Sebastian Vettel scored his fourth victory at Suzuka in five years to move within touching distance of the world championship.
But this was no straightforward lights-to-flag win. As well as the anticipated threat from pole sitting team mate Mark Webber he also had to repeal an unexpected attack from another rival.
Grosjean gets a flier
With two Red Bulls occupying the front row of the grid and Webber ahead for the first time this year, pre-race speculation centred on how Red Bull would manage the inevitable fight for victory between two mutually hostile drivers.
As Romain Grosjean headed to the grid he was preoccupied by thoughts of his collision with Webber at the start of the same race last year. Thoughts of taking on the Red Bulls were far from his mind.
“We never thought we would be able to challenge the Red Bulls,” he said after the chequered flag had fallen. That had all changed within seconds of the red lights going out.
“When I dropped the clutch I said ‘woah, woah, that?óÔé¼Ôäós a good one, come on, come on go for it!'” was how Grosjean described his rocket ship getaway from the second row of the grid. While the Red Bulls dawdled the black-and-gold E21 dodged past them on the right and shot into an unlikely lead.
Lewis Hamilton had also got away better than the Red Bulls from third place, but in trying to squeeze between them had made slight contact with Vettel’s front wing. That punctured his tyre, causing damage to the rear of the car which later proved terminal.
There were anxious faces on the Red Bull pit wall as they scrutinised images of Vettel’s wing and data from the car. Back in Milton Keynes Adrian Newey pored over the same material. The team gave the thumbs-up.
The marshals quickly recovered the wrecks of Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde’s cars following their first-lap tangle without the need for the Safety Car. Webber gave Grosjean a few laps of attention with his DRS before dropping out of range on lap six.
Vettel didn’t even bother pressing the cars ahead at this point, allowing the usual two-second gap to open up quickly: “We took into account that we lap a second a lap slower for two or three laps compared to them in order to get the range in the next stint and then tried to extend that to really put them under pressure towards the end.”
He wasn’t under threat from Nico Rosberg behind. Next were the two Ferraris, Felipe Massa leading Fernando Alonso.
This was very much against the expressed wishes of the team who wanted Massa to pull over as he had done three races ago at Monza. But that was before his contract with the team was terminated, and Massa was now making good on his promise to put his interests before his team mate’s.
“Multi function strategy A now please” urged race engineer Rob Smedley, the last two words a dead giveaway that Massa was not complying. Sauber took advantage of the situation, bringing Nico Hulkenberg in early enough to claim an advantage over both Ferraris.
Hulkenberg said it was a “brilliant call by the team to pit early [and], undercut the Ferraris”.
“And then we found ourselves again in front of them they’d be really upset and angry about that because again I think they lost a lot of time behind us because really they were quicker than us.”
Strategy switch at Red Bull
“Mark was going through the tyre quicker than Sebastian,” confirmed Christian Horner after the race. “We had to pit because effectively he’d run out of tyres on that stint which then puts the next two stints under pressure.”
Grosjean covered off Webber on the next lap. He switched to the hard tyres which Lotus had struggled with during practice after missing some running on Friday when Kimi Raikkonen had spun. “The pace dropped a little bit,” said Grosjean.
Vettel locked up as he reached the pit lane speed limit lane when he made his first pit stop on lap 14. Like Grosjean, this was to be his first of two pit stops.
Just 11 laps later, Webber was back in for the second time as the team opted to switch him to a three-stop strategy. “I was a little bit surprised,” he said.
“I asked was it the right thing to do because I felt we could get to the lap we were looking to get to.” It dropped him immediately into clear air as problems for cars behind gave Red Bull the chance to put their cars on differing strategies and maximise the pressure they were applying to Grosjean.
Alonso makes gains
Before Massa served his penalty Alonso had forcibly taken his position, capitalising on a momentary hold-up as they passed Daniel Ricciardo, who ran a long first stint on hard tyres.
Raikkonen also took the opportunity to demote Esteban Gutierrez who had shot forward from 14th on the grid to run in the points places.
It took until lap 46 for Alonso to find a way past the increasingly tyre-troubled Hulkenberg. “It was a bit of a deja vu from Korea,” said the Sauber driver. “I could see Alonso fighting and biting into his steering wheel and trying everything.” He eventually got a run in the DRS zone and reclaimed the place.
Having cosseted his tyres for 37 laps Vettel cashed in his chips with 16 laps to go, pitting for an unused set of hard tyres that would see him through till the end of the race. His tyres were eight laps younger than Grosjean’s and he immediately went on maximum attack, hounding the Lotus into the chicane.
Accelerating towards the start line Vettel had the DRS advantage and Grosjean couldn’t move across quickly enough to stop the Red Bull drawing alongside and past. But that only put Vettel into second place. His team mate was up ahead, until two laps later he pitted for the last time and came out four seconds behind Grosjean.
“I knew that in the last stint, once we got past Romain, I knew that Mark was the biggest threat from behind,” said Vettel. “He was on fresher tyres and pretty quick.”
While he tried to leave something in his tyres to fight with if he needed it, Vettel fumed at the lapped traffic, most of all Perez who he urged race director Charlie Whiting to show blue flags to. “Charlie get him out the way that is not fair,” pleaded Vettel.
Despite the advantage of softer tyres than Grosjean, and ones that were most likely several laps newer, Webber spent half-a-dozen laps staring at the Lotus’s rear wing. “At the end of the race, the DRS is not as effective because you?óÔé¼Ôäóre on the [rev] limiter,” he explained.
But while Perez had vexed Vettel, he inadvertently helped out Webber. Grosjean went deep at the hairpin as he caught the McLaren on lap 50. They passed the silver car in the right-hander approaching Spoon and Webber drew alongside Grosjean, forcing him off-line. The Red Bull tracked the Lotus down the hill and through the chicane, and finally Webber was close enough and quick enough to take the DRS advantage and complete the pass.
Webber was generous in his assessment of a rival who he’d labelled a “first-lap nutcase” after being taken out by him on the first lap 12 months ago. “The backmarkers didn?óÔé¼Ôäót work out for Romain, it?óÔé¼Ôäós a bit of a nightmare when you catch so many guys,” he said. “They all want the DRS, they all want to fight and in the end, it was beneficial for me to pounce when Romain got not the best run with the backmarkers, which was no fault of his own.”
Despite having finally passed Grosjean, Webber’s hopes of catching Vettel were over. The other RB9 was nine seconds up the road and the race was almost over.
Rosberg had little sympathy for the consequences that had for Perez’s race: “It was very good that he punctured his tyre and I had nothing,” he said. “It worked out perfectly, it got him out of the way.”
But perhaps the hardest racing was going on between two team mates. Pastor Maldonado lunged down the inside of Valtteri Bottas on the final lap, barging the other Williams aside to claim an inconsequential 16th place.
Bottas made his displeasure clear afterwards but given the miserable year the team has endured deputy team principal Claire Williams has far bigger things to worry about. “We allow our drivers to race and that’s what they were doing on that last lap,” she stated afterwards.
The chicane was the place to watch in the closing laps as Raikkonen executed a superb move on the outside of Hulkenberg for fifth place. Hulkenberg having fallen to sixth, Gutierrez joined him in the points for the first time this year.
Rosberg had to settle for eighth ahead of Jenson Button, who persevered in a duel with Massa.
Vettel set to clinch title
In the second half of 2013 Vettel has turned a successful season into crushing, 2011-style dominance. Suzuka was his fifth win in a row – a standard achieved only by an elite few drivers the sport’s 64-year history.
An even greater feat – a fourth consecutive world championship – now beckons. It will take a surprise result in India to delay it any further.
But Vettel’s affection for Suzuka runs deep and in the immediate aftermath of it was this he wanted to savour – even more so than the prospect of another title.
“I?óÔé¼Ôäóve won now four times here in Suzuka, which is incredible,” he said. “I?óÔé¼Ôäóm really looking forward to next year, to be honest.”
“I think we?óÔé¼Ôäóve proven in the last couple of years that we never give up. I think we?óÔé¼Ôäóve won one or two championships because of that. Obviously this year it looks very good at this stage ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ but it?óÔé¼Ôäós not over before it?óÔé¼Ôäós over.”
2013 Japanese Grand Prix
- Grosjean voted Driver of the Weekend for first time
- Webber still has doubts over Japanese GP strategy
- Japanese Grand Prix gets average rating for 2013
- 2013 Japanese Grand Prix team radio transcript
- 2013 Japanese Grand Prix fans’ video gallery
Images ?é?® Red Bull/Getty, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Lotus/LAT, Sauber