x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Vettel enjoys a perfect day at Suzuka

There have been times this year when Sebastian Vettel's self-control has let him down, but yesterday was not among them.

Sebastian Vettel heads Mark Webber, his Red Bull-Renault teammate, on his way to victory in yesterday’s Japanese Grand Prix. Jung Yeon-Je / AFP
Sebastian Vettel heads Mark Webber, his Red Bull-Renault teammate, on his way to victory in yesterday’s Japanese Grand Prix. Jung Yeon-Je / AFP

SUZUKA // There have been times this year when Sebastian Vettel's self-control has let him down, but yesterday was not among them. From the moment he beat Mark Webber, his Red Bull-Renault teammate to pole position, the German looked a sure-fire favourite to win the Japanese Grand Prix for the second year in succession. Circumstances made it a challenging race, but Vettel was flawless. He and Webber had been separated by just seven hundredths of a second during the rain-delayed qualifying session, which began five hours before the race rather than the customary 24.

Vettel started well, but Robert Kubica (Renault) was more spectacular, vaulting from third to split the Red Bulls on the run to the first turn. The safety car was called for almost before the field had reached Turn Two though. Nico Hulkenberg (Williams-Cosworth) and Vitaly Petrov (Renault) collided on the pit straight, while Felipe Massa (Ferrari) lost control under braking for Turn One and hit the innocent Vitantonio Liuzzi's Force India-Mercedes.

"Nico Rosberg made a really bad start and I passed him to the right," said Massa, who was only 12th on the grid after a mistake in qualifying. "I was squeezed to the right on the run to the first turn, however, and was unable to avoid the grass. At that point, I could no longer steer." Kubica's presence should have given Vettel a buffer, but the Pole's right rear wheel fell off before the race restarted - the team later discovered their wheel guns were incorrectly calibrated, so Petrov would have suffered the same fate had he not already crashed.

The race resumed at the end of lap six and the Red Bulls immediately edged clear of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, with Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton (McLaren-Mercedes) tagging along in their wake - the five title contenders again to the fore. Vettel and Webber made their mandatory tyre stops on laps 24 and 25 - Red Bull reacting to the sight of Ferrari's crew emerging in the pits. "We wanted to bring Seb in on the same lap as Alonso and Mark one later, because we felt there might be a significant advantage on new tyres and Fernando was still a little too close for comfort," Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said.

They rejoined as they were, ahead of Ferrari, but Button - uniquely, among the top four - started the race on the harder Bridgestone tyre and was due to run a long opening stint. Vettel remained behind him until Button finally stopped on lap 38 - and Red Bull felt McLaren were using the world champion to slow the pace and bring Hamilton into the frame. "Some teams might race like that, but we don't," said Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal.

Vettel was subsequently able to control proceedings from the front, but Webber matched him for pace and the fraction that divided them during qualifying ultimately made the difference. "It has been an incredible day with everything happening all at once," Vettel said. "Most of our guys didn't sleep from Thursday until Saturday because they were working on the car, so it was probably good for them that qualifying was postponed.

"The car became nicer to drive as the fuel load went down and I absolutely love this track." Button slipped to fifth after his stop, but passed his teammate when Hamilton lost use of third gear with 15 laps to go, and the pair traded places and finished fourth and fifth. sports@thenational.ae