Review: Japanese Grand Prix

If Adrian Newey was suddenly thrust into a job as a track designer, and asked to design a circuit that was ideal for the Red Bull RB6, the chances are that the resultant layout would be very similar to that of Suzuka. Suppose also that Sebastian Vettel was asked which track on the calendar would bring the best out of him, it is likely he would also pick Suzuka. Very rarely can a circuit be classed as a ‘natural’ beauty, but the Japanese track on the edge of the Pacific Ocean ebbs and flows like the tides, and manages to integrate a variety of challenges and corners with such elegance that it is the benchmark to which all other circuits should be designed. The Red Bull is optimised to overcome the challenges of Suzuka far better than any of the other cars on the grid, and it can be seen in the sculpted side-pods that echo the flowing ‘esses’ in the first sector of the lap. Such a perfect combination of Vettel, Red Bull and Suzuka meant that many in the F1 world predicted the race would be a walk-in-the-park, and save for the actions of one exuberant rookie taking part in his first home-grand prix, it was just that.

Vettel set the tone for the weekend as he claimed the fastest times in both FP1 and FP2. It was easy to guess that it would be a somewhat trying weekend for McLaren when Hamilton ran his fragile MP4-25 into the wall at Degner 2 halfway through the session. Button, perhaps wanting to prove a point to those who see Lewis as the better driver, flew off at the same corner later in the session, but managed to keep the car out of the barriers. FP3 was a wash-out, with Algeursuari and Glock the only two drivers to set a time. The other teams busied themselves racing paper-boats in the pit-lane.

Because of the torrential rain, qualifying was moved to Sunday morning. Massa was the surprise exit in Q2, and Button claimed an impressive 4th on the hard-compound tyres, deciding to gamble on his race strategy. Webber kept Vettel honest, but in the end had to settle for 2nd, a few hundredths off. Hamilton’s gearbox change on Saturday morning meant his 3rd place became 8th. Kubica proved his qualities again, qualifying in 4th (elevated to 3rd) at a circuit that provides a true test of driver skill.

The race started dramatically, with 4 cars out by the first corner. Massa, perhaps a little over-eager to make up for his poor qualifying, took to the grass at turn 1, which spat him out right into the path of Luizzi’s Force India, ending both drivers races. Petrov’s Renault started like a bullet, he scythed past several cars but eventually ran out of room and luck as he collided with Hulkenberg’s Williams.

The safety-car came out and picked up the pack. Kubica had managed to snatch 2nd place at the start, and looked to be the spanner that Christian Horner preyed wouldn’t get in the works. His prayers were answered in the oddest possible way, as Kubica’s right-rear wheel decided to explore the Suzuka scenery, and detached itself from the car at the hairpin. Kubica’s retirement elevated Webber into 2nd, followed by Fernando Alonso.

The story at the front quickly petered-out, the Red Bulls having a clear advantage that neither Alonso or the McLarens could cope with. Button tried to make his tyre strategy work, but ultimately could not put in the quick laps at the crucial time. He emerged from his late stop behind Hamilton, but was elevated back to 4th following Lewis’ gearbox problems.

Alonso had a fairly quiet race, hustled by Hamilton for a short while before the Brit lost 3rd gear, he never looked like making an error; the Spaniard knowing it was best to ‘stick’ rather than ‘twist’, and wait for Korea and Brazil where the Red Bull advantage would be less.

The real story of the afternoon, which was to prevent many in the Western Hemisphere from going back to bed, were the exploits of Kamui Kobayashi. The young Japanese solidified his reputation as perhaps the most exciting driver in F1 with a string of gutsy overtaking moves. On his way to 7th place he passed Jaime Alguersuari, Adrian Sutil, Rubens Barrichello, Nick Heidfeld, Sebastian Buemi, and Alguersuari again. Kamikaze Kobayashi, as he shall now forever be known, proved to many that simple outlandishness goes a long way to being able to make the F1 cars of today overtake. At his favourite spot – the hairpin, Kobayashi perfected the art-form of ‘sending one up the inside’, each driver seemingly surprised by the audacity of the execution. The baying audience wanted more, and the dog-fight with Alguersuari in the second instance was yet more fuel for his reputation as a fiery racer.

On a sunny afternoon in Japan, Vettel reignited his championship charge. With the McLarens now seemingly falling back, Korea will be the defining race of Button and Hamilton’s season – nothing but victory will do at the last-chance saloon. The headline to take from Suzuka however is that a new star has been born in Japan, and this one looks like the real-deal.

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