The Japanese grand prix certainly wasn’t the most exciting of the 2012 Formula 1 season so far, but we may well look back at the end of the season and pinpoint round 15 as a pivotal one in determining the destination of the world drivers’ championship. Fernando Alonso’s first corner retirement, coupled with a dominant victory for Sebastian Vettel, has reduced the former’s championship lead from a daunting 29 points over the latter before the Suzuka race, to a mere four points at the chequered flag. With a further 33 points between Vettel and the driver that’s third in the championship, Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen, the championship battle is looking like it might be a shootout between the top two. As with just about everything else in Formula 1, though, things aren’t quite that simple.
What is clear, however, is that the all important championship momentum is with Germany’s Sebastian Vettel. The Red Bull Racing driver, the defending world drivers’ champion after taking back to back championships in 2010 and 2011, now becomes the first driver to take back to back victories in what has been an unpredictable 2012 season. Vettel has profited in the last two grand prix as two of his chief competitors for the 2012 title have faltered. First, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was forced to retire from the lead in Singapore with a gearbox problem handing the German what proved to be an easy win, then Alonso retires in Japan after contact with Raikkonen at turn one. This a huge shift in momentum when compared to the Italian grand prix, where Hamilton took his third victory of the season, Alonso picked up a podium and Vettel retired with an alternator failure.
Even more important in Japan, though, was the manner of Vettel’s victory; something that will surely have the other runners and riders in the hunt for the 2012 world drivers’ championship seriously worried. It’s fair to say that Red Bull racing have struggled a little for qualifying pace in 2012, especially when compared with 2011 where Vettel took a string of brilliant pole positions.
There was no sign of their 2012 qualifying issue in Suzuka, though. Red Bull now have their own double DRS device – a variation of the one used by Mercedes – which boosts straight line speed by channelling air through the rear wing to stall the beam wing when the DRS is activated, which it can be with total freedom in qualifying. It is perhaps no surprise that with this extra boost in speed, Red Bull Racing locked out the front row in Japan. However, the dominance of their qualifying performance – with McLaren’s Jenson Button the only driver to get close to the Red Bulls, qualifying two tenths of a second behind second placed Mark Webber – perhaps indicates that Red Bull may have made other changes to the RB8 to unlock extra speed.
Their rivals would certainly have hoped for a different story in the race, but sadly for them Vettel produced a performance reminiscent of many of his 2011 victories. Had Mark Webber not been knocked out of contention by Romain Grosjean – who was involved in yet another, completely avoidable start-line incident, for which he was rightly penalised – a one, two finish would surely have been on the cards for Red Bull Racing in Japan.
Despite the issues for Webber and Alonso at the start of the race, McLaren were simply not in a position to capitalise. A set-up error for Hamilton in qualifying saw him qualify down in ninth place and a five place grid penalty for Button saw him start just one place ahead of his team-mate in eighth position. While both cars were able to move forward in the race, they could only manage fourth and fifth place.
Although this means, of course, that Hamilton moves closer to Alonso in the championship – and we should bear in mind that the reduction in deficit for Hamilton is exactly the same as it would have been had he won the race and Alonso finished third, as was the case in Italy – McLaren will certainly wonder where their pace has gone. Hamilton’s set-up error meant that he suffered from understeer in the early part of the race. However, the problem cured itself mid-way through the race, with Hamilton saying afterwards “I struggled for the first 20 laps, I don’t know if it was before the first stop or after, and through Turn 14 I felt this thud on the rear and all of a sudden the car starting turning fantastically”.
This might suggest that there was a car problem for Hamilton, which rectified itself, rather than a simple lack of pace for McLaren, but although Button looked more competitive than Hamilton he, too, was unable to mount much of a challenge. Despite the Frome born driver running third early in the race, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa – who drove brilliantly to take his first podium in nearly two years, finishing second, having started 10th – leapfrogged ahead of Button and eventual podium debutant Kamui Kobayashi. Button was pushed down to fourth and although he challenged the Japanese driver for the final podium position towards the end of the race, he was never in a position to attempt a pass, eventually finishing just half a second behind the Sauber driver.
Despite Massa’s stunning return to form, which has increased the speculation that he may now hang on to his Ferrari seat for 2013, Ferrari probably have the most to worry about, though. Recent car upgrades simply haven’t delivered the expected boost in performance due to an issue with the Italian team’s wind tunnel. If the first corner in Japan is anything to go by, lady luck may have finally deserted Alonso, too. With rumours of a further car upgrade for Red Bull Racing in Korea, and the sudden mid-race change in car characteristics for Hamilton suggesting that McLaren still have a fundamentally quick car, the Scuderia, and Alonso, are now very much on the back foot.
In terms of the world drivers’ championship it’s now very much two by two. The top two, Alonso and Vettel are separated by just four points and are clearly the two drivers with the best chance of the title with just five races remaining. There’s then a gap of 33 points to third placed driver Kimi Raikkonen – still without a win since returning to Formula 1 with Lotus at the start of the season – who is just five points ahead of Lewis Hamilton. 33 points is a big gap, but as we saw with the 29 point gap between Alonso and Vettel before the race in Japan, such a gap can be quickly eroded with a race victory and a retirement for other drivers. I’d say that it’s far too early to rule out Raikkonen and Hamilton yet, although if the former is to stand a chance I expect that he will need to start winning races. The next two drivers in the championship are Mark Webber and Jenson Button, who are separated by just three world championship points, with Webber 18 point behind Lewis Hamilton, but a huge 60 points behind leader Alonso. Neither Webber nor Button has a realistic chance of the championship.
The key word is momentum, though. Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel clearly have it and unless – as the Milton Keynes based team’s rivals will hope – their performance in Japan was a circuit specific one-off, it’s looking increasingly like Vettel will emulate his countryman, Michael Schumacher, and take a third consecutive title. There’s still a quarter of the season to go, though, and plenty could happen which might turn the tide yet again. What’s clear for now, though, is that the Red Bull is in a great position to hunt down the Prancing Horse.