Jules Bianchi was a victim of a horrible confluence of circumstances. There are lessons to be learned from his horrific accident at Dunlop Curve that brought the race to an end nine laps short of its allocated distance. But we should be careful about blame.
The fact that the race was held despite doubts the previous day about whether it could go ahead is irrelevant. Conditions were nowhere near as bad as feared, the rain associated with the approaching Typhoon Phanfone was heavy but acceptable for a safety car start – and by the time the race proper got underway the track was ready for intermediate tyres and the rain had pretty much stopped.
Thirty-odd laps later as, first, Adrian Sutil and – a lap later – Bianchi lost control, the rain had returned and the Marussia’s intermediate tyres were 17 laps old. The piece of track where they each went off, the crest of an uphill curve, is notoriously treacherous in the wet. Both were downforce-light cars on worn inters in increasing rain cresting the rise. “It was very marginal there,” said Valtteri Bottas, “because just outside the groove there was a lot of water, visibility wasn’t good because it was getting dark and if you got just a little bit off line you could suddenly find no grip; you have to lift and even lifting off could cause you problems.”
Spinning by getting out the groove on a wet track is just a normal hazard of racing. There’s a gravel trap and tyre barrier there to catch you if you get it wrong. But that take-it-for-granted safety feature wasn’t there for poor Jules. He will have seen the double yellow flags and the flashing lights, he will have slowed, as required, by the regulation. Sutil, who saw it all, reckoned the Marussia simply aquaplaned, just as he had done. But instead of the gravel and tyre barrier that had cushioned Sutil’s crash, Bianchi hit the mobile crane that was removing the Sauber – and the Marussia partly submarined beneath it.
No-one was doing anything wrong, everyone – drivers, track marshals, recovery driver, race officials – was doing exactly what they were supposed to be in this situation. You might question why the organisers had not started the race earlier, knowing that heavy rain was on the way, but there was no pressing safety reason to do so; F1 cars race in the rain, conditions can make that tricky, but not outside the accepted parameters of the sport.
But moving on from blame and onto lessons, it is surely a bad idea to mix open cockpit cars with rescue vehicles. Perhaps there should henceforth be a policy of an obligatory safety car before any rescue vehicle can enter the track – though even that may not be practical.
The safety car and shortly subsequent race-ending red flag brought Lewis Hamilton out of the zone he’d been in ever since passing team-mate Nico Rosberg for the lead on lap 29 before then pulling away by around a second per lap. It was a drive reminiscent of his Silverstone 2008 performance and it extended his championship lead to 10 points. No-one else was in the same race, not even the Red Bulls, though their wet weather set up had allowed Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo to scythe past the two Williams and the McLaren of a starring Jenson Button to take third and fourth.
Rosberg had secured a straightforward pole in the dry of Saturday, a couple of tenths faster than Hamilton who reckoned he was never quite feeling it and that his team-mate had been amazingly fast. Hamilton had taken off the front-left corner earlier that morning, getting onto the artificial grass through the fast turn one. Rosberg was mighty fast through the middle sector – the section from Degner through the hairpin and Spoon – and that’s where he did the damage over his team-mate.
Lewis was still in contention to snatch pole coming into the last section of his final lap and desperately launched the car over the chicane kerbs before then just a little too hard on the power accelerating into the final corner, the resultant snap of oversteer losing him any remaining chance.
Valtteri Bottas, third quickest, was revelling in the new-found rear end grip of the Williams FW36, found from a rear bodywork upgrade. It was working well enough that they needed to tune out understeer through the Esses. Getting within 0.6sec of a Mercedes around the fast sweeps of this place was very impressive. Team-mate Felipe Massa was 0.4sec adrift and a place behind, a couple of tenths up on Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.
Red Bull had committed fully to the expected wet race, running maximum rear wing. It meant the RB10 was not its usual balanced self and was slower than ever at the end of the straights. Ricciardo was 1.5sec adrift of pole, sixth fastest. But team-mate Vettel just could not get into the groove and was 0.4sec slower, back in ninth. Between the Red Bulls were the McLarens, Kevin Magnussen marginally faster than Button. Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari, running an old high-mileage power unit after his intended one had failed on Friday, rounded out the top 10.
The rain had been pretty steady all morning but right up to about 15 minutes before the 3.00pm start time the track actually looked raceable. A sudden increase in the rain’s intensity decided it; a safety car start. Off they all teetered, the spray intensity appalling. Marcus Ericsson – who’d been getting the Caterham around quickly all weekend so far – spun into the gravel trap out of the final turn but managed to get going again at the back.
One more part-lap and even this phase of the race was red flagged and the safety car brought the pack into the pitlane where they lined up in a single file queue behind. As the cars each passed the start/finish beam and registered a second lap, so a race could officially, according to the sporting regulations, be said to have taken place. What it also meant was now that the cars were no longer subjected to parc ferme conditions, they could be worked on – and have their ride heights raised to make them less prone to aquaplaning on their underbody planks. This happened while the heavy phase of the rainfall blew itself out.
Fifteen minutes or so later, the safety car led the pack back out on track, the rain having now abated. Fifth placed Fernando Alonso was only a couple of corners in when the Ferrari engine simply died. It was suspected water had somehow got into the electrics. He was out. Twenty-one sets of full wet tyres soon had the track looking driveable again, though the lack of visibility remained treacherous. “There’s something about the asphalt here that retains the water,” said Button. “It makes spray the limiting factor rather than lack of grip. By the time the spray has come down to an acceptable level it’s almost time to put inters on.”
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1h 51m 43.021s
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes + 9.1s
3 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull + 29.1s
4 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull + 38.8s
5 Jenson Button McLaren + 67.5s
6 Valtteri Bottas Williams + 113.7s
7 Felipe Massa Williams + 115.1s
8 Nico Hülkenberg Force India + 115.9s
9 Jean-Éric Vergne Toro Rosso + 127.6s
10 Sergio Pérez Force India + 1 lap
11 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso + 1 lap
12 Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari + 1 lap
13 Esteban Gutiérrez Sauber + 1 lap
14 Kevin Magnussen McLaren + 1 lap
15 Romain Grosjean Lotus + 1 lap
16 Pastor Maldonado Lotus + 1 lap
17 Marcus Ericsson Caterham + 1 lap
18 Max Chilton Marussia + 1 lap
19 Kamui Kobayashi Caterham + 1 lap
DNF Jules Bianchi Marussia 41 laps
DNF Adrian Sutil Sauber 40 laps
DNF Fernando Alonso Ferrari 2 laps
From the fifth lap drivers were beginning to suggest over the radio, for the benefit of the race director, that the race should get underway. But Charlie Whiting was playing it cautiously and Bernd Maylander’s Merc SLS remained circulating until lap nine when it finally peeled off.
Rosberg and Hamilton headed the accelerating pack past the pit straight grandstand, as Button immediately followed the safety car in for inters. His decisive call over the radio to the tyre choice question was about to buy him a bunch of places. Hamilton had been aggressively into Rosberg’s wake immediately and took a look at the inside into the first corner before thinking better of it. Vettel was keen to get by Magnussen and had a little look into the hairpin.
The Mercs were massively faster than anything else in these conditions, Rosberg’s first flyer five whole seconds quicker than the best non-Mercedes. Partly it was on account of the spray everyone else was dealing with, but only partly. Their extra downforce was tipping the balance heavily in their favour. Bottas and Massa in third and fourth were finding the downforce deficit of even the revised Williams still left them struggling in these conditions. “In the wet you’re in the corners for much longer,” observed Bottas.
Bottas headed for the pitlane two laps after Button had – and was followed by 11 others. All but the two Mercs and Bianchi’s Marussia were in the following lap. Button’s early stop had brought him up to third, albeit much more than a pitstop’s distance behind the two Mercs which stayed out on their wets. Button’s excellent pace on his inters had actually fooled those lap 11 pitters into stopping earlier than was ideal.
Those staying out the extra lap had the benefit of a significantly drier track on their warm tyres as they made their in-laps. This allowed Vettel to jump not only Magnussen but also team-mate Ricciardo to vault up to sixth while further back Hülkenberg had benefitted similarly over Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso and team-mate Sergio Pérez.
Rosberg was in for his inters on lap 13 and was underway again after 2.6sec. Hamilton, with a clear track for the first time and feeling that he was faster than Rosberg, sensed an opportunity and nailed an in-lap pace that was shaping up to be much faster than Nico‘s had been. But it was just a little too much, for he got out wide into Spoon corner, forced to get out onto the run-off area. Even with that error, he was still almost 1sec quicker – but the mistake probably prevented him from jumping into the lead and he rejoined still a couple of seconds behind. Rosberg was immediately complaining of “massive oversteer” and it looked very much like Hamilton could go faster if only he could get past.
The Mercedes’ pace advantage over everyone was not as great on the inters and the fact that Button was close to matching their times confirmed Rosberg to be struggling, as well as highlighting that Button’s great skills in these conditions are still fully intact. He was a long way clear of the Williams pair and pulling away from them at a great rate. The Williams were soon under attack from the Red Bulls and their wet weather rear wing settings, Vettel going down Massa’s inside into the hairpin and setting off after Bottas, while Ricciardo launched himself at Massa. He passed him on the next lap with a beautiful move around the outside of the right-hander at the top of the esses; even running his left-rear onto the wet painted kerb did not delay him.
Vettel passed Bottas on the outside approach to the hairpin and a lap later Ricciardo repeated his Massa move on Bottas. Now with clear space ahead, the Red Bulls became the fastest things on track and began cutting into Button’s big advantage over them. Magnussen had been forced to pit with an electrical problem, a stop to change the steering wheel curing it but leaving him a long way back.
The Red Bulls were still around half a minute behind the Mercs but were now lapping up to 1sec faster. Rosberg’s engineer enquired how hard he was pushing and got the reply, “flat out!” Hamilton was taking the odd look down into turn one, sometimes even overlapping his front wheels with Rosberg’s rears as they headed out of there and into the beginning of the esses. He was applying the pressure but Rosberg was soaking it up. “I had too much oversteer, but my settings were exactly the same as Lewis’s,” said Rosberg graciously later on, “so I think he was just doing a better job today.”
1 Lewis Hamilton 266
2 Nico Rosberg 256
3 Daniel Ricciardo 193
4 Sebastian Vettel 139
5 Fernando Alonso 133
6 Valtteri Bottas 130
7 Jenson Button 82
8 Nico Hülkenberg 76
9 Felipe Massa 71
10 Sergio Pérez 46
11 Kimi Räikkönen 45
12 Kevin Magnussen 39
13 Jean-Éric Vergne 21
14 Romain Grosjean 8
15 Daniil Kvyat 8
16 Jules Bianchi 2
17 Adrian Sutil 0
18 Marcus Ericsson 0
19 Pastor Maldonado 0
20 Esteban Gutiérrez 0
21 Max Chilton 0
22 Kamui Kobayashi 0
23 André Lotterer 0
On the 24th lap it was announced that DRS could now be used, as the track continued to dry out. Soon drivers would be beginning to drive off-line in places, using the damp there to keep the inters from overheating.
Hamilton came out of the final corner to begin the 26th lap hard on Rosberg’s tail and as they flashed past the line, Lewis’ DRS flap was open. Usually the driver doesn’t have to think about the flap closing, as it does so automatically as he stands on the brakes. But the unique layout of Suzuka’s turn one, with a very fast kink preceding the main part of the turn means that it has to be manually closed. Hamilton forgot and as he eased into the kink focussed on getting past Rosberg, the back twitched viciously and in correcting it Lewis was forced onto the run-off. He was soon right back on the leader’s tail though and things were beginning to get animated on the Mercedes pitwall.
Most of the bottom half of the pack had pitted for another set of inters by this time, the lower downforce of their cars causing them to wear through the rubber faster as they slid around. Hülkenberg had got himself onto the tail of the Williams pair but, finding no way past, made for the pits for fresh rubber. He was briefly the fastest guy on track as he rejoined and set about closing the gap to Massa his pitstop had created. The Williams pair stayed out much longer and though they rejoined behind Hülkenberg they were going faster on their much newer tyres.
At the end of the 28th lap Hamilton was still pressing Rosberg hard and the latter got an oversteer snap as he tried to get the power down through the final turn. Sensing his moment, Hamilton got onto the DRS button and tracked his team-mate in a ball of spray as Nico moved to cover the inside line. Remembering this time to close the DRS before the kink, Hamilton took to the outside and sat it out, turning across the sister Merc’s bows as they turned in to complete a decisive pass. He pulled out two seconds on him on the subsequent lap and almost the same on the next one. But he wasn’t the fastest man on track at this point – that was Ricciardo. He’d got a clear track once team-mate Vettel had pitted out of his way, Seb having worn through his inters faster than Daniel.
Ricciardo stayed out for another seven laps after Seb, closing down on Button’s third place all the while. JB pitted on lap 31, Ricciardo stayed out, trying to pull out the 22sec needed to clear the McLaren. Vettel meanwhile had been setting the track alight on his fresh rubber and Button was called in before it was too late. Unfortunately for Jenson, an electrical glitch like Magnussen’s earlier meant he had to have a steering wheel change, adding around 4sec to his stop. It was enough for Vettel to be comfortably past and gone by the time Button rejoined. Daniel’s tyres couldn’t quite last long enough to get him that crucial gap and he rejoined around 4sec behind the McLaren but lapping much faster.
Rosberg was in from second on lap 33, Hamilton pitting from the lead a couple of laps later, his gap over his team-mate around 5sec at this point. Both had some front wing angle taken in, to lessen the oversteer. In staying out after Hamilton had pitted, Ricciardo was briefly in the lead and the thought occurred to Mercedes that Red Bull may be trying to get their man through without stopping again. Hamilton was warned that he might need to pass Daniel on track. But no sooner had they said this than Ricciardo pitted, his tyres finished and the rain now beginning to fall again.
It was steady and insistent at this stage. In combination with the fading light it was not a welcome development. The hot inters meant there was still a dry-ish racing line, but outside of that groove was becoming increasingly wet. Massa, for one, was spooked by it and was screaming on the radio that there was too much water for racing to continue.
1 Mercedes-Benz 522
2 Red Bull-Renault 332
3 Williams-Mercedes 201
4 Ferrari 178
5 Force India-Mercedes 122
6 McLaren-Mercedes 121
7 Toro Rosso-Renault 29
8 Lotus-Renault 8
9 Marussia-Ferrari 2
10 Sauber-Ferrari 0
11 Caterham-Renault 0
Vettel ran out of grip at the top of the esses and took a shallow trip through the gravel allowing Button to get back on his tail, with Ricciardo in turn now all over the back of the McLaren. Seb proceeded to pull away from Jenson again as Ricciardo pressed home his attack. It seemed inevitable the Red Bull would pass and so McLaren and Jenson prepared to throw the dice again, coming in for a set of wets at the end of lap 42, losing only the place to Ricciardo – with Hülkenberg and Bottas a long way back.
Hamilton was happily in his groove, totally confident, the inters hanging on even in the rain with all that downforce. In fact, it had eased off again and when Vettel – his tyres again burned through – came in a couple of laps later, he had another set of inters fitted. This seemed to have lost him his third place to Ricciardo. But there was one twist yet to come.
Sutil had been struggling all race with the Sauber. Over a lap down, he was running behind Bianchi, having made an extra stop. On his 42nd lap (the race’s 43rd), he lost it at the top of the hill of Dunlop, skated through the gravel trap and into the tyre barriers. “Visibility was getting less and less,” he reported, “and this corner was a tricky one the whole way through. You couldn’t see where the wet patches were and that is why I lost the car and it really surprised me.”
Next time through, with the yellows waving, the yellow light flashing, Bianchi was caught out by the same water. “I think everyone knows this is one of the most tricky corners,” said Sutil. “and when it is getting late and the rain increases, let’s say when you have an accident there you should probably think about a safety car.”
As the safety car came out, most were assuming it was to clear Sutil’s car, for Bianchi’s was largely out of sight. Force India had just brought in Hülkenberg, running in fifth ahead of Bottas and Massa but on very old tyres. He rejoined behind them but there was a problem with the car and he brought it back in two laps later.
“Jules, are you OK?” they asked from the pit wall. Silence. Red flag, and with a whimper the Japanese Grand Prix came to a close. The results were backdated a lap, meaning Vettel’s stop didn’t count and he retained his third place behind the dominant Mercedes pair. Ricciardo could count himself unlucky in fourth, ahead of Button, Bottas, Massa, Hülkenberg (whose retirement at the end of the pitlane didn’t count), Vergne (a great drive from his penalised grid slot at back) and Pérez.
No-one was in the mood to celebrate. As teams set about de-rigging ahead of the forthcoming storm, news came through that Bianchi, though critical, was being operated on. A few hours later it was confirmed he was breathing on his own. There was at least hope.
Motor Sport is saddened to hear of the death of Andrea de Cesaris. We will be posting a feature in tribute later today