Double world champion Fernando Alonso scored his second consecutive Formula One victory – his twenty-first in his career – with an impressive display in the Japanese Grand Prix at the Fuji Speedway.
The Renault driver benefitted from the two championship contenders, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, when the pair was both compromised with drive-through penalties in the incident-packed race.
The McLaren driver was accused of pushing off Kimi Raikkonen at the first corner with his desperate late braking move, while the Brazilian was given the penalty when he collided with Lewis at the chicane… Both were able to continue and it was Felipe who managed to pick up points with eighth. Hamilton finished outside the points with a frustrating 12th.
But it was Alonso who took the winner’s trophy after his flawless performance in the R28. The Spaniard was lapping with so much consistency that he was able to leapfrog ahead of Robert Kubica by making his first fuel/tyre stop one lap later than his BMW Sauber rival. That extra pace made the differences for Alonso to see off the challenges of Kubica and the reigning world champion of Kimi Raikkonen to the chequered flag.
This race victory at Fuji follows on from the Spaniard’s breakthrough win at Singapore’s night race last month. But instead of the Safety Car giving him the helping hand, Alonso won the Japanese Grand Prix by pure speed alone and that is an impressive achievement, especially if you consider how the team/car performed earlier this season.
Robert Kubica kept himself in title contention by finishing in second, fending off the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, who was hit by both McLarens at the start of the race! Luckily, the Finn took evasive action with the tyre-smoking Lewis Hamilton at turn one and was able to escape a penalty when race stewards were investigating the first lap incident…
That first lap was highly controversial as it made a heavy impact in terms of the drivers’ championship.
Lewis Hamilton threw away his hard-earned pole position the instant the five red lights went out as Kimi Raikkonen (who started alongside) out-accelerated him. Not for the first time, Lewis seemed to lose focus with his risky ‘do-or-die’ move at the first turn to recapture the lead and that ‘moment’ could be the factor that might cost Lewis his world championship campaign…
As he dived for the inside, smoke pouring from his locked wheels in a desperate bid to get back the lead (he flat-spotted both Bridgestone in this move). He made no attempt to take the corner due to his excessive speed. In a brief moment of despair Lewis nearly collided into his own McLaren team-mate Heikki Kovalainen on the run down to the first corner, determined to regain his lost lead. In turn one, Lewis ran wide forcing both him and Kimi Raikkonen on the outside. Felipe Massa, who started in fifth, and Kovalainen both went off in avoidance.
That first-corner chaos allowed Kubica and Alonso to slip into first and second ahead of the recovering Kovalainen, while Massa, Hamilton and Raikkonen fell back into the traffic.
On the next lap, Massa ran wide into the Turn 10 chicane and seeking the opportunity from his title rival, Lewis slip past to take the position. But then the Brazilian fought back with two wheels on the kerb and two wheels on the grass and he accidently (Felipe claims after the race that it was a ‘racing incident’) punted Hamilton into a spin and down to last place…
Both Hamilton and Massa would later receive drive-through penalties for their respective aggressive moves, consigning the title contenders to unproductive afternoons in the midfield.
After the Grand Prix, Felipe Massa denies deliberately hitting Hamilton and saying it was a ‘racing incident’, and questioned whether he deserved his own penalty(!)
“He (Hamilton) braked very late and I braked very late, and then I was a little bit wide in the first part of the corner,” explained Massa. “Then he had my inside line and pushed me a little bit wide in the gravel, and then I went with the wheels on the gravel but the next corner was on the left.
“Then we just touched each other, so in my opinion it was a racing incident.
“But we had a drive-through and we paid, and it is a bit difficult to speak after the race when we have already had the drive-through.”
Asked whether he had crashed into Hamilton deliberately, Massa replied: “For sure not, I had two wheels on the gravel. I could not stop the car and I was on the gravel because he pushed me into the gravel.”
As for Lewis Hamilton, he regrets that first corner move as a ‘mistake’ and vowed to recover by winning the remaining two Grands Prix for the championship.
“You can always look back and wish you’d done something (differently) – I made a mistake and I paid for it,” Hamilton told reporters. “That sort of thing happens, you’ve just got to keep your head up and keep going.”
But while he admitted his move on Raikkonen was incorrect, Hamilton was not happy that he received an equal penalty to Massa.
“We both got the same penalty, but I didn’t hit anyone and he did,” he said. “I guess that’s just the name of the game.”
These two incidents have made an impact to the drivers’ standings following the race at Fuji, with Massa reducing the deficit to Hamilton from seven to six points. The McLaren driver still has 84, while the Brazilian has 78 points with two races left.
Meanwhile in the constructors’ championship, the non-finish for Heikki Kovalainen – who was delayed at the first corner and was on course for race victory but was forced to stop early by mechanical failure – meant Ferrari regained the lead thanks to Kimi Raikkonen’s third-place finish. The Scuderia Ferrari leads McLaren-Mercedes by five points (141 over 135) with BMW Sauber a close behind with 128 points.
As for the top ten finishers in this Japanese Grand Prix at the Fuji Speedway, Nelson Piquet Jr capped off his difficult rookie season with a fine fourth. At one point, he was leading the race and time will tell if the young Brazilian can keep his seat at Renault next year.
Jarno Trulli drove a strong race all afternoon to finish in fifth at Toyota’s home circuit.
Scuderia Toro Rosso got both cars into the points, with Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Vettel coming home in sixth and seventh position, ahead of the recovering Massa, who at least reduced Hamilton’s lead to six points.
The Brazilian managed to salvage a point despite spinning when he banged wheels with Bourdais as the Toro Rosso rejoined following its final pit stop – an incident that will be investigated by the stewards after the race.
The Ferrari survived that tangle and produced a series of late passes to claim eighth, with Red Bull’s Mark Webber his final target. The Australian had driven well on a one-stop strategy, but couldn’t fend off Massa in the closing moments of the race.
Nick Heidfeld also used a one-stop plan to progress to tenth, but must be disappointed by the lack of pace compared to team-mate Robert Kubica.
The sole Japanese driver in the 20-car field, Kazuki Nakajima, saw his first home race ruined at the start, when he lost his front wing on David Coulthard’s Red Bull as it veered across his path after a dramatic suspension breakage. Coulthard, who suspected his suspension had been weakened in the first corner wheel-banging chaos, slammed into the barriers but was unhurt.
Next weekend is the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit. Only six points separate the two title contenders and already Lewis Hamilton is stating the fact that he will win the race following his disappointing performance at Fuji. Providing he doesn’t make another mistake like last year or take any risks, the McLaren driver should have the advantage as this exciting season of Formula One racing draws to a close. Only Ferrari can prevent Lewis on winning the title and it will be fascinating to see what happens in seven days time!
Race results from Fuji Speedway, 67 laps:
1. Alonso Renault 1h30:21.892
2. Kubica BMW Sauber +5.283
3. Raikkonen Ferrari +6.400
4. Piquet Renault +20.570
5. Trulli Toyota +23.767
6. Bourdais Toro Rosso-Ferrari +34.085
7. Vettel Toro Rosso-Ferrari +39.207
8. Massa Ferrari +46.158
9. Webber Red Bull-Renault +50.811
10. Heidfeld BMW Sauber +54.120
11. Rosberg Williams-Toyota +1:02.096
12. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes +1:18.900
13. Barrichello Honda +1 lap
14. Button Honda +1 lap
15. Nakajima Williams-Toyota +1 lap
Fastest lap: Massa, 1:18.426
Fisichella Force India-Ferrari 22 laps
Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes 17 laps
Sutil Force India-Ferrari 9 laps
Glock Toyota 7 laps
Coulthard Red Bull-Renault 1 lap
World Championship standings, round 16:
1. Hamilton 84
2. Massa 78
3. Kubica 72
4. Raikkonen 63
5. Heidfeld 56
6. Kovalainen 51
7. Alonso 48
8. Trulli 30
9. Vettel 29
10. Glock 20
11. Webber 20
12. Piquet 18
13. Rosberg 17
14. Barrichello 11
15. Nakajima 9
16. Coulthard 8
17. Bourdais 7
18. Button 3
1. Ferrari 141
2. McLaren-Mercedes 135
3. BMW Sauber 128
4. Renault 66
5. Toyota 50
6. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 36
7. Red Bull-Renault 28
8. Williams-Toyota 26
9. Honda 14
Next race: Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai International Circuit, October 17-19