- Japanese Grand Prix
Vettel wins strategic thriller at SuzukaLaurence Edmondson October 13, 2013
Sebastian Vettel took his fifth victory in a row during an enthralling Japanese Grand Prix, which boiled down to a strategic battle with Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber and the Lotus of Romain Grosjean.
All three drivers led the race at one point or another, but as the Red Bulls split their strategies between a two-stop for Vettel and a three-stop for Webber, the single Lotus got outfoxed and outpaced over the 53 laps. Webber forced his way through to second place on the penultimate lap, with a strategy that put the emphasis on on-track action rather than playing out the passing in the pit stops.
Fernando Alonso finished fourth to ensure the championship will be stretched out for at least one more race, with Kimi Raikkonen recovering from a poor start to finish fifth ahead of another strong performance from Nico Hulkenberg. Esteban Gutierrez took the first points of his career in seventh ahead of Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa in the final points positions.
The start of the race set up the battle for the lead as Grosjean made a brilliant start to lead into the first corner from fourth on the grid. Lewis Hamilton was also in the mix but got squeezed by Webber from the left and as he reacted his right-rear tyre made contact with Vettel's front wing. He suffered a puncture that dropped him to the back of the pack and ultimately led to his retirement due to damage to the floor of his Mercedes.
That meant Grosjean led the two Red Bulls into the first corner, in the opposite order to how they finished. But even though Webber and Vettel looked faster than the Lotus in the early stages they bided their time in the knowledge the race could be played out through the pit stops. The strategies appeared to be fairly fluid, but for the two Red Bulls the foundations had been laid during Friday practice. Webber was running less downforce than Vettel, which meant his car was primed for overtaking but not as easy on its tyres as his team-mate's. Vettel reaped the rewards of that decision and shuffled himself onto a two-stop strategy by using that extra downforce to protect his tyres, while Webber had to take the fight to Grosjean in order to make his more aggressive four stints work.
Grosjean was caught in between, but ultimately did well to stay in touch with what was undoubtedly a slower car. He covered Webber at the first pit stop to ensure he didn't lose track position, but in doing so opened the door for Vettel to run a little longer. Vettel's first stop was two laps later than Grosjean's, but his second was eight laps later than the Lotus, so even though he came out behind the Frenchman in his final stint, passing him for the lead was easy.
Webber, meanwhile, had been putting his pieces in place for a push in the laps of the race and rejoined in third place on medium tyres after his third stop. He was a second faster than his team-mate and Grosjean, which looked as though it would be enough to worry Vettel. However, he needed to get ahead of Grosjean first, and with limited traction due to his set-up he failed at his first three or four attempts to get past into Turn 1. That gave Vettel the cushion he needed and it was only when the battle between Grosjean and Webber came up to a gaggle of backmarkers on the penultimate lap that he finally found a way past on the inside of Turn 1.
By that stage Vettel was clear at the front and well on his way to his fifth victory and another step towards his fourth drivers' title. However, Alonso prevented the celebrations kicking off in Japan by guiding his Ferrari from eighth to fourth. He finished 35.6s off Grosjean in third after being held up by team-mate Massa early in the race and losing a position to Hulkenberg in the first pit stops as a result. He eventually found a way back past the Sauber on lap 46 after a robust defence from Hulkenberg, who lost fifth place to a perfectly executed overtaking move from Raikkonen on lap 52 of 53.
Although the battle for victory in the two championships is all but over, the battle for second in the constructors' is heating up with Ferrari ten points clear of Mercedes and Lotus closing in on, and just 23 points off, third place. The next instalment of that battle and Vettel's sensational success story will come at the Indian Grand Prix in two weeks' time.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1