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Japan 2012 - Sebastian's Suzuka surprise gives Red Bull the edge // Red Bull make significant strides as Ferrari begin to falter

Published by Christine

F1 Suzuka podium
Credit: Pirelli S.p.A.

The race weekend in Suzuka promised a lot - the championship is looking ever closer, the Red Bull looked fast enough to provide a decent battle, and there were enough drivers out of order to offer potential for action.

Unfortunately, Sunday wasn’t the spectacle we may have been hoping for but it certainly provided some interest and/or upset for the teams involved.

Red Bull

Where Fernando Alonso has been comfortably leading the championship with his consistent points finishes, Red Bull haven’t been resting on their hind legs and hoping things will get better. The latter half of the season suits their car much better than the previous few months, and Sebastian Vettel is in the prime position to take full advantage of that.

When the German is on form, and when the car beneath him is setup for the track, there is very little that can stop him - as we witnessed this weekend in Suzuka. A strong pole position turned into a lights to flag victory, with Vettel so untroubled, we barely saw him on our TV screens. He’s now moved to within four points of Alonso, and if this weekend is anything to go by, that tender lead will be crushed in the next few days.

Meanwhile, Mark Webber was having less good a time. He also qualified well, providing Red Bull with a locked out front row, but Webber was put out of both position and temper when Romain Grosjean crashed into the back of him. They both managed to continue to the end of the race, and Webber fought his way back up into the points to finish ninth. He wasn’t shy about telling the media how he felt afterwards though, the frustration of having a good car and not being able to do anything about it showing all too clearly.

Despite the frustrations, the team must be on a high, though, knowing that they should have some better weekends coming, and that they could have a tight grip on both championships over the next few weeks.

9/10

Ferrari

Fernando Alonso must have been just that little bit too desperate going into the first corner of the Japanese Grand Prix. Starting from sixth position with two speedy Red Bulls ahead of him, the Spaniard knew he had a lot of work to do and quite likely didn’t have the car beneath him to do the job. A first corner collision with Kimi Räikkönen caused a puncture that spun him off track and into the gravel - both drivers are blaming each other for the incident.

Where Alonso was out of the race on the first lap, his teammate Felipe Massa grabbed the opportunity to bask in the Ferrari spotlight. He started from tenth on the grid, and managed to move up into second place during the pit stops. Once there, he didn’t have the pace to move forward, but didn’t have to look back either, so that a podium position was all but guaranteed. It was great to see the Brazilian spraying the champagne again, and Ferrari will be glad of the points, but their slim lead in the driver standings has been slashed.

With just the four points in it now, and worrying news from the team about their wind tunnel not giving them the results they want, it’s easy to see the lead slipping away from them and being unattainable. Alonso remains positive that a bit of bad luck can go his way or in the direction of his nearest rivals too, but with five races to a go and a car that isn’t fast enough anymore, the rest of the season will be tricky.

7/10

Sauber

This weekend saw another podium for the Sauber team, and this time it came at the hands of Kamui Kobayashi - his first in Formula One, and at his home race as well. It all started with a great qualifying lap from the Japanese driver, where he managed to finish the session fourth and was then boosted up a grid slot by Button’s demotion. Teammate Sergio Pérez qualified sixth on the grid, showing the good pace Sauber can have when the circuit suits the car. They brought new upgrades to the car this weekend, and saw them working in style round Suzuka.

Unfortunately, Pérez let the side down during the race after a couple of scrappy overtaking moves with Lewis Hamilton. It worked once, but the second time was less successful and Pérez overshot the corner, hit the kerbs and spun off track and out of the race. He held his hand up to admit the mistake, but must have been disappointed seeing how fast the car could be.

It was left to Kobayashi to make the most of the good Saturday, and both he and Button provided most of the entertainment in the closing stages of the race. The McLaren was chasing down the Sauber but didn’t have enough pace and/or laps to make it work. The joy of the Sauber team for their fourth podium of the year is completely infectious, and the team are now optimistic they can move in on Mercedes, who are fifth in the championship. There are just 20 points between them, and five more races to make up the difference, with the team confident there is more to be learned from their upgrades.

7/10

McLaren

The McLaren team have had a lot of focus on them as they prepared for the race in Japan, with their new lineup for next season under intense scrutiny. Regardless of who is moving where and when, though, the concentration had to be on Japan. It got off to a difficult start with Lewis Hamilton completely uncomfortable in the car on Saturday, to the point where he had almost given up before the race began, and Jenson Button taking a five place grid drop for a gearbox change.

It must be demotivating to find the car not to your liking on a Saturday afternoon, when there is little you can do to change it. Hamilton started the race ninth, just behind his teammate who had qualified third. For both, the race was a bit brighter and they moved forward into the more significant points positions.

Button was part of the aforementioned excitement towards the end of the race, as he hustled Kamui Kobayashi for that final podium position. It was not to be, and the Brit was very gracious with congratulations to his fellow driver afterwards. Hamilton was less happy with the other Sauber driver, suggesting he tried to steer clear of the “crazy manoeuvre” because he has a championship to fight for and Pérez does not. Harsh but fair, and a double points finish for McLaren is the best they could hope for after a difficult weekend like that.

6/10

Lotus

Where we thought Romain Grosjean had learned a valuable lesson from his one race ban, we were proved very wrong on the first lap of this weekend’s race. It took roughly ten seconds for the French driver to brake far too late and crash into the back of Mark Webber, causing enough damage to be problematic to both, but not quite enough to be race-ending.

In explanation, he said he was busy trying to avoid a different accident and misjudged the speed to the car in front. He’s apologised to a very frustrated Webber, and presumably to the team as well, who have said the responsibility to change rests on his shoulders. A future career with the squad is slipping rapidly away, as the Lotus car is ever so close to being good enough to win, but not being pushed hard enough.

Kimi Räikkönen shouldered most of the burden for a good result, but he was struggling throughout the weekend with a dodgy KERS system. He started the race from seventh on the grid and moved up to sixth, which showed that the car can hold its own but doesn’t seem to have the forward momentum that we have previously seen. The team are busy fiddling with design elements, such as holding off on their version of double-DRS and looking at the popular Coandă exhaust, but so far it has been a lot of talk with few results to be seen on track. They have set their sights on Korea as the weekend for some significant upgrades, though, so it’s a case of watch this space.

5/10

Force India

The Force India boys seemed very unsettled in the car this weekend, as both Paul di Resta and Nico Hülkenberg had crashes during practice. Hülkenberg also found himself with a five place grid penalty for changing the gearbox, which meant he was faced with a tough starting position of 15th, to his teammate’s 11th.

The roles were reversed almost immediately the race began, however, as Di Resta had a terrible start thanks to a broken clutch. He dropped down to 15th on the first lap, leaving Hülkenberg to move forward and claim some points. Nico chased down Lewis Hamilton at least twice during the afternoon, and both times was heard to complain about the turbulent air when he got too close.

The car was fidgety for both drivers throughout the weekend, but Hülkenberg was happier with his overall and was glad to come away with some points from seventh place, particularly from his grid slot.

5/10

Williams

Bruno Senna waved like a madman when he was held up by Jean-Éric Vergne during qualifying on Saturday, and the Toro Rosso driver was given a three place grid drop for impeding. The penalty didn’t do much to help Senna, however, who started 16th on the grid and finished just two positions higher in 14th. It was a scrappy race, too, as the Brazilian collided with Nico Rosberg on the first lap and had to take his own drive through penalty as a result. A tricky weekend for him, but he felt the car was competitive underneath him.

Pastor Maldonado was having a much better time of it, after enduring race weekend after race weekend without points. Oddly, since Romain Grosjean’s one-race ban, Maldonado has been behaving much better, whilst Grosjean doesn’t seem to have learned a thing. Pastor lined up on the grid in 12th place, and benefitted from some other retirements and good strategy. He also felt the car was in good shape, but Suzuka proved a difficult track to overtake on. He crossed the finish line in eighth place, taking great pleasure in picking up his first points since the victory way back in May.

4/10

Toro Rosso

Although Vergne must have felt he did better in qualifying on Saturday, he still lined up on the grid in 19th place - not an unusual position for him to be in! Teammate Daniel Ricciardo was slightly faster, securing 14th place on the grid. Both drivers managed to move forward come race day, with Vergne finishing in 13th place. He felt the car was competitive but getting stuck behind Caterham-shaped traffic at the start of the race was a significant hindrance.

Meanwhile, it was Ricciardo who was proving to be the thorn in the side of other drivers, after using his defensive driving skills combined with the lack of overtaking opportunity at Suzuka to keep faster drivers behind him. The reward was tenth place, and a single point which moves him up to seven - one behind his teammate.

The points “haul” is providing encouragement to the team, with Franz Tost particularly happy they have managed to score in three of the last four races. As ever, if they could improve in qualifying, they might be able to make it a more frequent occurrence.

4/10

Mercedes

Mercedes are the other side of the news that has hogged the limelight in the past few weeks, and many eyes are on the outfit to see what kind of team Lewis Hamilton is stepping into. A weekend like the Japanese one will not be very encouraging to Hamilton fans.

Michael Schumacher qualified in 13th position with a time he felt could have been better had he not been held up by his soon-to-be-replacement. It made little difference, though, as there was a ten place grid drop waiting for the German after his escapades in Singapore. 23rd on the grid was always going to be difficult to recover from, and it is impressive in its own way that Schumacher made his way up to 11th - just missing out on some crucial points. As the man himself put it “unfortunate but better than expected.”

No matter where Schumacher finished, getting to the end of the race was more than Nico Rosberg was allowed to do. Bruno Senna crashed into the back of the Mercedes car, and the damage was too great to continue.

Mercedes will not let themselves be downhearted though, despite now being firmly in the sights of podium-finishers Sauber. They are working harder than ever on their double-DRS with the intention to bring it to Korea, for practice at least.

3/10

Caterham

At one point during the Japanese Grand Prix, Heikki Kovalainen was running up in ninth place, and there were small hopes that he might be able to sneak into a points position and counter Marussia’s 12th place finish a couple of races ago. It was not to be, of course, and the Caterham pair finished the race 15th and 16th, with Timo Glock sandwiched between them.

There are more and more signs that things aren’t going to be comfortable for the team, as Vitaly Petrov was outqualified by all but Narain Karthikeyan. He pins it on a mistake but it’s that kind of mistake that proves intensely costly for these teams that are fighting for everything at the rear of the grid.

After the race, Kovalainen said he felt the car was really well set up, and they managed the tyres exceptionally well. Petrov was given a drive-through for missing blue flags, and lost KERS after the first round of pit stops. A tale of two halves, for sure.

2/10

Marussia

Timo Glock bemoaned a lack of practice running after an engine problem on Saturday, but both Marussia managed to meet their target of qualifying ahead of a Caterham. Petrov said he made a mistake which is why he was right at the back, but seeing a Caterham behind must have given Pic a little bit of a boost.

Unfortunately, Pic was the one with an engine problem when it really counted, race day, and he had to retire. Glock was having a much happier time, feeling as though the car had good pace and keeping up behind Heikki Kovalainen. Bless the German for feeling proud of only being eight seconds away from their nearest rival at the end of the race. It’s a much more positive outlook at the team for the final half of the season, though, and with positivity may come more results.

3/10

HRT

Pedro de la Rosa put on a great showing on Saturday to outqualify both a Caterham and a Marussia. Perhaps there were other factors involved, Petrov suggesting he made his own mistakes, but it’s about what happens on the day, and the HRT driver felt a real breakthrough with the Saturday sessions.

The race was slightly less positive, as Pedro has to be another who remains optimistic simply by being close to the drivers in front, rather than actually hustling them for position. On the other side of the garage, Narain Karthikeyan qualified last, had a great start to the race to overtake Pic, but then had to retire. The team made the call as a precaution, after “a small issue with the bottom part” and are, of course, now eagerly looking ahead to Korea.

2/10

All content in the series Japan 2012