2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

With the wacky 2009 championship down to its antepenultimate race at Suzuka Circuit, Jenson Button’s eroding cushion of points was looking increasingly fragile. Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel smelled blood. Spoilers, shmoilers!

Button went to Japan with a 15-point lead on his teammate Barrichello as Sebastian Vettel—very fast but prone to the errors of the young—looked increasingly less of a credible challenger. Twenty-five points behind with thirty to grab in three races, Red Bull’s driver faced an uphill battle.

He began his working weekend by setting pole on Saturday with a time of 1:32.160, 60 milliseconds clear of Toyota’s Jarno Trulli, with McLaren’s incumbent champion Lewis Hamilton a further 175 milliseconds behind.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

The legs you are looking at belong to Timo Glock, Jarno Trulli’s teammate at Toyota, who finished second at the previous race in Singapore. He injured his left calf in a crash during practice and couldn’t drive in the race.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Vettel had the advantage of pole position, but could not afford to finish at anything worse than 4th to retain even a sliver of chance for this year’s title. Which would be no mean feat, as Vettel celebrated his 22nd birthday on July 3rd—if he became world champion, he would be by far the youngest champion the sport has ever seen.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Because he knows Jay Leno has a great many fast cars which he likes to drive at speed, Vettel performed a ritual transformation into The Chin as he put on his fire-retardant mask.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

And the race is on! As you can see in the lower right corner, Lewis Hamilton, driving the KERS-powered McLaren, pulled in dangerously close to Vettel from his position of 3rd on the grid. Vettel can thank Jarno Trulli, seen in his red and white Toyota on the left, for holding Hamilton slightly back. While Hamilton was at one point nosing ahead of Vettel, he was on the outside line, allowing Vettel to turn first into the first corner. This was to be a position he would never relinquish, not even for a single pitstop.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Proving how fast he is when he doesn’t have to deal with traffic, Vettel quickly built up an impressive lead as he was chased by Lewis Hamilton and Jarno Trulli.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Hamilton ran in second place for almost half of the race, having overtaking Trulli at the start, but he was never in a position to challenge for the lead.

Then came his first pitstop. McLaren threw down the gauntlet with a scorcher of a tire change and refueling at 6.7 seconds—with Jarno Trulli, running third, due for his own stop in the next lap.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Toyota rose to the occasion: they swapped out Trulli’s slicks and refueled him in 6.6 seconds. Combined with the time he gained on Hamilton during his last, fast lap out, this was enough of a margin to allow Trulli to return in front of Hamilton. The Toyota pit crew was absolutely overjoyed. Trulli would manage to hold on to his position to take the 11th podium of his 12-year career.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Here’s Jenson Button, driving out of the points after a lackluster qualifying session and a poor start. Pure luck would return him to 8th place, worth a single point: a fight ahead of him between Adrian Sutil of Force India and Heikki Kovalainen of McLaren culminated in a spin, allowing Button to slip by. He finished at 8th, one place behind teammate Rubens Barrichello, who thus gained a point on him. Brawn GP would end the race needing half a point to claim the constructor’s championship.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Poor Mark Webber, already out of the challenge for the world title, had to start from the pitlane after a botched qualification and was already on his second or third pitstop by lap five. Red Bull Racing used the opportunity to recall him to the pits a number of times during the race to test various aerodynamic bits: you’ll remember that in this season, testing is not allowed outside of race weekends.

Red Bull did a splendid job. Running dead last in 17th place with two laps down on the rest of the field, Webber set the race’s fastest lap on lap 50 with a time of 1:32.569.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Just as things were becoming a tad boring, Bernie Ecclestone—sitting in his supervillain mansion on the island of Thule in the Southern Ocean—pressed the ACCIDENT button on his control panel. Toro Rosso’s 19-year-old Jaime Alguersuari promptly disintegrated an advertising board and stuck his car nose first into the tire barrier. The Spanish kid emerged just fine, but as the track was now littered with carbon fiber, it was time to fire up the 6.3-liter V8 in the AMG Benz safety car.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

The race stewards performed with clockwork Japanese precision, but it still took them five laps to clear the track, chilling everyone’s tires. Fun was provided by safety car driver Bernd Mayländer, who let the big Benz rip, sending big gargles of V8 down the trackside microphones.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Nothing remained for the last few laps: Robert Kubica threatened Button for a while but then backed off, allowing him to grab his single point—and Vettel his full ten for the 4th win of his career. He was manic with joy. The photo above was preceded by one hell of a chest bump, captured by the cameraman to the right. If you watch the race on tape, keep an eye out for it!

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

One of these days, racing drivers will have to abandon Dan Gurney’s great invention if they don’t want to end up cross-posted to our sister site of smut, Fleshbot.

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

Come to think of it again: too late. Call the San Fernando Valley—or better yet, Budapest!

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2009 Japanese Grand Prix: A Jolly Good Race

The saddest man on the entire island of Honshu! In a repeat of last weekend’s performance, Toyota inched ever closed to its first win in Formula One. But similarly to Timo Glock’s second, Jarno Trulli could not claim victory. He was full of praise for his team and his injured teammate, a stark contrast with the ever aloof Lewis Hamilton, who blamed nothing but his car for his third place.

Sebastian Vettel is now 16 points down on Jenson Button with two races to go and a maximum of twenty points to gain. Two years ago, Kimi Räikkönen was down 17 points as Formula One went to its penultimate race in Shanghai—but two flawless victories and Lewis Hamilton’s rookie shakes made him world champion by one point over Hamilton and teammate Fernando Alonso.

Let’s see if Vettel can do the same. He’s got his work cut out for him: the next race will be on Barrichello’s home turf in Brazil on October 18th.

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