Lewis Hamilton harried, harangued and harassed Nico Rosberg to take a superb victory in the Japanese Grand Prix, but it ended with anxious faces after it was abruptly ended six laps from the finish with an ambulance on track and Jules Bianchi taken to hospital.
With shades of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna’s memorable Formula One battle here in 1989, only with rain added to spice things up earlier, Hamilton swept past halfway through the race and was not overtaken. Rosberg finished second, with Sebastian Vettel third and Jenson Button fourth.
However, the race did not end with scenes of jubilation for Hamilton, but with faces of worry with the circumstances in which the race ended unclear.
The sober mood was after an incident involving Adrian Sutil and Bianchi shortly before the end. Sutil first went off, and his car was then attended to by the marshalls.
Bianchi then went off at the same corner a few laps later, and according to Sutil, hit a recovery crane side on. The ambulance was dispatched, and the race was stopped immediately. The stewards said minutes later that it would not resume. An unconscious Bianchi was then taken to the hospital.
Rosberg said on the podium: “My thoughts at the moment are with our friend Jules, as it seems quite serious.” Hamilton echoed his comments.
Before the race began, in the morning, a decision to bring the race start forward could not be reached. The FIA, motorsport’s governing body, approached the organisers and Formula One Management three times to try and broker an earlier start, to no avail. It is not as if this had been forecast for, oh, three days.
What it meant was that the predicted rains, scheduled for just before 15:00 as Typhoon Phanfone hit, came exactly on cue, prompting a start behind the safety car. Before then, Sergio Perez span off twice just trundling around to get to the grid. The teams were doing the best to tackle the weather, with makeshift tents to keep the cars and engineers dry while waiting for the start.
Once they were underway, the 22 cars limped around to complete two laps, rookie Marcus Ericsson spinning on the first, before the red flag came out. As it stood, therefore, that was enough for a race result and the awarding of half points, giving Rosberg a slender 0.5 point championship lead.
Just a few minutes later, the stewards confirmed the race would resume at 15:25 as the rains lessened. In the meantime, the respective bosses of McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull chewed over the viability of the race with a chat on the pit wall.
At the start, Fernando Alonso’s impending decision to leave Ferrari was vindicated. The Spaniard pulled off with an electrical failure after just a few corners.
Then began the tiresome process of waiting for the stewards to let the drivers race, with conditions perfectly acceptable to most of the field. Hamilton, as ever, was the most vocal. First, on lap six, he said: “The track is as good as it’s going to get.”
Appealing directly to race director Charlie Whiting, he moaned: “Charlie, the track is fine. We’ve done two more laps already and the track is good. It’s not far off intermediates.” Time and time again the drivers are mollycoddled when even they ask not to be. Jenson Button and others were even considering diving straight into the pits for a set of the intermediate tyres.
Finally, at the end of lap nine after 20 tortuous minutes, the safety car left the stage and Hamilton’s wish was granted. Button chose the intermediate tyre, as he did in Canada so successfully a few years ago.
Rosberg bunched the pack up, and then made his getaway, a wall of spray covering the main straight. Hamilton chased hard, but by then end of the lap his principal foe had opened up a 1.3-second lead. Meanwhile, Button was rewarded, driving superbly in third behind the two Mercedes, both well ahead. This was the kind of race made for the experienced Briton, after all.
Now began a ding-dong duel between Hamilton and Rosberg the likes of which we have not seen since their unforgettable crash a few races ago in Belgium. Both pitted for intermediates, the rest of the field way back, and Hamilton set about making a decisive move.
Behind, the Red Bulls were showing their preference for a slippery track. First Vettel dispatched both the Williams, before Ricciardo did the same, with two stunning moves in a matter of laps round the outside on the opening ‘S’ turns.
By lap 25, with the rear-wing flag now enabled, Hamilton was within a few cars lengths of his team-mate. Their duel was reminiscent of that of Prost and Senna here when they were at McLaren in 1989. Unlike Senna on that occasion, Hamilton was able to forge a path by without making contact.
Haring down the main straight amidst the spray on lap 29, Hamilton, with the rear wing wide open, swept by round the outside into turn one. He must have held his breath, for fear Rosberg might clip his rear tyre, but he made the move stick. Within a few laps, he comfortably opened up a five-second lead.
It was not all plain sailing on the now rivers of the Suzuka circuit, however. The two Red Bulls were eating into the Mercedes’ lead at nearly two seconds a lap. Hamilton and Rosberg had to respond, and did so with their second stop. Button was far less fortunate with his. A steering wheel change took 6.9 seconds, bringing him out behind Vettel and in fourth.
A dozen laps from the end, the heavens began to open again as the gloom descended on Suzuka. Button, consistently brilliant in wet weather races, elected for the full wet tyres with 10 laps to go, gambling on worse rain to come.
But then, on lap 42, Adrian Sutil spun his Sauber into the wall at turn eight. Two laps later, Jules Bianchi went off at the same corner, his Marussia team said. The ambulance was then deployed, and with light fading, the race was stopped on lap 47 and would not resume. Bianchi was later airlifted to hospital.
Hamilton had won a brilliant victory in a race which was brought to a sudden end, with all the drivers and teams waiting for more news. The Telegraph