LEWIS PUTS ONE HAND ON THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
JAPANESE GP WIN MEANS A FIFTH TITLE IS DRAWING CLOSER
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…
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.
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