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