Japanese GPR Race Recap: Vettel storms away, Alonso out again, Kamui podiums

Sebastian Vettel won the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix, with Felipe Massa and Kamui Kobayashi joining him on the podium at Suzuka. Kobayashi and Jenson Button had a battle of timing, as the British driver hunted down the local hero in the final laps. Still, Button finished fourth, unable to catch Kobayashi. Lewis Hamilton rounded out the top five.

After a first lap melee in which Fernando Alonso spun and slid back onto the track in front of other cars, the Safety Car was deployed. Alonso and Nico Rosberg, neither of whom had touched the other, were both knocked out of the race. Though Romain Grosejan ran into Mark Webber, the Australian managed to keep going and continue on, finishing the race ninth. The stewards handed Grosjean a ten second stop-go penalty. Vettel led the race from lights to flag, maintaining a solid gap on second place finisher Massa. There were plenty of diving passes and close racing, with Hamilton, Kobayashi, Schumacher, and Raikkonen often in the thick of it. Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Maldonado, Webber, and Ricciardo completed the top ten.

Vettel (1:30.839) won pole with a time set early in Q3 during Saturday’s qualifying sessions, as a late spin by Kimi Raikkonen halted the remaining drivers’ final fast laps after the checkered flag. Webber qualified second fastest to start alongside his teammate, while Button’s third fastest time was dropped to an eighth starting position with a gearbox change. That put Kobayashi into the third starting position, next to Grosjean on the second row. The three sessions remained relatively uneventful other than Raikkonen’s spin. Though Senna got dropped in Q1, he and Williams complained that Vergne impeded the Brazilian’s pace. The stewards agreed and dropped the Frenchman three positions from his seventeenth qualifying position. Hulkenberg also dropped five places on the grid from his tenth qualifying position after a gearbox change between the first and second practices. Vettel nearly lost pole position, but the stewards merely reprimanded the defending champion for blocking points leader Alonso in Q3. The Spaniard qualified seventh fastest, but started sixth. Raikkonen, Button, Hamilton, and Massa rounded out the top ten, with Perez starting fifth.

Button (1:34.507) led the top five of Hamilton, Webber, Rosberg, and Schumacher in the first Friday practice. In the second practice, Webber (1:32.493) took top honors over Hamilton, Vettel, Hulkenberg, and Alonso. Finally, Vettel (1:32.136) led Webber, Massa, Schumacher, and Perez as the fastest five on Saturday morning. Most of the sessions were fairly straightforward, with only one red flag all weekend. Di Resta dropped the wheels at Spoon and damaged his Force India in the Friday afternoon session, bringing out a red flag. Schumacher later had the same incident, but the session did not pause again.

Race Start:
The fine Suzuka weather continued for Sunday, a rarity for the Japanese Grand Prix. Schumacher, Pic, and Vergne all started on the harder tyre while the rest of the runners used the soft tyre. Vettel got a fine start as the lights went out, as Webber slid in behind. Kobayashi pushed forward around Webber for second. Alonso spun into the first turn, narrowing the track through the gravel and sliding back onto the track.

Raikkonen had been behind but slightly alongside Alonso. The Finn puffed dust up from the left rear as he dropped a wheel and wiggled into Alonso, who had moved over to avoid Hamilton. That wiggle forced Alonso out and into his spin. The Safety Car was deployed after contact. On replays, it seemed that Alonso and Raikkonen had contact while jostling for position as Alonso reacted to the McLaren’s movement, pushing Alonso to drop a wheel off into the gravel. At about the same time, Grosjean reacted to Perez and ran into Webber. Meanwhile, Rosberg was also caught in the melee as  Senna bumped into him after the Grosjean/Webber contact, ending his race.

Safety Car Deployed (L1):
Vettel, Kobayashi, Button, Massa, Raikkonen, Perez, Hamilton, Hulkenberg, Maldonado, and Ricciardo were the top ten. Glock, Grosjean, Kovalainen, Vergne, Di Resta, Schumacher, de la Rosa, Pic, Petrov, Karthikeyan, Senna, and Webber completed the runners at the end of the first lap, under the SC. Grosjean, Senna, and Webber all pitted. Webber had come to a stop on the track but continued on into the pits and back out before the restart. The Grosjean/Webber incident soon came under investigation from the stewards.

Restart (L3):
There were no shenanigans on the restart, as Vettel made a clean getaway. Kobayashi, Button, and Massa all held station as Perez had a go at Raikkonen. He caught the Finn, but the former world champion forced the Mexican driver to run wide and drop back to seventh. After that sorted itself out, the drivers continued to lap steadily. Vettel had a three second gap over Kobayashi, with Button just over a second behind. Massa looked ready to try for a podium position a half second behind the Briton. Raikkonen, Hamilton, Perez, Hulkenberg, Maldonado, and Ricciardo rounded out the top ten at the end of L5. The order would not soon last as Perez braked very late to dive in under Hamilton for seventh. Soon thereafter, race control announced a ten-second stop-go penalty for Grosjean, as he had caused the collision with Webber on the first lap. He immediately served the penalty. Meanwhile, Mercedes told Schumacher that they had lost all telemetry from the car.

End L10 of 53:
Vettel continued to lead at the end of L10, gaining time on Kobayashi. A bit further back, Perez had truly begun to catch back up to Raikkonen as they sat in fifth and sixth. Word soon came in that the Senna/Rosberg incident would be investigated. McLaren told Hamilton that he had managed five laps beyond his pit stop delta. Button, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, and Di Resta all pitted as L14 began. Button dropped to eighth, Raikkonen tenth, Hulkenberg 13th, and Di Resta 19th. Kobayashi did so on the next lap, rejoining in seventh. Perez made his stop on the next lap, as Raikkonen smoothly takes position from Vergne. Pic and Karthikeyan also stopped on L16. Hamilton and Maldonado dove into the pits at the same time, dropping to . Vettel pitted from the lead on L18, with Massa, Ricciardo, and Schumacher following him in. On the track, Kobayashi managed to take Ricciardo at the hairpin. Meanwhile, Button radioed the team to tell them that there seemed to be trouble with his gearbox.

In other McLaren issues, Perez looked to pass Hamilton at the hairpin. He had already gotten a bit wobbly in the kink, and in an effort to both pass and avoid an accident with Hamilton managed to beach his Sauber in the gravel. At the end of L19, Vettel led Massa, Kobayashi, Button, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Perez, Hulkenberg, Maldonado, and Webber as the top ten. Vettel had ten seconds on Massa, while no one in the top ten was closer than Hamilton, just a half second behind Raikkonen.

On L21, race control announced a drive through penalty for Senna, after that first lap incident that knocked Rosberg out of the race. Button’s gearbox issues continued, as he informed the team that the car continued to miss neutral. The McLaren radio was a busy one, as Hamilton began complaining that his front tyres had gone off already, just seven laps after his stop. Down in the McLaren garage, words soon came out that there had been a small brake fire during Button’s stop, overheating a sensor that could be contributing to the gearbox issues. McLaren then switched Button to “Plan C,” indicating that they were at the target pit stop time, “minus one.”

Halfway (End L27):
Webber pitted for the second time on L27 from ninth, as his teammate led the race. Massa, Kobayashi, Button, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Hulkenberg, Maldonado, Ricciardo, and Di Resta completed the top ten at halfway. Schumacher dove in under Di Resta to take tenth. Webber, Vergne, Kovalainen, Senna, Glock, Grosjean, Pic, Petrov, de la Rosa, and Karthikeyan completed the running order. Vettel’s lead began to grow around halfway, moving from ten seconds to more than twelve in just a couple of laps. Meanwhile, despite his issues, Button began to close in on Kobayashi.

Second Pit Stops Begin (L31):
Raikkonen pitted again on L31 from sixth, dropping to ninth. Kobayashi followed suit on the next lap, as did Hamilton and Hulkenberg. They were in a row, holding positions fourth, fifth, and sixth. Hamilton rejoined just as Raikkonen came by. The Finn tried to squeeze the Briton, but Hamilton stuck it out through Turn 1 and pushed his way through. Di Resta pitted on the next lap, with Maldonado and Karthikeyan following on L34. Maldonado had quietly been running in the top ten all race, pitting from fourth and dropping to . HRT pushed Karthikeyan back into the garage on his stop. Ricciardo pitted on L35, as did Senna. Button pitted as Vettel began L36, going in in third and rejoining fourth. In the stop, the right rear tyre man did not seem to have gotten his job done, but he did not wave to indicate that something was amiss. Massa made his second stop on the next lap. Red Bull posted another very fast stop, getting Vettel all changed and back out of the box in just 2.1 seconds

10 Laps Remaining:
With ten laps remaining, the German had extended the gap back to Massa to nearly eighteen seconds. No drivers were close enough across the line to use the DRS advantage, though Senna managed to push through on Grosjean for fourteenth around 130R. As the laps ticked down, Button began to catch Kobayashi. They were separated by 1.7s with eight laps left. At that point, Vettel led a top ten of Massa, Kobayashi, Button, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Maldonado, Webber, and Ricciardo. Fighting over the last points position, Schumacher looked to get around Ricciardo, but the Australian driver held him off to keep position. They would continue to fight through the final five laps. Meanwhile, Petrov received a drive through penalty for ignoring blue flags and served it immediately.

Button seemed unable to get closer than a second and a half to Kobayashi as the laps ticked away. He continued to push, but was 1.2s back when two laps remained. The Brit posted the best first sector of the race, as they both set the same second sector time. As the penultimate lap began, Button had gained only a tenth and remained more than a second behind. Meanwhile, Schumacher gained a point by getting around Ricciardo, though the Australian would fight back and retake the position on the final lap. Grosjean pitted to retire as the final lap began, but Button had finally gotten within the DRS zone of Kobayashi. Button pushed hard across the line to start the lap, but seemed just a bit too far behind to pass at the hairpin. Vettel won the race and closed the points gap to Alonso, leaving the Ferrari driver’s teammate Massa to take the podium. In the end Kobayashi held off Button to take a vital podium for Sauber at home in Japan.

Final Positions, 2012 Japanese Grand Prix:

1. Sebastian VettelRed Bull 2
2. Felipe MassaFerrari20.62
3. Kamui KobayashiSauber24.52
4. Jenson ButtonMcLaren25.02
5. Lewis HamiltonMcLaren46.42
6. Kimi RaikkonenLotus50.42
7. Nico HulkenbergForce India51.12
8. Pastor MaldonadoWilliams52.32
9. Mark WebberRed Bull54.62
10. Daniel RicciardoToro Rosso66.92
11. Michael SchumacherMercedes67.72
12. Paul Di RestaForce India83.42
13. Jean-Eric VergneToro Rosso88.62
14. Bruno SennaWilliams88.74
15. Heikki KovalainenCaterham1 Lap2
16. Timo GlockMarussia1 Lap2
17. Vitaly PetrovCaterham1 Lap3
18. Pedro de la RosaHRT1 Lap2
19. Romain Grosjean (RET)Lotus2 Laps4
 Charles PicMarussia16 Laps3
 Narain KarthikeyanHRT21 Laps2
 Sergio PerezSauber35 Laps1
 Fernando AlonsoFerrari  
 Nico RosbergMercedes  
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