AN UN­EX­PECTED WIN FOR LEWIS

The ten­sion was electric, but then Lewis Hamil­ton’s big­gest ri­val found he wasn’t fir­ing on all cylin­ders…

F1 Racing (UK) - - RACE DEBRIEF -

Lewis Hamil­ton moved a step closer to be­com­ing a four-time world cham­pion with his vic­tory at the Ja­panese Grand Prix, as Fer­rari fell into dis­ar­ray for the third week­end in suc­ces­sion. As a re­sult of Se­bas­tian Vet­tel’s re­tire­ment, Hamil­ton made a net gain of 25 points, putting him 59 ahead with only a fur­ther 100 still up for grabs.

The late-sea­son Asian leg of this year’s ti­tle bat­tle has been a dis­as­ter for Fer­rari. Vet­tel cruised into it just three points down and was look­ing for­ward to venues that played to his car’s strengths. Yet he some­how came away hav­ing picked up just 12 points in three races. At Suzuka, a spark-plug fail­ure on the way to the grid meant he plum­meted through the field be­fore park­ing up. QUAL­I­FY­ING Through­out this sea­son, the Mercedes W08 has been a tricky beast to tame, and team prin­ci­pal Toto Wolff has re­peat­edly de­scribed the ma­chine as “a bit of a diva”. In the heat and hu­mid­ity of Malaysia it had proved par­tic­u­larly tru­cu­lent, and both Mercedes driv­ers had strug­gled to find the car’s sweet spot.

But in the cooler tem­per­a­tures of Suzuka in qual­i­fy­ing, Hamil­ton found the per­fect bal­ance to smash the op­po­si­tion. It was his first pole po­si­tion at the leg­endary track and the 71st of his ca­reer. With the Mercedes en­gine set­tings ramped up to a ‘quali-spec’ mode, no one was in the same league.

“Ev­ery sin­gle time I have strug­gled here, it’s be­cause I’ve been try­ing to find the right bal­ance,” said Hamil­ton. “This is the first car I have felt has been un­der­neath me all week­end. My knowl­edge of it is bet­ter than it was be­fore. Let’s hope she’s not stub­born to­mor­row.”

Vet­tel joined Hamil­ton on the front row, once Valt­teri Bot­tas had been handed a five-place grid penalty for a re­place­ment gear­box. Be­hind them were the two Red Bulls, both driv­ers dis­ap­pointed to be a full sec­ond be­hind Hamil­ton’s Mercedes.

Bot­tas’s grid penalty put him be­tween the two Force In­dias. He’d recorded his best Q2 time on the soft rub­ber, set­ting him­self up for an al­ter­na­tive tyre strat­egy in the race, since many of the cars around him would be start­ing on the su­per­softs. Fer­rari’s Kimi Räikkö­nen did the same, for he was also in re­ceipt of a five-place grid penalty, hav­ing dam­aged his gear­box with an off into the bar­ri­ers at Deg­ner 2 in Satur­day morn­ing prac­tice.

Jolyon Palmer was stranded in P18 on the grid, in what would be his fi­nal out­ing for Re­nault. A few hours af­ter qual­i­fy­ing, it was an­nounced that Car­los Sainz would take his seat from Austin. RACE Fri­day’s gloomy washout was ren­dered a dis­tant mem­ory by Sun­day’s warm sun­shine. As the track tem­per­a­tures nudged to­wards 46°C, there was con­cern that the Mercedes ‘diva’ might strug­gle in com­par­i­son with the Red Bulls. And once away in the lead, Hamil­ton was cau­tious through­out the race. His clos­est chal­lenger was Max Ver­stap­pen, who had nailed his team-mate Daniel Ric­cia­rdo in the run down to Turn 1 and was quickly past Vet­tel’s Fer­rari at the hair­pin, aware that some­thing was amiss with the red car.

“I saw in my mir­rors that Max had done a big lunge into Turn 11, so from then I was just try­ing to man­age the pace, man­age the tyres,” said

“VER­STAP­PEN

RE­MAINED A HOV­ER­ING THREAT AS BOT­TAS – WHO EN­JOYED A SHORT STINT IN THE LEAD BY DINT OF HIS LATEPITTING STRAT­EGY – UN­WIT­TINGLY HELD UP HIS TEAM-MATE

Hamil­ton. “It was the hottest the track had been all week­end – so it was re­ally cru­cial, know­ing the Red Bulls would be very quick in the race.”

On the open­ing lap, Car­los Sainz had drifted wide be­tween Turns 5 and 6 and sub­se­quently spun into the bar­ri­ers, re­quir­ing an ap­pear­ance by the Safety Car to tidy away his Toro Rosso. It was an un­der­whelm­ing end to his ca­reer with this team, which pos­si­bly elicited a smirk from Palmer as he passed by in his Re­nault.

The first of the lead­ers to make their one and only stop for fresh rub­ber was Ver­stap­pen, who dived into the pit­lane on lap 21, fol­lowed a lap later by Hamil­ton, who also switched onto the soft tyre. Red Bull team boss Chris­tian Horner later re­vealed that a blis­ter had formed on Ver­stap­pen’s front-left tyre and was start­ing to widen and deepen as the race en­tered the latter stages. As a re­sult, Ver­stap­pen was forced to drop his pace and there­after main­tained a three-sec­ond gap to Hamil­ton, re­main­ing a hov­er­ing threat as Bot­tas – who en­joyed a short stint in the lead by dint of his late-pit­ting strat­egy – un­wit­tingly held up his team-mate.

The clos­ing stages re­volved around two key bat­tles. Fer­nando Alonso was hunt­ing down Massa for the fi­nal points po­si­tion, while Ver­stap­pen be­gan a fi­nal charge on Hamil­ton that gained greater im­pe­tus thanks to a Vir­tual Safety Car pe­riod – Wil­liams’ Lance Stroll was beached at Turn 4 af­ter a me­chan­i­cal fail­ure pitched him off. There were just four laps left when the VSC came to an end, but Hamil­ton had lost grip as his tyre tem­per­a­tures faded away.

Alonso was des­per­ate to hunt down Massa, and de­spite warn­ings from the stew­ards for ig­nor­ing blue flags (he sub­se­quently picked up two penalty points), he was un­help­ful to the lead­ers, fi­nally mov­ing over for Hamil­ton at the hair­pin but giv­ing noth­ing to Ver­stap­pen.

It was just enough to give Hamil­ton the breath­ing room he needed and he crossed the line clear of Ver­stap­pen and third-placed Ric­cia­rdo, hav­ing man­aged the race per­fectly.

De­spite start­ing from P2, Vet­tel strug­gled from the start (right) and re­tired with a faulty spark plug on lap 4 (above). Lewis man­aged to hold off Ver­stap­pen (be­low) to take the win

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