Japanese GP 2011: full race report

Sebastian Vettel champion for the second time after finishing third

Jenson Button takes victory with strong pace throughout

Fernando Alonso second for Ferrari in race dominated by tyre wear

Sebastian Vettel today became the youngest double world champion in the history of the sport by finishing in third place in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. Sitting on pole for the start, Vettel lost out on the victory to a superb Jenson Button and to Fernando Alonso for second.

Vettel takes his place in the pantheon of sporting greats today and merits the 2011 title far more than any of his rivals. The margin of his superiority in the final tally has yet to be determined, but should form continue, his nearest rival will consider himself well and truly beaten. Vettel’s exploitation of the dominant Red Bull RB7 has been nothing short of comprehensive and his ability to crush opposition in a race weekend may yet mark him out amongst the greatest drivers ever.

Today was Button’s day too. Title-wise, the Englishman had no choice mathematically but to go for the win, but there was no real pressure on his shoulders, as Vettel’s success seemed an overwhelming probability. Rather, for Button, today was about sending a message to Japan, a country personally dear to him that has suffered so much in the past year. It was also about celebrating his new contract at McLaren and continuing the vein of form he has found of late. He had wasted no time, of course, yesterday, by setting his stall out and qualifying second.

Button wondered aloud on the grid as the minutes ticked away before the off – was his or polesitter Vettel’s side the better at Suzuka? The Englishman would be on the right side of the track which would become the inside for the sweeping right-hander at Turn One. Not for today the Senna determination to wipe Prost out – that would not do for Button. Dignity and realism would prevail.

Polite Japanese applause greeted the enthusiastic track announcement of each of the drivers – but special cheers were reserved for Kamui Kobayashi, who had qualified a very decent seventh for Sauber. Kobayashi’s dynamic style is much-admired in his homeland and he would be doing his level best to fulfil expectations today.

The other theme which could be relied on to provide interest was tyres. The Pirelli rubber had degraded rapidly throughout every session at this track with its heavy lateral loads – and wild predictions abounded through the paddock about how long it would last at race pace. Ten laps, was the received wisdom. Spectators would see early stops, then.

Tension grew as the cars departed on the parade lap. Suzuka is a beautiful place, with undulating dips and plunging, high speed bends. Bathed in afternoon sunshine, it would surely provide as entertaining a spectacle as it had always done.

They soon lined up on the grid and were held for only a short moment by Charlie Whiting. The red lights dimmed and disappeared – and Vettel had had a mediocre start. Button was on him as they went up the gears – but Vettel did not accept that the Englishman would pass him. He ushered him, at first gently but with rapidly increasing brutality, towards the verge on the right of the track.

Button, with nowhere to go and unwilling to touch Vettel’s side or wheels, had to yield. That let the fast-starting Hamilton past, who had only just been behind the scrapping pair at the front. In the cockpit, Button was fuming with Vettel. Within a lap he was on the radio – “he has got to get a penalty for that!” he stormed. Post-race, he would also confront Vettel – and faced with the German’s refusal to apologise, hint darkly that the next time there would be an accident.

That was all in the future, though, and in truth there was little justification for Button’s anger. Vettel was uncompromising, but much worse happens at sea. The stewards thought so, at least, and despite an eight lap musing period, declined to punish Vettel.

Meanwhile the race was sorting itself out and settling down. On lap 3 Vettel led from Hamilton and Button, Massa and Alonso, Webber, Michael Schumacher, Paul di Resta (who had made a characteristic charging start) and Adrian Sutil. Petrov and Buemi followed the two Force Indias but the pressure had told on Kamui Kobayashi – he had had a dire launch and was now 12th.

Vettel, as is his wont, was already piling in the quick tours. It increased his advantage exponentially over the field – Nico Rosberg, who of course had a day to forget yesterday, was already 25 seconds behind the leader. Rosberg, now in 18th, was reduced to battling the likes of Sergio Perez. They both looked basically quick, even at this early stage, and were two names definitely to keep an eye on, with their being effectively misplaced.

Overtaking began as soon as the DRS was enabled and moves came thick and fast. Barrichello’s move on Williams team mate Pastor Maldonado for 13th was far more akin to real racing than was Fernando Alonso’s on Felipe Massa for fourth. Soul-destroying it may not be for the Brazilian, but he is too often the proverbial infant, with Alonso in the role of sweetie snatcher.

Another unhappy man was Lewis Hamilton, who on lap 9 had a right rear puncture. Jenson Button was by in a flash at the back of the track and Hamilton limped agonisingly to the pits. It wasn’t all misery for Hamilton, though, because as had been foretold the pit stop window was about to open. Vettel was no exception. On the same lap as Hamilton suffered the deflation, Vettel complained that his rear tyres were shot, and accordingly pitted.

Button, Alonso and Webber, in that order, pitted at the end of lap 10. Jenson and Fernando left the pits together, hastening off into the sun somewhat closer together than when they had come in. Bearing down on them was Lewis Hamilton, for whom the whole situation had not turned out terribly. This left yet-to-pit Felipe Massa in the lead on lap 11.

But Massa was not about to conduct some kind of superhuman tyre-preserving feat. He too had to pit, and emerged to the sight of Sebastian Buemi parked in the gravel in the esses. During his stop, apparently, the Toro Rosso team had been in too much of a hurry properly to attach the Swiss’ right front tyre, and it wobbled, and pathetically fell off as he came to a halt. There would not be a Safety Car, mercifully.

On lap 16 the order was Vettel, Button, Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Webber, Schumacher, Petrov and Perez (both yet to visit the pits for the first time), Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta. The top six were running superbly close together, something like ten seconds covering them all. A very short period of time also covered the 12th-13th-14th-15th battle – a delicious scrap containing Maldonado, Alguersuari, Kobayashi and Barrichello. It was shaping up for fireworks, but on lap 17 the Japanese passed the Catalan and Maldonado pitted.

These tyres really weren’t surviving very long at all. Hamilton, obliged to be the first to stop, was already having difficulties with his, and the leader Vettel was haemorraghing time to the ever-smooth Jenson Button in second place. The gap was floating around a second when Vettel dived in on lap 19, with Red Bull aiming to sync his stop exactly with Mark Webber behind. It worked perfectly, or so it seemed. Button was to pit the next lap.

It appeared that Button could have run faster than he drove down the pitlane, but it was just an optical illusion. He was in his box in a flash, boots changed, and out – and ahead of the black-helmeted Vettel! The German’s out lap had not been severely slow, but maybe the Red Bull boys had had their minds on the approaching Webber when they executed their daring back-to-back stops.

Elsewhere it was lap 22 and Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa were renewing their acquaintance. The McLaren man, on the inside as they came to the final chicane, appeared not to see the luminous yellow of his new nemesis’ lid as Massa braked legitimately late intending to pass. Hamilton moved over and into Massa, which was unquestionably questionable. And unedifying. The only redeeming feature of it all was the enticing prospect of another post-race dust-up between the warring pair.

By lap 24 the gap between Button and Vettel had stabilised. Behind them it was Alonso, Webber, Massa, Schumacher, Hamilton (who pitted immediately after the contact with Massa) and di Resta. The Safety Car then came out for a short time to enable the marshals to clear a piece of Ferrari from the chicane. If the marshals of the world clubbed together and put all the debris they have collected this year from Lewis Hamilton-related incidents…

Replays now showed a bizarre collision between Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber at the Dunlop Curve, quite a whack that we thought must have damaged either or both of the cars. But no – they build ‘em strong in the Midlands, and the only unrelated fact was that Schumacher pitted under the Safety Car.

Lap 27 saw the action back under way. Jenson Button set about hitting his stride and clocked a series of supremely fast laps – each faster than the other – over lap 28, 29 and 30. This effort gave him more than a two second cushion over Vettel, who had no answer whatsoever, presumably because his tyres were reaching the end of their short little lives. Lewis Hamilton, Vettel’s erstwhile mate in that sense, didn’t seem so affected this time round. He was less than half a second behind Massa now and looking threatening.

Down the field there was an interesting fight over the final points-paying position. Vitaly Petrov occupied it on lap 29, but in close attendance and with designs on it were Adrian Sutil, an excellently recovered Nico Rosberg, and Kamui Kobayashi, who had more or less regained his mojo. By lap 31 Sutil and Rosberg were by Petrov, and Kobayashi could smell the Russian’s blood.

It was being remarked upon now, this idea of Red Bull being very hard on their tyres. Vettel was forced into the pits again on lap 34 with Webber following suit on lap 35. Hamilton went in on lap 36, the leader Button on lap 37. The only man with a sniff of the championship was comfortably ahead of the shoo-in winner now.

Vettel’s compulsory move to the harder compound was to have the effect that Alonso, who pitted four laps later, was able to jump him. It was mighty close, and Vettel was all over the back of the Spaniard as they came down the pit straight the next time round, but it was a done deal. As if in angry riposte, Vettel set the fastest lap.

On lap 39 the field was led by Michael Schumacher, something F1 has not seen since 2006. The great man, enjoying himself as he does these days, was yet to pit and was chased by the net leader Button, Alonso, Vettel, Webber, Rosberg, Hamilton (who had overtaken Massa sweetly and conclusively on lap 38), Massa, Petrov, Kobayashi, Maldonado, and Perez. Rosberg was effectively holding Hamilton and Massa up a bit for the benefit of Schumacher, who would presumably fit somewhere into that region. Elsewhere, no sooner had the order been noted than Perez clocked the fastest lap (!) and swept by Maldonado for tenth. This was characterful stuff from the Mexican, having one of his outstanding days.

The race was now entering its final stage. Vettel still looked like a man to whom a wrong had been done, and certainly not at all like a man who needed a mere trifling point. He buzzed like an angry wasp around Alonso, showing the world that he would have a go if it weren’t so inadvisable. He also gesticulated at a poor Virgin as he lapped it. The Red Bull head honchos must have been biting their nails and screaming down the radio at the man for his own good. By lap 43 he seemed to have accepted the fact that Alonso would come second. By lap 47 it was a done deal and Vettel had slowed. Webber, serene in fourth, was the target of a dark threat not to attack the championship wunderkind.

Schumacher had indeed slotted into sixth, the gap between Hamilton and Massa. This meant the order with ten laps to go was Button, Alonso, Vettel, Webber, Hamilton, Schumacher, Massa, Perez, Kobayashi, Sutil, di Resta, Petrov and Rosberg. But Adrian Sutil was not done yet, and in an audacious and brave move he drew alongside Kobayashi down the back straight and had him for ninth into the wonderful 130R left hander.

It wasn’t going quite as well for Paul di Resta in the sister Force India. His tyres had gone to pieces and he was passed by Petrov for 11th, who promptly backed him into the clutches of Rosberg, who then took him too. Another gutsy performance from the Scot would have less of a sheen now.

Meanwhile, at the front, Alonso had decided Button would not be allowed to cruise to victory. On lap 46 he had managed to cut the Englishman’s lead by a whopping 1.1 seconds, a feat which must have sent waves of consternation through the McLaren camp. By lap 49 the gap was down to just over two seconds, but the following time round it was hovering between 1.1 and 1.5 seconds depending on the sector. This was beginning to be within DRS range and, with four tours remaining, disquieting for Button’s fans.

Button needed, then, one last effort to repel the advancing Asturian. His final say was the fastest lap on lap 51 – a response which put a breathing space between him and his pursuer and which guaranteed him the win. He swept over the line jubilant and deserving, stopping just after the finish line.

The man two cars behind him, however, continued on the warm-down lap, which had become a lap of honour. Vettel’s hands were aloft and he cried once more in his helmet as the magnitude of what he had achieved began to sink in. He thanked his team, every one, as well he might, who have to wait for their moment in the sun with the Constructors’ title. But without a talent of his level, they would be far from assured success. And what glory he has brought them.

We doff our caps, then, to Sebastian Vettel – World Champion 2011.

PROVISIONAL RACE RESULTS

The Japanese Grand Prix
Suzuka, Japan;
53 laps; 307.573km;
Weather: Sunny.

Classified:

Pos Driver Team Time
1. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1h30:53.427
2. Alonso Ferrari + 1.160
3. Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 2.006
4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 8.071
5. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 24.268
6. Schumacher Mercedes + 27.120
7. Massa Ferrari + 28.240
8. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 39.377
9. Petrov Renault + 42.607
10. Rosberg Mercedes + 44.322
11. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 54.447
12. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1:02.326
13. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1:03.705
14. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:04.194
15. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 1:06.623
16. Senna Renault + 1:12.628
17. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1:14.191
18. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 1:27.824
19. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 1:36.140
20. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps
21. D’Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps
22. Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps
23. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps

Fastest lap: Button, 1:36.568

Not classified/retirements:

Driver Team On lap
Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 35

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