Race Recap: 2014 Japanese Grand Prix is wet, woebegone
Before that, Nico Rosberg made the most of two days of dry running, leading two of the three Free Practice sessions and getting his Mercedes AMG Petronas onto pole. Teammate Lewis Hamilton had been faster around the circuit in FP2, but a crash in FP2 and mistakes at the hairpin in qualifying seemed to remove him from his groove, leaving him in second place. The two Williams of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa were next but couldn't get within 0.6 seconds of Rosberg's time. Fernando Alonso put the first Ferrari in fifth, followed by Daniel Ricciardo in the first Infiniti Red Bull Racing and Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button in the two McLarens. Sebastian Vettel took ninth for Infiniti Red Bull Racing, while Kimi Räikkönen nabbed the last top ten spot for Ferrari.
For the first time all weekend, the clouds rolled in on Sunday morning, and they still haven't lifted.
Suzuka was so wet at 3:00 PM on Sunday that the lights starting the race were mounted on the Safety Car, which paced the pack around the track for the first two of 53 laps. In just those two circuits, Marcus Ericsson spun his Caterham into the gravel coming out of the chicane - he doesn't like the rain - swapping his 19th position for a spot at the back. The FIA red-flagged the race at the end of the second lap and held the cars in pit lane for ten minutes, waiting for the weather to break.
At 3:25 racing resumed under a kinder rainfall, and by racing we mean more laps behind the Safety Car. On the very first one of those, Lap 3, Ferrari lost Alonso for the second time in three races. The electrics on the Spaniard's car retired at the end of Turn 5, leaving him nothing to do but park it on the side of the road and take a moto back to the pits. Now that it's almost just about nearly official that Alonso is leaving the Scuderia at the end of the year, the rumor being that he's going to McLaren, he'll be hoping for a better way to say goodbye than he's had of late.
With more than a few drivers saying the track was ready to go, the Safety Car exited at the end of Lap 9, Rosberg finally leading the field at speed across the Start/Finish line as Button and Pastor Maldonado in the Lotus hit the pits to exchange their full wet tires for a set of intermediates. Up front, Rosberg got 1.3 seconds ahead of Hamilton on just Lap 11 and 6.7 seconds ahead of Bottas in third.
But in back, Button was soon doing better lap times than the leaders – unlike his fate in Hungary, this time he jumped the field with the right tire choice – so the front of the field ducked in for intermediates over the next few laps. On Lap 9, Button had got into third position.
Observers had questioned Williams' performance in the wet and the team said they had got control of it, but the team was a bit premature with that answer, Bottas and Massa slithering out of corners and being hunted down by the Red Bulls. Ricciardo did his usual fearless thing, making a couple of passes at the end of the S Curves to get past Williams-Martini drivers. On Lap 18, almost halfway through the race, the order was Rosberg, Hamilton, Button, Vettel, Ricciardo, Bottas, Massa, Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Perez in their Force Indias and Esteban Gutiérrez in the Sauber. Räikkönen, the last Ferrari running, was booted from the top ten when a wheel nut issue forced a long pit stop.
Right around this time, Hamilton started closing on Rosberg. With Rosberg complaining about "so much oversteer," the Brit took tenths out of the leader through individual sectors, and by Lap 29 was on Rosberg's gearbox coming out of the final chicane. At the start of Lap 29, Hamilton swung around the outside of his teammate into Turn 1 – the same turn where Hamilton had crashed in FP3 – and took over the lead before getting to Turn 2. By Lap 31, Hamilton had a four-second gap over the sister Silver Arrows. He'd lose the lead for a few laps after the last round of pit stops, but regain it before the race was red flagged and called off, finishing one spot ahead of Rosberg.
As to that crimson ending, the early sunset meant it was getting dark and the weather turned foul again as the race got close to Lap 40. The officials decided it was bad enough on Lap 41 that they disabled the use of DRS, and on the very next lap Adrian Sutil in the Sauber slid off the track at Dunlop Curve, his car swapping ends midway through corner and smashing into the tire barriers. The marshals brought out the recovery tractor to get the Sauber, and on the next lap, Bianchi slid out of Dunlop just like Sutil, and collided with the tractor. The Ferrari junior driver sustained a severe head injury, was taken to hospital and immediately operated on. At the time of writing he remains in intensive care.
That brought out the Safety Car and the Medical Car on Lap 44. The Safety Car paced the field for two more laps, then the officials red-flagged the race again, then they called it off.
Vettel took third, thanks to a quick Red Bull and misfortune for Button. Both McLaren drivers had to change their steering wheels during pit stops, Button's change taking longer than usual and letting Vettel get by, setting him up to be hunted down by Ricciardo. There was a bit of confusion at the end when Vettel went into the pits during the final Safety Car period for a new set of intermediates, coming out in fourth. When the race got red-flagged two laps later, however, Vettel was credited for third place, the spot he occupied before the Safety Car period. Continuing the two-up theme, teammate Ricciardo followed him in fourth place in the final classification, Button taking fifth after his inspired early tire choice.
Back to pairings, the Williams duo finished in the order in which they started albeit in different positions, Bottas claiming sixth ahead of Massa in seventh. Hülkenberg, who had stopped at the end of the pit lane on Lap 45, was classified in eighth. Jean-Eric Vergne put in another impressive-but-too-late drives to secure ninth for Toro Rosso, the second Force India of Sergio Perez taking tenth.
Hamilton's victory gives him a 10-point cushion over teammate Rosberg in the Driver's Championship, 266 to 256, the biggest lead the Brit has had all year. It's Hamilton's first win at Suzuka, his eighth win of the season and his ninth win with Mercedes. Ricciardo still owns third position with 193 points.
Mercedes AMG Petronas' eighth one-two of the season gives them 522 points to Red Bull's 322, meaning Mercedes can claim the Constructor's Championship at the next race in Russia. Williams put even more distance into Ferrari, the Grove team now on 201 points compared to Ferrari's 178, the Scuderia failing to earn a single point for the first time in 82 races – Räikkönen finished in eleventh in Japan. Force India gave up a handful of points to McLaren but stays just in front of the Woking team, with 122 points to 121.
The next race is next week, the inaugural Russian Grand Prix at the track in Sochi. Everyone will be hoping for the best for Bianchi, a promising pilot who's turned in some excellent performances for Marussia this year. We hope to see him back in the car as soon as possible, and we'll see you next week.
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