On race day morning, with a vast typhoon lurking off the coast of Japan, there were serious concerns the grand prix wouldn’t go ahead.
It did – but by the time the sun came down on Suzuka it was hard not to wish the race hadn’t taken place.
Jules Bianchi’s violent crash on the 43rd lap brought the Japanese Grand Prix to an early end as the Marussia driver was rushed to hospital for surgery on serious head injuries.
After that shock, no one was in the mood for celebrations.
Button’s gamble pays off
The development and progress of typhoon Phanfone had been a constant talking point in the days before the race, and only took a back seat when Red Bull made their stunning announcement on Saturday morning that Sebastian Vettel was leaving them, to be replaced by Daniil Kvyat.
As race day dawned the last chance to bring the start time forward, and increase the chance of avoiding the incoming rain, was spurned. Come the scheduled three o’clock start time the weather was doing exactly what was forecast – rain was teeming down.
With sunset two-and-a-half hours away the race began as scheduled, albeit with the field trundling around single-file behind the Safety Car. Marcus Ericsson illustrated the obvious fact that the track was nowhere near ready to be raced on by spinning off at the end of the first lap.
The next time by the Safety Car brought the field into the pits to wait for better weather. Despite the dire forecasts, soon the radars were giving optimistic signals. A break in the weather appeared and the cars returned to the track, still behind the Safety Car.
They remained in that order for nine laps, gradually clearing the track of water, to the point that some drivers became frustrated at the continuing delay. Lewis Hamilton was especially eager to get going, no doubt understanding that further rain could mean the Safety Car never went away, and the consequent half-points result would cost him the championship lead.
“The track is as good as it’s going to get,” said Hamilton on the radio. “Puddles are not a problem.” Later he addressed race director Charlie Whiting directly: “Charlie, the track is fine. We’ve already done two more laps already.” Some of those further back in the queue, such as Jean-Eric Vergne, shared his frustration.
On lap ten the Safety Car finally headed for the pits and the race proper began. Giving an indication how much the track had dried, two drivers instantly appeared in the pits to switch to the shallower intermediate tread tyres: Jenson Button and Pastor Maldonado.
It proved an inspired move for the McLaren driver. Over the next four laps the rest of the field followed his lead, and by the time they had done so he had jumped from seventh to third, behind the two Mercedes.
Hamilton takes win from Rosberg
The rolling start had spared the Mercedes pit wall the worry of seeing their drivers blasting side-by-side towards Suzuka’s first corner. But whiel Nico Rosberg kept his lead at the start he wasn’t drawing clear of Hamilton.
As the lead driver, Rosberg was the first to pit to get rid of his full wet weather tyres. Hamilton took the lead for one lap and produced the fastest first sector time of the race as he tried to take advantage of any delay Rosberg might experience in the pits or on his out-lap. But on his fading full wet tyres Hamilton lost time in the middle sector, which ensured Rosberg took the lead back.
It was never a lead which looked secure, however. Hamilton hovered around a second back from his team mate, and once DRS was enabled he homed in on the other W05. Rosberg, plagued by oversteer, was increasingly having to watch his mirrors.
Hamilton pressed him closest in the first two turns at the end of the DRS zone. On one lap Hamilton went in a bit too hot and took to the run-off area, front brakes glowing. Finally as lap 29 began the DRS effect proved too powerful for Rosberg to resist.
As Hamilton bore down on him Rosberg covered the inside line, but that meant pulling onto the wet side of the track. On the drier racing line Hamilton drove around his team mate into the lead.
He downplayed his race-winning pass afterwards. “It felt quite textbook really,” Hamilton told reporters. “I was really surprised I close I was able to follow Nico.”
From that moment on Rosberg seemed more concerned with preserving his tyres and ensuring he didn’t fall prey to the fast-catching Red Bulls. He gave away around eight tenths of a second per lap to Hamilton, and his deficit to his team mate peaked at 14 seconds.
Hamilton went on to win the race, albeit in understandably sombre circumstances. There was no spraying of champagne to mark his extended ten-point championship lead.
Button loses podium chance
On a weekend when the occupants of next year’s McLaren-Hondas became a subject of growing speculation, Button made a strong case for himself as the best man for the job. He was on course for a podium finish until misfortune struck, which allowed the Red Bulls to get the better of him.
The RB10s, which had been set up with a wet race in mind, were all over the back of the two Williams cars in the opening laps. Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa soon fell prey to Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo.
The hairpin was Vettel’s preferred passing place – he launched down the inside of Massa from considerable range, then went around the outside of Bottas for fourth place a few laps later.
Ricciardo’s passes were more artful. He hugged the outside lines in the Esses, free of the spray of the cars ahead, and used the RB10’s stunning downforce to seize the inside line for the Dunlop Curve. Massa and Bottas simply couldn’t touch the pieces of road Ricciardo was passing them on.
Now the Red Bulls had Button in their sights, but Vettel was handed the position when the drivers pitted to take on fresh intermediate tyres. Button’s pit stop was delayed as he had to make a five-wheel change – four tyres plus his steering wheel.
Ricciardo delayed his second pit stop and briefly led before pitting. He came in seven laps after Vettel and emerged on Button’s tail. Ricciardo took one run at the McLaren at the hairpin and squeezed through on the inside, but the dogged Button made a cleaner exit from the turn and reclaimed the place.
Ricciardo wasn’t to be denied, however. The next time he tried the same move he made sure to block Button’s line at the exit of the corner and completed the pass. Button then found his lapped team mate, who had switched to wet weather tyres, filling his mirrors.
Like Button, Kevin Magnussen had also needed a steering wheel change, and a couple of errors at turn one had delayed him further. At one point he had made an audacious move on Ricciardo to unlap himself from the race leader on the outside of the first curve.
Kimi Raikkonen also lost time in the pits with a slow wheel change. That dropped him out of the top ten, and with Fernando Alonso having retired at the restart with an electrical problem that meant there were no Ferraris in the points for the first time since the 2010 British Grand Prix.
Given the poor conditions the race began in it was something of a surprise to see the race nearing its end with most of the laps completed under green flag running. When it reached lap 40 enough laps had been completed for full points to be awarded (75% of the distance).
But as the race passed that threshold conditions were worsening once more. The rain had returned and other drivers had followed Magnussen’s lead in switching to full wet weather tyres.
Button did so on lap 42 and by now the conditions had become much worse – not only was the rain falling with greater intensity, but with sunset less than an hour away visibility was deteriorating as well.
While Button headed for the pits the marshals at the Dunlop Curve went to the aid of Adrian Sutil. The Sauber driver had been following Bianchi’s Marussia but snapped sideways mid-corner and planted his car nose-first into the barrier.
Sutil told his team he was OK, jumped clear of the car, and looked on while the marshals waved double yellow flags and began to retrieve his car using a recovery vehicle. One by one the rest of the field passed the crash scene, and the last driver to arrive was Bianchi.
What happened next was not shown on the television screens but Sutil’s account indicates Bianchi went off in much the same way he did. In circumstances where the track was getting wetter, few drivers were on tyres as old as Bianchi’s 17-lap-old intermediates.
The Marussia struck the mobile crane which had been sent to recover Sutil’s car. Medical aid was swiftly summoned, and the Safety Car joined the track with the medical vehicle. On lap 46 the race was abandoned, and per F1’s rules the result was declared based on the finishing order on the penultimate lap before it was suspended.
That confirmed Hamilton as the race-winner ahead of Rosberg. Vettel, who had pitted under the Safety Car, was restored to third place ahead of Ricciardo and Button.
Safety questions for F1
In the trauma of what happened to Bianchi on Sunday it’s understandable why some would wish the race had never been started. But the crash wasn’t a consequence of abnormally high rain fall due to the typhoon – the race conditions were not unlike those seen at other recent wet races.
The causes of Bianchi’s accident will be scrutinised as F1 strives to understand how such an accident happened. It has not escaped notice that an incident took place in similar circumstances at the same track 20 years earlier, when a marshal was injured by the spinning McLaren of Martin Brundle while attending to Gianni Morbidelli.
You don’t have to look far in F1 today to find evidence of the seriousness with which the subject of safety is approached. To take one example, the recent drive to force teams to use lower noses to reduce risks in accidents has had an obvious effect on the appearance of the cars.
But while much work has been done to protect drivers in collisions with barriers and other cars, they are not expected to come into contact with vehicles of the type Bianchi hit.
The decision to move Sutil’s car using a recovery vehicle in fading light and in worsening weather without using a Safety Car must therefore be questioned. The reluctance to use the Safety Car in certain circumstances has been raised before, including after another incident involving Sutil earlier this year.
But even these thoughts of how a similar accident can be prevented are secondary for now as the F1 community anxiously waits for news about Bianchi’s condition, and fervently hopes for the best.
2014 Japanese Grand Prix
2014 F1 race reviews
Image © Daimler/Hoch Zwei, Red Bull/Getty, Sauber, Marussia