30 September 2007
Japan 2007: Fuji opens floodgates for Lewis.
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.
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