Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Suzuka: Step by Step

Having recovered from the all nighter which seen qualifying and the race take place on the same day, it's time to look back at what was a dramatic Japanese Grand Prix...

Crash, Bang, Wallop: It was chaos before turn 1 as the fast starting Vitaly Petrov swiped the front of the slow moving Nico Hulkenberg, putting both drivers out of the race. The Russian also landed himself a 5 place grid drop for the Korean Grand Prix, which was confirmed as going ahead yesterday. These errors keep coming from Petrov and he really needs to get some solid performances in to cement his 2011 seat. Team mate Robert Kubica was making noises about having an experienced driver beside him at the weekend. However it could yet be finances which helps the rookie keep his seat.

Meanwhile there was significant damage for Felipe Massa and Vitantonio Liuzzi as the Ferrari went across the grass and into the side of the Force India. The Brazilian has a contract for 2011 and Liuzzi claims to be secure but rumours still swirl about both men. I've been told by a Force India employee that Adrian Sutil is almost certain to stay with the team, though i would think he'd fancy the Renault seat if it comes free. However if true and with Paul di Resta expected to get a chance it would push the Italian out of the team. My gut feeling on Massa is that Ferrari won't move him out and that unless the Brazilian was to walk away, which i think is unlikely, he will be there in 2011. Fernando Alonso knows that Massa could yet be a foil to him in his own title aspirations.

Kubica unlucky but lucky: Robert Kubica threw himself into the mix of the championship challengers by qualifying on the second row and then moving up to second place at the start and looking good for a podium. Behind the safety car that was deployed for the lap 1 incidents he began to slow and then had his right rear tyre fly off, leading to his retirement. Having looked so good for a positive result which would have helped Renault closed the gap to Mercedes in the battle for 4th in the championship. However it was revealed afterwards that the French team had an issue with the wheel gun on the grid and that none of the Polish driver's tyres were fitted properly. So perhaps they will be thankful that there was a safety car or else it could have been an even more scary incident.

Mercedes have improved showing: It was a better weekend for Mercedes, though it only ended with 8 points after Nico Rosberg suffered a wheel failure late on through the Esses. He had a poor start and pitted behind the safety car. Meanwhile Schumacher made a good pass on Rubens Barrichello but when he was pitted he was going quicker than his team mate but emerged behind him and despite his best efforts he couldn't past. Mercedes have admitted that was an error on their part. Either they were concerned about other cars around them or wanted to ensure that Rosberg, who is close to Massa and Kubica in the championship, would score the extra points.

McLaren see margin grow: McLaren were unable to take the fight to Red Bull this weekend. Lewis Hamilton had a Friday crash and then McLaren took a chance on using his gearbox from Singapore but within three practice laps it had a problem so he got a five place grid penalty. He then lost third gear during the race so had to yield to Jenson Button and finished fifth. Button went for the hard tyre for Q3. I think it was worth the risk because McLaren did not have the raw pace and a safety car at a certain moments may have played into his hands. Both men are now more than a race win behind Webber. I think they needed a wet qualifying or race to act as a leveller and though Hamilton was catching Alonso before his gearbox issue its going to take some turnaround for the number 1 to remain on a McLaren next season.

Lotus increase grip on vital 10th position: It was a good day for Lotus Racing as they secured their best ever finish with Heikki Kovalainen 12th. He was followed home by Jarno Trulli in 13th. This means that Hispania and Virgin will need a top 11 finish to jump them and this will likely take a race of high attrition to acheive. Virgin had a poor day, Lucas di Grassi crashing before the race in spectacular fashion whilst Timo Glock was stuck behind Sakon Yamamoto for many laps. Lotus also have attention on 2011. It looks likely that Trulli and Kovalainen will be retained. The team will use the 2009 Red Bull gearbox and hydraulic system and an engine deal with Renault should be announced soon. This should help them take the fight to the likes of Toro Rosso and Sauber and ensure a much more competitive car.

Kobayashi thrills Japan and the world: There was a lot of hype around Kamui Kobayashi ahead of his home grand prix. Many feel he could be the star driver that Japan has been waiting for. On Friday he had looked ragged but i was hopeful he would score points and please his fans. The race would turn into an incredible drive, netting him a 7th place finish. He overtook several cars into the turn 10 hairpin, braking much later than his rivals yet managing to make every attempt stick. I know they talk about local knowledge around the figure of eight circuit but this really was astonishing! His first overtake on Jaime Alguersuari was a late lunge which he turned into an overtake with a bit of contact but the other moves were all clean. Even when he made a second move on the Spaniard, Alguersuari defended but still Kobayashi passed on the outside. The Toro Rosso driver was silly in turning into the Sauber several times, damaging his front wing and blowing the chance of a points finish.

How did the home hero pull off so many unexpected moves though? Part of this can be explained by strategy. Kobayashi had started on the hard tyre and then pitted late for the soft tyre. So he was able to attack late in the race. Also the characteristics of his car played a role. The Sauber has the longest wheelbase on the grid so the car is good through medium to high speed corners. This allowed Kobayashi to stay close to cars in front through the Degner corners preceding the hairpin. The Sauber is also kind to its tyres so usually performs better in races than in qualifying. Panasonic used to sponsor Toyota and are reported to be in discussions with Peter Sauber.

Red Bull win with something to spare: Qualifying and the first corner decide the Red Bull battle really and whilst Mark Webber was not far off, it was Sebastian Vettel who made it two out of two in Suzuka. The pair cruised it, even backing off when they caught up Button during the race who had yet to pit. There was still a bit of mind games between the duo when Webber pushed hard on the last lap to clock fastest lap and deny his German team mate a hattrick for the weekend. The Australian will know he may have to beat him on track at some stage. Three more Vettel victories and the championship is the German's. Fernando Alonso rolled in third which was the maximum possible, he will hope to challenge more in the remaining rounds

So the teams now head for South Korea which was confirmed on Tuesday. The pit straight isn't that long but turn 1 is tight and is followed by a massive straight, over a kilometre long so expect plenty of action down it. Sector 2 is a lot of medium speed corners and the final sector more twisty so it could be somewhere which plays to each teams strengths in certain parts. Rain is certainly a possibility in the region as well. Three races to go and still five can win it but McLaren surely need a strong result or the gap will be too much to claw back.

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