Sunday 9 October 2011

Japanese GP Report: Seb and Jenson do what is required

Today was a day about keeping your side of the bargain. Going in, Jenson Button had to win with Sebastian Vettel coming nowhere to keep the World Drivers' Championship away from Vettel for at least another week. Jenson Button did win and in fine style, but Seb kept up his end of things comfortably, taking third place and 15 points, much more than the one he needed to be champion.

Sebastian Vettel sealed his
second World Championship today
Credit: Morio / CC
It's an impressive and deserved title for Vettel, he now joins the all-time greats as a double world champion, a back-to-back world champion, and the youngest ever on both counts (more on my thoughts on Vettel and his championship year, published today, are here).

In terms of today, it was yet another impressive drive from Jenson, continuing his excellent recent form. It's his third win of the year, and his first in a dry race since Turkey 2009, almost two and a half years ago! It's strange, but definitely true, that his reputation in the sport is notably stronger now than even when he won his world title two years ago.

And he had to drive well to win today. He was victim of a Schumi-style chop from Vettel off the line, and his subsequent performance personified the 'don't get mad, get even' aphorism. He cleared team mate Hamilton, who'd passed him after Button had to lift off the throttle to avoid Vettel on the run to the first corner, when Hamilton sustained a slow puncture early on (continuing Lewis's annus horribilis). Jenson then set to the task of hunting Vettel down, and we had the unusual situation of the Seb's Bull not looking after their tyres well today, and having to pit sooner than those around them rather than reacting to whatever those behind did.

A tardy second pit stop and outlap for Seb put Button ahead, and it was a lead he never looked like relinquishing, pacing himself and reacting to any burgeoning challenge behind.

Jenson Button took the Japanese Grand Prix win
after another fine drive
Credit: Morio / CC
Button now looks well placed in the fight for second place in the championship table, with eight points on Alonso, 16 on Webber and 32 on Hamilton. His McLaren looks consistently competitive, and also appear to have made a stride here in Japan, a track that has been Red Bull country historically. And as mentioned Jenson is driving better than ever.

Another guy who's driving brilliantly at the moment is Fernando Alonso, and he once again outperformed his car to come second. He was able to leapfrog Vettel at the final stops, after Seb had to pit early for the harder tyre, was only 1.1 seconds adrift of Button at the end, having started fifth and in a car that in all probability wasn't a match for the McLaren or Red Bull. His late race charge to minimise the gap to Button and leave nothing to chance was vintage Fernando.

Fernando Alonso also leapfrogged Vettel, to finish second
Credit: / CC
But this was no cruise for points by Vettel to get over the line for the title and no more. He raced the whole way, and when he lost a place looked determined to win it back. There may even be a slight twinge of disappointment that he wasn't able to claim the championship in the style he's become accustomed, in other words by winning (third place is actually his second worst result of the season!). But winning his second title should be sufficient compensation.

To return to the business of his chop on Jenson at the start, it was unpleasant and a return to his tactics seen on occasion last year, that I personally thought and hoped he had he'd abandoned (and his claims post hoc that he 'didn't see Button' were a mite disingenuous). The stewards did investigate it, but there was no action, the stewards perhaps wary of the tricky precedent that a penalty would set in terms of policing moves at the start up and down the field. Still, Seb was lucky to get away with it, and a penalty may well have thrown a spanner into his attempts to win the title today.

Elsewhere, Webber had a strong run to finish fourth, recovering from sixth on the grid to only be eight seconds shy of the winner in the final analysis. He didn't even lose places off the start this time.

And Lewis Hamilton had a frustrating run, which kind of summed his season up. As mentioned, he had slow puncture early on, which lost him a couple of places and the earlier stop compromised his strategy. He continued to wear out his tyres fairly quickly, and for the nth time this year made contact with Felipe Massa, drifting onto Massa's line a similar way to with Kobayashi at Spa. Once again, the stewards investigated but took no action, which on the basis of what's been punished before possibly represented a reprieve for Lewis. After all this he finished fifth.

And a few worthy shout outs. First of all Michael Schumacher got in among the big three teams, finishing sixth, ahead of Massa and not far behind Lewis. I don't believe he's the driver he was, but it's perhaps not commented on enough that he's driven very respectably for most of this season.

It was a worthy performance from
Heikki Kovalainen and Lotus
Credit: Morio / CC
Sergio Perez did his party piece, employing a fewer stop strategy and claiming points for eighth place, shrugging off ill health (as they say in my homeland, out of the car he looked like death warmed up), and even set the second fastest lap of the race, marginally shy of Button's best. He's going the right way about it for claiming a Ferrari seat for 2013. And last but not least to Lotus, who performed admirably all weekend. Both cars finished on the lead lap for the first time ever (or for the first time since their return, depending on your view of the link to the new Lotus with the old!) and Heikki Kovalianen finished fewer than 14 seconds shy of Rubens Barrichello's Williams. Their objective of making the stride into midfield pack may be achieved sooner than we think.

But the big headlines of today were Button's brilliant win and Vettel's brilliant championship.

Race results

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