Vettel wins big in Japan after Alonso's first lap exit
7 October 2012
If Ferrari were counting on careful management of Fernando Alonso's big points lead to secure their driver the 2012 F1 world championship, then those plans were blown apart by a first lap disaster in the Japanese Grand Prix. The first corner proved a dramatic one with far reaching consequences for the title battle as Alonso was sent spinning off the track and into early retirement, effectively wiping out his lead over Sebastian Vettel in the title battle.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the sheer margin and superiority that Vettel enjoyed for the rest of the afternoon at Suzuka: not since his two championship-winning seasons has the Red Bull looked quite this emphatically in command. Their rivals will be hoping that this is a one-off event, or else the 2012 season might just have taken a decisive turn in Vettel favour.
The crucial incident happened as the cars launched away from the grid and streamed through the long right-hander, which gradually narrowed and packed the cars closer together - forcing them to either yield or risk the consequences. Alonso thought he was safe on the outside line, but Kimi Raikkonen was tucked in right behind him and the more Alonso drifted out, the closer the two came to making contact: when the inevitable touch finally happened it was Alonso who was spun off. He tried to save the car but ended up spearing back onto the track in the middle of the oncoming traffic, causing all sorts of chaos as drivers reacted to avoid the stricken Ferrari.
Inevitably, there were knock-on collisions: Romain Grosjean was slow to realise what was happening and ended up running into the back of Mark Webber's car, turning the Red Bull perpendicular to where it needed to go; Nico Rosberg also got a hefty punt at the rear from Bruno Senna.
The day was done for both Alonso and Rosberg, while the other three - Webber, Grosjean and Senna - were able to get back underway and limped back to the pits for repairs as the safety car marshalled the rest of the field. Grosjean and Senna both got further penalties for causing collisions - Grosjean's recent past making it a full ten-second stop-go penalty in his case, the heaviest in-race sanction available to the race officials. The stewards didn't frown on Raikkonen, however, and seemed to view that inciting incident as a plain racing accident - although Alonso understandably bitterly criticised the Finn for not lifting when as far as the Spaniard was concerned it was always clear there was no room for the Lotus.
The safety car wasn't out for long - it didn't even give Webber enough time to catch up to the pack after his enforced pit stop - and it was a fascinating running order as the action resumed. Vettel was still in the lead and immediately pulling away, but now local hero Kamui Kobayashi was up into second. Jenson Button had benefited the most from the initial mayhem and took the green flag in third place ahead of another big gainer, Alonso's Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa who was followed in turn by Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez.
Other than Vettel, the fastest cars on track were the two Saubers. While Kobayashi couldn't stay with the race leader, he was certainly comfortably faster than Button behind; and Sergio Perez similarly showed his superiority on Button's team mate Lewis Hamilton with a wild move into the turn 11 hairpin on lap 7 that somehow paid off, leaving Hamilton doubtless fuming at being shown up by his incoming 2013 replacement in the McLaren seat.
All the teams seemed happy with tyre wear over the first laps, some even managing to extend their first stints before finally starting the first cycle of pit stops from lap 15 starting with Button, Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg. The majority of the other teams had to react quickly over the ensuing laps. The big gainer was Felipe Massa, who came in at the same time as Vettel three laps later and leap-frogged both Kobayashi and Button to slip into second place, albeit a long way behind the race leader who was already in a world of his own at Suzuka.
The second stint quickly proved to not be a happy one for McLaren, with Button struggling with gear and brake issues although still managing to set some of the fastest lap times, and Hamilton dejectedly complaining about his harder compound tyres going off just six laps in. Hamilton did at least have the satisfaction of having got back in front of Sergio Perez during the pit stops, and to then see the Sauber sail off into the gravel when Perez tried a repeat of his earlier ambush of the McLaren and got completely out of shape in the run down to the hairpin.
While Vettel's lead was now stretching out toward 10s, there was still plenty of battles for position back down the rest of the field as the early scrambled running order continued to try to sort itself back to something more like normality. Things were further complicated by the handful of drivers trying for off-sync pit strategies by running longer. The most dramatic different take on pit stops came from Mark Webber, who after pitting at the end of lap 1 was now attempting to make it the rest of the way on just one more at just over midrace distance on lap 28.
Most of the leaders were finding it difficult to eke out their tyres and started looking toward adjusting their strategies: Raikkonen was in for his next stop early on lap 31, and Kobayashi, Hamilton and Hulkenberg reacted to the threat by coming in next time around. Hamilton ended up exiting pit lane just as Raikkonen streaked past the pit exit, but Lewis kept his foot down and even though it seemed that the Finn had pulled off the pass for fifth place he was unable to run flat-out on the outside line and had to lift a fraction. That shot Hamilton back into the front position after all, but it had been a matter of millimetres as to who would win that encounter.
Still coping with his assorted technical glitches - which were at least not getting any worse as the race wore on - Jenson Button was less successful in trying to run longer before his own second stop in an effort to jump Kamui Kobayashi. In the end it wasn't even close and Button resumed well behind the Sauber, meaning that the plan was now to hope that Kobayashi's tyres would fall off the proverbial cliff in the remaining laps and enable Button to use his fresher rubber to catch and challenge the Japanse driver for position at the end.
Vettel's lead over Massa was now approaching the 20s mark, as the world champion continued to put in fastest laps despite a nervous Red Bull pit wall telling him to be careful. Kobayashi was four seconds back from the Ferrari, putting him three seconds ahead of a surging Button in fourth place who was in turn pulling away from Hamilton in fifth. The rest of the top ten was formed up by Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Maldonado (heading for his first points for the first time since Barcelona), the recovering Mark Webber - and an impressively solid run from Daniel Ricciardo in the final points position. Although the Toro Rosso was soon under intense pressure from the sole remaining Mercedes of Michael Schumacher, the Australian continued to defended valiantly and held on to the position through to the chequered flag.
The main focus of the final stage of the race was on whether Button could close that gap down to Kobayashi for the final podium position: Button closed to just outside a second off the back of the Sauber with six laps to go, but Kobayashi then responded with everything he had to maintain the margin and succeeded in preventing Button getting the boost from the DRS activation until it was too late to make any difference.
Outside the top ten, it had been a bad day for Paul di Resta who unlike his Force India team mate lost places in the confusion at the start and never recovered from there, finally finishing behind Schumacher in 12th place just ahead of Jean-Eric Vergne. There were late race retirements in the garage for Narain Karthikeyan, Charles Pic (engine) and Romain Grosjean, while Vitaly Petrov got a drive-thru penalty on lap 49 for ignoring earlier blue flags ordering him to make way for faster cars approaching from behind.
In terms of the race win, there had only ever been one man in it - Sebastian Vettel, the first driver to take back-to-back wins in 2012 and in in so doing maximising the opportunity that had presented itself to close the gap on Alonso to just 4pts in the championship battle. If this is a sign that Red Bull are back on form, then Ferrari will need an urgent package of upgrades if they're to stay in with a chance of the title or else Suzuka might prove to be the beginning of the end of the 2012 championship.
Vettel's win might have been a foregone conclusion almost from the moment he clinched pole position so emphatically on Saturday, but surely no one had been expecting to see Felipe Massa as Ferrari's sole representative on the podium. And even though he'd started from third on the grid, few had believed that Kamui Kobayashi would be able to hold on in that position through to the chequered flag to claim his first F1 podium - to the delight of the home crowd who chanted his name as they waited for the drivers to come out for the post-race presentations. Just as Vettel's win has major implications for the title fight, so Massa and Kobayashi's success might have a major effect on how the 2013 driver line-up shakes out. Have they both just effectively secured extensions with their current teams as a result of the podiums today?
With so much now left up in the air after Suzuka, it's just as well we only have seven days to wait for the next instalment of the 2012 F1 drama in Korea.