Alonso to McLaren? This was the rumour sweeping the paddock as the F1 circus gathered at Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix, and the media seemingly had little but gossip to fall back on to generate interest as a fourth consecutive mondiale appeared inevitable for Sebastian Vettel and the dominant Red Bulls.
McLaren desperately need a driver of Alonso’s calibre, with Jenson Button seemingly requiring the perfect car before he can mount a challenge, and Sergio Perez looking respectable but nothing special. Alonso is certainly a frustrated figure and some of his recent comments, along with the signing of Kimi Raikkonen as his team mate for 2014 indicate that he may be prepared to change horses. However Alonso is hard headed and he will surely reflect that Ferrari has produced the most consistent challenge to Red Bull since 2010. This year McLaren has produced a dire car and the team has had only one driver’s champion since 2000. The reality is that McLaren would be a sideways move for him, but you never know. Undoubtedly Eddie Jordan will have the inside track on this.
Alonso came to Suzuka as the only driver still with a mathematical chance of stopping Vettel taking another title. Any pre race fantasies of a twist in the title race were swiftly swept away by qualifying. The Red Bulls were again dominant but this time Webber took the pole, revelling in the Suzuka circuit and the prospect of putting one over on his team mate. Massa took P5, a creditable performance behind Hamilton and Grosjean in the Lotus on the second row. Alonso could manage only P8 which must be considered lacklustre given Massa’s lap.
For neutrals at least the race promised to be good. With Webber ahead of Vettel and Grosjean and Hamilton right behind it seemed as though we might see some fireworks at the start. At least we might avoid Vettel controlling from the front as has become the norm.
So it proved. As the lights went out Romain Grosjean made a great start and powered between the Red Bulls and into the lead from P4 on the grid. Webber and Vettel tucked in behind and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes was eliminated following an apparently minor collision with Vettel in the first corner. Rosberg held 4th from P6 on the grid and then came the two Ferraris in 5th and 6th, Alonso having made his customary fine start moving up two places from his grid position.
Grosjean, driving with a maturity that has taken a while to arrive, looked quick and comfortable at the front but he couldn’t open much of a gap from the Red Bulls and there was always the feeling that they were managing their tyres and biding their time in the early laps. Grosjean maintained his lead through the first pit stops, with Webber being the first to stop after the team controversially switching him to a theoretically less than optimum 3 stop strategy – more material for conspiracy theorists! Webber held the lead for a while but Vettel made his move after his second stop sweeping past Grosjean for P2 and inheriting the lead when Webber made his final stop. Webber rejoined the race in P3 and quickly caught the Lotus again but made hard work of passing Grosjean. By the time he had he could not mount a challenge to Vettel who finished 7 seconds ahead. In the end Vettel had the superior strategy and executed it flawlessly. He really doesn’t make many mistakes and with speed in hand he doesn’t need to take too many chances. He did have to work a bit harder than usual for the win at Suzuka however. The story was different this race, but the ending the same, another win for Vettel.
Webber will have finished the race disappointed not to have won and suspicious of the team’s motives for the change in strategy. In all probability however Vettel could have passed him on track if necessary. Grosjean had a good race even if the Lotus couldn’t match the Red Bulls for sheer pace over the race distance. The result will have boosted the confidence of a driver who undoubtedly has raw speed. Alonso had a relatively uneventful race, finishing fourth, an impressive +4 on his grid position but 40 seconds behind the top three, so realistically the best that could be achieved on the day. Massa provided further ammunition for his detractors, finishing in P10, five places down on his qualifying performance after picking up a penalty for speeding in the pit lane – the sort of mistake top drawer drivers don’t make.
Kimi Raikkonen brought his Lotus into 5th less than two seconds behind Alonso. One wonders what he might have achieved had he qualified better than 9th. Nico Hulkenberg followed up his 4th place in Korea with 6th in Japan offering support to those who believe he would have been a better choice to partner Fernando next year.
So we must wait until India for Vettel’s coronation. The season has fizzled out early, with Vettel having won every race since the resumption at Spa following the summer break. Ferrari are in a close race with Mercedes and Lotus for 2nd place in the constructors championship, while Alonso has a 30 point lead over Kimi in the drivers’ championship, with Lewis close behind. In reality these are sideshows. Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have dominated both championships, and deserve their success, and our admiration. It does become a little bit boring though, and Vettel has attracted some booing on the podium. Not we hope from Ferrari fans, who appreciate excellence and sportingly recall how the rest of the F1 world must have felt during the Schumacher years. The current formula now seems rather sterile so we look forward with eager anticipation to the wide sweeping technical changes next year to shuffle the pack and re-kindle interest in the racing.
Click here for FIA lap chart.
Stefano Domenicali: “Today’s leading trio had a better pace than us, but now it’s important that we do not let up at all: over the final four races, we have an obligation to demonstrate that Ferrari never gives up fighting for the top places”.
Fernando Alonso: “Fourth place was the most I could do today, as the three ahead of me were really out of reach. Certainly, we need to find something extra if we want to finish on the podium in the next four races. Today, Mercedes had a few problems and we made up some important points, but we must give it our all, if we want to stay second in the Constructors’ classification, because they are not far behind. I want to think about the next race in India. This one is already in the past”.
Felipe Massa: “That was a really difficult day, with the drive-through wiping out any chance of having a good race or bringing home more points. Having taken the penalty, I was stuck in traffic and the cars that had made a third stop towards the end of the race were able to pass me easily on new tyres. I am disappointed, because I’m sure that without that mistake I could have got a good result”.