Japan race analysis - an all-time great 10 Oct 2005
Not only was Sundays Japanese Grand Prix one of the most thrilling races in living memory, it also set up a nail-biting finale between Renault and McLaren in the fight for constructors honours.
McLaren took the lead from Renault in Brazil, but with a two-three result in Suzuka Renault regained it by two points even though McLaren won the race after a fabulous performance from Kimi Raikkonen.
Had Juan Pablo Montoya not crashed his car on the opening lap, trying to go round the outside of Jacques Villeneuves Sauber in the chicane, McLaren might have maintained their lead.
On a day when the motor racing counted the most, McLaren did a superb job. The two-stop strategy worked, the pits stops were clean, and Raikkonen barely made a mistake. It was interesting, however, that Fernando Alonsos fastest lap of 1m 31.599s was precious little slower than Raikkonens 1m 31.540s, which was the fastest overall.
In fact, Renault believed their man could also have won, but for an incident on lap nine when he overshot the chicane while challenging Christian Klien for seventh place. Alonso got it by missing the chicane, and slowed on the exit to let Klien repass before overtaking him again before the start/finish line. That wasnt enough for the FIA stewards, however, who let Renault know that they expected the champion to let Klien pass again. This Alonso did on the 11th lap, before going past him again going into Turn One on lap 13. Renault calculated this cost him seven seconds which prevented him from fighting for the lead later on.
At one stage Renault were set to move six points clear of McLaren, but when longtime race leader Giancarlo Fisichella was unable to hold off Raikkonen on the final lap the advantage shrunk to two.
For Williams this was another strong race like Spa, and Mark Webber was always in the hunt for a podium finish after a strong start and some great pitwork during his first stop put him ahead of rival David Coulthard. Later on they did the same thing when Webber was battling Jenson Button, and the one disappointment came on lap 49 when Alonso caught Webber by surprise going into Turn One and grabbed away his podium finish. The FW27 has definitely made some aerodynamic progress of late, but Webber complained that his BMW V10 lacked grunt down Suzukas long pit straight. Team mate Antonio Pizzonia had an unhappy time, after spinning out of 11th place on the 10th lap.
This was another positive race for Red Bull. Coulthard made a great start to jump up to fourth place and could also have been a podium contender, until his first pit stop on lap 23. That was when Webber jumped him. After that the extra fuel load upset the RB01s balance and the Scot began to lose ground, but three points for sixth place ensured that Peter Saubers team cannot realistically overtake them now for seventh overall. Christian Kliens strong qualifying performance did not convert to a points finish.
If Klien was disappointed to go from fourth to ninth, so was Jenson Button to start second and finish only fifth on another disappointing day for BAR Honda. Initially the Englishman was able to stay with Fisichella, who had passed him getting off the line at the start, but then his fuel flap failed to open during his refuelling stop on lap 22, which cost him six seconds as the team had to open it manually. Later he lost another place to Webber in his second stop.
Takuma Sato, meanwhile, fell off in the first corner at the start and dropped to last, pitting for repairs. Later he required a new nose after his rash collision with Jarno Trulli on the 10th lap - a collision he was later disqualified for.
It was not a great race for Toyota, either, after Ralf Schumachers pole position start. He was the first to refuel after only 13 laps, so his pole looked to be something of a public relations stunt as five of those laps were run behind the safety car! The safety car prevented him from opening up the gap he needed to make a three-stop strategy work and ultimately cost him any chance of a decent finish. The team had to be content with just one more point rather than the third or fourth place they had hoped to, and tempers were frayed after Satos attack took Trulli out of contention.
Seventh place was poor reward for Michael Schumachers aggressive performance. He found the F2005 less competitive than it had been in Brazil, and lost a place during his second pit stop when he asked for adjustments to improve the handling balance. But if nothing else it secured third place for the team in the championship. Rubens Barrichellos off-track moment in the first corner on lap one saw him puncture his left rear tyre after clobbering Satos right front wheel as they headed for the gravel. That necessitated a slow lap and a pit stop, and after the safety car was deployed Ferrari switched him to a single-stop strategy. By then he had lost too much time to make up any ground.
Sauber were disappointed with the slow performance of their C24s. The cars were well balanced, and after the safety car they hedged their bets with Felipe Massa staying on a two-stop strategy and Jacques Villeneuve switching to one. But the fact that they finished less than second apart at the finish suggested that whatever they did, 10th and 11th places were the best they could have hoped for. Villeneuves 11th became 12th after a post-race 25-second penalty for taking off Montoya.
At Jordan there werent too many dramas as Tiago Monteiro took 13th place, but Narain Karthikeyan suffered a late stop on lap 43 to change the right front tyre after flat-spotting it, and thus dropped back to finish 15th. At Minardi Robert Doornbos had a good scrap with the Indian and was pleased with his race, but Christijan Albers lost time in his second pit stop on lap 34. He overshot his stop marks, which led to a problem refuelling and a brief fire. He recovered to finish 16th and last.
So that was the Japanese Grand Prix, and a great race it was too. Fittingly, the climax to the constructors championship must wait until the Chinese Grand Prix brings the curtain down on a great season.