JA­PANESE WIN PUSHES ROS­BERG TO­WARDS TI­TLE AS AN­GRY HAMIL­TON SLIPS UP

Nico Ros­berg took ad­van­tage of Lewis Hamil­ton’s duff start to scam­per clear

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY JAMES ROBERTS

The past fort­night in the Far East has al­most cer­tainly played a piv­otal role in the des­tiny of this year’s For­mula 1 world cham­pi­onship. Lewis Hamil­ton needed to re­claim lost ground to his Mercedes team-mate Nico Ros­berg but af­ter en­gine fail­ure in Malaysia, he came to Ja­pan on the back foot. His world cham­pi­onship was slip­ping away from him.

At Suzuka he tried as best he could to not let the events of the pre­vi­ous Sun­day get to him, but clearly they had. On Thurs­day af­ter­noon he larked about in the of­fi­cial FIA press con­fer­ence. Snapchat im­ages of him and Car­los Sainz in bunny ears spread across the in­ter­net. He was then ad­mon­ished by a num­ber of me­dia out­lets.

On track Ros­berg was on song, putting in a per­for­mance as strong as Hamil­ton had in Sepang. In all three prac­tice ses­sions Ros­berg topped the timesheets – and did so again in all three qual­i­fy­ing seg­ments. Although, when the pres­sure was on, Hamil­ton pulled out his best per­for­mance. The gap for pole po­si­tion was just 0.013s, or just un­der three feet of Suzuka Tar­mac.

As dark­ness de­scended on Satur­day evening, Hamil­ton ar­rived at his cus­tom­ary writ­ten press brief­ing at the Mercedes hos­pi­tal­ity unit. There he re­vealed that be­cause of what had been writ­ten in the af­ter­math of the FIA press con­fer­ence, he wouldn’t be speak­ing to the me­dia.

“The smiles on your faces will soon be no longer as I am not ac­tu­ally here to an­swer your ques­tions,” he said. “The other day was a su­per light-hearted thing and if I was dis­re­spect­ful it was hon­estly not the in­ten­tion – it was a lit­tle bit of fun. But what was more dis­re­spect­ful was what was writ­ten world­wide. And I don’t re­ally plan on sit­ting here many more times for these kind of things…”

It’s in­evitable that when some­one starts be­hav­ing oddly, there’s a rea­son for it. Some might ar­gue that the pres­sure of win­ning – or in this case los­ing – a world ti­tle is be­gin­ning to show. He was out­spo­ken in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of Sepang and per­haps that was the mo­ment he re­alised that this cham­pi­onship is slip­ping out of his grasp.

Af­ter Hamil­ton made a bad start, Ros­berg was free to se­cure the win at Suzuka, to claim his ninth win of the sea­son, and put him­self 33 points ahead in the driv­ers’ stand­ings with four races to go. Hamil­ton’s re­cov­ery drive to third (be­hind Red Bull’s Max Ver­stap­pen) net­ted Mercedes the con­struc­tors’ ti­tle too.

Qual­i­fy­ing

Right from the start of qual­i­fy­ing, Ros­berg was quicker than Hamil­ton, beat­ing him by over 0.3s on the first run in Q1, de­spite run­ning wide at the exit of Deg­ner 2. It proved that even with that mis­take, he had time in hand. The Mercedes and Red Bull quar­tet ran on the medi­ums, while the rest of the field ran on the softer tyre dur­ing the open­ing seg­ment of qual­i­fy­ing.

At the end of the first runs, both Bri­tish driv­ers Jen­son But­ton (Mclaren) and Jolyon Palmer (Re­nault) were fac­ing elim­i­na­tion and needed to find a spe­cial lap on their sec­ond run to reach Q2. Cheered on by the home faith­ful, the Honda-pow­ered Mclaren of But­ton man­aged a 1m 32.851s, while his team-mate Fer­nando Alonso recorded a 1m 32.819s – and the tiny gap of 0.032s was the dif­fer­ence be­tween get­ting into Q2 and be­ing elim­i­nated. But­ton was out and there was fur­ther woe when it was con­firmed on Sun­day morn­ing that he had a 35-place grid penalty (for power unit changes) and would start from last on the grid.

But where But­ton failed, Palmer did suc­ceed, and was 0.227s quicker than his Re­nault team-mate Kevin Mag­nussen to reach Q2 for the fourth time this sea­son.

On Satur­day morn­ing, Pirelli had raised the min­i­mum tyre pres­sures and teams were ad­vised to run 23/21 psi (front/rear) and as a re­sult driv­ers were find­ing they had to be cau­tious with their tyres even over a sin­gle lap. That was why in Q2 Wil­liams com­pleted a lap on used softs, then brought both cars in for a rapid stop onto new softs. The in­ten­tion was to get ev­ery­thing su­per hot, such as the brakes and hubs and there­fore heat the fresh rub­ber from the in­side to bring them up to tem­per­a­ture, with­out dam­ag­ing their ex­te­rior.

But de­spite qual­i­fy­ing third on the grid in Suzuka in the past two con­sec­u­tive sea­sons, there was dis­ap­point­ment for the team vy­ing for fourth in the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship. Valt­teri Bot­tas failed to make it into Q3, along with his team­mate Felipe Massa – not helped by Car­los Sainz spin­ning his Toro Rosso out of the Spoon curve on his fi­nal Q2 run ei­ther. The Spa­niard joined his team-mate Daniil Kvyat, along with Alonso, Palmer and both Wil­liams in fail­ing to make it into Q3.

The fi­nal seg­ment of qual­i­fy­ing came down to a straight fight be­tween the two Mercedes driv­ers in the pur­suit of pole po­si­tion. How­ever, the gap to the rest of the field was closer than usual when it was re­vealed af­ter the ses­sion that both Mercedes power units were not as “spicy” as usual. Ac­cord­ing to team boss Toto Wolff, both engines were not run­ning at full power mode in a bid to pro­tect them against an­other fail­ure.

Ros­berg was again look­ing to be the quick­est Mercedes – he was mighty in Q2, 0.415s quicker than Hamil­ton – but as he said af­ter qual­i­fy­ing, it’s wrong to dis­count his team-mate, par­tic­u­larly when the pres­sure’s on. A slight lift in the mid­dle of Turn 7 on Ros­berg’s first run of Q3 handed the ini­tia­tive to Hamil­ton, who was er­ror free in the same cor­ner on his lap. Lewis was 0.195s up.

It all came down to the fi­nal run and there was noth­ing be­tween them. Ros­berg frac­tion­ally quicker in the first sec­tor of the lap, Hamil­ton quicker in sec­tor two. The laps were vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal and when Hamil­ton crossed the line he was just 0.013s slower – that was equiv­a­lent to 82cm or just un­der three feet of Suzuka as­phalt. Pole was Ros­berg’s.

Be­hind them, there was a touch of Noah’s Ark amongst the grid with the Fer­raris ahead of the Red Bulls (although Se­bas­tian Vet­tel’s three­place grid penalty for his first-cor­ner an­tics in Malaysia, plus a gear­box penalty for Kimi Raikko­nen el­e­vated the Red Bulls to the sec­ond row on the of­fi­cial start­ing grid).

The big­gest sur­prise of the day was the Haas team, with Ro­main Gros­jean and Este­ban Gutier­rez mak­ing Q3 (the first time both cars had made it this year) thanks in part to an up­dated front wing. They were joined in the top 10 by the Force In­dia duo of Ser­gio Perez (el­e­vated to fifth thanks to Fer­rari’s penal­ties) and Nico Hulken­berg (ninth).

Race

With all the fuss sur­round­ing Hamil­ton’s be­hav­iour at the week­end, when he lit up the rears and fum­bled his start on Sun­day af­ter­noon (fall­ing to eighth at the end of lap one) some ques­tioned his state of mind. And yet, when up against it, he drove bril­liantly to come­back to a podium fin­ish – which could have been sec­ond but for a late block from sec­ond-placed Ver­stap­pen.

On lap six, car 44 was still eighth, but passed Hulken­berg – ini­tially by at­tempt­ing a move into 130R, be­fore us­ing DRS on the start/fin­ish straight. Then he moved through the field when Ric­cia­rdo, Ver­stap­pen, Raikko­nen then Vet­tel all made early pit­stops to switch from their soft to hard com­pound rub­ber. On lap 13 he was run­ning sec­ond to Ros­berg – but when he made his own stop, only slipped to fourth.

Hamil­ton drove a long mid­dle stint, to give him­self more tyre life than the pair he was chas­ing (Ver­stap­pen and his team-mate Ros­berg) in the clos­ing laps.

In­deed, Ver­stap­pen had made a great start and of the six podi­ums he has scored this year, team boss Chris­tian Horner de­scribed this as one of his most “ma­ture”.

“He looked af­ter his tyres very well ini­tially from Seb [Vet­tel] and then from Lewis at the end,” said Horner. “His tyres were five or six laps older than Lewis’s and he made no mis­takes.”

The one mo­ment of alarm was on lap 52 – one lap from the fin­ish – when Hamil­ton timed a run to try and pass Ver­stap­pen into the chi­cane. He gained a mighty run through 130R and looked to out-brake the Dutch­man. At the last mo­ment, Ver­stap­pen jinked right to block the line and Hamil­ton went the other way, avoided con­tact and by-passed the chi­cane. It was a ma­noeu­vre that Horner said was: “firm, but fair.”

“The lead car is al­ways go­ing to go for the in­side and I didn’t see any­thing wrong with it,” he said. “I thought it was good rac­ing be­tween the two driv­ers and Lewis didn’t seem to have any prob­lem af­ter the race and said well done to him [Ver­stap­pen].”

Mercedes didn’t take the same view and af­ter the race lodged a protest to the ste­wards, that was ini­tially de­ferred un­til Austin (as both driv­ers had left the cir­cuit) and then even­tu­ally with­drawn.

Hamil­ton was not avail­able to speak to the writ­ten press again on Sun­day night, the rea­son cited was that he had

to catch a flight with Niki Lauda to re­turn promptly to Europe (he was due to test a 2017 mule car in Barcelona on Wed­nes­day) although team boss Toto Wolff – who was also due to catch the same flight – did speak to the press.

When he sat in front of the writ­ten me­dia in the Mercedes hos­pi­tal­ity unit he mocked what Lewis had said in the same seat a lit­tle less than 24 hours ear­lier: “You’re laugh­ing now, but you won’t be laugh­ing later…”

Then he was asked about the ma­noeu­vre at the chi­cane on the penul­ti­mate lap of the race be­tween third-placed Hamil­ton and sec­ond­placed Ver­stap­pen.

“I love hard rac­ing and he [Ver­stap­pen] defends very hard,” said Wolff. “The rule­book says some­thing else. The rule­book says you can’t move un­der brak­ing, but it hasn’t been pe­nalised up to now.”

Wolff was then asked to ex­plain Hamil­ton’s er­ratic be­hav­iour dur­ing the past few days: “I’ve seen in Malaysia that Lewis was re­ally on a roll, dom­i­nat­ing the week­end. That was one he should have brought it home, but we let him down with the fail­ure.

“Dur­ing the week, with all these things around the press con­fer­ence and what hap­pened yes­ter­day, whether it af­fects him or not I don’t think so, be­cause these are not his pri­or­ity. I wouldn’t say it af­fected his start be­cause the rac­ing was great af­ter­wards – it was how he re­cov­ered.”

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the race, Hamil­ton was asked about the start and said that he “made a mis­take” but Wolff put the blame on the com­pli­cated clutches, that have been a prob­lem all year for the reign­ing world cham­pion.

“The clutch sys­tem is not per­fect, it’s dif­fi­cult to han­dle,” said Wolff. “We’ve tried to op­ti­mise it but our first as­sess­ment is that it didn’t func­tion well on the clutch re­lease. It is a dif­fi­cult mech­a­nism to de­ploy. The anal­y­sis has even come down to the way the glove has been sown and some­one has even stud­ied the length of Nico’s mid­dle fin­ger for the bit­ing point.”

The real­ity is that Ros­berg made an­other strong start, didn’t make a mis­take and held on for an­other win – his ninth this sea­son. He takes a 33-point lead in the driv­ers’ stand­ings with just four races to go. Is it all over?

“This is still a me­chan­i­cal sport and by look­ing at each week­end as a sin­gu­lar event has been the right strat­egy for Nico,” added Wolff. “Lewis func­tions best when he’s un­der pres­sure and when he has a tar­get. And I have no doubt this will be an in­tense fight to the end. It is far from over.”

Four races re­main. Is this Ros­berg’s ti­tle? To Austin we go.

Ver­stap­pen was a star again as he an­nexed sec­ond po­si­tion

Ros­berg now has a 33-point lead in the cham­pi­onship

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