So strategy did come in to play at Red Bull this morning, but none of that awkward Multi 21 business. Instead the team opted to start Mark Webber with the plan for a three-stop strategy and Sebastian Vettel on a two stop. And guess which plan came out on top? The champion-elect (his lead is now 90 points with 100 left in the pot) however drove magnificently, intelligently, patiently and one assumes exactly to the plan the team had worked out last night. That’s how you win nine races in a season, and especially in this season. There was an awful lot of talk of not racing, holding back and minding your tyres this morning, wasn’t there?
Fernando Alonso’s fourth place means any championship knees-up at Red Bull will have to wait, but not for very long. Vettel now only needs fifth place or better in India to make it four straight Formula One World Championships before his 27th birthday. And, fan of the young man or not, that is an astonishing record. There was no booing today among the ever polite Japanese crowd.
But enough Red Bull, let’s talk about Romain Grosjean who was undoubtedly the star of this morning’s Japanese Grand Prix. Third behind two RB9s seemed like a pretty thin pay-off for a astonishing start from fourth to take the lead in to the first corner, then cautiously consolidating that lead over Mark Webber until way over half distance.
Finally having been jumped by Vettel after the final round of stops, Grosjean held off the Aussie for lap after lap until a combination of traffic and the advantage the RB9 had today (or any day this season) meant he had to yield to the inevitable.
But think back a year; RoGros was the wild boy of F1, the “first lap nutcase”, someone the establishment couldn’t wait to see the back off. Now he’s part of it, an obvious number one for Lotus in 2014. That’s some management job Monsieur Boullier, Bravo!
Now go and sign Nico Hulkenberg to race alongside him. RoGros and The Hulk will be the most exciting team in F1, never mind Ferrari’s ageing supergroup. Hulkenberg wasn’t able to hold off hordes of world champions today and both Alonso and Kimi Räikkonen were able to get by in the final stint, but not without huge efforts. Hulk’s Sauber teammate Esteban Gutierrez followed him home in seventh (his first points) suggesting that at least some of this late season form from Hulk has come from the C32, But we reckon he’s way too good to end up back at Force India — a talent like Hulkenberg’s needs taking forward, not back.
So the top ten; Vettel, Webber, Grosjean, Alsonso, Räikkonen, Gutierrez, Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa. No Lewis Hamilton in there, the 2008 Champion not finishing for the first time this year. HAM made a great start and was heading for second behind Grosjean after the first corner, only to be snagged by Vettel’s front wing and puncture his right rear immediately, so that by the time the pack had reached the first corner, Lewis was going backwards with car that was ripping its underside apart and would soon be retired.
It wasn’t a much better afternoon for Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, who was unsafely released in to the path of McLaren’s Sergio Perez and promptly got hit with a drive-through penalty, only to run straight back in to trouble with Perez out on the track. Perez came out worst this time not only with a puncture, but with his driving being pulled apart again. Perez would appear to be the new Grosjean, and McLaren, who scored just the two points with Button today, will need to ask themselves whether he really is what they need.
Mercedes’ tricky afternoon means its now ten points behind Ferrari in the Constructor’s Championship. Beating Ferrari is its aim this year, and Niki Lauda has nailed his colours to that particular mast. Rather more worryingly Lotus has closed the gap on it from behind and is only 23 points behind — and a team can score a lot more points at a race weekend than a driver can. The teams’ cup might just prove to be the down to the wire competition this series needs. That’s down to the wire for second place, of course.
But let’s not complain. Lotus and its long-wheelbase spec E21 showed this morning that it is possible to get ahead of Red Bull. Not necessarily beat, but get ahead of. And we’ll take that.