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GP Week : Issue 137
second place. Seb then backed away, nursed by his pit crew. P3 would be enough. P3 would secure it. P3 it was. Out of the cars, in Parc Ferme, Jenson delivered the inevitable with not a little style: “So, err, you didn’t see me at the start then?” Jenson had invited the Stewards to take note of Seb’s start-line squeeze by shouting into the radio: “He’s got to get a penalty for that, hasn’t he?” but otherwise he had kept quiet. Until Parc Ferme. Nice. Point made; let’s move on. AndtheareatowhichJensoncan now move is hallowed ground: he comprehensively beat his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, on a circuit, and in conditions, that Lewis usually loves. He did so in a car that quite patently is currently better than it’s been all year; and he did so despite losing a place to Lewis off the line (due to the aforementioned skirmish with the pole man). And he won! A great, clean victory almost from the front! And set fastest lap for only the sixth time in his career! This was Jenson Button at a level at which I’ve never seen him; this was Jenson Button with a nice, long-term McLaren contract in his pocket, waking up on race morning, totally at peace with himself and his job. This was Jenson being everything that Lewis is not... For Lewis, then, there are now two issues bubbling over in the old subconscious, ready to be manifest when anything goes slightly askew: the first is that guy Vettel – the young kid who is doing at RBR what he, Lewis, should be doing at McLaren; the second is that ever-so-nice Jenson Button, who in the space of six months or so seems to have moved into Lewis’s home, secured the bedroom-with-a-view and held the best parties. Lewis could have won the pole at Suzuka; I’m pretty sure of that. He looked very good inQs1and2andinQ3,youknew,Lewis at the esses was going to be inch-perfect from the ultimate in tip-toey baselines. On territory like the esses – and at the Degners – Lewis Hamilton is still sublime; that was clear in Q2, as if we didn’t know it. Yet it was a mess. It was as if he suddenly shanked a ball into the trees or something. He began his final out-lap as slowly as possible, for the Pirelli options were super- sensitive, but he fell away from the clock on the relatively long Suzuka lap, seemingly confident that he’d make the timing line. Suddenly, Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber were upon him, desperate also to make the line. Lewis straight-lined his McLaren at the chicane, letting them past on both sides. The chequered flag was out as he accelerated hard down the hill... Not for nothing, of course, does Michael Velcro a digital watch to his steering wheel during qualifying. He wants to know the time. Not for nothing do other teams/drivers leave more margin for error when the lap is long – even when there are only eight cars on the circuit. Ultimately, this shambles was probably the fault of the team: they should have just sent him out earlier. In my experience, however, ‘the team’, in situations like these, is very much in the hands of ’the driver’ – ie, the driver lets the team know exactly what he’s going to need – and when. That being so, Suzuka qualifying for Lewis will go down as yet another indication that things, for him, are out of synch. Given the Seb Vettel situation, how much confidence does Lewis now have in every aspect of his life at McLaren? And, given the Jenson Button deal, how much confidence does McLaren now have in Lewis? Lewis qualified only third, took P2 at the start – and quickly ran out of grip. That’s partly because he generally loads the tyres more than Jenson, particularly on fast corners, and partly because Jenson in my view manages the outside rear tyre under acceleration, from rotation point to exit, as well as anyone since Kimi Raikkonen in his McLaren days. This is one area where Lewis – who until now has been refreshingly self-critical and quick to learn – does not yet seem able to match Jenson, let alone surpass him. Fernando Alonso drove beautifully into second place for Ferrari, extracting 100 per cent from a car that is still not the equal of either the RB7 or the McLaren; and Felipe Massa had a relatively good weekend, out-qualifying Fernando for the third time in recent months, losing time with the inevitable Hamilton skirmish and eventually finishing seventh. In this episode of MAS-HAM, Felipe had been tailing Lewis and was up there, on the outside of him on lap 21, racing for the lead on the road, as they approached the chicane. Felipe then lost some trim tabs for his trouble when Lewis edged left before turning right. In some respects – given the way they caned Sebastien Buemi for ‘squeezing out’ Nick Heidfeld in similar circumstances in Germany – Lewis did well to emerge without a rap. He apologised to Felipe after the race, mentioning “vibrating mirrors” that had made visibility difficult, but this was similar to the Lewis/Kobayashi shunt at Spa, where Lewis again used a last-second ‘transitory jink’ to assert his piece of road. In my view, this is wrong. If you’re unsure of where the other car lies, you maintain a straight line, avoiding contact; “I didn’t see him” is no excuse. Mercedes GP were about where they usually are – and indeed were, for Michael’s energised P6 in 2011 merely replicated his result from 2010. Nico Rosberg meanwhile said it for the Q1 eliminators by winding his way up to P10: this is now the eighth time in nine races that a driver has scored points from P18 on the grid, or lower. Lotus Renault did well to reach Q3 with both cars – and then to leave their tyre choice open for the race. Vitaly Petrov started on primes and finished a good eighth; and Bruno Senna again qualified well (he started ahead of Vitaly thanks to the benefits of numerical order!) but was elbowed out by said Vitaly at Turn 2. Being the new guy in town, Burno aptly decided to back away. He fell into the torrid lower mid-field and never really recovered. Kamui Kobayashi’s home race was similarly tainted (he lost his positions off the line, when his Sauber fell into anti- stall mode) but Sergio Perez, running a temperature, made up for it with another great drive into the points (P8). Until Jenson decided to have some fun in the closing minutes and recorded a lap in 1min 36.578sec, Sergio for a while seemed poised to set Fastest Lap. If he had done so – I add merely for the fun of mentioning his name! – he would have been the first Mexican with an FL to his credit since the magical Pedro Rodriguez lapped a wet Rouen faster than anyone else in 1968. As it was, Sergio’s lap was only 0.001 slower than Jenson’s and, for reference, a whole 1.1 sec quicker than Lewis’. Seb’s fastest lap, while we’re at it, was slower than Jenson’s, Sergio’s, Fernando’s, Mark’s and Nico’s – but then Sebatian Vettel in Suzuka was driving a different race to everyone else. Just as he has been all year. F1 JAPAN >> 27