JAPANESE WIN PUSHES ROSBERG TOWARDS TITLE AS ANGRY HAMILTON SLIPS UP
Nico Rosberg took advantage of Lewis Hamilton’s duff start to scamper clear
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.
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).
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.