Hamilton scales new heights to wreck Alonso's title ambitions
What started as quite the worst race of the season – with the first 19 laps run behind the safety car – finally exploded into the sort of life that rendered it the best by the finish.
When the chequered flag fell right on the two-hour time-limit, after the scheduled 67 laps, the Japanese Grand Prix yielded to Lewis Hamilton his fourth victory of the season. It was his first in the wet and he barely put a wheel wrong in atrocious weather that saw arch-rival Fernando Alonso crash ignominiously.
It was, Hamilton said, the most difficult race of his career. It was also the best.
The day was reminiscent of the 1976 classic here as James Hunt and Niki Lauda duelled for the title, the British driver coming out on top as Lauda retired from the race. It should have been no surprise that the weather conditions beneath the famed mountain were so inhospitable, and the one difference with 31 years ago was that the title itself could not have been settled. But Hamilton's win moves him into far safer territory, with 107 points now to Alonso's 95 and third-placed Kimi Raikkonen's 90, than he had occupied at the start of the day.
Ferrari's chances were soon scuppered when both Raikkonen and his team-mate Felipe Massa were instructed to pit during the opening laps to switch to the extreme wet Bridgestone tyres, as mandated by the officials, who had elected to start the race behind the safety car. Ferrari said that they had been the only team not to be informed of the new ruling and had gone to the grid on intermediate tyres.
As the red cars languished in the appalling spray, Hamilton burst into the lead from Alonso when the race finally went "green" on the 20th lap. Soon he had opened a comfortable lead over his team-mate.
"There were so many times I thought they should stop it," Hamilton confessed. "Sometimes it was very tricky, at others it was drying and therefore easier to drive. I was so eager to get going when we were running initially behind the safety car. After that I wasn't particularly feeling any pressure from Fernando, I was saving fuel and driving away. Then we made our stops, I came out, and heard he'd been off and had got back on and was now several places behind."
Indeed so. Whereas Hamilton's stop on lap 28 cost him only two places, leaving him behind Toro Rosso's young charger Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull's veteran Mark Webber, the Spaniard's stop a lap earlier left him behind those three plus the Renaults of Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica's BMW-Sauber and David Coulthard's Red Bull.
Vettel led from lap 29 to 31, Webber from 32 to 36, Kovalainen from 37 to 39 and Fisichella on lap 40, until each in turn made their refuelling calls. Thereafter, Hamilton resumed the lead he would hold to the finish. But he had had the biggest scare of his race on the 34th lap when he got sideways and was clobbered into a spin by the following Kubica.
"The last stint I was heavy with fuel," Hamilton said. "It was easy to grain the tyres, and I'd asked, 'Why don't I let them pass me if they have to pit soon?'
"I couldn't see anything in my mirrors, my visor was fogged up, and I couldn't see Robert inside me. In a way I was fortunate to finish. I'm not taking the blame for that incident, though. When you are behind you have to take it easy, especially in these conditions. He was not fully up the inside to make the move, and I couldn't see him or hear him. He should have taken me down the straight."
Hamilton half-spun but was able to get going before anyone else went past. "After that brush I felt a vibration, and I just thought: 'Shoot, a tyre is going down.' That big vibration continued all the way to the finish, but the team said the car seemed OK, so I just had to keep it on the track."
The lap after, Hamilton got his big break when Alonso cut across Vettel going into Turn One as they fought over eighth place. Alonso spun and dropped down to 10th. Worse was to befall the reigning champion, however. Going through Turn Three on the 41st lap he lost control of his McLaren-Mercedes and slammed hard into the bank. He was unharmed, but the safety car was deployed as the wreckage of his car – and possibly his title aspirations – was cleared away.
Now Hamilton faced the final test, as he prepared for another restart. "When we were behind the safety car for the second time I was constantly on to my engineers, telling them to tell Red Bull to get Mark [Webber] to make a bit more of a gap between us. I couldn't go any faster because of the safety car ahead of me. Then one time Mark just appeared alongside me, when he braked so late. He was just too close, then he braked really hard. I don't know what happened, but my instinct said something was going to happen."
It did. Vettel misjudged things and whacked into the back of Webber. The Australian was feeling unwell, had already been sick in his helmet on the grid and later in the race, and now found himself punted out of it just when potential victory loomed. Too right he was not amused.
Now Hamilton just had to pull away from the duelling Kovalainen and Raikkonen, and this he did. Further back, behind Coulthard and Fisichella, Massa and Kubica electrified the sodden spectators with an old-fashioned, wheel-rubbing dogfight for sixth place on the final lap. The Brazilian just got the verdict and the pair embraced afterwards. Real racers, both.
"Towards the end lots of thoughts were going through my mind," Hamilton said. "On the last lap I was thinking of some of the races that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were in, and it made me feel that perhaps I was on my way to achieving something similar to them."
Lewis, rest assured, you are.
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 2hr 00min 34.579sec
2 H Kovalainen (Fin) Renault +00:08.377
3 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 00:09.478
4 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull 00:20.297
5 G Fisichella (It) Renault 00:38.864
6 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 00:49.042
7 R Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber 00:49.285
8 A Sutil (Ger) Spyker 01:00.129
9 V Liuzzi (It) Toro Rosso 01:20.622
10 R Barrichello (Br) Honda 01:28.342
11 J Button (GB) Honda 1 lap
12 S Yamamoto (Japan) Spyker 1 lap
13 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1 lap
14 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber 2 laps
15 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri 2 laps
R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 12 laps
A Davidson (GB) Super Aguri 13 laps
N Rosberg (Ger) Williams 18 laps
S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso 21 laps
M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 22 laps
F Alonso (Sp) McLaren-Mercedes 26 laps
A Wurz (Aut) Williams - Toyota 48 laps
Fastest lap: Hamilton 1min 28.193sec.
Overall constructors' standings:
1 Ferrari 170pts
2 BMW-Sauber 92
3 Renault 51
4 Williams 28, 5 Red Bull 23, 6 Toyota 12, 7 Super Aguri 4, 8 Honda 2, 9 Toro Rosso 1.
7 October: China (Shanghai)
21 October: Brazil (Sao Paulo)