Sunday, 13 October 2013

Japanese GP Report: Seb and his strategy get smart

Today's Japanese Grand Prix showed the value of the one about not judging a book by its cover. Yes - Sebastian Vettel won. Yes - it's his fifth win on the bounce. Yes - that now makes it seven wins from the last nine (and it'd be eight from nine but for a dud gearbox in Silverstone). But today it was different. Today was fine fare; today Seb really had to work for it.

Sebastian Vettel emerged triumphant once again
Photo: Octane Photography
Indeed, for a lot of the way it looked a lot like he wouldn't get the win at all, or even second place for that matter. From second on the grid Vettel's start wasn't the best. Fortunately for him, Webber's wasn't either, and it was left to the astonishing Romain Grosjean to lead from the off, followed by Webber and Vettel in that order. Lewis Hamilton would have been among them too, but for tagging his rear wheel on Seb's front wing on the way through, which resulted in a puncture and then his retirement not long after (and Seb was relieved to find out his wing wasn't damaged).

And so it stayed that way for a while, Grosjean-Webber-Vettel, evenly spaced and way ahead of the rest. From an early stage the Japanese Grand Prix was a game for three players. Just like last week, Grosjean was the only one who could challenge the Bulls, and unlike last week Webber - not impeded by a grid penalty - was right in the mix. Yet it wasn't at all clear what he or Seb could do to usurp the prodigious Frenchman.

At around mid-distance though the Red Bull pitwall got smart, and split the strategies of its two cars. Webber was switched to a three-stopper and pitted on lap 25, and as is the way immediately started to set stellar sector times on fresh tyres. This in effect boxed Grosjean into a corner: either he could pit himself - earlier than ideal - to cover Webber or stay out and take his chances with Seb. In the event he did sort of neither: pitting four laps after Mark emerging behind but hoping to make it to the end on those tyres. The pitwall call worked: it in a stroke made it a race between the two Red Bulls.

Mark Webber had to settle for second
Photo: Octane Photography
And Seb almost unnoticed swung it in his own favour in the next few laps, pressing on all the way to lap 37 before pitting - eight laps more than Grosjean - and lapping metronomically in the 1m 36.9s and 1m 37.0s to keep his time loss to Webber to a minimum, usually under a second a lap, despite much more wear in his boots. And then, after he finally did pit for the second and final time, Seb cleared Grosjean almost immediately upon catching him three laps later. The full significance of this didn't become clear until later.

As for all that we expected a Seb vs. Mark shoot out in the final laps, with Mark after his third stop closing in on his opposite number with fresher tyres, many had forgotten that Grosjean was still circulating, and would have to be cleared by Webber before he could get to Seb. And Webber took an interminable time it seemed, some six laps, to clear Grosjean (not helped by a skinny rear wing impacting traction into the DRS zone), by which time there was only two laps left and Seb was over the hills and far away. And indeed Seb took the flag; even in adversity it seems his attraction to first place when it matters borders on the magnetic.

There was some dark muttering during the race and afterwards that today's events were just the latest Red Bull wheeze to scupper Webber (not helped by Webber noting after the race that he didn't expect to three-stop until mid-race). I didn't see it that way: for me it was simply brilliant strategy which swung the race firmly in Red Bull's direction, on a day wherein it looked like they would miss out to the Enstone team. It's a reminder too that for all that we talk of Red Bull as an Adrian Newey one man band, it is a team that is excellent at everything, and that very much includes on strategy.

Romain Grosjean impressed us yet again
Photo: Octane Photography
And essentially, from what I saw, the crucial difference between Seb and Mark today was the time taken to get past Grosjean, as well as Seb's excellent pace on old tyres already mentioned. Christian Horner also claimed after the race that Webber's tendency to be harder on the tyres meant that Seb's strategy wouldn't have suited Mark, while Seb himself noted that even his first stint was longer too (by three laps over Webber). 'The two stop wasn't easy to do' Seb further stated. Frankly I think that those crying foul are to a large extent guilty of seeing only what they want to see.

As for the complaints that today's race was all about strategy, well I don't know how much consolation this will be but 'twas ever thus at Suzuka. Strategy has always been important here, as for all of the circuit's majesty it's never been easy to pass on it, going right back to the first time F1 cars raced here in 1987 (I recall that day Nelson Piquet sitting behind Ayrton Senna for just about the whole distance). And diverging strategies playing themselves out and converging at the end is exactly what the Pirelli formula is designed to create. It doesn't always get it wrong.

And Grosjean in completing the podium again showed us that he remains firmly on the road to redemption. Once again he displayed a confidence and assuredness with other cars around him when his behaviour in such circumstances used to be a serious flaw of his, as well as displayed the raw pace he's always had of course. Also, in one of those parallels that sport loves to serves up sometimes, it's exactly a year on from when it was open season on Grosjean at this very venue, thanks to his capacity for scrapes. 'It's much better than last year, for sure' noted a contented driver afterwards.

Seb could celebrate the victory in battle today, but the war is not his - yet. Alonso kept the white flag down by claiming fourth place, battling forward in that way of his, even though his base competitiveness never looked that great this weekend. Alonso - and everyone else for that matter - knows it's only a matter of time however until his rival is crowned. Seb just needs another 10 points (one fifth place) in four rounds to make title number four officially all his. You'll probably get better odds on the whole F1 grid being wiped out in a meteor shower before the season's out than on that not happening. Alonso nevertheless took some comfort by putting some space on others behind him in both tables, as well as claiming the all-time record for most points scored in the sport's history (yes, I know).

Esteban Gutierez made it a great day for Sauber,
with his first F1 points
Photo: Octane Photography
Next up was Kimi Raikkonen - who again ghosted forward on race day to finish fifth. He made the odd good move too, including around the outside of Nico Hulkenberg with a couple of laps left. But it's hard to get away from the fact that he finished a full 37 seconds after his team mate. And that makes it three weekends in a row that Grosjean's been plain quicker. Kimi it seems is missing something right now (though Grosjean's much improved form is a major part of it).

Ah yes, Nico Hulkenberg impressed us once again, this time by mixing it with Alonso and Raikkonen in fine style, being unflappable and quick, and eventually coming home sixth. And demonstrating the Sauber's - and his - improvement, Esteban Gutierrez scored his first F1 points with a fine seventh place.

All in, it felt like a race that the sport needed. Close, exciting and variable, and of course all done at a majestic venue. Despite the topline outcome, today showed us that F1 in its current state remains not the worst way to fill an hour and a half on a Sunday. Far from it.

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