Sebastian Vettel added to his already impressive statistics by winning his fifth race in succession this year, his fourth at Suzuka and his 35th F1 career win, to make the 2013 championship a formality.
But the Japanese Grand Prix had barely finished before the conspiracy theories began seeping through the paddock and in places worldwide where race fans reviewed this 15th round of the championship. The race had boiled down to a fight between the Red Bull drivers as Mark Webber, starting from pole, eventually finished second but not before dealing with a strong challenge from Romain Grosjean, the Lotus taking third and meriting ‘Driver of the Day’ with a flawless performance in a car that, ultimately, did not have the legs of the Red Bull.
Poor starts by Webber and Vettel from the front row allowed Grosjean to lead (and also accounted for a puncture for Lewis Hamilton as the Mercedes driver snagged his right-rear against Vettel’s front wing). With the Lotus staying in front until the first pit stops were due, this race was about to become a fascinating game of cat and mouse. Here’s how it panned out:
Webber shadowed Grosjean until just before quarter distance as the teams tried to decide whether to make two stops (the preferred option thanks to a 22-second loss in the pit lane and difficulty in overtaking at Suzuka) or having to go for three. As ever, much would depend on making the tyres last and it was here that Vettel and his engineer would work in perfect harmony as they read the race and conserved rubber when necessary. Vettel was actually having an untidy race (for him) in third place as he watched Webber stop on lap 11, followed a lap later by Grosjean.
So far so good, as far as Webber was concerned. He was planning to stop twice, although team chief Christian Horner would later say Webber was not being kind to his tyres and that would dictate a switch from two to three stops while Vettel managed to continue on two.
Webber was of a different opinion as he later described how his race developed.
‘After the first stop, the guys said we’re still on two; look after the tyres,’ said Webber. ‘I was looking to wait behind Romain and then squeeze up to him between laps 28 and 32 (of the 53-lap race), which was the target lap. No problem. Then on lap 25 they said it was three (stops) and I had to come in. I asked the guys if they thought this was right and they said yes, we’re going to give it a go. So I stopped and gave it 100 per cent.’
Grosjean was still leading with Vettel now second. The Lotus stopped on lap 29 for the second [of three]. Vettel would come in eight laps later for his second and final tyre change. By then, Webber was in front, but knowing he had to stop for a third time on lap 42. There were two crucial moments and both involved getting past Grosjean. The difference was, Vettel attacked quickly after his stop whereas Webber lost valuable time when he was stuck behind the Lotus for several laps.
This was thanks to a tactical decision by Webber to run less downforce to help overtaking – but which actually damaged his rear tyres. Every attempt by Webber to get behind the Lotus and use DRS was foiled by Grosjean having vastly better traction out of the final corner. Game over for Webber. He did manage to get ahead with two laps to go but, by then, Vettel was nine seconds down the road and heading for the record books once again.
Would Webber (on the softer, fresher tyre) have been able to win if he had got ahead of Grosjean sooner?
‘No,’ said Webber. ‘Even though he stopped with 18 laps to go, his tyres were in pretty good shape. He would have lifted the pace if I had arrived on the back of him. I might have had some advantage (with tyres) but not enough to deal with him.’
The question remained, however, over the switch of strategy. Horner perhaps summed it up when he said: ‘The order doesn’t matter so long as your cars are one-two in the race.”
And so the conspiracy theories began.