Sebastian Vettel won the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix with a wise strategy decision, tyre management, and a bit of luck. Mark Webber and Romain grosjean joined him on the podium. Much of the race was a build up to the final few laps, as teams and drivers strategized. Webber looked set to charge off after his teammate after sliding by Grosjean on mediums after a late third stop, but it was not to happen. The Frenchman kept Webber behind through successive laps in the DRS zone, keeping Webber in third until traffic allowed the Red Bull to close and pass along the front straight.
Neither Red Bull driver made a great start, while Grosjean’s was nearly perfect. He slid up on the inside as they bogged down. Into T1, Vettel’s front wing touched Lewis Hamilton’s rear tyre as the latter attempted to gain third, dropping the latter to last with a puncture. Hamilton would later retire. Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg, Esteban Gutierrez, Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, and Felipe Massa completed the top ten. Both Grosjean and Rosberg stopped on the cool down lap, running out of fuel.
Webber (1:30.915) won pole after a KERS issue slowed Vettel through Saturday’s three qualifying sessions at Suzuka. The Australian laid down a fast benchmark with time left for another run, then bettered his own time even as Vettel could not match it. In the end, Hamilton was the fastest of the rest of the field, sliding in on his own final lap to beat the rest of the top ten: Grosjean, Massa, Hulkenberg, Alonso, Raikkonen, and Button.
Though the times in Q3 were blazingly fast, the real excitement occurred in Q2, when first Gutierrez’s Sauber caught fire in the garage, then Vergne’s brakes caught fire on the track. Both fires were quickly extinguished, with the former able to complete his Q2 running and qualify fourteenth, though the latter’s day was done. He caused a red flag with three minutes to go in Q2. Jules Bianchi suffered a ten place grid penalty for his third reprimand of the season last weekend in Korea, as did Charles Pic, while Adrian Sutil dropped five places for a gearbox change after his crash in the final practice.
Sutil was not the only driver to crash in practice sessions. Bianchi and van der Garde crashed into the barriers during the Friday morning practice, then Maldonado lost a wheel. Williams was later fined sixty thousand Euro for an unsafe release. Maldonado crashed in the afternoon as well as his earlier misfortune. Perez and Raikkonen ended their sessions early as Suzuka claimed drivers more used the extra runoff area on newer F1 circuits. Hamilton, Vettel, and Webber all took a turn in leading a practice session, with Rosberg, Massa, Raikkonen, Grosjean, and Alonso in the fastest five in at least one of the three sessions. Within the first five laps, Pic would have to serve a drive through penalty for passing a red light during qualifying. He and Ricciardo would be the only drivers to start the race on the hard tyre.
Webber got away cleanly, if a bit slowly when the lights went out. Hamilton looked to split the Red Bulls, leaving Webber to twitch towards him. Grosjean was the big mover, sneaking into the lead through the first turn as he went to the inside of the fighting. Neither Red Bull driver had a particularly quick start. Vettel and Hamilton had a bit of contact, as the former attempted to pass the latter for third. Vettel radioed with potential front wing damage, and Hamilton went straight down the order to last. He had a right rear puncture and lost the tyre in bits on his way back around to pit. He also suffered floor damage. Van der Garde and Bianchi managed to crash each other out on the first lap.
At the end of the first lap, Grosjean led Webber by six tenths, Vettel, Rosberg, Massa, Alonso, Hulkenberg, Perez, Gutierrez, and Button the top ten. Raikkonen was eleventh. As the drivers settled in after the jostling of the first lap, Grosjean slowly eked out a tenth here and there on Webber. Vettel sat safely enough in third, with Rosberg well adrift in fourth. Massa was just a half second of Alonso at the end of the fifth lap, with Hulkenberg another second behind. Perez had Gutierrez nearly on his gearbox, with Button also under attack from Raikkonen.
Meanwhile, Vettel’s race engineer told him to hold back to safe his tyres, requesting a two second gap between the teammates. Raikkonen made his way around Button on the front straight, neatly taking the final points position into the first turn. Webber too received a message from Red Bull that if he could not pass Grosjean, to drop back to a two second gap to save the tyres.
Pit Stops Begin (L9 of 53)/End L10 of 53:
Vergne pitted on L8 from seventeenth. Meanwhile, Massa heard “Multifunction Strategy A, now please.” Button, Bottas, Sutil, and Hamilton all pitted on L9, with Hamilton retiring with too high brake temperatures. Gutierrez and Maldonado pitted on the next lap as the field shuffled through their first stops. Grosjean still led at the end of L10, more than two seconds ahead of Webber, who had a similar gap to his teammate behind. Hulkenberg pitted on L11, as did di Resta. Rosberg, despite going well wide at T1, remained fourth, with Massa still ahead of Alonso. Webber made his first stop on L12, after receiving an “engine 21” message. Massa, Raikkonen, and Chilton also pitted.
Grosjean pitted from the lead on L13, with Rosberg following him in for new tyres. Perez also pitted. Grosjean rejoined ahead of Webber, with Vettel taking the lead until his own stop. On Rosberg’s stop, Mercedes released him early nearly into the path of the entering Perez. That forced some Lotus mechanics to hop out of their way. Rosberg and Mercedes would come under investigation from the stewards.
Alonso pitted on L14. Despite a race fast lap on his out lap, Perez remained ahead of his teammate. They would trade position for a few turns, but Perez would stay ahead. Vettel made his stop on L15, leaving only Ricciardo yet to stop. Rosberg would recieve a drive-through for the unsafe release.
End L15 of 53:
At the end of L15, Grosjean led Webber, Vettel, Ricciardo, Rosberg, Hulkenberg, Massa, Alonso, Gutierrez, and Raikkonen as the top ten. Grosjean had just under two seconds on Webber, with Vettel another four seconds adrift, though his times were picking up. Rosberg served his penalty on L17, releasing Hulkenberg.
On the radio, Vettel learned that he was more than three seconds behind Webber, “so you can just sit there for a while.” Pic pitted on L18 for his first tyre changing stop. Back on the track, Ricciardo had a train behind him of Hulkenberg, Massa, Alonso, Gutierrez, and Raikkonen. On the straight, Hulkenberg looked to pass Ricciardo but could not, while Alonso pulled out and passed his teammate into the first turn. Into 130R, Hulkenberg took Ricciardo, only to have Massa have a go up the inside at Alonso as Alonso looked to pass Ricciardo.
After Alonso pulled away, Massa went wide and left room for Gutierrez to attempt a pass at the hairpin. Though Gutierrez looked set to pass the Ferrari, hewas the big loser as Massa remained ahead, and Raikkonen passed the young driver. Ricciardo made his first stop on L22, dropping to sixteenth. Webber seemed to have been released to chase after Grosjean with a “multi 3” message, posting a race fast lap and dropping more than a half second off the gap between himself and the leader.
Halfway (End L27 of 53):
Grosjean led Vettel at the end of L27, with Webber, Hukenberg, Alonso, massa, Raikkonen, Gutierrez, Perez, and Bottas the top ten. Maldonado and di Resta were eleventh and twelfth, but the latter pitted on L27. Back on the radio, Vettel learned that he was not racing his teammate, but instead racing Grosjean. Replays soon showed Ricciardo running well wide and nearly crashing into Sutil as he regained the track. Both continued safely on.
Bottas and Sutil pitted on L29, continuing the steady trickle of drivers in to change tyres as strategy decisions came in from the teams. Again on the radio, Red Bull requested Vettel “put pressure on Grosjean.” Back in the pit lane, Massa stopped, as did Maldonado who had just been passed by Ricciardo on the previous lap. Grosjean gave up the lead to Vettel as L29 ended, with Hulkenberg again following him in. The latter locked up on pit entry in a rather spectacular fashion.
Both di Resta and Ricciardo came under investigation for leaving the track and gaining advantage. As halfway came and gone, the field was a bit out of order with pit stops still going by. Alonso, Gutierrez, and Perez all pitted on L31. Perez had the same slow issue on the right rear when pitting for McLaren. Ricciardo received a drive through penalty after the earlier investigation. Raikkonen pitted.
At the end of L32, Vettel led Webber by eleven seconds, with Grosjean another nine back. Hulkenberg, Alonso, Massa, Raikkonen, Rosberg, Button, and Vergne completed the top ten. Ricciardo had been within their number, but dropped to fourteenth on his penalty. The stewards were quite busy, investigating and giving Massa a drive-through for speeding in the pit lane. He would soon serve his penalty, though it would confuse Raikkonen. Lotus informed him of Massa’s penalty, as Massa had been just over a second behind the Finn, only Raikkonen wondered, “Why we have drive through penalty?” The team responded, “Massa, has penalty, Massa, Massa.” In response, Raikkonen posted a race fast lap and moved up to less than two seconds behind Alonso.
15 Laps Remaining of 53:
Vettel pitted from the lead on L38, rejoining in third behind Grosjean after his second stop. His race engineer exhorted him, “that’s Grosjean in front of you. Go and get him.” Webber then led at the end of L38, with Grosjean, Vettel, Hulkenberg, Alonso, Raikkonen, Rosberg, Button, Gutierrez, and Massa the top ten. Taikkonen had gained quite a lot of time on Alonso, sitting less than a second behind his soon-to-be-teammate. Lotus cheekily tweeted, “Fernando: #Kimi is faster than you… we repeat; Kimi is faster than you…”
Rosberg pitted on L41, even as Vettel began pushing Grosjean on the track. Vettel looked to the outside at the chicane, but Grosjean kept him behind. Vettel went through along the straight despite not using the DRS until the very end, and swept into second into the first turn. He was then fourteen seconds behind his teammate. Webber presumably had to make another stop. Further back, Button pitted soon thereafter from seventh.
10 Laps Remaining:
Webber pitted with eleven laps to go, dropping from the race lead to third and switching to the softer, medium compound tyre. Perez soon pitted as well, coming in with a punctured tyre after some contact with Rosberg. Webber looked set to race away after the leaders, posting a race fastest first sector. He was just over two and a half seconds behind Grosjean with nine laps to go, having gained a second and a half in the just the precious lap.
Vettel radioed, “keep him away from me,” though it was not clear who precisely he meant. Alonso, meanwhile, had moved up to fourth, taking Hulkenberg as Raikkonen closed on the both of them. Raikkonen looked ready to pass Hulkenberg as soon as he could. Fighting his own Lotus, Webber had gotten almost stuck behind Grosjean, with the former unable to make a pass stick on the Frenchman, who defended beautifully along the front straight. That lost Webber time, and allowed Vettel to gain a second on them in the lead.
Webber had another look on the front straight but could not make a move to take second let alone charge off after his teammate. Even as they came up behind traffic, Webber could not get close enough coming out of the final chicane to close on Grosjean and make a pass. A bit further back, Raikkonen remained behind Hulkenberg, no matter how much he worried the German. Webber looked for an over under through the chicane in traffic, and while he did not then pass it allowed him to close enough. Webber made the pass stick even as Grosjean pushed him toward the pit wall, and they entered T1.
Raikkonen also passed Hulkenberg around the outside at the chicane, making it stick with just over a lap to go. In the end, Webber lost far too much time behind Grosjean to come anywhere near Vettel. Grosjean finished third, with Alonso impossibly far behind but still part of the championship fight.
Final Positions, 2013 Japanese Grand Prix:
Driver Team Gap Stops 1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 2 2. Mark Webber Red Bull 7.1 3 3. Romain Grosjean Lotus 9.9 2 4. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 45.6 2 5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 47.3 2 6. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 51.6 2 7. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 71.6 2 8. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 72.0 4 9. Jenson Button McLaren 80.8 3 10. Felipe Massa Ferrari 89.2 3 11. Paul di Resta Force India 98.5 2 12. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1 Lap 3 13. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1 Lap 3 14. Adrian Sutil Force India 1 Lap 2 15. Sergio Perez McLaren 1 Lap 3 16. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1 Lap 2 17. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1 Lap 2 18. Charles Pic Caterham 1 Lap 3 19. Max Chilton Marussia 1 Lap 2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 46 Laps 2 Giedo van der Garde Caterham Jules Bianchi Marussia