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

F1 Racing (UK) - - RACE DEBRIEF JAPANESE GP -

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.

QUAL­I­FY­ING

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.

RACE

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

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