Japanese GP: Exclusive Race Report
Fernando Alonso © MNI Double world champion Fernando Alonso scored a back-to-back victory in the Japanese GP at Fuji on Sunday, after a win in Singapore two weeks ago.
It was the 21st victory for the Spaniard and the much-improved pace of the Renaults was underlined by a very competitive drive from Nelson Piquet who finished fourth.
Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber) was an early race leader but finished second, with Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari) recovering from a first-lap incident to finish third.
Combatants for the world title, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, both succumbed to the pressure by making impetuous mistakes that cost them drive-through penalties and dropped them to the back of the field.
Räikkönen made the best start off the line and led the field down to the first corner, while pole sitter Lewis Hamilton (McLaren-Mercedes) dropped behind team mate Heikki Kovalainen (McLaren-Mercedes). Hamilton muscled past Kovalainen and attacked Räikkönen, but he left his braking too late for the right-hander and locked up his brakes, banging wheels with the Ferrari. Räikkönen was forced wide off the racing line onto the outfield along with Hamilton and Felipe Massa (Ferrari).
Behind, David Coulthard (Red Bull-Renault) was tagged on the right rear, braking his suspension and sending him off the track into the tyre barriers. Meanwhile, Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber) had taken the lead, followed by Fernando Alonso (Renault), Kovalainen, Hamilton, Jarno Trulli (Toyota), Nelson Piquet (Renault), Massa and Räikkönen.
Hamilton had a bad first lap and by the end of it he had dropped from fourth to seventh and crucially behind both Ferraris. At the end of the main straight, Hamilton came up the inside of Massa. Both left their braking late into the first corner, and Massa ran off the track onto the grass, allowing Hamilton past, but the Brazilian cut back onto the track and hit the side of Hamilton's McLaren, spinning it around. Hamilton was left in the middle of the track facing a field of cars rushing at him and he had no option but to wait for the entire field to go past. He then pitted for an examination of his car and a change of tyres and rejoined the race having dropped from pole to last in just two laps.
On lap 8, Adrian Sutil retired his Force India-Ferrari after a rear tyre exploded and damaged the car. Timo Glock (Toyota) who had been on the pace during practice and qualifying, retired with broken suspension.
On lap 10, the running order was Kubica, Alonso (+1.5), Kovalainen (+2.8), Räikkönen (+4.1), Trulli (+10.4), Sébastien Bourdais (Toro Rosso-Ferrari) (+16.0), Massa (+17.5), Piquet (+20.2), Sebastian Vettel (Toro Rosso-Ferrari) (+21.3), Mark Webber (Red Bull-Renault) (+38.0),
Stewards then handed out drive-through penalties to Hamilton for his pass on Räikkönen and also to Massa for his pass on Hamilton. At the same moment as the penalties were announced, Kovalainen slowed and then stopped out on the course, and championship leaders McLaren found them selves with only one car in the race - 70 seconds behind the race leader.
On lap 17, Kubica pitted from the lead, releasing Alonso into the lead. The Spaniard took advantage of a clear track and empty tanks to set the fastest lap of the race - 1'19.169. He and Räikkönen pitted next. Trulli, who was next to inherit the lead, pitted on lap 21. Giancarlo Fisichella (Force India-Ferrari) was the sixth retirement of the race when he returned to his garage on lap 22.
Alonso had made a better stop than Kubica, and though they were lying in third and fourth places, the cars ahead of them had not yet pitted and they would move back to the top of the lap charts.
Meanwhile the two chief protagonists for the world championship, Massa and Hamilton, were down in 13th and 14th places, 65 and 77 seconds behind the race leader respectively, with Hamilton catching Massa by a second a lap.
Nelson Piquet, who has not performed well this year, found himself in the lead of the race by virtue of not having pitted so far. He had not been out of the top ten in this race and after pitting on lap 28, he rejoined in sixth place.
With all the leading cars having pitted, Alonso was now the legitimate race leader, followed by Kubica (+7.8) and Räikkönen (+12.4).
On lap 33, Massa got past Jenson Button (Honda) for 13th place and Hamilton followed him later in the lap, the gap between the two down to 8 seconds.
Alonso was reeling off a string of laps in the 1'19.2 range that allowed him to build a substantial lead of 12.6 sec over second-placed Kubica. Alonso then set a new fastest lap of 1'19.101 on lap 41. Hamilton went into his pit for the second and final time, while Massa still had one to make. The Brazilian was up to ninth place and within sniffing distance of Rosberg 13 seconds ahead in the final championship point position.
On lap 44, Alonso made his final pit stop, swopping to the softer compound tyre for his final stint. His pit crew made an adjustment to the Renault's front wing to combat understeer and Alonso rejoined in sixth.
Reigning world champion Räikkönen was also setting a good pace and posted a personal best of 1'19.115 on lap 45. He was in second place, 4.4 sec behind race leader Kubica with neither having made their final pit stop. On the next lap, the Finn set a race best time of 1'19.076. Kubica pitted and Räikkönen took over the lead for a lap before he went in for fuel and tyres on lap 48.
The Ferrari pit stop was not too slick and Räikkönen rejoined the race in seventh, crucially a car length or two behind Kubica.
Trulli, Piquet and Bourdais then took over the lead, but all three still had to make their final stops.
Massa had now moved into eighth place and a single championship point, and to celebrate, he set the fastest lap of the race - 1'18.963. Then Massa had brain fade. Bourdais left the pits and exited ahead of Massa in seventh place, with the cars arriving in the first corner side by side, when Massa turned into Bourdais and hit the Toro Rosso in the side. Massa spun to a stop, while Bourdais continued unaffected. The stewards announced that the incident was under investigation.
Back at the front, Kubica and Räikkönen were battling for third place. The Finn got past, but the Pole got into the slipstream coming down the long main straight and regained the place. Once again Räikkönen got alongside and stayed there through a right-hander, but the next left-hander gave the BMW driver the racing line and he held it, forcing the Ferrari wide and off the track, but the Finn soon closed up again.
Piquet got past Trulli into fourth place, and with Kubica and Räikkönen holding each other up in their battle for second, Piquet was starting to close the 1.9 sec gap between them. The second-place battle was also allowing Alonso to increase his lead, but even without that advantage he was flying, opening the gap to 13 sec.
Tenth-placed Massa set a new fastest lap of 1'18.426 with 12 laps to go, while Hamilton was 20 sec behind him in 12th place.
Räikkönen's softer compound tyres started graining from the Finn's pushing and Piquet moved to within 1.3 sec.
With six laps left, Massa was in ninth place, 5.4 sec behind Webber and the single championship point the Australian's eighth place was offering, and closing at a second a lap. That point could prove crucial to the title battle between Massa and Hamilton, who had a seven-point lead coming into this race, with two races to go.
With three laps remaining, Massa closed with Webber, who was battling for rear-end grip. The Ferrari got into the slipstream and alongside down the straight, and despite aggressive defending by the Australian, Massa got past into eighth.
2008 Japanese Formula One Grand Prix - Race Results
Pos Driver Team Time
1 Alonso, Fernando Renault
2 Kubica, Robert BMW Sauber +5.2
3 Räikkönen, Kimi Ferrari +6.4
4 Piquet, Nelson Renault +20.5
5 Trulli, Jarno Toyota +23.7
6 Bourdais, Sébastien Toro Rosso-Ferrari +34.0
7 Vettel, Sebastian Toro Rosso-Ferrari +39.2
8 Massa, Felipe Ferrari +46.1
9 Webber, Mark Red Bull-Renault +50.8
10 Heidfeld, Nick BMW Sauber +54.1
11 Rosberg, Nico Williams-Toyota +62.0
12 Hamilton, Lewis McLaren-Mercedes +78.9
13 Barrichello, Rubens Honda +1 lap
14 Button, Jenson Honda +1 lap
15 Nakajima, Kazuki Williams-Toyota +1 lap
DNF Kovalainen, Heikki McLaren-Mercedes DNF
DNF Glock, Timo Toyota DNF
DNF Coulthard, David Red Bull-Renault DNF
DNF Sutil, Adrian Force India DNF
DNF Fisichella, Giancarlo Force India DNF