Japanese Grand Prix ponderings

This won’t take long.

First of all, it is worth pointing out just how awesome Sebastian Vettel was at Suzuka. At this “drivers’ circuit” which suited the Red Bull car down to the ground, Vettel was untouchable.

An error meant that instead of the normal on board channel, the BBC broadcast the on board camera of Vettel only for a large part of the race. Although this meant being unable to see any other cars on board, it provided an opportunity to watch an up-and-coming master at work. I can tell you he was definitely pushing hard, and to my mind he almost lost his car at Degner 2 twice. And they are only the moments I saw.

Vettel’s awe-inspiring dominance was in stark contrast to the other three Red Bull drivers in a weekend that promised so much. Even the Toro Rosso, which has been at the back for almost all of the season, looked like it had awesome pace. Unfortunately, its two rookie drivers both made a bit of a hash of things multiple times each throughout the weekend, meaning the potential came to nothing.

Webber also had a tough weekend after a big crash in Saturday Practice which left him with no car to qualify with. Having started from the pitlane, he then suffered a litany of problems forcing him to pit three times in quick succession. As a result, the race ended with one Red Bull dominating, and the three others footing the result sheet.

Beyond that, there is not much to say about the race. Jarno Trulli did a good job, which he does once or twice a year. But it’s not the sort of thing that would impress me enough to hire him. Maybe the new Lotus team will think differently.

For my money, the best action of the race came from Heikki Kovalainen. Firstly, there was his tangle with Adrian Sutil which appears to have divided opinion. I think it was a racing incident — Sutil was probably too optimistic to go for it, but Kovalainen was probably too eager to close the door abruptly having left it wide open in the first place.

But if that was a bad move from Kovalainen, he more than made it up with his gutsy and opportunistic overtaking manoeuvre on Giancarlo Fisichella while they were both coming out of the pits. I let out a yelp and probably woke up half the street at that time of the morning, as I thought it was going to end up as a huge accident. In the end, it turned out well for Kovalainen and I was left impressed. It is the only ballsy thing I can ever remember him doing. But it’s probably too late to save his career at an established team.

It says a lot about the state of F1 at the moment that the biggest talking point of the weekend was the way penalties were dealt with. Eight drivers were penalised after qualifying. Most were for ignoring yellow flags after Sébastien Buemi’s accident, another was for blocking and others changed gearboxes and chassis.

This left the entire world scratching its head as to what the actual grid might be. Apparently several permutations were doing the rounds, while the FIA decided to sleep on it and published the grid just hours before the race began. Seemingly this is not a case of the Random Penalty Generator — it all seems above board, with the grid having been determined as it should be by the letter of the law. But clearly this is a system that fails the fans. We watch qualifying to find out what the starting grid will be, only to tune into the race finding that the stewards have changed it.

Then there is the case of the investigation into Nico Rosberg failing to observe the lap delta times under Safety Car conditions. It transpires that Rosberg was unable to know what his target time was because the message was overridden by a low fuel message from the standard ECU. Given that McLaren Electronic Systems designed the ECU, my first thought was that this was a particularly elaborate way of penalising McLaren for the incident.

In all seriousness though, this just sums up how Formula 1 has been swallowed up by an officious governing body more interested in rules than racing. The Safety Car rules have become so ridiculously complex in the past few years, mirroring the crisis that hit qualifying a few years ago when several formats were tried out in quick succession.

I suspected that Nico Rosberg knew he was guilty of driving too quickly under Safety Car conditions when he conducted an evasive interview on the BBC after the race. When questioned, he would only say that he didn’t gain an advantage. When asked if he was within the rules, he only said “I definitely did what I should do”.

As it transpires, he probably had good reason to be coy given that it seems as though he simply did not have the information that should have been displayed, even if it meant he technically broke the rules. In that light, it is fair to let Rosberg off on this instance, but he shouldn’t even have been in this position in the first place.

Now we are left with the tantalising prospect of Sebastian Vettel making a Räikkönen-esque comeback. James Allen says that a mental block has been passed, with Vettel now within 16 points of Button with two races to go. That is closer than Räikkönen was with two races to go in 2007.

It still seems like a long shot, but if the momentum is going anywhere it is not towards Button. All of a sudden, the pressure looks like it’s all on Jenson Button.


  1. And will Button fold like a deck of cards? The prospect is tantalising. Not that I think Vettel deserves to be WDC this year – too many mistakes, but I certainly don’t think Button does either. Mediocre driver in a good car & has been extremely lucky that all of his main contenders fumbled. For mine, the driver of the year has been Webber, and it is just a testament to his trademark rotten luck that it is Vettel, and not him challenging Button.

  2. PP, would you credit Webber more than Kovi? Both have a single win on their resumes, each perhaps creditable to dominant machinery and luck.

    Also, somebody somewhere was saying that Button may in fact not be a team-leading driver. The communications we’ve heard from the radio give that impression, certainly: The voice is always strained, and the tone is often disappointed: “Guys, I’ve got no front grip at all.” This might explain why Ross B is reluctant to cut him a big new check. Is there any better man in the world for pricing driver talent?

    For all his youthful cuddliness, Vettel seems to have an intense desire to win on the track, and the will to make things happen in the garage as well. He never hides disappointment, but the tone in his voice always promises a long night for the mechanics while he explains where the problem is. We’re told that Seb V conducts his own negotiations without help from a manager. (This came to mind a couple weeks ago when Webber announced that without Flavio in his corner, he’d be cutting his own deals as well. Maybe the Aussie learned something from “the kid without experience.”) Vettel is a hands-on kind of guy.

  3. Of course I rate Webber higher than Kovi! Webber has been racing the wheels off his cars for years, and were it not for rotten luck would have been a far more frequent visitor to the top step of the podium. But this year, Webber seems to have come alive – and had the car under him (most of the time) to really shine.

    Kovi had one win which was fortuitous, and has never looked like repeating that.

    While I take nothing away from Vettel, I am merely saying he has made a lot of mistakes this year & all his wins have been relatively easy – winning from pole in the fastest car (bit like Button, actually). He hasn’t exactly “raced” anyone to win, has he? Whereas in terms of actual racing & wringing the neck of the car, Webber has been in a class of his own all season.

  4. PS. And perhaps Webber has learnt something from Vettel this season. Looks to me like he relishes a competitive teammate who can spur him on. Webber is a wise old head afterall, and I am sure is not adverse to being on the receiving end of information.

  5. Interesting thoughts Pink Peril and Cridland.

    You can’t exactly write a glowing report for any of the four Brawn and Red Bull drivers this year. All have excelled in some ways, only to disappoint in others.

    I am unconvinced by Webber. I am actually a big fan of Webber, but he has actually disappointed me a bit this year. Vettel has won three races, and I can’t help but feel that Webber should have been able to do more with all his experience.

    Vettel continues to impress, but has made too many mistakes to be considered the class of the field. I greatly look forward to seeing what he does in the future, because if he doesn’t win the Championship this year he will almost certainly deserve to win it another year. I find him an enormously impressive man. He was the first person younger than me to become an F1 driver, so he represents a bit of a “whoa” moment for me too.

    Cridland makes a good point about Button’s struggle in the team leader role. It is no secret that Button has made heavy use of Barrichello’s set-up data this year, so he is clearly not the complete package, at least as far as set-up goes.

    As for Barrichello, he is doing a good job just now but took far too long to take advantage of the superiority of his car, only hitting his stride when it was too late. Shame.

  6. Not doubting your word, PP, but just not remembering, either: Aside from the lap 1/turn 9 runoff in Turkey, what mistakes has Vettel made?

    And for the record: I’m not entirely sure we should credit Lewis with much more leadership capacity than we do for his countryman Button.

    His radio transmissions seem a lot more informative, if no less urgent. And of course, he’s the World Champion.

    But much of the leadership that carried him there undoubtedly came from Ron Dennis, one of the brightest lights and most passionate personalities* the sport has ever seen. (It’s easy to imagine a control freak of Dennis’ caliber deciding that garage performance is too important for mere drivers to be involved in.) Whitmarsh may be showing that strength now: We’ll see. In any case, I’m starting to wonder if –only in this respect– Lewis has been riding a magic carpet.

    * That was almost like Legard, wasn’t it?

  7. > It is no secret that Button has made heavy
    > use of Barrichello’s set-up data this year

    Yeah, and perhaps no man in the world would know the meaning of that more clearly than Brawn.

    RB is a fascinating personality. Does anyone remember that time earlier in the season when, justnaked seconds after dominance of some race or quali, the BBC approached him with a microphone while he fiddled with an electronic gadget? They asked what race business was left to pursue at such a moment, and he confessed that he was trying to find out the latest soccer scores from Britain. Various travelers in the F1 circus report seeing him ensconced comfortably in coach seats of Easyjet as his team leads the championship.

    Ross Brawn is a man who knows what’s important.

  8. I do like Ross Brawn, though I don’t think he’s alone in this sort of approach. I am sure I once heard that at one race weekend Eddie Jordan kept his eye on the Ryder Cup as much as the grand prix!