Fernando Alonso has won his second race in succession, taking victory at the Fuji Speedway this afternoon and underlying the supreme effort the team have done to improve the R28. There was a little bit of luck on Alonso’s side but the fact that the Spaniard qualified fourth, held onto the fastest lap for half the race and went on to win shows that his influence on the squad is paying off once again.
The opening lap was full of incidents up and down the grid, the most contentious of which involved the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen and the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton. As the lights went out Raikkonen got a good start and pulled ahead of Hamilton. Heikki Kovalainen also made a good start from third and held his line along the inside of the long run down to the first corner. As Hamilton attempted to make up ground and regain the lost position, he out-braked himself and locked the front-right wheel. As the McLaren went straight on at the corner Raikkonen was forced out wide to avoid contact and Kimi took to the run-off area and lost countless places.
As this was happening at the front, David Coulthard and Kazuki Nakajima had a coming together, and although Nakajima was able to continue, Coulthard’s Red Bull clouted a barrier and the Scot vacated the car. And by the time the front-runners had sorted themselves out from all the drama, BMW’s Robert Kubica found himself in the lead of the race.
The third big incident of the race-start involved Lewis Hamilton once again and championship rival Felipe Massa. Hamilton made a move on Massa and as the Ferrari pilot attempted to comeback at the McLaren, Massa ended up taking to the grass. As Felipe rejoined the track he clouted Hamilton, forcing the McLaren into a spin. To say it was a disastrous start for the Briton is an understatement. His over-exuberance had gifted Massa with an opportunity, but he blew it himself by being a little too bold as well.
Timo Glock retired his Toyota and was quickly joined by Adrian Sutil in the Force India. In the race, Raikkonen began to make up some places and passed the remaining Toyota of Jarno Trulli with relative ease. And on lap twelve, the stewards announced their investigations in Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen. Five laps later and the stewards returned a verdict of guilty of pushing a car off the track for Hamilton, handing him a drive-thru penalty, and a similar punishment for Massa for his avoidable accident with Lewis.
To make matters, just as the penalty information was being fed through to the teams and viewers, Heikki Kovalainen pulled off the track, smoke coming from the car. The Finn’s hydraulics apparently packed up, putting a premature end to the gearbox and then the engine. As Kovalainen walked back to the pitlane, Lewis Hamilton toured through to serve his penalty, Massa completed his a couple of laps later. Essentially, their races were ruined.
At the front, the lead changed a fair bit as the drivers each came in for their first pitstops. Alonso stopped on lap 18, handing the lead briefly to Jarno Trulli. On lap 22, Trulli pitted, allowing Bourdais to take the top-spot for a couple of laps before pitting himself. Amazingly, when Bourdais pitted he handed the lead to second Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. By lap 28, Piquet pitted himself though and the lead was handed back to Alonso.
At the halfway point, Massa and Hamilton were fighting their way through the slower cars, but as it was for position, the blue flags couldn’t help them. Although the title-contenders were back in twelfth and thirteenth, they each knew there was a point or two up for grabs. At the front, Alonso opened a margin over BMW driver Kubica, the Spaniard well-aware that his rival would be running longer in the middle stint and therefore potentially able to pass him in the pitstops.
Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg and Rubens Barrichello were locked in a heated battle, the Williams driver trying desperately trying to find a way by the Honda. Rosberg eventually passed Barrichello at the time when many were stopping for the second and final time. Once again, the lead changed hands but it looked as though Alonso had done enough to retain the premiere position. Another fastest lap helped Fernando’s cause and when the Spaniard rejoined the track after his final change of tyres, his net lead looked healthy.
Kubica pitted four laps later and it was clear that his worry was no longer the lead, but the challenging Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen who was setting a good pace behind. A fastest lap from Raikkonen put him in good stead with the BMW and after the Finn’s final stop he exited just behind Kubica. The pair were set up for a showdown finish.
Despite the race coming to a close though, it wasn’t the end of the dramas as Felipe Massa collided with Sebastien Bourdais as the French pilot exited the pitlane. Going into the first corner on the inside, Bourdais had no where to go when Massa came charging along. Massa turned into the corner, made contact with the Scuderia Toro Rosso and spun. Fortunately, both drivers were able to continue, although the incident would come under another investigation by the stewards. The result of which was Bourdais being given a 25s penalty.
Fernando Alonso extended his lead a little and Kimi Raikkonen attempted to force Kubica into an error. The Ferrari almost made it by the BMW on a couple of occasions, but the Polish driver defended his line well. The result of this battle allowed Nelson Piquet Jr to close up behind and soon the Renault was looking to have a go at Raikkonen. It didn’t happen and Piquet finished behind the Ferrari, but the battles showed good racing from all three.
In the closing stages Felipe Massa set a barn-storming fastest lap and managed to pass Nick Heidfeld for ninth place and on the penultimate lap, managed to squeeze by Mark Webber for eighth and one important championship point. Piquet finished in fourth place, ahead of Jarno Trulli and Sebastien Bourdais. The Champ Car champion finished ahead of his team mate Sebastian Vettel, and Scuderia Toro Rosso collected another healthy bundle of points, only to have some of them removed following Bourdais’s penalty. Lewis Hamilton finished in twelfth in the end, taking home nothing and letting Massa close the gap in the championship by a couple of points.
Ferrari regain the lead of the constructors’ title and BMW close in on McLaren. Any further mistakes from the Woking-based squad could see the Swiss-German team overhaul them, and Renault now look relatively comfortable in fourth place, 16 points ahead of Toyota. Kimi Raikkonen is now officially out of championship hunt, but Robert Kubica is hanging in, just 12 points behind Hamilton. Alonso has closed in on Heikki Kovalainen and Nick Heidfeld, the three drivers on 48, 51 and 56 points respectively.
With just two races left, McLaren cannot afford to make any more mistakes and Felipe Massa needs to go into China and Brazil with the intent to win. However, despite being told to play it careful, Hamilton is still set on winning the final to events himself, and having admitted to his error at the start, stated that he intends to collect maximum points for the remainder of the season.
But today, all eyes were once again on Alonso as he took his second victory of the season in a car that started the Australian Grand Prix in March well off the pace. Although the double champion is yet to officially make up his mind for 2009, it is likely Fernando will stay with Renault and push the team to give him a decent car next year.
Image Copyright © Charles Coates/LAT.