2012 Japanese Grand Prix sees some drivers make their points, one makes a huge 25 [spoilers]
Unlike the Singapore Grand Prix when the grid managed to make it through the first corner without colliding into one another – save for the two Caterhams kissing each other at the back – Suzuka's right-hand turn number one saw some heavy hitters getting hit heavily. The first one of them would be driving a Ferrari...
Alonso made a decent start from sixth and Kimi Räikkönen in the Lotus made a better start from seventh, pulling up on the outside of Alonso just after the start. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton made another one of his blistering starts from ninth and settled on the inside of Alonso, putting the drivers three abreast as they lined up the first corner. Hamilton and Alonso had been steadily moving to the left, to the outside of the track, Räikkönen getting both his left wheels on the grass as he tried to avoid contact with Alonso, but not easing off. Alonso drifted a little too far to port and punctured his left rear wheel on Räikkönen's wing, the Ferrari immediately spinning out of the race and coming to rest on the track. Alonso would later say he wasn't sure why the Finn didn't lift and give him some room, a rather strange question given that Räikkönen has proved himself nearly allergic to backing off. Save for some reshaped carbon fiber that didn't affect his driving, Räikkönen's race was uninterrupted.
Lotus pilot Romain Grosjean's black cloud then returned before the pack had got through turn two: Starting from fourth and trying to mark fifth place Sergio Perez in the Sauber between turns one and two, the French driver – banned from the Italian Grand Prix after his high-flying incident in the first corner at Belgium – plowed into the tail of Mark Weber's Red Bull. The Aussie, who had started second, was sent caroming into the infield grass but was able to continue.
The safety car emerged, slowing the drivers while Alsonso's Ferrari was collected from the track, and Weber nursed his car back to the pits to have repairs made. Grosjean was issued a 10-second stop-and-go penalty, rejoining the race at the back. Weber rejoined at the back but well after the safety car had returned to the pits, leaving him 20 seconds adrift of the last car.
Still at the first two corners, Bruno Senna in the Williams was trying to work his way around the fireworks and ended up plowing into Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes, ending Rosberg's race. The race stewards slapped Senna with a 10-second stop-and-go penalty 20 laps later.
At the very front, Red Bull has proved that it has got its RB8 working almost like it did in 2011, when Sebastian Vettel dominated the season. Pole-sitter Vettel led from beginning to end, winning the show by 20 seconds without having to scrap for it, his car working so well that he was setting fastest laps at the end of the race while his engineer implored him to slow down with warnings like "You've got a lot to lose." Red Bull is looking more like McLaren than McLaren this year, having recovered from a slow start to the season to having momentum and the car that everyone believes is the one to beat.
The rearrangement on the opening lap gave Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi, who started third, a promotion to second. He was followed by McLaren's Jensen Button and Ferrari's Felipe Massa, the Ferrari driver having made excellent progress from tenth on the starting grid. Button couldn't trouble Kobayashi, and Massa leapfrogged both of them when he stayed out a couple of laps longer before the first round of pit stops. That put him into second, with Kobayashi third and Button fourth, in a train that would run the same order all the way to the checkered flag.
Elsewhere in the race, Mercedes' Michael Schumacher had run from 23rd on the grid up to 11th. In the four previous races the German has come from beyond 20th place at the start into the points at the finish, but a fifth time wasn't to be: Toro Rosso's Dani Ricciardo held onto tenth place, Schumacher hounding him the last few laps but the Australian displaying some tenacious tactics especially through turn one.
Perhaps the marquee overtaking move of the Grand Prix was Sauber's Sergio Perez diving past Hamilton through the hairpin on the sixth lap of the race. Losing the place after the first round of pit stops, Perez soon tried the sequel, attempting to pass Hamilton through the same corner. This time he came out of the previous corner on the outside of the McLaren driver, and heading for the hairpin he closed in on Hamilton much too quickly and had to hit the brakes and swerve onto the grass (above). That spun him into the gravel trap and out of the race, but McLaren probably won't be disappointed in the chutzpah of the driver chosen to take Hamilton's place next year.
The marquee drive of the race came from Mark Weber. An exclamation point on the pace of the RB8, Weber effectively one-stopped the race and dragged his car from distant arrears into ninth place at the finish, collecting two points and delivering the quote of the day, calling Grosjean the "first-corner nutcase" in one of his post-race interviews.
The biggest story was undoubtedly Kobayashi's drive. A Japanese driver hasn't been on the podium in an F1 race at Suzuka since Aguri Suzuki did it in 1990, and Kobayashi has started races this season in the top three but never finished there. Button overcame a gearbox issue and began to reel Kobayashi in during the last laps, taking nearly half a second off the gap each time around. Kobayashi kept the Englishman behind, though, snagging the final podium place and coming out for the trophy ceremony to a standing ovation from the grandstands and chants of "KA-mu-eee! KA-mu-eee!" Gossip is that his drive is not assured next year, with Force India's Nico Hulkenburg and Sauber test driver Adrian Gutierrez among those rumored for the seats. The first podium for the driver called "Cowboy" couldn't come at a better time nor at a better place; he said thought before the race that if he earned a podium that it would be destiny.
Massa's second-place finish might not rescue his place at Ferrari, but it's a certain boon to his confidence and his chances of being with the Scuderia in 2013. The Brazilian has not seen the podium since Korea in 2010, a dry spell of more than 30 races and not the kind of performance that Ferrari is known to tolerate.
Hamilton had a quiet race to finish fifth, gaining four places throughout the race. Hulkenburg got Force India some much needed championship points with a seventh-place finish, coming from all the way back from fifteenth on the grid, and Pastor Maldonado of Williams went from twelfth to seventh, getting back into the points for the first time since his win in Spain. Ricciardo's place at Toro Rosso isn't in jeopardy, but the point he took for ninth place gets him within a point of his teammate in the driver's championship.
In the World Championship standings, Vettel's victory turned his 29-point deficit to first-place Alonso into a four-point deficit with five races left, the tally at 194 to 190. Vettel also became the first back-to-back winner of the entire 2012 season by winning his third of the four Japanese Grand Prix.
Alonso said his retirement doesn't really change anything, with a mini-season now beginning since the top two drivers are practically even on points. Ferrari's concern, however, should be that Alonso hasn't led a lap nor finished in the top two since the German Grand Prix five races ago. It's said that Red Bull has an entirely new package of bodywork coming for the Korean GP in seven days. If it works better than the bodywork they have now, this might have the scarlet red Italians looking blue for the rest of the season.
Räikkönen is in third place of the driver's race, 37 points behind Alonso, with Hamilton another five points behind Räikkönen. There are still 125 points in the pot, so even ninth-placed Felipe Massa has a theoretical, albeit miniscule, chance of winning with his 69 points. If Lotus can get back on a good development track and McLaren can find some strength and consistency, a challenge could come from the third- and fourth-placed drivers, but everyone is now looking at the double-world champions Alonso and Vettel as the prime protagonists.
In the constructor's championship, Red Bull put another five points between itself and McLaren at the top of the chart, and thanks to Massa's drive, Ferrari is hanging tough in third place and Sauber climbed to within 20 points of Mercedes.
In seven days the saga will continue, and as they say in certain circles: "Things just got real." Stay tuned for next weekend's race from Korea.
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