HAMILTON EDGES CLOSER TO CROWN
With his sixth victory in seven races, Lewis Hamilton moved a step closer to a fifth world championship as Sebastian Vettel’s and Ferrari’s implosion continued
Suzuka was a microcosm of the year. A disciplined, well-executed fourth one-two of the year from Mercedes and all a bit shambolic by Ferrari.
When, logically, Ferrari would have mirrored Lewis Hamilton’s tyre strategy as unpredictable weather arrived at the start of Q3, they alone sent Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen out on intermediate Pirellis and missed the best of the track conditions.
Vettel, starting eighth, drove a great opening lap but a later move up the inside of Max Verstappen at Spoon was overly optimistic. It was not the first time that wheel-to-wheel combat had exposed Vettel’s lesser instinctive racing IQ than that possessed by nemesis and fellow four-time champion Hamilton.
Seb spun to the back and from that point Mercedes had it easy. Hamilton took his 71st GP win and ninth of 2018, Vettel went home with eight points for sixth place, his title hopes all but over.
You had to wonder what Ferrari was up to. Qualifying at Suzuka was supposed to be wet. Initially though, it wasn’t. By Q3 the rain was thinking about it, drops falling at Turns 1 and 2. Down to the end of the pitlane went Vettel and Räikkönen, both on inters. The rest of the top ten all ventured out on the red-walled supersoft slicks.
“It’s too dry…” Vettel radioed in, knowing immediately they’d made the wrong call. In trundled the Ferraris to go back onto slicks, by which time it was raining more heavily at Spoon Curve at the other end of the track and they’d missed their crucial slot.
You needed to be out straight away on slicks to get the best of the track conditions and so Lewis Hamilton’s 80th F1 pole was almost a formality, without detracting from the usual sure-footed commitment and skill. Valtteri Bottas made it an all Silver Arrows front row, three tenths back.
Facing a championship mountain looking increasingly unscalable, surely Ferrari needed to cover Hamilton’s moves with Vettel, even if they fancied splitting strategy with Räikkönen? But no, by the time the red cars got to Spoon on supersofts the road was greasy and both had moments. Vettel’s was bigger and the upshot was that Kimi would start fourth, the better part of two seconds from Hamilton’s pole, and Sebastian ninth, almost four and a half seconds adrift. The one consolation was moving up to eighth after Esteban Ocon was given a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow sufficiently for a red-flag in FP3.
Verstappen was third quickest, the only Red Bull representative in Q3 after Daniel Ricciardo found himself hobbled by a faulty throttle actuator on Renault’s latest spec 3 power unit in Q2. Laid back is Ricciardo’s default setting. Today, though, there was much venting of spleen.
When the lights changed, the Silver Arrows easily repelled any threat from Verstappen’s Red Bull and headed into a lead they would never lose.
Poor Brendon Hartley got a stinker of a start from his best grid position of sixth and dropped four places, which gave Vettel the opportunity to run straight inside one Toro Rosso before moving ahead of Pierre Gasly’s sister car through the Esses.
Vettel then demoted Romain Grosjean around the outside entering Spoon. That put the Ferrari fifth, which became fourth before the end of the lap. Verstappen out-braked himself into the chicane, ran
“ONCE RACING AGAIN ON LAP 8, VETTEL WAS IN NO MOOD TO HANG AROUND AND ATTACKED VERSTAPPEN’S RED BULL DOWN THE INSIDE INTO SPOON. PREDICTABLY, HE CAME OFF SECOND BEST
straight on and re-joined across the grass, forcing Räikkönen wide over the exit kerb, earning himself a five-second penalty in the process.
Vettel jinked around his team-mate and blasted across the line right behind Verstappen. Then came a four-lap Safety Car intervention as puncture debris from a Kevin Magnussen/charles Leclerc ontrack clash was cleared.
Leclerc had been trying to take 12th from the Haas down the main straight when Kevin moved to slam the door shut – very late. “Magnussen is and will always be stupid. It’s a fact!” was the Monegasque’s message to the Sauber pitwall. The FIA saw things differently, however, and took no action against Magnussen.
Once racing again on lap 8, Vettel was in no mood to hang around and attacked Verstappen down the inside into Spoon. Predictably, he came off second best. Seb knew Max had a penalty but his race was with the Mercedes pair, so that was of little interest to him. The problem was that Vettel wasn’t side-by-side when they turned in, which is why contact was wheel-to-bargeboard rather than wheel-to wheel, the Red Bull losing only a couple of seconds while the Ferrari spun to the back.
Vettel should have known the chances of passing Verstappen there ranked alongside beating Rafa Nadal on clay or scaling Everest without oxygen. The clash was investigated and ruled a racing incident by the stewards.
Mercedes thus had the luxury of a pressurefree afternoon for the remaining 45 laps. Yes, Verstappen was still just 4s behind Bottas when the Red Bull abandoned its starting set of supersofts on lap 21 and bolted on a set of softs, but Max’s penalty served at that stop, meant he was no undercut threat.
Ricciardo made great progress from 15th on the grid, getting into the points by lap 3 and ultimately finishing fourth, behind his team-mate. A measure of his pace was that on the same medium compound as Hamilton from lap 23, he lost just 2.8s to the winning Mercedes over the remaining 30 laps, earning himself the Driver of the Day award.
But another horror show from Ferrari meant that as far as bragging rights for newly crowned five-time world champions go, another Mercedes 1-2 in Austin will mean that they belong exclusively to Lewis Hamilton.
Max and Kimi tangle at the chicane (left). Seb’s run in with the Red Bull relegated him to the back (right). For Lewis (below) it was a easy run to the flag