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Lewis Hamilton 12 points ahead after Japan

In a rain drenched race which forced the safety car to slow down the drivers for an extended period, Lewis Hamilton showed his mettle by taking the chequered flag and maximum points.

Luck was on the British rookie’s side in the Japanese Grand Prix as arch-rival, Fernando Alonso, failed to finish when his car seemed to break up in mid track.

However, more controversy has followed the result. The world championship leader has been accused by Red Bull driver Mark Webber of causing him to hit Toro Rosso’s Sebastian Vettel by speeding up and slowing down behind the safety car.

Footage taken from the grandstand is believed to show Hamilton dramatically decelerating and causing the shunt behind him. In theory this could lose him points in the FIA inquiry currently taking place.

However, it’s unlikely the sport will shoot the golden goose and lose the feelgood finale now building up for the last two races of the season.

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Toyota and Team Orders

Autosport magazine reports that the Toyota team did ask Jarno Trulli to move over and let Ralf Schumacher through in the Japanese Grand Prix. Apparently, this has caused some frustration to Toyota management since it may have resulted in the loss of points – there is some speculation that Ralf could have beaten both Button and Raikkonen (yeah, right) had Trulli done as he was told. Jarno is unrepentant, however:

Trulli said after the race that his pace was slow because of tyre issues, but that the team should have been happy for both cars to finish in the points.

“I had several problems and struggled with my last set of tyres – particularly for the first 10 laps,” he explained. “The most important thing is that we both scored points.”

Jarno

Jarno and Ralf

This is all very interesting as regards the team’s harmony or lack of it, but isn’t something being missed? Have we all forgotten about the ban on team orders?

Autosport avoid implicating the Toyota team by stating that their information came from a “source” but, being a reputable magazine, I can’t see it publishing anything that did not come from someone who should know. And that means someone within the team, surely.

It should also be remembered that the TV commentators to the race fully expected that Trulli would have to let Ralf through – the German was obviously faster and it made perfect sense for the sake of the team that he be let loose. I think we must all have shared in the surprise that this did not happen and that the Toyotas circulated for the rest of the race at Trulli’s pace.

So, what of the ban on team orders? Would not Toyota’s request, repeated three times, have amounted to just that? If it had been Massa being asked to let Schumacher through into the lead, would not every other team be lodging protests? It seems to me that there are double standards at work here – one rule for when it really matters and another when no-one could care less.

In fact, the whole thing merely shows up the stupidity of the ban on team orders anyway. F1 is a team sport (there would be nothing for the stars to drive were it not for their teams) and sometimes things have to be arranged for the good of the team – or for the sake of a championship. Team orders have been a part of F1 from the very beginning and it is only recently that any comment, let alone protest, has been raised over them. And that is because the audience base has increased so rapidly that it includes many who have yet to learn all the nuances of the sport. Those who understand how it all works raise no eyebrows over such things.

The rule is impossible to police anyway. It is easy enough for the number two driver to pretend to fight for his position while letting the number one through. And these days number twos go into every race knowing what they must do if the situation arises (just ask Massa about that). There is no need for the team to get on the blower and issue instructions – that’s all taken care of beforehand.

In the end, it comes down to personal opinion on whether a driver is obeying team orders or not when his team leader passes him. And, as we saw at Monza, rules that depend upon personal interpretation are an open invitation to abuse.

The rules and regulations governing F1 are complicated enough without including such meddling in team affairs. I say the FIA should get rid of the ban and let things take their normal course. Yes, occasionally a crowd favorite might have to give way to a team leader for the sake of the championship; but that’s F1 – sometimes the team’s interests must come before an individual’s.

And another thing: who would bet on Jarno Trulli receiving 100% of the team’s efforts next year?

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Japanese Grand Prix Thoughts

I said it would take an engine failure for Michael to lose this one to Alonso. That was sticking my neck out a bit, considering Michael’s Ferrari engine hasn’t let go since 2001. Not that Ferrari have been totally reliable since then – the number two drivers have had their share of engine-related retirements. But, until yesterday, Michael’s luck had ensured that he would not be the one to suffer.

Alonso

Alonso celebrates his victory

There was plenty of angst over Michael’s sudden departure from the race but the man himself took it very well, it must be admitted. Perhaps he, more than the rest of the Ferrari team, understood how it went some way towards evening up the score for Alonso’s engine failure at Monza. And, although Michael himself has owned defeat in the championship, anything can happen in motor racing and often does; there is one scenario left that could allow Michael to be champion this year. I refuse to name it for fear of jinxing the Brazilian race.

Alonso looked very good in this race. After hauling the Renault into second place, he drove with confidence and precision, never allowing Michael more than a few seconds lead. I doubt that he could have passed the Ferrari if fate had not intervened, but he was certainly keeping his title hopes alive with such a masterful drive.

Jenson Button had another unspectacular but very competent race to finish fourth. And Kimi Raikkonen did wonders with the off-form McLaren to grab fifth spot. But let us not forget that these two and Fisichella owe their good finishes to the Toyota team, to some extent, at least.

The Toyotas are an enigma – how do they manage to throw away so many good chances so consistently? At what point in the Suzuka race did they go from serious contenders to also-rans? Sixth and seventh are poor returns after having stayed with the leaders for the first stint.

Part of the answer is that they were running light and so had to pit before the rest, thereby losing their track positions. And their second set of tires was not as effective as the first. But they seemed to give up without a fight and let themselves be passed by poor strategy alone. In the end, it was another story of bright promise in qualification fading away in the race itself.

Heidfeld got the point for BMW Sauber but it was Kubica who looked good. After the Pole had recovered from his little trip across the gravel, he closed inexorably on his team leader and seemed quite capable of passing him, had he dared to risk it. The fact that he slotted in responsibly behind Heidfeld is another point in his favor; considering the praise that has been heaped upon his shoulders in his short F1 racing career, it is good to see that he is maintaining such a level head and sense of team effort.

Overall, the race proved that there is less to choose between the dry Michelins and the Bridgestone tires than we thought after qualifying. And that is how I like it, with everyone being on pretty much equal rubber so that we can see the true state of competition between the cars and drivers. The result was a race that may have lacked a little overtaking drama (well, let’s face it, we’ve all seen engine failures before) but held us spellbound even so.

And oh, Christijan Albers treated us to an explosive driveshaft failure on his Spyker. Now that’s something of a rarity these days – takes me back to the sixties, it does…

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Suzuka Qualifying

The weather gods were kind to Michael Schumacher again in Japan, the dry conditions giving Bridgestone a decisive advantage over Michelin. Whatever the hype from both camps, it is quite clear that tires are playing an enormous part in the races at the moment, allowing us to predict a Renault victory when it rains or a Ferrari win when it doesn’t.

Massa

Felipe Massa

So it is no surprise that the front two rows of the grid are Bridgestone-shod; if there is a surprise at all, it was that Massa managed to grab pole. Even that is not unprecedented, given the Brazilian’s performances of late. Some seem to think that his race in Shanghai was below par but that is ignoring the fact that he was hampered by his tires while the circuit was wet (and all the Bridgestone runners had problems to begin with) and was then taken out in a coming-together with Coulthard.

Massa looks like a champion waiting to happen. He is now as fast as Schumacher and is even developing a similarly ruthless willingness to do anything to get ahead. He begins to fit the Ferrari mold very well.

Next up were the Toyotas, everyone assuming that their pace was the result of running light on fuel. That may be but their Bridgestones had something to do with it as well. They will be difficult to pass in the first stint and Alonso must hope to beat them to the first corner after the start, if he is to stand a reasonable chance of running close to the Ferraris.

The Hondas also put on a good show, taking seventh and eighth, and they could be a factor in the race, particularly if the weather turns changeable. Otherwise it was pretty much business as usual, with the one exception of Kimi Raikkonen. The McLaren must be very poor at this track for Kimi not to have made it into Q3.

It looks like it will be an easy race for Ferrari, given that the weather prediction is for even better conditions than today’s. Nothing is certain in this game, however, and Renault fans must hope for something to take the edge off the Ferraris’ advantage. Rain, against all forecasts? An engine problem for Michael?

Somehow I think it will take something like that for Michael not to win this one.

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