With low fog, pouring rain and a lot of standing water on the Fuji Speedway, race director Charlie Whiting listened to the teams and elected to start the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix from behind the safety car. Driven by Bernd Lammers, the Mercedes led the pack over the start/finish line, every competitor having been told to use extreme wet weather tyres. Fast forward 67 laps, and it was Lewis Hamilton who converted his mighty pole position into a well-deserving ten points in his title campaign. But what happened in between could not have been more interesting.
Due to the possibility of teams taking gambles and running on intermediate wet tyres while they cruise at reduced speeds behind the safety, Charlie Whiting insisted that all teams start on extreme wet weather tyres. It seems as though Ferrari chose to ignore this request (they claim they didn’t receive the email until it was too late), but this decision only allowed Felipe Massa to regress into his erratic and haphazard style. The Brazilian spun, skidded and slid around before the team pulled in both drivers for a change of rubber, finally relenting into the race director’s pressure.
On lap nineteen, Whiting allowed Liuzzi to pass the safety and drive around the circuit to catch up with the tail-enders, unlapping himself in essence. This allowed the teams and officials to gauge what the conditions were like at an increased pace, and with Liuzzi safely back at the back, the safety car was told to pit.
When the safety car eventually pulled in, allowing the cars to race in the treacherous conditions, Lewis Hamilton backed up his team mate as the pair jostled around for an advantage. It was Hamilton who held the lead and the McLarens simply scampered off into the mist, leaving the Ferrari’s to look like amateurs and trailing in the background.
The opening laps of anger in Fuji saw Jenson Button suffer incident as well, loosing his front wing as he slid into the back of Nick Heidfeld. However, the Briton continued, refusing to pit for a new assembly, and somehow Button managed to consistent lap only ~4 seconds shy of the McLarens. However, after failing to stop quickly enough for one of the turns, the team pulled him and he eventually lost out while a new nose was fitted to his RA107.
Felipe Massa continued to skate around the outer edges of the corners, struggling with the control of his Ferrari. Conversely, Sebastian Vettel managed to avoid all opening lap disaster and when he made it around the first tour, he was placed in third and leading Mark Webber in the Red Bull.
The conditions, although possibly better than the morning, weren’t letting up. The rain continued to pour and the cars continued to slide around, more often than not while attempting to move in a straight line. Even the reigning world champion wasn’t immune to the standing water, and Alonso briefly dropped his McLaren at the first corner.
On lap 34, Robert Kubica made a move of Lewis Hamilton going through the tight left-hander. With all the spray in the air Hamilton did not see nor did he expect to find a BMW forcing its way up the inside. By the time Robert had been noticed by Lewis, both cars were pointing the wrong way, and both had sustained minor damage. For his part in the unnecessary incident, Kubica was rewarded with a drive-thru penalty, which he served a few laps later at the 39 mark.
The second safety car period came about on lap 41, but not as you would imagine due to the weather. Driving expert Lammers was called out again because Fernando Alonso dropped his McLaren at turn five and spun around, clouting the wall quite hard in the process and coming to a rest in the middle of the corner. His race was effectively over, and a disconsolate Alonso wandered over the side of the track to view the remaining laps.
Due to the position of the McLaren and the amount of silver debris scattered over the tarmac, the safety car was released and the speeds were reduced. However, despite cruising around at reduced pace, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel still managed to retire from their points paying position. Running into the back of Webber, Vettel managed to get his Toro Rosso back to the pits, but the body language from the mechanics just said turn it off, you’re out. The Australian half of the accident was understandably fuming, but Vettel took full blame for the coming together. The only consolation from the retirement was the promotion of Liuzzi into and Coulthard into fourth.
Further retirements came from Nico Rosberg and Nick Heidfeld, and although Button finished, he couldn’t make it back to the pits. And while Hamilton saluted his team as he took the chequered flag, Felipe Massa and Robert Kubica knocked out a blinder of a lap as the pair shared rubber, collected grass and ran each other to the limit the whole way round. Massa eventually crossed the line first, but the competition between the two drivers was immense. Kimi Raikkonen also showed what a determined driver he is, never stopping in his pursuit of Heikki Kovalainen in second. The trailing Finnish driver refused to relent the pressure, but the leading Finnish driver soaked up the pressure to claim his first podium and a deserved eight points for the team.
Leading Fernando Alonso by twelve points now, Lewis Hamilton has a world championship to lose in the two remaining races in China and Brazil. However, the Ferrari drivers have pretty much conceded defeat, Massa explaining that he is mathematically unable to in, and Kimi is just too far for it be a realistic possibility.
The Formula One circus heads to China next weekend and the Shanghai circuit. It is a circuit that Alonso clinched his first title in 2005, but this year the most he can hope for is an extension to his battle.