Lewis Hamilton has taken a huge step towards winning his second Formula 1 world championship by winning a rain-affected Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka today.
Despite an early red flag period due to torrential rain, an improvement in the conditions allowed the race to get underway, but it was eventually suspended for a second time with six laps remaining as conditions worsened and the light faded.
The aftermath of the race was overshadowed by the news that Jules Bianchi was unconscious and being transported to hospital following a collision with a recovery truck being used for Adrian Sutil’s Sauber.
The persistent threat of Typhoon Phanfone finally reared its head on Sunday at Suzuka, with the rain intensifying in the hour leading up to the race. This left the FIA no decision but to start the race under the safety car after the drivers reported poor visibility on their laps to the grid, with Sergio Perez even spinning off at the esses.
At 3pm local time, safety car driver Bernd Maylander led the grid away to start the race in the order that they qualified in. Through the spray, the drivers struggled to keep the cars on track, complaining of aquaplaning even at low speeds.
After just two laps behind the safety car, race control took the decision to bring out the red flag, ordering all of the drivers to return to the pits to wait for a break in the weather. After just ten minutes though, the stewards deemed the conditions to have improved enough to get the race restarted, with the safety car leading Rosberg and Hamilton away once again on lap three at Suzuka.
Fernando Alonso had been the centre of attention for much of the race weekend at Suzuka, but his race was over before it had properly started. Just three corners after restarting under the safety car, his Ferrari ground to a halt, forcing him to park up at the side of the track and retire from the race.
As the safety car continued to circulate, a number of drivers radioed over to their teams to say that the track was dry enough to restart the race, with some even saying that intermediate tires could be used, such was the improvement in conditions.
On lap 10, the race finally went green as the safety car peeled in, allowing the drivers to go racing. Hamilton immediately went on the attack, trying to find a way past Rosberg through the spray as Jenson Button and Pastor Maldonado opted to make the switch to intermediate tires. Button immediately proved his wet-weather credentials, matching the pace of the Mercedes drivers immediately and sparking a flurry of activity in the pit lane as others switched for intermediates. Once all of the drivers had pitted, the Briton was running in third place.
Mercedes tried to keep its drivers out, but ultimately had to bail and brought Rosberg in at the end of lap 13. He came back out in second place as Hamilton stayed out for another lap. It proved to be a costly decision as he ran wide at Spoon, allowing Rosberg to retake the lead when the Briton pitted for intermediates.
Williams’ wet weather pace has been a cause for concern in 2014, and this immediately showed at Suzuka as both Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo managed to slip past Felipe Massa for fifth place before duly passing Valtteri Bottas in fourth with some spectacular overtakes.
At the front, Rosberg and Hamilton renewed the rivalry that has made this year’s championship so enthralling. Through the spray, they continued to exchange fastest times and quicker sectors, with the gap stabilizing at around one second as the race hit half distance. With DRS now enabled though, Hamilton was cranking up the pressure on his teammate and championship rival, moving to within striking distance as they battled in the slippery conditions.
Rosberg began to find himself struggling for grip on his intermediate tires and complaining of oversteer, and it proved to be too much in his bid to keep Hamilton back. After getting a better exit out of the final corner, Hamilton used DRS to close on Rosberg before sweeping around the outside of the first corner through the spray with a sensational move.
With no answer to his teammate’s overtake, Rosberg dropped back from Hamilton and continued to struggle on his intermediate tires, but Mercedes looked to keep both of its drivers out to save them a pit stop at the end of the race.
In the fight for third, Jenson Button’s hopes took a hit when he had to come in for a change of steering wheel, dropping him behind Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel, with the four-time world champion flying after stopping for a fresh set of tires.
Vettel’s pace forced Mercedes to look over its shoulder, bringing Rosberg in for a second stop on lap 34. The Mercedes driver emerged in third place behind Hamilton and Ricciardo, who were both yet to make their second pit stop. Both eventually came in within a lap of each other, with Hamilton retaining the lead as Ricciardo dropped down to fifth place behind Rosberg, Vettel and Button.
As the race entered the final few stages, the rain began to fall heavily once again, prompting a number of drivers to make the switch to the full wet tires. After losing a position to Ricciardo, Button made the switch given that he had nothing to lose, coming back out in fifth place.
Behind the safety car, Vettel took to the pits to allow Daniel Ricciardo up into third place as the train of cars bunched up with seven laps to go. However, race control took the decision to red flag the race for a second time, bringing the drivers back to the pit lane in their running order.
The result was soon declared, giving Lewis Hamilton his first win at Suzuka and allowing the Briton to extend his lead at the top of the drivers’ championship. With Rosberg in second place though, the gap stands at just ten points heading to the Russian Grand Prix next weekend.
Despite his late stop, Vettel stayed in third place as the red flag saw the result taken at the lap before he stopped. However, in fourth, Ricciardo will still be happy after a strong driver. Jenson Button finished fifth for McLaren ahead of the Williams pair of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. Jean-Eric Vergne came home in eighth ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez.
However, all of the paddock’s thoughts and prayers lie with Bianchi and Marussia at this time. The FIA has confirmed that he is on his way to hospital and unconscious, but no more details have been revealed at this time.