2013 Japanese Grand Prix report


From first-lap nutcase to startline hero… Romain Grosjean’s Japanese Grand Prix fortunes have changed beyond measure in the space of 12 months, but the Lotus driver was denied a shot at a maiden Formula 1 victory as he fought single-handedly against Red Bull’s two-pronged strategy. The result was familiar enough – Sebastian Vettel headlining a team one-two with his fifth consecutive victory – but this was a triumph borne of stealth, speed and tactical improvisation.

The Red Bulls made equally poor starts from the front row, allowing Lewis Hamilton to slice between them as Grosjean set off with the kind of vim that would have given him a fighting chance at Santa Pod. “When I dropped the clutch,” he said, “I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s a good one, come on, come on…’”

He did. The Lotus ran arrow-straight by the pit wall and was far enough ahead by Turn One for the Franco-Swiss to corner without compromise. Hamilton wasn’t so fortunate, his right rear Pirelli snagging Vettel’s front left wing. The Mercedes wobbled wide with a puncture and Hamilton hobbled back to the pits, although the car was sufficiently badly damaged to trigger his retirement after seven slowish laps. He wasn’t the only one in trouble: Giedo van der Garde and Jules Bianchi tangled, the Dutchman smiting the tyre wall and his rival ending a troubled weekend in the gravel.

Grosjean led throughout the opening stint, with Webber and Vettel holding a watching brief and Nico Rosberg holding fourth from Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, Nico Hülkenberg, Sergio Pérez, Esteban Gutiérrez and Jenson Button.

“That first stint was the race’s most critical aspect,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “Before the start we thought a two-stopper would be marginal. Mark put Grosjean under a lot of pressure towards the end of his first stint and had run out of rubber by the time he pitted on lap 11. That was too short for him to make a two-stop work, in our minds. As other cars pitted, and with Daniel Ricciardo staying out and holding up the rest of the field, some clear space opened up and Sebastian was able to try something different. Grosjean pitted to cover Mark and Seb was able to run quickly in clear air having conserved his tyres. By splitting strategies, we also put Lotus in a difficult position because they had to decide which car to cover. There was a bit of a chess game going on.”

Grosjean remained ahead of Webber during the second stint, the Australian stopping on lap 25 and the leader four laps later… at which stage Vettel took over at the front. Red Bull was expecting him to run until about lap 32, but he stayed out five longer before switching to a second set of Pirelli hards. He rejoined little more than two seconds behind Grosjean… and within three laps had moved ahead with one of his customarily decisive, fuss-free moves. If he’d lost time behind the Lotus it increased the risk of late-race vulnerability, but he didn’t.

Webber now assumed the lead, but dropped to third when he came in for scrubbed mediums on lap 42. “We’d agreed beforehand that the drivers would be free to race,” Horner said, “but that became immaterial when Mark was unable to pass Grosjean straight away.” By lap 46 he was right behind the Lotus and running a second or so more quickly than his team-mate, who was 6.5sec up the road with seven laps to go. Webber was unable to dislodge the Lotus, though – not least because he pressed his DRS button fractionally too early on one lap, so the flap failed to activate. “DRS doesn’t make all that much difference towards the end of a race,” he said, “because you’re on the limiter. I was also a bit low on rear wing.”
That enabled Grosjean to get better purchase out of the final corner, although looming traffic eventually tripped him sufficiently to enable Webber to pass at the start of the penultimate lap. By that stage, the result was already settled in Vettel’s favour, his 35th F1 victory, a ninth this season and a fifth on the trot.

“It wasn’t easy to make a two-stop work,” he said, “but the first stint was crucial.”

Horner also mentioned that the German had suffered front wing damage during his brush with Hamilton. “He lost a few points of downforce,” he said, “but then he adapted. He played a patient game today and was very smart in the way he handled the race, making his tyres last longer. And when the moment came to make a decisive pass, he did.”
As he invariably does.

Webber could take pride from a fine Suzuka swansong. “I thought a two-stop was achievable,” he said, “but Seb drove a good race and a three-stopper wasn’t ridiculous. It was a sensational race for me in my final F1 start in Japan – and it was nice to have fresh tyres on a bit more, which is always enjoyable around here. ”

Vettel’s win wasn’t quite enough to secure another world title, because Fernando Alonso took fourth to extend the battle until at least India – mathematically, at least.

The Spaniard was boxed behind Massa until lap 20 – not least because the Brazilian ignored an initial radio instruction to swap positions. “It didn’t make much difference,” Alonso said, “because fourth was the best I could have achieved today – even if I’d started from pole. The top three were much faster.”

Alonso also had to follow the excellent Hülkenberg for much of the afternoon, although he eventually nailed the Sauber with seven laps to go. Räikkönen subsequently did likewise, although the Finn’s progress was assisted by drive-through penalties for Massa (speeding in the pit lane) and Rosberg (unsafe release, which caused the incoming Sergio Pérez an anxious swerve).

Rosberg eventually took eighth, behind Gutierrez (a first points finish at the 15th attempt), while Massa rounded out the top 10 behind Button. The McLarens were never a factor – and a couple of slow tyre stops (the right rear on both cars) didn’t help.

Paul di Resta suffered as the consequence of a two-stopper, his long final stint causing him to slip to 11th before the end, while Max Chilton was 19th and final classified finisher for Marussia.

Afterwards, Horner was asked whether he was disappointed not to have clinched the world title. “Are we massively hacked off with a one-two?” he asked, a trifle nonplussed. “Not exactly. Operationally, I’d say this was one of our best races yet.”

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