Saturday, 11 October 2008

Japanese Grand Prix: Lewis Steals Pole with Lap of his Life

A brilliant last ditch lap from Lewis Hamilton put the McLaren driver in pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix, and pole position for the World Driver's Championship. Crucially, Ferrari's Felipe Massa, who looked strng throughout the early stages of qualifying, fell at the final hurdle and could only manage a highly disappointing fifth place. His team mate Raikkonen made a much better fist of things to take second place, and his job will be to put the heat on Hamilton throughout tomorrow's race and to try and take the 10 points away from him. Kovalainen is third place, and on form Fernando Alonso is fourth.

The first session saw Toyota's Timo Glock showing the Japanese fans that his great showing in yesterday's practice session was no fluke, as he went fastest of all with one of the final laps of the session. It was a great lap which knocked the two title protagonists down to second and third. Things were very close at the bottom of the time sheet where things mattered most. There were no surprises as both Force India and Honda cars dropped out, but in the final shake up it was BMW's Nick Heidfeld who joined them on the sidelines for the rest of the session. Thankfully for him his contract for next season was signed up just this week, meaning his job is safe despite yet another dismal qualifying performance.

The second session saw Felipe Massa come to life with an excellent lap early on, beating Lewis Hamilton by two tenths of a second. Both drivers were confident they'd make it through so didn't bother coming out for a second run. In the danger zone there was disappointment for Williams and home favourite Kazuki Nakajima. The Williams cars ended up fourteenth and fifteenth, last in the session, and dropped out, although Nakajima will take some heart from beating Rosberg in qualifying for one of the first times this year. Both Red Bull cars also had a bit of a nightmare by dropping out while their sister team Toro Rosso saw both their drivers make it through. Coulthard got the better of Webber for just the second time this year, while Nelson Piquet was sandwiched between the pair of them in twelfth place.

In the final session the first marker set down was from Timo Glock, but his time was immediately bettered by Kimi Raikkonen as the first of the big guns to set a time. It was an excellent lap from the Finn, proved by the fact that Massa and Hamilton could barely get within two tenths of him. Come the second round of hotlaps Raikkonen was again the first man out, and he improved upon his first time with a blistering time of 1:18.6. After such a poor run of form, suddenly Raikkonen was looking like the World Champion he is supposed to be. Massa improved, but not significantly and would start behind Kimi no matter what.

At that point Ferrari had a provisional front row lock-out, and the pressure was most definitely on for Lewis Hamilton. And boy did he deliver when it mattered! He set fastest split times in all three sectors on his way to pole position by well over two tenths. Obviously we still have to see how things will pan out with regards to fuel loads, but if he is carrying a "sensible fuel load" as Ron Dennis asserts, then it was certainly one of the greatest laps of his young career. That wasn't the end of the drama however, as things were about to get much worse for Ferrari and Massa. Heikki Kovalainen managed to get ahead of Massa, and also Hamilton's former bitter adversary did the Brit a massive favour by getting up into fourth place, thus relegating Massa to the third row of the grid.

It's going to be a fascinating first stint tomorrow, one which could possibly decide the title. The onus is on Raikkonen to try and get himself ahead or at least keep the pressure on Hamilton. However, he will also have compatriot Kovalainen breathing down his neck. Any prolonged battle between the Finns could leave Hamilton free to cruise away to victory. And all the while Felipe Massa will be having to battle his way past Alonso, one of the sport's toughest competitors, and Kovalainen as quick as possible. We know Massa has great ability when he is out in front and things are going his way, but there are still large question marks over his ability when his back is against the wall and things are going against him. How he reacts to today's disappointment in the race tomorrow may well be a defining moment in his career.

If Hamilton is able to extend his lead to over 10 points with two races remaining, he will have one hand on the championship trophy. Massa needs the race of his life tomorrow to keep his hopes alive.

Qualifying Result

01 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:18.404
02 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:18.644
03 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:18.821
04 F. Alonso Renault 1:18.852
05 F. Massa Ferrari 1:18.874
06 R. Kubica BMW 1:18.979
07 J. Trulli Toyota 1:19.026
08 T. Glock Toyota 1:19.118
09 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:19.638
10 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:20.167
11 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:18.187
12 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:18.274
13 M. Webber Red Bull 1:18.354
14 K. Nakajima Williams 1:18.594
15 N. Rosberg Williams 1:18.672
16 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:18.835
17 R. Barrichello Honda 1:18.882
18 J. Button Honda 1:19.100
19 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:19.163
20 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:19.910
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Friday, 10 October 2008

Japanese Grand Prix: Glock is fastest in Second Practice

It was a much happier second session of the day for the Japanese contingent at the Fuji Speedway as Toyota's Timo Glock put in an excellent showing to take P1. There was other reason for hope for the Japanese fans with Kazuki Nakajima putting in an excellent lap late on to finish in seventh. It wasn't all good news for the Japanese though, as Honda continued to look fairly dreadful.

The exploits of Glock knocked the title race off the headlines for a while, although Hamilton and Massa weren't far off the pace. Second place though went to Fernando Alonso who really is driving out of his skin at the moment. With his destination for 2009 still in doubt he is really showing the F1 world that he is a driver of the finest calibre. Renault will be desperate to keep him, Honda will be desperate to sign him up no matter what the price tag, and I wonder if Ferrari are perhaps looking on ruefully, knowing that they have written Alonso out of their plans for the foreseeable future?

In spite of its relatively long circuit length, a lap of Fuji in a Grand Prix car is quite short, largely down to the monstrously long pit straight. This means that lap times end up being very close and competitive. The top four drivers were separated by barely more than a tenth, and with just one second covering places one to seventeen. The only two drivers really cut adrift iin terms of pace were Jenson Button and, strangely, Nick Heidfeld. BMW really do look to have thrown the towel in for this season, as Kubica also failed to impress significantly. They appear to be just going through the motions until next season. The closeness at the top though goes to show just how vital tomorrow's qualifying session will be, with any slight errors potentially meaning a handful of grid slots are lost...

Practice Two Times

01 T. Glock Toyota 1:18.383 44 laps
02 F. Alonso Renault 1:18.426 41 laps
03 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:18.463 40 laps
04 F. Massa Ferrari 1:18.491 40 laps
05 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:18.725 39 laps
06 M. Webber Red Bull 1:18.734 39 laps
07 K. Nakajima Williams 1:18.734 36 laps
08 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:18.761 23 laps
09 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:18.803 32 laps
10 J. Trulli Toyota 1:18.863 45 laps
11 R. Kubica BMW 1:18.865 39 laps
12 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:18.888 43 laps
13 N. Rosberg Williams 1:18.981 41 laps
14 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:19.040 41 laps
15 R. Barrichello Honda 1:19.258 42 laps
16 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:19.287 41 laps
17 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:19.327 36 laps
18 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:19.482 44 laps
19 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:19.894 37 laps
20 J. Button Honda 1:19.999 42 laps
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Japanese Grand Prix: First Blood to Hamilton in First Practice

Lewis Hamilton was the fastest man in the first practice session for Sunday's all important Japanese Grand Prix. He took top spot ahead of title rival Felipe Massa, whilst several other of the form drivers put in good showings, whilst a few big budget teams floundered.

The first practice session of the weekend got under way with pretty much perfect weather conditions, in marked contrast to the last time the Fuji Speedway saw any F1 action. In last year's race the drivers would have been better off equipped with out-board motors rather than their usual ultra-effective drive train. Today though the weather looked beautiful.

So beautiful in fact that for the first half hour of the session it looked as though the teams were just chilling out, enjoying the spectacular views of Mount Fuji. Aside from the odd installation lap here and there, the only drivers out setting any sector times were the Toyota drivers Glock and Trulli, clearly keen to set the pace at their teams very own stomping ground.

Raikkonen was the first of the big hitters to emerge, and he was soon followed by the rest of the field as the track slowly started rubbering up. Both Ferraris immediately looked quick and Massa led the way for much of the session. However, it was his main rival Hamilton who finally took the honours by being the only man so far to dip into the 1:18s. Massa wasn't far behind in the very low 1:19s, followed closely by the Finnish contingent Kovalainen and Raikkonen.

Following up their first race victory in nearly two years, Renault looked very strong throughout. No surprises as Alonso was the quicker of the two drivers, but Piquet put in a decent showing on the back of his Singapore horror show to come in P6. Vettel and Bourdais again looked competitive in the Toro Rosso, which only serves to underline how far back BMW have slumped since their race-winning form of early-to-mid season. Kubica struggled to 8th, while Heidfeld wound up 14th after two minor 'offs'. Red Bull too continue to be shown up by their junior team, as they looked very average. On their home soil both Japanese teams looked pretty weak, with their cars occupying 15th to 18th place. The top-brass in the board rooms of Toyota and Honda will not be impressed.

Practice One Times

1. HAMILTON McLaren 1m18.910s
2. MASSA Ferrari 1m19.063s
3. KOVALAINEN McLaren 1m19.279s
4. RAIKKONEN Ferrari 1m19.399s
5. ALONSO Renault 1m19.473s
6. PIQUET Renault 1m19.743s
7. VETTEL Toro Rosso 1m20.121s
8. KUBICA BMW 1m20.160s
9. BOURDAIS Toro Rosso 1m20.182s
10. NAKAJIMA Williams 1m20.217s
11. SUTIL Force India 1m20.288s
12. ROSBERG Williams 1m20.350s
13. WEBBER Red Bull 1m20.620s
14. HEIDFELD BMW 1m20.628s
15. TRULLI Toyota 1m20.657s
16. BARRICHELLO Honda 1m20.753s
17. BUTTON Honda 1m20.769s
18. GLOCK Toyota 1m20.823s
19. COULTHARD Red Bull 1m20.905s
20. FISICHELLA Force India 1m21.104s
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Japanese Grand Prix: Preview

With F1 fans still reeling from the shock of Canada being dropped from the 2009 calendar, still feeling aghast at the suggestion of standardised 'spec' engines from one of the sport's kingpins, and still being vexed by the portents of impending doom from the sport's other kingpin, it's back to business as usual for the teams as the Japanese Grand Prix weekend gets under way at Fuji Speedway.

With just 3 races to go the World Championship race is looking like a straight two-way fight between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa. Raikkonen is still within sight of the front two, and he made a miraculous run to glory in the final races of last season while McLaren proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot, but few would bet on history repeating. In an identical car, Felipe Massa is simply outperforming the much higher-paid Finn, and Hamilton doesn't have the distraction of a bitter rivalry with a highly competitive team mate to concern himself with this year. The Brit's current 7 point advantage is significant, although not insurmountable, and crucially gives him the comfort of knowing that he doesn't have to win any of the final three races and still become champion.

Of course, Hamilton is a great racer and will be very much going out to win all three of the remaining races. However, I think he is starting to show signs of the maturity and restraint that was lacking a year ago, and which possibly cost him his title shot in '07. Last time out in Singapore he had the distinct chance of second place after the final safety car period, but chose not to challenge Nico Rosberg, and instead settled for a sensible and hard-fought third place. Would the Lewis Hamilton of 12 months ago done the same? I doubt it. I suspect if he finds himself in P2 during this race then we won't see him challenging too hard for the win, and settling for the 8 points. Not the best entertainment perhaps, but the sensible route to WDC glory.

Interesting things to report from the pitlane side of things are that Ferrari have decided to eat humble pie with regard to their controversial (ie farcical) pit light system. They didn't learn their lesson from having their fingers burnt in Valencia a couple of months ago, and ended up getting well and truly incinerated in Singapore, with catastrophic/hilarious results. The "don't fix if it ain't broke" lollipop comes back in the Ferrari pit. Also, all cars this week will be running with green paint in the grooves of their tyres, support F1 Going Green. I guess with only three races left before slick tyres return, they had to find some way of milking the grooves for all they're worth before they're gone forever, regardless of how silly it may look.
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