THE JAPANESE GRAND PRIX: FINAL ROUNDUP

The good news- McLaren and Ferrari have finally trumped RBR Renault and Vettel on pit-stop strategies and have figured out a way to beat the champions.

The bad news- The Championship race is over.

The German made his point. With a podium finish, no less.

Making more than a point

The Smaller Picture:

In a performance that once again symbolized the sheer determination of the rest of the drivers to capitalize on whatever few scraps they have been fed this season, Button- clearly the best of the rest and most consistent- emerged winner in an impressive drive that he owes to his team’s efficient pit-crew. Three stops it was for all the top 8, but the third change of Pirelli tyres was easily the most crucial, with Vettel pulling in a bit too early- thereby ending his chances to finish his record-breaking Championship race with a win.

It was a good old throwback to the days when Ferrari and McLaren found themselves battling to the death for a place on the top of the podium, and Vettel, almost fittingly, held off in the end to give his fellow World Champion drivers their due. For the first time this season, FIVE of the top SIX that finished were World Champions- and it was truly a star studded race for the Suzuka crowd.
At the start of the race, the soon-to-be-youngest-world-champion Vettel almost drove Button off the track with an aggressive inner line that demonstrated the young German’s intentions: He wanted to win his 10th race of the season and win the Championship in style, hands down. He wouldn’t, like Brits would, just wait on the rest and finish a limp 8th just to figure amongst the points (reference: Button in 2009 and Hamilton in 2007).

It was an eventful first few laps, and the biggest loser seemed like Webber, once again, in the top 10. Alonso moved up to third, and remained there till he trumped the German on the second pit-stop, where he drove a scintillating few pre-pit laps, almost as if he was qualifying for his life.
In what was probably the drive of the season, Alonso- inspite of having an inferior setup (Ferrari)- pushed Button till the very end, finishing only a second behind, and two seconds ahead of Vettel. The real worth of his performance is realized when you analyze the statistics of partner Massa, who has scored less than half of the points Alonso has, and even finished behind ‘weaker driver’ Michael Schumacher in this action-packed race.
Webber finished an unimpressive fourth, thereby capping his final dip in form to hand over Championship podium positions to Button and Alonso, and Hamilton, once again in a devastatingly dangerous drive, finished fifth in a troubled McLaren Mercedes engine that does not want to race for him anymore. Mid-field, there was a bit of an orgy, much to the delight of the crowd- with Perez, Petrov, Rosberg and Sutil battling it out for mortal racing rewards.

During the last three laps, Vettel, in any other race would have had a go at Alonso, only a second ahead of him at one point, but he decided to back off and hold onto these memories for the rest of his life. He cherished his final lap, and was clearly chuffed at his own performance, inspite of a race engineer congratulating him on the radio with a downcast voice saying: ‘I know you would have wanted to win this…but anyway, congratulations…’

The Jap Connection (Button and girlfriend Michibata)

The Bigger Picture: 

Button has emerged as the number One driver in a team that has been besotted with trouble ever since the rowdy Viveik Oberoi of F1 racing Lewis Hamilton made his debut with them, and they have not had one controversial-less season since 2007. He is a driver of high quality, no doubt, and was exactly what the sport needed after the demise of the Schumacher era and Flavio Braitore’s fall from grace. But in 2011, his statistics do him no good as the supposed no. 1 driver of his team: 2 wins (impressive, again), but only 2 podiums and ZERO pole positions. Not impressive for a title contender, at all. Fittingly, it is Button who walks away with the bouquets after a season that has seen him win three races, and finish on the podium 8 times. Mightily consistent, that, from a number 2, we say?
That said, there are a few races to go, and barring a disastrous British choke-up at Noida, one doesn’t see Button letting go of his podium spot. With England crashing out to France in a massive upset in the quarters of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday, Button made sure that his country is not all gloom and tears- with Andy Murray (admittedly Scottish, but you know how it goes) doing his own bit just a few miles away at the Tokyo Open.

Sebastian Vettel has finished on the podium for the 14th time this season, out of 15 races. The only race where he failed (4th spot is failure, indeed) was, ironically, at his home Grand Prix in Germany. Nevertheless, he may not break Schumacher’s immortal and freaky record of 13 race wins in a season (where he had only 8 poles), but is well on his way to break Mansell’s 14 poles in a season, with Vettel only two behind right now. In a season so dominant, the season should have been wrapped up atleast two races ago, but with Button and Alonso peaking a bit too late, but peaking nonetheless- and with so many World Champions racing in every single race, it was never going to be easy. Vettel held on in style, though, and completed a dream 2011 season, a far cry from his troubled 2010 Championship win, where he never led till the 15th race, and didn’t lead going into the last race either.
To an extent, he will thank veteran Webber for his support and constant qualifying genius. He is the perfect number 2 in a team that has created a new record by finishing on pole for each of the 15 races this season. They may have won only 9 (All for Vettel), but that doesn’t tell half the story.

At 24 years and 99 days, Sebastian Vettel is the youngest double-World Champion (10th of the kind) – beating the record previously held by the Spaniard who outraced Vettel at Suzuka here, Fernando Alonso. A great era for the sport, no doubt, with Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Button (yes, two Brits!) and Vettel winning Championships post-Schumacher. To give Alonso credit where it is due, he pushed the legendary German of his perch, and made sure that a new era beckoned- and there was no stopping him, not surprisingly, in a Renault-powered engine.

Reincarnation? 

The Real Picture:

You’d think that this was the most dominant year in World Sports, but if you look around and watch some Tennis, Cricket and Football, you’d realize that one team/individual is head and shoulders above the rest at this moment, with record-breaking, earth-shattering, robot-styled seasons that may NEVER ever be repeated again. We thought the same after Federer was done with his 2006 season, and Nadal with his 2008 season. But then Djokovic came up with a 2011, Barcelona with a 2010, England with a 2011 in cricket and after Schumi in 2004 and Senna in 1991…here we are.
Much can be attributed to the flawless, errorless and reliable RBR engines, and the tireless team effort, but in the end, it is only one 24 year old kid driving the wheels off at 300 kms/hr every race- something not many in the pit lane or management would have preferred at the same age. What always matters is how a Champion follows up his superhuman season, with Vettel primed to dominate F1 for a few more years- and it couldn’t come at a better time, with the competition in the field reaching an all-time maximum.

After all, when could you ever say that there are always six drivers capable of winning the title from any point in the season? 2011 is over, and it wasn’t exactly a non-contest, with each driver proving what he has to offer for the crucial 2012 season.
We now have three double World-Champions racing in the same season, not something too many other seasons could have ever boasted of.

Bring on Korea, and then the race we’ve all been waiting for- Noida. And thank God for the fact that F1 drivers can’t ‘rest’ or ‘pull out’ mid-season to ‘prepare’ for next season, but like some of our ex-World Champion veteran cricketers prefer to do.
Oh, they’re still World Champions. Sorry. Seemed like four years ago, now.

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