Conclusions from the 2013 Japanese GP
Red Bull learn the trick of winning from a losing position, while McLaren make a great job of a bad season...
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 15/10/13 1:24pm
The championship battle isn't over yet...
If only. There are lies, damned lies, and now there's the mathematical insistence that the Drivers' World Championship isn't over yet. In reality, if not quite in fact, it's been over for a month. Perhaps longer.
Red Bull and their champion driver deserve all the credit in the world and not just another coronation. In weighing up whether the title has been won by Red Bull or lost by their rivals, the last five races have delivered an emphatic answer. In comprehensively winning grands prix they ought to have struggled in - a lack of straight-line speed at Spa and Monza? No matter. KERS issues and third off the line at Suzuka? No problem - the weaknesses in the candidatures of Sebastian Vettel's championship rivals have been comprehensively overtaken by the relentless supremacy of the RB9 package. Alonso and Raikkonen's ongoing qualifying woes, the stress Mercedes put on their tyres, has been reduced to an irrelevance. Red Bull have proved themselves unbeatable whatever has been thrown at them.
Aside from being the final word on 2013, that conclusion can also be regarded as the first word of serious intent for 2014. Fast approaching a season in which the new engine regulations are expected to put Red Bull on the backfoot, the team's current unerring capacity to find a ways and means to secure victory is an ominous development for the rest. Don't be distracted by Sebastian's ill-judged remarks in Singapore about Red Bull working harder than anyone else; the real talking point since the summer break should be the impression that Red Bull are currently out-thinking everyone else on the grid.
That was certainly the case in Japan. According to team boss Christian Horner, Sunday's race was the "best strategically we have ever operated". True, Mark Webber's victory hopes were effectively sacrificed in the process, but, viewed from the team's perspective, Red Bull's strategic pincer movement to defeat Grosjean was sublime. All credit to them - and all kinds of concerns for the rest.
On the track and off it, this is a team currently immune from making mistakes. That won't last forever of course, but it's been a long time since we saw from Red Bull the mistakes that Mercedes have committed in two of the last three races - the botched pit-stop for Rosberg this weekend, the absurd failure to split strategies in Singapore.
Even after three successive title doubles, the Red Bull-Vettel package is still improving and still learning - the German crediting the lessons of his 2011 defeat at Suzuka for being the strategic inspiration behind his victory. Think and then think again if you even have the slightest doubt about their ability to master next year's regulations.
As for Vettel, his coronation as Sebastian the Fourth is a racing certainty in two weeks' time. The debate goes on about his position in the pantheon of F1 legends, but for anyone questioning his right to be considered as such, ask yourself this: as a driver who topped his first ever F1 practice session, became the youngest ever points scorer in the sport, then the youngest ever champion, and is now on the cusp of a fourth successive title, just what evidence is there to suggest that he is not a great?
Grosjean eases Lotus' concerns
What a difference a year has made for Romain Grosjean. From being branded a "first-lap nutcase" 12 months ago after crashing - his accidental calling-card in 2012 - into an enraged Mark Webber at Suzuka, the Frenchman has evolved and improved to offer a convincing impression of a team leader in the making for 2014.
Asked to explain the transformation after finishing third on Sunday, Romain cited the virtues of hard work and confidence. Growing maturity must be another factor, as might be the galvanising effect of Raikkonen's departure. Since the Finn announced his intention to depart for Ferrari, Grosjean has out-qualified the former World Champion for every race held. He seems to be revelling in the extra responsibility.
Lotus' relief is palpable. 2014 is a far easier sell to would-be investors and sponsors now they can point to clear proof that they can still prosper without Raikkonen. Nor, given Grosjean's convincing auditions, will they have to seek another team leader equivalent to replace Raikkonen, their highest-paid employee. All options and all types of drivers are open to them. And if it's Nico Hulkenberg, all the better.
Ferrari have a qualifying concern for 2014
How can they not when Fernando Alonso has been out-qualified by the ousted Felipe Massa for three of the last four races and Raikkonen, whose highest grid spot since the end of July has been sixth, has only out-qualified his current team-mate once in the last six Saturdays? Just who is going to put the F138's successor on pole next season?
McLaren and their unflappable chief give a masterclass in damage control
Credit where it's due: For a team having their worst year in eons, McLaren are making a remarkably good job of a bad situation. Far from lowering their bargaining position to their current position in the standings, the team are not only making Sergio Perez sweat it out as he seeks retention for 2014, but it seems they are still not giving up on signing Fernando Alonso. It's either a brilliant bit of bluffing or a clear sign that their self-belief is still as strong as ever.
Assume the latter because, even in the face of such a wretched campaign, McLaren's long-term prospects have been emphatically improved in recent months. Honda have been lured out of F1 retirement while Peter Prodromou has been persuaded to step out of the comfort zone, and Adrian Newey's shadow, at Red Bull. Martin Whitmarsh has his critics, but his unflappable demeanour has surely been integral to McLaren's remarkable off-track recovery. Honda and Prodromou are quite the coups in a good year. In a bad year...
In contrast, Mercedes seem to be digging themselves into something of a management hole. Having kept his own counsel for months on end, Ross Brawn went public with his frustrations with the team's top-heavy management structure in Japan, telling Sky F1 to pointed effect: "I think we need a very clear definition of who is in charge and obviously I need the motivation to carry on. I think the situation we have now is very different is probably a bit different to 12 months ago when some of these decisions were made so to some degree it is just unravelling what's gone on and finding a satisfactory solution."
In other words, back me or sack me. It wouldn't make the slightest bit of sense in terms of what has happened on the track this season, but perhaps the notion of Brawn being reunited with Honda and Button at McLaren isn't as fanciful as it appears at first glance.
Experience gives youth its overdue breakthrough
The rookies are finally improving. It's been a long, unimpressive and hitherto point-less season for the five newbies on the F1 grid, but it belatedly appears as if they are getting to grips with the demands of sitting at motorsport's top table.
On Sunday, Esteban Gutierrez became the first of the quintet - comprised of himself, Valtteri Bottas, Giedo van der Garde, Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton - to score a point, holding off Nico Rosberg for seventh place after reaching the top-ten shoot-out for the first time in Singapore and then again in Korea.
Unlike Grosjean, he's not a team leader in the making, but, like Grosjean, he's solving a looming problem for his present employers as his more experienced team-mate prepares to depart (whether Sauber could risk pairing Gutierrez with Sergey Sirotkin is a moot point, however).
Chilton, meanwhile, has been steadily progressing throughout the campaign, his first direct on-the-road defeat of Bianchi in qualifying this weekend the culmination of marked improvement from the Englishman since the summer break.
Which leaves just Bottas as the unexpected exception to the general rule. An all-too brief glimpse of stardust in Canada aside, the Finn has been a grave disappointment this year, even when accounting for Williams' lack of competitive pace.
On Sunday, he was rudely barged aside by Pastor Maldonado, and even if Valtteri's post-race carping was justified, the bottom line is that he was beaten by a driver in identical machinery and all's fair in love, war and a sprint to the line between team-mates. Unless something drastically changes over the remaining four races, 2013 will end without any sign of Bottas' presence - a huge disappointment given the pre-season hope and hype.
As for Maldonado, Sunday's commotion is bound to intensify speculation he will leave Williams at the end of the year. The South American's sponsorship package would certainly be welcome at Sauber and Force India, but the thought persists that Pastor's label as 'a pay driver' is more than Lotus can afford to sign if they are to retain their own ranking as a F1 superpower.
We'll soon see.