Japan 2007: Fuji opens floodgates for Lewis
30 September 2007
Lewis Hamilton took a huge stride towards becoming Formula One world champion in his rookie season after keeping his head where others lost theirs in treacherous conditions at Fuji Speedway.
The rain that blighted qualifying continued into raceday, causing concern for the organisers and stewards before the decision was taken to start the 67-lap event behind the safety car. Even then, however, the call was not met with universal approval, with radio traffic between drivers and teams suggesting that consensus was for the race to be halted - or even abandoned. FIA delegate Charlie Whiting stuck to his guns, however, and, for 19 laps, the field toured around behind Bernd Maylander's Mercedes.
The reduced pace did not mean that there was a dearth of intrigue, however, with Ferrari's Felipe Massa spinning off on lap two. The incident highlighted the fact that the Scuderia had been the only team to opt for Bridgestone's 'intermediate' wet weather tyres, despite Whiting having issued an edict insisting that all eleven operations had to utilise the 'extreme wet' option. Ferrari claimed not to have received the message - apparently the only organisation, broadcasters and so on included, not to do so - but was made to pit for the required rubber, dropping both Massa and Kimi Raikkonen to the tail of the snake.
Even with the deeper cut tyres fitted, the conditions proved tricky, with Raikkonen, pushing to catch up to the field, spinning at turn ten. The Finn resumed undamaged, but the rotation prompted further calls from concerned drivers, many of who reported not being able to see the safety light of the car in front because of the amount of spray being thrown up.
Maylander's prolonged presence on track then began to cause alarm bells among the tacticians, notably those at McLaren, which had its two cars out front, but on a far lighter fuel load than its rivals. Although Ferrari had demoted itself to the tail of the field - with only the late starting Tonio Liuzzi further back - a lengthy safety car involvement threatened to drop McLaren out of the pound seats if Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were forced to refuel while the rest of the field continued to tour around at reduced pace.
Ferrari even moved to cover such a scenario by pitting both Raikkonen and Massa for another top-off of fuel on laps 14 and 15 respectively - coincidentally putting the Finn ahead should the race be called off - while others, notably Liuzzi, Sakon Yamamoto and Alex Wurz all followed suit in anticipation of a surprise result.
The first suggestion that 'racing' may be allowed to break out came when Liuzzi was allowed, under 2007 safety car rules, to unlap himself, the Italian having gone a lap down when he opted to pit before the start to change to the wet set-up spare car. When the Toro Rosso then produced a 'flying' in respectable time, Whiting decided that conditions were not as dangerous as initially considered and called the field to prepare for a rolling start at the end of lap 19.
Hamilton tried all he could to unsettle his team-mate as they toured through the twisting final section, slowing and accelerating in an effort to throw Alonso off his stride before flooring it onto the main straight. The tactic appeared to work as the Briton enjoyed a three-tenth gap across the line, and was able to take full advantage of the clear view ahead of him to continue extending the cushion.
Further back, however, the increased spray caused problems, with third- and fourth-placed Nick Heidfeld and Jenson Button getting together under braking for turn one, the German being delayed and Button losing his front wing - something that he chose to ignore for the next couple of laps while holding on to fifth place.
An even bigger collision deeper in the pack threatened to bring the safety car back into play, but the marshals were able to clear the wreck of Wurz's Williams - which had gone out of control under braking and clattered into Massa's Ferrari - before the pack returned, allowing Hamilton to continue unhindered.
Massa, meanwhile, saw his race go from bad to worse as, despite surviving the clout from Wurz, he was summoned for a drive-thru' penalty, punishment for retaking his position after spinning under the safety car. Clearly fired up, the Brazilian skated off at turn one, again rejoining undamaged, but he wasn't quite as hot under the collar as local favourite Takuma Sato, who pitted for a new front wing but had his car catch light as the Super Aguri team carried out a routine fuel and tyre stop. Sato appeared unaware of the peril as he raced out of the pit, but the increasingly heavy rain provided suitable extinguishant and the Japanese was able to continue.
The leaders, split by just over two seconds, were lapping in the 1min 28s range by the time they were finally forced to pit for fuel and tyres, Alonso stopping first. The eleven-second stationary time confirmed that McLaren was now able to contemplate the switch to a single-stop strategy, but the world champion's exit proved slightly mistimed as he rejoined in the midst of the battle for fourth involving Giancarlo Fisichella, Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica and David Coulthard, miring the Spaniard in seventh.
Hamilton stopped next time around and, having pressed on once Alonso disappeared from his mirrors, got off a lot lighter as he pulled back into line ahead of the Renaults. The Briton was, however, only third on the road, having been passed by the unlikely duo of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber while he was serviced.
Vettel peeled off for his lone stop approaching half-distance on lap 32, allowing Webber to hit the front and rejoining not far behind Alonso, who had had a moment in the thick of battle and dropped to eighth behind Coulthard. When the recovering Heidfeld then passed Alonso on the road, the Spaniard fell into Vettel's clutches, but the pair got a little too close for comfort two laps later, when Toro Rosso appeared to tag McLaren, spinning Alonso around and allowing Raikkonen to move ahead of the Spaniard.
While the world champion's cause appeared to have taken a major hit, Hamilton was not having things all his own way and, if anything, received an even heftier clout from Kubica as the Pole sensed a chance to pass the now more heavily-fuelled Briton. Knocked into a spin, Hamilton ceded spots to both Kovalainen and his attacker - although Kubica would later receive a drive-thru' for his part in the altercation - and then saw Fisichella and Coulthard slip by as he attempted to regain his composure. However, all four cars ahead of him still had to stop, leaving the Mclaren safe in the knowledge that he should retake the lead once the various strategies played out.
It took until lap 41 for the order to return to something approaching normality, with Fisichella the last to relinquish the lead and Kubica serving his penalty, but the race - and the championship - took an even more decisive twist just one tour later.
Still with the serviced Webber and Vettel between himself and his team-mate, Alonso had been pressing on as the conditions worsened, although his right sidepod was clearly carrying the scars of contact with the young German. On lap 42, however, the pace became too much as the world champion lost it exiting turn five at around 140mph, slamming into the wall before coming to rest in the middle of the track. Fortunately, the rest of the field missed the wheel-less McLaren, but Alonso's day - and possibly his championship hopes - were done.
With debris scattered over a wide area, the safety car was called for and the field again packed up behind Hamilton. Remarkably, Alonso had been only the second retirement of the race, joining Wurz, suggesting that the stewards' decision to go racing had been the right one - even if the drivers still largely disagreed. The casualty list was about to get bigger, however, starting while the pack was still running at controlled speed.
Some two laps before the decision was taken to resume, Webber's car speared out of second place and into the wall. At first glance it appeared that the Australian - who had been running faster than Hamilton at the time of Alonso's off - had lost it while warming his tyres, but subsequent replays showed that Vettel had been at fault, slamming into the back of the Red Bull Racing entry as both attempted to keep temperatures up. The German accepted the blame, but hinted that he had been caught out by Hamilton's extreme accelerating and braking behind the safety car rather than by his own lack of awareness of Webber's position.
The double retirement - the tearful Vettel's left front corner was too badly damaged to continue any further than the Toro Rosso pit - allowed Kovalainen back up into second, with Massa - despite three pit-calls - third from Coulthard, Fisichella, Heidfeld and Raikkonen. Nico Rosberg, Ralf Schumacher and Anthony Davidson would all swell the list of those failing to go the distance before lap 60, but the race was now on for points over the remaining laps.
A key milestone was passed on lap 51, when 75 per cent of the race was completed, ensuring that the top eight would score full - rather than half - points, but Hamilton was already easing away from those behind, leaving Kovalainen to come under pressure from Massa and Raikkonen to begin making his way through the field.
Ferrari's Finn was clearly not about to settle for a lowly points positions, particularly when there was a world championship to remain a part of and, having disposed of Fisichella, began lining up Coulthard. A first move at turn five saw the scarlet car run out of road, but Raikkonen made a repeat stick on lap 57, hanging on around the outside to demote the Scot to fifth.
The move was key for it allowed Raikkonen to slot in behind team-mate Massa, whose own title chances were fading despite being holding a potential podium spot. Whether or not his tyres needed replacing, Massa appeared on pit-lane for a fresh set of wets and a touch of fuel with nine laps remaining, allowing Raikkonen to maximise his afternoon's reward.
The Finn was still not satisfied, however, and, having closed the gap to Kovalainen, began searching for a way around the Renault. The pair ran nose-to-tail for several laps, Raikkonen holding onto third despite a couple of trips through the asphalt run-off areas and even finding a way through into second for a couple of corners, only for Kovalainen to demote him again.
Just as it appeared that the order had been settled, however, the lower half of the top eight began its own reshuffle, with Heidfeld slowing and Rubens Barrichello, who had moved into the final scoring spot, requiring a late splash-and-dash that cost him a couple of positions. Their demise allowed Kubica and Liuzzi - who had started a lap down remember - to lay claim to points, the Italian opening both his and STR's account for the year.
Massa, too, wasn't done and, having rejoined behind Kubica, set about trying to dethrone the Pole, their battle going wheel-to-wheel into the last lap. Twice and more, the pair swapped places, going beyond the grass verges on occasion, before Massa got the nod at the final corner. Two tenths split the pair at the flag, but neither appeared aggrieved, shaking hands in parc ferme.
The show of emotion proved that Formula One could be hard and fair, something that the McLaren pair are finding hard to reconcile as their title fight intensified. With Hamilton winning and Alonso failing to score in Japan, however, the situation looks a lot more cut-and-dried heading to Shanghai, the Briton enjoying a twelve-point gap with just 20 points left on offer.
Although Raikkonen remains in the frame, the Finn 17 points adrift, all Hamilton has to do is finish within a point of his rival in China to claim the crown in his first season. The pressure that had been being applied appears to have lifted.