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Vettel Wins at Suzuka, with Webber Second, in a Red Bull One-Two

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber repeated their one-two performance from qualifying by taking the win and runner-up position in Sunday’s race.  Sebastian Vettel looked dominant from the start.  He only gave up the lead during the mandatory pit-stop shuffle, but once all pit stops had been completed, he was comfortably in the lead again, and he never made  a visible mistake.

Webber’s performance wasn’t quite so flawless.  He made another poor start, and was beaten off the line by Renault’s Robert Kubica, who, like Webber, is notoriously difficult to pass.  It looked as though Webber would have his work cut out for him.  As it turned out, however, Rubica would lose suddenly lose a wheel on lap 3, which would case his retirement.

Meanwhile, the start for the midfield pack proved to be a bit ragged.  Renault’s number two, Vitaly Petrov, made a glancing blow against the back of Nico Hulkenberg’s Williams, and then shot sideways into the pit lane barriers, which ended Petrov’s race, and spread shards of carbon fiber and other debris over the main straight.  There was another incident, as well: Ferrari’s Felipe Massa went onto the grass, lost control, and collided with Force India’s Tonio Liuzzi.  It was game over for both.

Once Kubica was out of the way, Vettel and Webber resumed their one-two formation, which only changed when McLaren’s Jenson Button held the lead for several laps at about the half way point of the race.  Button had started on the prime tires, rather than the options, which meant that he would opt for a late pit stop, and try to capitalize on fresh options for a late race charge.

The podium was rounded out by Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who cruised to a lonely third, having the track to himself much of the time.  He never had much hope of catching the Red Bulls, and the McLarens were for the most part comfortably behind him.  Late in the race, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton seemed to be gaining on him, getting within two seconds of the Spaniard, but then Hamilton lost third gear, and began to lose pace.  He was eventually was overtaken by his team mate, Button, whom he let pass in the hairpin without a struggle.

Button was never able to make much headway against Alonso, however, so it didn’t appear as though his alternate tire strategy had much effect.  Had it not been for Kubica’s retirement and Hamilton’s gearbox trouble, Button would have likely finished in his qualifying position, which was sixth.

One driver who was able to capitalize on a similar strategy was home court favorite Kamui Kobayashi, driving for Sauber.  The Japanese pilot made a splash last year, filling in for an injured Timo Glock in the year’s penultimate and final races, for Toyota.  He was seen then as a fearless charger who was more than willing to have a go at the marquee names of the field.  While his performance this year, at Sauber, has been mixed, he proved again yesterday that he’s a game driver with canny overtaking ability.  On fresh options late in the race, he made several impressive overtaking maneuvers, including one against his team mate, the vastly more experienced Nick Heidfeld.

Heidfeld, of course, is on temporary assignment for Sauber.  On the heels of Heidfeld’s replacing Pedro de la Rosa at Sauber (which happened without warning), the team announced that Mexican GP2 driver Sergio Perez would be replacing Heidfeld in 2011.  They also announced that Carlos Slim’s Telmex conglomerate would be the team’s marquee sponsor next year, so the appointment of Perez has an obvious logic to it.

Nevertheless, it leaves “Quick Nick” on the hunt for another job for next year.  As things stand, it looks as though he might be drifting further down the grid, in the manner of Timo Glock, Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Truli, assuming there’s a space for him there.  Another possibility is partnering former BMW team mate Robert Kubica, at Renault.  With the recent rumors of Kimi Raikkonen’s joining the Regie having been rubbished, and with Vitaly Petrov’s performance continuing to fluctuate (he did himself no favors yesterday), Renault might opt for an experienced hand who is apt to score points consistently, rather than devoting more time and resources to Petrov’s development.

Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher also provided a bit of excitement in yesterday’s race.  Schumacher has been making good starts all year, generally advancing from his grid position and staying out of harm’s way.  He started 10th and moved up to eighth straight away.  Although Nico Rosberg has generally outqualified Schumi at most of this year’s venues, Schumacher has often run on a par with Rosberg on race day.  Yesterday saw Schumi make a run at Rosberg when the elder German was on fresh rubber, after his pit stop.  They ran nose to tail for a while, with Schumi making several feints and lunges as a prelude to overtaking. But after several laps, Schumi lost his tire advantage, and the two ran in formation until five laps from race-end, when Rosberg had an incident that was freakishly reminiscent of Robert Kubica’s: he lost a wheel going through the S turns, and crashed into a barrier.

As usual, Suzuka provided an exciting race.  Along with Spa, it’s the venue most loved by the drivers.  Sebastian Vettel has said, “Why can’t all of the circuits be like this?”  Suzuka is beginning to look dated in a number of respects: the track is narrow by modern standards, and much of the track has little runoff area.  But it’s a highly technical track, with an ideal mixture of low, mid-range and high-speed turns, and a number of natural elevation changes.  Unfortunately, as is the case with Spa, it’s future on the F1 calendar is far from guaranteed.

Bernie Ecclestone seems determined to change the face of Formula 1 by promoting new venues that have been, at least in part, financed by state subsidies.  The economics of such venues differ from the traditional European models.  The host countries look more to the ancillary profits that flow from such events, more than they do actual ticket sales.  They’re more interested in filling hotel suites than they are grandstands.  As long as they can cough up the franchise fee, however, Ecclestone is glad to have them on board.

Most of these new tracks have been designed by Hermann Tilke, who is the the Formula 1 in-house track architect, for all intents and purposes.  His tracks are modern and state of the art, but sometimes boring.  His signature design mingles long straights with hairpins and tight S curves.  I can’t think of a single Tilke-deigned track that the drivers have fallen in love with.  The problem with having a single design firm responsible for so many new tracks is obvious: a lack of variety.  One Tilke track might seem distinctive, but if you have a dozen of them, they create their own level of mediocrity.

Tilke’s newest project is slated to be built just outside of Austin, Texas.  While I will be very happy to see a new home for a US Grand Prix on a purpose built track, I’d be sick if a venue like Spa or Suzuka had to be sacrificed to make room for Austin.  The schedule is set to expand to 20 races next year (which is nearly double the number of races in a typical season in the late 1960’s, when I first began following the sport), so perhaps that will allow enough space for both the new and the traditional.  We’ll see.

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