap - with Rosberg just ahead of Button and both Kubica and Kovalainen behind the Briton.
Already out by that stage was qualifying 'villain' Sebastien Buemi, whose Toro Rosso lost its clutch on lap eleven, while Mark Webber's dismal weekend had continued with three pit-stops in the opening five laps to address a loose headrest and then a puncture, leaving the Australian a lap down on the field.
The first move among the top six came from Raikkonen, on form again after recent performances despite having had confirmation that he was the spare part at Ferrari for 2010. The Finn's pace, urged on by his engineer, proved comfortably enough to leap-frog Heidfeld as the second stops commenced, and served as a precursor to an even more significant change as Hamilton and Trulli pitted within two laps of each other.
The McLaren was in first, with Hamilton already complaining of a glitch with his KERS system that had potentially denied him the opportunity to increase the gap back to his Italian rival. What happened after he had taken on his final load of fuel and fresh rubber, however, appeared from on-board footage to have more to do with him possibly selecting the neutral button instead of deactivating the pit-lane speed limiter. The resulting cough at pit exit was sufficient to allow Trulli, whose stop was timed 0.1secs longer, to emerge narrowly ahead of the reigning world champion who, without KERS, was powerless to respond.
Two of the three remaining championship contenders pitted on the same lap, with Vettel - who had more than half a minute in hand - surviving another brief delay to rejoin at the head of the pack for a second time. Button, meanwhile, took on the soft option tyre and rejoined close enough behind Kubica to be able to reclaim eighth place when the Pole pitted next time around. The Briton, however, had not been able to eat away enough of his team-mate's advantage to take seventh, with the two Brawns set to run line astern to the finish.
Everything, however, was to be given added spice, as Jaime Alguersuari spun the remaining Toro Rosso entering 130R, bouncing across the inside kerb and hitting the tyre wall hard enough to dislodge a section of it. With the winder Spaniard slow to extricate himself, and the marshals needing cover to begin repairs, the safety car was called for, erasing Vettel's 16-second lead over Trulli, and bringing Kubica and Fernando Alonso right back on to the tail of the Brawns.
The pace remained under Bernd Maylander's control for fully five laps, in which time Rosberg made his second and final pit-stop. There was consternation from those around the German on track, however, with claims that he had exceeded the stipulated target time for pace car laps - and there was evidence to back up the allegations, with the Williams pulling away from both Brawns and emerging ahead of Heidfeld after his stop. Being F1, however, potential sanction remained unknown well after the race had finished.
With no significant moves over the remaining four laps - despite Kubica getting to close to Button for the Brawn team's comfort - the order remained unchanged, with Vettel retaining enough pace to cross the line 4.8secs clear of Trulli, who had a further second and more in hand over Hamilton.
The German's ten points were just enough to deny Brawn the opportunity of taking the constructors crown with two races to run - although the Brackley team needs just half a point from either Brazil or Abu Dhabi - and closed his personal deficit to Button to 16 points with 20 on the table. Hamilton, remember, threw away a 17-point advantage over the final two rounds in his debut season... and the outcome of the Rosberg investigation could yet alter the perspective once again.