What a race!
As you’ll see from the brief qualifying report, Saturday’s ‘action’, (or rather lack of), created an unwanted black cloud over Sunday’s race. However, from the very first corner it was clear that Suzuka wouldn’t disappoint when it really mattered.
The McLaren team finished every practice session on top in Japan, and many thought that the new ‘Suzuka rear wing’ was responsible for the injection of speed. Whatever the reason, the practice results seemed to promise a great show for qualifying.
It was such a shame, then, to be so disappointed by a qualifying session that promised so much.
Now, I’ve argued against the new Pirelli tyres since the beginning of the season, I have always felt that the fact they degrade so quickly is a negative point.
First, drivers seem powerless to defend cars on newer tyres, this means that although we get passes, I always feel completely short changed because clearly the man on older tyres has no chance of holding off the newer set behind him.
Secondly, and far more worryingly for F1 as a spectacle, as the season has developed, qualifying has fast become a farce in which most of the teams run as little as is humanly possible to preserve the damn tyres for race day.
This strategy was extremely evident in Suzuka and not only did it lead to a very poor show, it arguably also gifted Vettel his pole position.
Strangely, for the first time since the birth of the ‘slow six’, Qualifying one was arguably the best session of the day. Although there was very limited running, there were at least 24 cars in the fight. Of course the new teams all fell by the wayside in Q1, but we were treated to a shock when Nico Rosberg was forced out with hydraulic failure.
I am not even going to bother to report on Q2 because it was pathetic! All I’ll say is that with three minutes left only one car was on track! (Of course the slower cars came out in the end and jostled for the last three places in Q3 up for grabs, but Q2 was appalling).
Qualifying three was ‘saved’ only after more controversy provided by Lewis Hamilton. Only six cars set times in the ‘tense finale’. From the first runs it looked as if we were about to see a colossal battle between Sebastian Vettel and the McLarens.
In the end, everyone left it far too late. Vettel just beat Button, and Hamilton was caught daydreaming trying to find space. The 2008 World Champion got caught up in traffic and failed to cross the line in time to set a final lap, thus effectively gifting Vettel his Pole position.
Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Kamui Kobayashi, Michael Schumacher, Bruno Senna, Vitaly Petrov, Adrian Sutil, Paul Di Resta, Rubens Barrichello, Pastor Maldonado, Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari, Sergio Perez, Heikki Kovalainen, Jarno Trulli, Jerome D'Ambrosio, Timo Glock, Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Rosberg, Vitantonio Liuzzi
As the lights went out, Jenson Button clearly got off to a better start, but Sebastian Vettel held on. He did this by almost forcing all of Button’s McLaren off and onto the grass. The incident was later investigated and dropped, but Button had lost second place to Lewis Hamilton in the fight and was clearly angry with Vettel’s tactics.
Here were the standings after a close first few laps:
Vettel, Hamilton, Button, Massa, Alonso, Webber, Schumacher, Di Resta, Petrov, Sutil, Buemi, Kobayashi, Senna, Maldinado, Barrichello, Kovalainen, Trulli, Perez, Alguersuari, Rosberg, D’Ambrosio, Glock, Ricciardo, Liuzzi
The first few laps were close, but I must admit I was slightly disappointed when the Ferraris and Williams team mates swapped positions so easily thanks to DRS. Barrichello passing Maldinado proved to make little difference on the result, but Alonso’s pass on Massa may well have provided some of the fantastic show that followed.
By lap nine, Button was all over his team mate as it looked at first as if Hamilton had simply failed to manage his tyres well enough. Button passed his team mate who quickly pitted. We later learnt that Hamilton had suffered a small right rear puncture.
Clearly it wasn’t just Hamilton struggling with tyres, as soon after the McLaren pitted Vettel was forced to stop. After pitting on lap 10, Vettel seemed to pull away from Button, but crucially the McLaren man seemed to manage his tyres so much better.
Vettel had to pit again just 10 laps later and it was at this point that Button was able to take the lead and control of the race.
By lap 22, there was a really tantalising battle developing between F1 2011’s greatest enemies.
Massa had caught right up to Hamilton through turns 13, 14 and 15. By turn 16 Massa was ready to make a move, and he did. Hamilton seemed to be daydreaming as the pair touched yet again!
When compared to their earlier battles, this was an extremely minor incident. The stewards investigated and found nothing, and frankly neither man’s race was negatively affected by the touch.
The safety car was brought out when the debris caused by the crash couldn’t be removed safely, but, to be honest, this didn’t really have any affect on the race.
After the short safety car period, the front runners all took to the pits again, but whilst Vettel was released into traffic down in P11, Button and Alonso found themselves out in clear air.
If Vettel was upset to concede victory to Button, I can’t begin to imagine what he thought when Alonso exited the pits ahead of him! Commentators had almost laughed at Vettel when he warned of Ferrari before the race began, but Alonso had shown yet again his class by putting in crucial laps when he needed to.
The points paying positions by lap 40 were as follows:
Schumacher (yet to pit), Button, Alonso, Vettel, Webber, Rosberg, Hamilton, Massa, Petrov, Kobayashi
Though the top three positions didn’t change again after Schumacher pitted on lap 42, the final few laps were arguably some of the closest all race!
Vettel was clearly determined to at least finish second and pushed Alonso for a good five or six laps, but even better, the Ferrari man could really sense the whiff of victory.
Vettel was eventually told to calm down and settle for P3 but, with just five laps left, Alonso began to push Button to the extreme!
Both drivers raced phenomenally. At first the pass looked inevitable, as Button seemed to be struggling with fuel, but the 2009 world champion’s calm intelligence shone through when it became clear that he was saving some speed for the vital last couple of laps.
A truly excellent conclusion then to a close Grand Prix. I must say, though Vettel was crowned the youngest double world champion, the show was completely stolen by superb performances from two former world champions.
Sebastian Vettel, then, is a deserving 2011 world champion, but you can’t help but imagine how the standings would look if the top guys were in more evenly matched cars.
There was a lovely moment when Alonso leaned into Vettel’s cockpit after the two had parked. Alonso knows how it feels and it was great to see him acting in such a sporting manor.
There was some slight tension before the podium when Vettel and Button exchanged words about the start of the race and Button’s tactics on the re-start after the safety car, but overall the atmosphere was fantastic.
I know a lot of people may loose interest now the drivers’ title is concluded, but I must stress the battle for second is supreme.
Let’s face it, if we’re treated to racing like this in the final few Grand Prix, it’s worth a watch just for the fun.
Drivers’ Championship Top Three:
Sebastian Vettel: 324 (champion)
Jenson Button: 210
Fernando Alonso 202
Constructors’ Championship Top Three:
Red Bull: 518
1 Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes
2 Fernando Alonso Ferrari
3 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault
4 Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault
5 Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes
6 Michael Schumacher Mercedes GP
7 Felipe Massa Ferrari
8 Sergio Perez Sauber
9 Vitaly Petrov Renault
10 Nico Rosberg Mercedes GP
11 Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes
12 Paul Di Resta Force India-Mercedes
13 Kamui Kobayashi Sauber
14 Pastor Maldonado Williams-Cosworth
15 Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari
16 Bruno Senna 9 Renault
17 Rubens Barrichello Williams-Cosworth
18 Heikki Kovalainen Lotus-Renault
19 Jarno Trulli Lotus-Renault
20 Timo Glock Virgin-Cosworth
21 Jerome d'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth
22 Daniel Ricciardo Hispania-Cosworth
23 Vitantonio Liuzzi Hispania-Cosworth
RET Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari