LEWIS PUTS ONE HAND ON THE WORLD CHAM­PI­ONSHIP

JA­PANESE GP WIN MEANS A FIFTH TI­TLE IS DRAW­ING CLOSER

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Suzuka was a mi­cro­cosm of the year. A dis­ci­plined, wellex­e­cuted fourth 1-2 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 Raikko­nen 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’s Red Bull at Spoon Curve was overly op­ti­mistic. The ap­proach to Spoon is nar­row and was any­one in the en­tire field go­ing to give Seb less room than Ver­stap­pen? Kevin Mag­nussen maybe, but he was al­ready oc­cu­pied by crash­ing into Charles Le­clerc. 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, just as he had af­ter hit­ting Valt­teri Bot­tas in France, and from that point Mercedes had it easy although Red Bull showed im­pres­sive pace for the sec­ond time in seven days.

While 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. On the very last lap he went al­most half a sec­ond quicker than Hamil­ton had gone all race – with barge­board dam­age that could have been cost­ing as much as half a sec­ond. Which showed what might have been…

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 Raikko­nen, both on in­ter­me­di­ates. The rest of the top 10 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 the team had missed its cru­cial slot.

Driv­ers needed to be out straight­away on slicks to get the best of the track con­di­tions and so Hamil­ton’s 80th F1 pole was al­most a for­mal­ity, with­out de­tract­ing from the usual sure-footed com­mit­ment and skill. Bot­tas made it an all Sil­ver Ar­rows front row, three tenths back.

Fac­ing a cham­pi­onship moun­tain look­ing in­creas­ingly im­pos­si­ble to scale, surely Fer­rari needed to cover Hamil­ton’s moves with Vet­tel, even if it fancied split­ting strat­egy with Raikko­nen? 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.

Ver­stap­pen was third quick­est, the only Red Bull rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Q3 af­ter Daniel Ric­cia­rdo found him­self hob­bled by elec­tronic is­sues with Re­nault’s lat­est spec power unit in Q2. Laid­back is Ric­cia­rdo’s de­fault set­ting. On Satur­day, though, there was much vent­ing of spleen.

Best of the rest hon­ours were there­fore fifth or lower. They fell to a fine lap from Ro­main Gros­jean who, in keep­ing with the Mercs, had cleared Q2 on the Pirelli soft. That gave Haas high hopes of a de­cent con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship gain over Re­nault, which had Car­los Sainz start­ing 13th and Nico Hulken­berg elim­i­nated in Q1 af­ter an FP3 shunt in the Esses left the team scram­bling to ready his car for qual­i­fy­ing.

Honda al­ways aims for a ‘Suzuka Spe­cial’ and Toro Rosso’s Franz Tost reck­oned the lat­est Ja­panese power unit, de­buted in Sochi, gave the team Q3 po­ten­tial. He was right, a de­lighted Bren­don Hartley qual­i­fy­ing sixth, 0.07s clear of team-mate Pierre Gasly.

Even though Gasly’s en­gine mode was not as ag­gres­sively cal­i­brated due to lost track time in free prac­tice, this was im­pres­sive es­pe­cially as Hartley had never raced at Suzuka while Gasly had done a year of Ja­panese Su­per For­mula.

“It was quite emo­tional on the ‘in’ lap, which is not some­thing that nor­mally hap­pens to me,” the Kiwi said, “but it was all just built-up crap over the last six months and know­ing that I’d got bet­ter and bet­ter but haven’t al­ways had the chance to show it.”

He’d been told, ap­par­ently, that if he out­qual­i­fies Gasly more of­ten than not in the re­main­ing five races, he’ll keep his seat.

Fig­ur­ing on the track dry­ing, Force In­dia fu­elled more heav­ily, so Este­ban Ocon reck­oned he could have been higher than eighth (he suf­fered a three-place grid de­mo­tion for a flag in­fringe­ment).

Team-mate Ser­gio Perez ran wide on the lap that counted, the pink cars sand­wich­ing the hap­less Vet­tel at the wrong end of the top 10.

Race

Qual­i­fy­ing could not have gone bet­ter for Mercedes as it claimed the front row hav­ing cleared Q2 on the more durable Pirelli soft com­pound.

Gros­jean mir­rored that tyre strat­egy but the rest of the top 10 all had to start on the more frag­ile su­per­softs. The only dan­ger to Hamil­ton and Bot­tas was that the red-walled tyre would of­fer a bet­ter launch – and it’s a de­cent run into Turn 1 from Suzuka’s down­hill grid.

When the lights changed though, the Sil­ver Ar­rows easily re­pelled any threat

from Ver­stap­pen’s third-placed Red Bull and headed off into a lead they would never lose.

Poor Hartley had dropped four places, which gave Vet­tel the op­por­tu­nity to run straight in­side one Toro Rosso and stay there to move ahead of Gasly’s sis­ter car through Turns 1 and 2.

Vet­tel then bravely de­moted Gros­jean as they raced mil­lime­tres apart through the high-speed Turn 12. That put the Fer­rari fifth, which be­came fourth be­fore the end of the lap. Ver­stap­pen out­braked him­self into the chi­cane, ran straight on and re­joined across the grass, forc­ing Raikko­nen wide over the exit kerb, earn­ing him­self a five-sec­ond penalty in the process.

Vet­tel jinked around his team-mate while Kimi sorted him­self out and blasted across the line right be­hind Ver­stap­pen. Then came a four-lap safety car in­ter­ven­tion as punc­ture de­bris from Mag­nussen’s Le­clerc in­ci­dent was cleared.

Le­clerc had been try­ing to take 12th from the Haas down the main straight into Turn 1 when Kevin moved to slam the door shut – very late.

Dane Tom Kris­tensen was the driver stew­ard in Suzuka and no fur­ther ac­tion was taken as the of­fi­cial de­clared that nei­ther driver was pre­dom­i­nantly to blame.

Le­clerc begged to dif­fer. “Mag­nussen is and will al­ways be stupid. It’s a fact!” was the Mone­gasque’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the Sauber pit­wall.

Once rac­ing again on lap eight of the 53, 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.

Vet­tel knew that Ver­stap­pen had a penalty but given that his race was with the Mercedes pair up ahead, that was of lit­tle in­ter­est to him.

“Max’s bat­tery was de­r­at­ing [op­er­at­ing at less than its max­i­mum], I saw the light flash­ing,” Vet­tel claimed. “I’d saved up my bat­tery on the way through the Esses try­ing to stay close. I had a good exit from the hair­pin, had a big tow through Turn 12 and was side-by-side when we hit the brakes and turned in.”

The prob­lem though, was that Vet­tel wasn’t side-by-side when they turned in, which is why the re­sul­tant con­tact was wheel-to-barge board rather than wheel-to wheel, the Red Bull los­ing only a cou­ple of sec­onds while the Fer­rari spun to the back.

Vet­tel later claimed he had been sideby-side but that as soon as Ver­stap­pen re­alised that, Max came off the brakes and pushed deeper into the cor­ner. There might be some­thing in that but Vet­tel should have known that 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 pres­sure-free 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 ear­lier penalty to be served at his stop meant that he was no un­der­cut threat what­so­ever.

Mercedes pit­ted Bot­tas first just to make sure, then kept an eye on Ric­cia­rdo’s pace on the medium as Red Bull brought in its sec­ond car. Daniel had made great progress from 15th on the grid on the soft com­pound Pirelli, helped by the early safety car. He was 11th by the sec­ond lap, past Hartley and into the points by lap three, through Ocon and into eighth a lap af­ter the safety car pulled in, then sev­enth ahead of Perez’s sec­ond Force In­dia a cou­ple of laps later.

By lap 13 he’d de­moted Gros­jean and Gasly to move into fifth, some 7s be­hind Raikko­nen’s Fer­rari.

Fer­rari had blis­tered tyres on Fri­day and Kimi was one of the first to strug­gle on his start­ing su­per­softs, mean­ing an early stop af­ter 17 laps for a set of medi­ums. When Ric­cia­rdo, the quick­est on the track, ran to lap 23 on his wellper­form­ing softs, he com­fort­ably over­cut Raikko­nen and came out 3.5s ahead of the Fer­rari and just 1.5s be­hind team-mate Ver­stap­pen.

As with the Mercs, the down­side of start­ing on the soft was hav­ing to take the medium for the longer sec­ond stint when the soft was the best tyre on of­fer at Suzuka. But a mea­sure of Ric­cia­rdo’s 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. Make no mis­take, the Red Bull was quick in Ja­pan.

With track tem­per­a­ture (around 45 de­grees) hot­ter than an­tic­i­pated, both Mercs started hav­ing high left-rear tyre tem­per­a­tures as the race wore on. Bot­tas’s max­i­mum was four de­grees hot­ter than Hamil­ton’s and he cost him­self al­most 3s with a lock-up and straight-on mo­ment with eight laps to go.

Ver­stap­pen chased hard, us­ing Re­nault’s full en­gine mode on the last cou­ple of laps but had to set­tle for third. Ric­cia­rdo fin­ished 5s be­hind his team­mate and more than half a minute clear of Raikko­nen, while Perez took best-ofthe-rest hon­ours for Force In­dia, ahead of Gros­jean, Ocon and Sainz, who de­moted Gasly late on and spoiled Toro Rosso’s hopes of points in front of the Honda bosses.

Mid­field brag­ging rights are the sub­ject of a great fight, with Perez, Mag­nussen and Hulken­berg – who had a night­mare in Ja­pan – all now on 53 points.

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.

Vet­tel’s week­end was a tor­rid one

Mag­nussen’s race was ru­ined by con­tact

Hamil­ton had a rel­a­tively easy af­ter­noon’s work

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