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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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Suzuka Swan Song

It is now certain that Sunday’s Grand Prix will be the last at Suzuka for a while, at least. Everyone seems sad to see it go – it is a driver’s circuit and presents some of the most challenging corners in F1. With the championship poised on a knife edge, it looks as if it will host a classic as its last GP.

Suzuka

Suzuka start – with prophetic advertising

Rain washed out most of today’s practice sessions but the main protagonists, Ferrari and Renault, headed the times at the end. As usual, nothing much can be read into this and we will see the real performance of the cars tomorrow in qualifying. The weathermen say it will be drier than today so things could be pretty close between the front runners.

Suzuka is the sole F1 venue that has a figure-8 shape and there are many other unique aspects to it. There are more difficult corners but, for me, the one that says “Suzuka” most emphatically is the Spoon. That long, sweeping bend, more than 180 degrees, is seen nowhere else.

Suzuka 2

The Spoon

Times change, however, and there is little we can do but accept it philosophically. Next year we will be at Fuji, Toyota’s circuit in one of the most dramatic settings of all – as can be seen from this photograph, with Mount Fuji in the background and snow covering the hills.

Fuji

Fuji

The circuit can be seen at the bottom of the picture. It has a much simpler layout than Suzuka but has seen its share of dramatic races in the past too. Coming at the end of the season as it does, the Japanese Grand Prix is often the venue for the last acts in a titanic battle between two or more contenders for the championship. Let us hope that Fuji is able to provide suitable challenges for such struggles.

There is some hope that, in the future, Suzuka might return as an alternating venue with Fuji in similar fashion to the Hockenheim/Nurburgring possibility. That would be ideal, I think, and would keep everone happy.

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Alonso Explains

In the Thursday Press Conference at Suzuka, Fernando Alonso has been expanding on his reported criticism of the Renault team. It seems that the initial newspaper article was correct (at least, Alonso did not deny it) but there is much less in the story than appeared at first sight.

Alonso

Essentially, Alonso is disappointed with Fisichella’s attempts to keep Schumacher back while the Spaniard broke in his new tires.

Alonso: “What I felt there is that maybe I had a problem with the car that was a specific problem for ten laps, nine, eight or whatever, and probably I felt alone, for sure. I was first and my team-mate was second and they came to me, they overtook me and they were gone. And after, when I recovered the pace, they were too far (ahead), and for sure it is like you are in the Tour de France in the mountains, climbing, you have a puncture or whatever and your team and your rival has gone uphill with no stops. That was a little bit difficult to understand…

“…I fight with Fisichella in the last corner, Turn 14, once and he overtook me and I overtook him again because he went a little bit longer and these things, these risky moments… Three races to win the championship… your team-mate is a little bit… (It’s) not good enough, I think.”

Asked what more the team could have done to help, Alonso replied that he didn’t know. But he went on to patch up the relationship with the team:

Alonso: “All the team, all the people, are really focussed for the championship and anyway we have been leading both championships all season nearly and now the last two races all the people is motivated and the atmosphere inside the team is just super and it’s the last two races of me in the team as well and every single person in the team is just focussed on the championship.”

So it appears that his outburst was the result of frustration and disappointment. That is something he will have to learn to control in future if he wants to win more championships; no team likes to be blamed for circumstances beyond their control. But, for the moment, we can accept that he is still young and feeling the pressure more than he admits to.

Whether this will affect the race on Sunday is a different matter. Schumacher looks as cool as ever in his interviews and it is tempting to assume that Fernando has exposed a weakness in himself that may lose him the championship. But it comes down to what happens on the track and that is where the German often responds to pressure with some dubious manouver or another. In contrast, Alonso looks cool and focused when in the car. We shall see.

There was one moment in the press conference that made me smile. After watching Alonso being battered by questions from the press on his indiscretion, Jenson Button was finally moved to intervene:

Q; (Ed Gorman – The Times) “If Michael wins here, and you don’t finish, it’s all over. Is that going to affect the way you approach this race?”
JB: “You’re really helping the guy’s confidence here. He is fighting for the world championship…”

It seems the British sense of fair play is not entirely dead.

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