Superior pit strategy has ensured a fifth straight victory for Sebastian Vettel in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. The German won off the back of a two-stop pit strategy to beat home his three-stopping teammate Mark Webber by seven seconds, while early race leader Romain Grosjean completed the podium.
The result means Vettel is now all but certain – barring disaster – to claim his fourth successive World Championship title at the Indian Grand Prix in a fortnight’s time.
As the lights went out for the start of the 53-lap race, this time it was both Red Bulls that made poor getaways from the front row, which allowed Romain Grosjean to expertly thread his Lotus into the lead at Turn 1.
A fast-starting Lewis Hamilton also tried to capitalise from his second-row starting position, but his right-rear tyre just clipped the front wing endplate of Vettel’s car, giving the Englishman an instant puncture as he turned into the right-hander.
The 2008 World Champion was able to limp his Mercedes back to the pits for a new set of tyres, but having lost almost a lap in the process – not to mention a considerable amount of his car’s undertray, the team would opt to retire him before the ten-lap mark.
Hamilton’s dramas ensured Webber and Vettel would round out the top-three behind Grosjean, but there was also contact right at the back of the field, with Giedo van der Garde and Jules Bianchi coming together at the first corner, with both drivers sliding into the gravel trap and instant retirement.
Up at the front, the leading trio of Grosjean, Webber and Vettel quickly pulled away from the rest of the field, and their cause was further helped after the first round of pit stops by emerging ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, who was running an alternative strategy with a long first stint by starting the race on Pirelli’s Hard-compound tyres.
While the rest of the chasing field – lead by Nico Hülkenberg, who brilliantly undercut both Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso by pitting before them – fought to get by the West Australian, the Grosjean-Webber-Vettel battle was over half a minute up the road.
The next phase of the battle for race victory would hinge on tyre strategy. With overtaking at the Suzuka circuit proving to be typically difficult, it would come down to tyre management and pit stop timing to see if the order could be reshuffled.
What was apparent was that both Webber and Vettel had better pace than Grosjean, but neither was able to get close enough to mount a challenge on the Frenchman.
With a two-stop race forecast, the Red Bull Racing team opted to hedge its bets, pitting Webber early and switching him onto a theoretical three-stop plan with the aim being that his lesser-worn tyres would give him a major pace advantage in the final stages of the race.
Grosjean and Vettel both remained out on track, and when the Lotus driver pitted, Vettel remained out for a further seven laps and slashed his deficit to the Frenchman when they both completed their second pit stops.
On Lap 41, Vettel got right under Grosjean’s rear wing as they drove onto the start/finish straight, and used his better momentum to slingshot past into an effective lead – a move made all the more impressive by the fact that the German forgot to activate his DRS!
When Webber pitted for the final time at the end of the next lap – emerging third behind Grosjean – victory for Vettel was all but assured, provided a frustrated Webber wasn’t able to find his own way by Grosjean in the next few laps.
Webber quickly closed up on Grosjean, but some dogged defence delayed the position switch for a few laps, which proved enough for Webber to be denied a first win in 2013 once again.
Much further down the road, Alonso emerged on top of his battle with Hülkenberg to claim fourth place, before the impressive German managed to fall behind Kimi Räikkönen’s Lotus as his Sauber’s tyres began to fade. It was still an impressive performance from the lanky driver, who notched up his fourth successive points-scoring finish to move into tenth place in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
It was a doubly special day for the Sauber team, who had rookie driver Esteban Gutiérrez finally string together a strong qualifying and race performance on the same weekend to net the first points finish of his career. The young Mexican finished a fine seventh, keeping Nico Rosberg – who had been hit with a drive-through penalty for an unsafe pit release – at bay in the final laps.
Jenson Button and Felipe Massa completed the final points-paying positions after troubled weekends. Button was genuinely outpaced by McLaren teammate Sergio Pérez all race, and only benefited when his teammate suffered a puncture after making contact with Nico Rosberg at the Casio Triangle chicane.
Massa was another driver to cop a drive-through penalty, with the Brazilian depriving himself of a decent points haul by speeding in the pit lane.
Daniel Ricciardo also earned the ire of the stewards, and he had to take a tour down pit lane after he was found to have exceeded the track limits in his attempts to overtake Paul di Resta at 130R. He finished a disappointing thirteenth.
2013 Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix – Final Classification (53 laps):
|1.||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing Renault RB9||53||1:26:49.301|
|2.||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing Renault RB9||53||+ 7.129|
|3.||Romain Grosjean||Lotus F1 Renault E21||53||+ 9.910|
|4.||Fernando Alonso||Scuderia Ferrari F138||53||+ 45.605|
|5.||Kimi Räikkönen||Lotus F1 Renault E21||53||+ 47.325|
|6.||Nico Hülkenberg||Sauber Ferrari C32||53||+ 51.615|
|7.||Esteban Gutiérrez||Sauber Ferrari C32||53||+ 1:11.630|
|8.||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1W04||53||+ 1:12.023|
|9.||Jenson Button||McLaren Mercedes MP4-28||53||+ 1:20.821|
|10.||Felipe Massa||Scuderia Ferrari F138||53||+ 1:29.263|
|11.||Paul di Resta||Force India Mercedes VJM06||53||+ 1:38.572|
|12.||Jean-Éric Vergne||Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari STR8||52||1 lap behind|
|13.||Daniel Ricciardo||Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari STR8||52||1 lap behind|
|14.||Adrian Sutil||Force India Mercedes VJM06||52||1 lap behind|
|15.||Sergio Pérez||McLaren Mercedes MP4-28||52||1 lap behind|
|16.||Pastor Maldonado||Williams Renault FW35||52||1 lap behind|
|17.||Valtteri Bottas||Williams Renault FW35||52||1 lap behind|
|18.||Charles Pic||Caterham Renault CT03||52||1 lap behind|
|19.||Max Chilton||Marussia Cosworth MR02||52||1 lap behind|
|DNF.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1W04||7||Damage|
|DNF.||Giedo van der Garde||Caterham Renault CT03||0||Collision|
|DNF.||Jules Bianchi||Marussia Cosworth MR02||0||Collision|