Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 26° Track 44° Humidity 57% Wind 1.9 m/s
Azure skies christened with brilliant wisps of cloud rained sunshine down onto the circuit as the Japanese Grand Prix prepared to get underway, with drivers rocking their reconnaissance laps and strategists engaged in the feverish last minute dance of decision making. Track temps were up to 44°, similar to Malaysia and according to Pirelli that might make a 2 stopper the quicker strategy, with 2 stints of 16 laps on the Supers, as opposed to a one stopper with an opening stint of 22 on Supers and onto the Softs.
14 minutes to go and once again, Ferrari had the engine cover off, working frantically on Vettel’s car, while Hamilton had complained of overheating tyres on his recce lap. Status Quo then as Ferrari carry on disappointing their fans. Spark plug this time and they supposedly sorted prior to the formation lap, but with the acid test looming the uncertainty would not be a friend to Vettel.
Along with Jolyon Palmer, Geoff Symmonds was out the door, but more happily for him on his way to HAAS after a lengthy stint at Enston. Of course, the paddock shattering news is that Budkowski, to the surprise of no one, was landing at Renault, along with his cranium full of secrets. Also grist for the rumour mill was the news that Gasly would be required to run Super Formula, leaving Toro Rosso in search of a driver for the US Grand Prix.
Macca were full of bitter resentment at the oil burning situation, clamoring for action from Whiting and the FIA behind the scenes, though if Renault get on top of it, perhaps their tune will change. Vettel next to Hamilton with Bottas, Raikkonen, Ericsson, Wehrlein, Palmer and Sainz on the Softs contra the rest of the field as they rolled gently off the grid for the formation lap. With the start critically important and Mercedes tyre
Lights Out!!!! It was a spectacular start by Hamilton and crosses into the front Red Bull side by side with Max into 3rd with Ocon on a blinder into 5th. At the back there was carnage with Sainz off and into the barriers while into the hairpin Verstappen surprised him by snicking by into P2 with Vettel suddenly in serious trouble under pressure from Ocon. Down the right hand side went Ocon and back through the field like a stone went Vettel, his pre-race issue clearly not as sorted as Ferrari thought.
A potential race saving Safety Car was then deployed for Carlos Sainz, with Vettel, now P6, having radioed in a total lack of power. AS Ferrari engineers ran him through their checklist, it emerged that Sainz took himself off the circuit, going to the outside into the esses an attempted overtake gon badly wrong. Raikkonen had an off as well, running off the track while battling Hulkenberg and doing himself no favours whatsoever, as he was down to P4 with it all to do.
With the Toro Rosso cleared, it was race on lap 3, Hamilton flying away as Vettel had it firmly in reverse, with Perez easily taking the position. Verstappen and Ocon retained their podium positions as Vettel faced the indignity of defending from Massa, which he did with all the vigor of a kitten and that was the point at which Ferrari threw in the towel, retiring him on lap 4 and handing his rival in the championship a 59 point lead if Hamilton were to go on and win the race.
Lap 5 saw Magnussen in the last points paying position with Raikkonen just ahead in P9 and bearing down on Hulkenberg ahead. At the sharp end, Hamilton was making no gap with Verstappen, who lingered 1.5s off the gearbox of the Mercedes. Just behind, Ricciardo was into DRS on Ocon but once again it was damage done, as the pair were nearly 5 seconds back of the leaders.
Lap 9 and it was Ericsson providing some entertainment, nose first into the barriers out of Degner 2, calling forth the appropriate for millenials Virtual Safety Car, and giving the tyres of Hamilton a bit of a break. Just before it was called, Raikkonen stuck the knife in Hulkenberg, slipping past just in time.
Lap 10 and Vandoorne was in under the VSC, out on a pair of Softs, P16 and a bit of time saving. The track went green near the end of the lap and Ricciardo was all over Ocon from the off, bit of defending from the young Frenchman but he was veritable candy from a baby under DRS and it was Ricciardo off in search of the leaders and Ocon in the gaping maw of the Mercedes of Bottas, now his next problem behind.
Lap 12 saw that job done, to the vague dissatisfaction of Red Bull who were hoping the Force India would slow the chase of Bottas a bit more. Hamilton, having had a chance to get on top of his tyres under the VSC was up to a more workmanlike 3.7 seconds gap to Verstappen, as Raikkonen continued his forward progress, around Massa under DRS into Turn 1.
With Bottas by Ocon and Vettel out, it was normal service resumed in the midfield, with Perez hovering just outside DRS on Ocon as Red Bull began to consider their pit window and strategy as lap 16 ticked over. Whatever trickeries lay up their sleeve, Mercedes were doing their best to put paid to them as Lewis continued to lap faster than Verstappen by several tenths, and closer to half a second on Ricciardo, who was now having to look over his shoulder at the fast approaching Bottas.
Massa was in lap 18, looking for a 2 stopper as Raikkonen was into DRS on Perez, whittling it down into the chicane but not quite close enough to get the job done down the start/finish. Their battle opened up the gap for Ocon a bit, which was no doubt appreciated by the pitwall at Force India.
The following lap saw Kimi round the outside of Perez into Turn 1 as the race settled into the doldrums as the field awaited the first domino falling in the pit stop battle.
Lap 21 in and out went Ocon, who was just behind Alonso, bit of a miscalculation from Force India. Verstappen was in as well and out JUST in front of Raikkonen, drifting left in front of the Ferrari as it approached T1 at a ferocious pace. Mercedes answered the call and brought Lewis in the following lap.
This left Ricciardo leading the race and with the undercut having done its job, the gap from Hamilton to Verstappen cut down to under 2 seconds from the plus 4 it had been. The early call was also certainly intended to put Mercedes under greater pressure at the end of the race, with Red Bull generally being kinder to their tyres in the warmer temperatures.
Lap 24 and Ocon continued to cut his way through the field, dispatching Palmer neatly for P7 as he continued to make his way back through the runners that were going long.
The following lap saw Ricciardo called in, leaving Bottas at the front of the race as the last man standing on his original set of tyres, as Hamilton had closed the gap to his teammate to under 2 seconds. Given the delta of nearly 0.5 seconds in their laptimes, it was not going to be long before they swapped postitions, and Bottas took up his annointed role as slower of the Red Bull onslaught.
As the laps unspooled, neither thing happened and Verstappen, smelling blood, upped his pace causing Hamilton to point out on the radio that his pace was suffering since they were on different strategies. Lap 29 and over Valterri moved and off Lewis went, Mercedes strategy card played.
Raikkonen pitted as the drama at the front unfolded, out in front of Ocon and off in search of Hulkenberg he went. Optimal strategy would see Bottas in around lap 31 and Mercedes did not disappoint, calling Valterri in for his Supers right on schedule and having left a fairly decent dent in Verstappen’s strategy. With the gap out to 3 seconds the race was back into Hamilton’s hands, with Red Bull playing the waiting game to see if Mercedes could manage its tyres to the end.
On the radio, Lewis said he was struggling with his rears, but struggle or no, the gap was not changing as lap 33 hit the books. Further back in the field, Palmer retained his hold on P9 primarily by having not pitted, and Massa about 10 seconds back was leading a train of Magnussen and Grosjean all within DRS.
Lap 35 saw Vandoorne in for his 2nd stop, but it was a torrid affair for McLaren, both cars essentially being held up by the much slower except where it counted Stroll. Eventually, he boxed for his 2nd stop, but the damage was done, with Alonso having lost nearly 11s to P13. Meanwhile, Gasly had attached himself to the back of the Massa train as HAAS entertained a teammate switch as RoGro pleaded to have a go at the struggling Williams with his better tyres.
Much like Stroll, Felipe was being annoyingly fast where it mattered, which was setting up nicely for some fireworks at the end of the race. Hulkenberg finally came in from P8 on lap 39 as Perez hopped on the radio to ask if he can attack his teammate, saying he was “too slow”. A cheery “No” was the instant reply from the pitwall, with further updates promised in a couple of laps.
The Hulk was out behind Gasly and made short work of him on his new Supers and then tragedy struck, his DRS failed close. Palmer was in and out as was Gasly leaving them P12 and P13 as Hulkenberg was in to have his DRS sorted. But even the big hammer wasn’t enough to get it closed and as the mechanics bashed away it became apparent the upper element was loose and that was the end of his day.
Magnussen finally and ruthlessly forced his way through the door Massa left open, despite Felipe’s attempt to shut it a bit too late. That left him wide open for Grosjean who sailed by as they ascended into the esses. Alonso was next up to have a go, with about 3 seconds to cover and 9 laps to get it done. At the front, the gap was virtually identical between Hamilton and Verstappen. Hilariously, Raikkonen was told he could push on lap 46 as he was staring into the infinite void of a 19 second gap to Bottas ahead.
2 laps later and it was into the gravel for Stroll and out, almost sideways into Ricciardo. Stroll pulled it over and on replay it was a failure on the car and he retired, bringing out the VSC lap 48 and spoiling everyone’s fun. Right front suspension or tyre looked to be the offending part as Stroll waved to the crowd and exited the circuit.
Lap 50 and the racing got underway, and the time warping effects of the VSC were immediately apparent as the gap which Verstappen had closed to 2.4 seconds, had gone right back out to 3.5 seconds. At the other end of the points, Alonso had worked his witchcraft and was within DRS on Massa with 3 laps to go. Perez continued to complain about Ocon, to the polite diffidence of the pit wall, Sergio’s irony meter apparently still not working.
And then lap 51 brought all the drama as Hamilton was suddenly and disastrously 2 seconds slower than Verstappen and it was game on. Lap 52 and it was into DRS for young Max, the ailing Mercedes in his sight. Bottas had caught up with Ricciardo and was having a go as well. Lifesaver for Hamilton was traffic, with Alonso buying him a bit of a gap, and then DRS as well as he caught Massa at a very fortuitous moment. Nervy moments for the championship leader but leading the way into the esses with Massa sandwiched between them had won the race for Hamilton and he crossed the line 1.5 seconds up. Behind, Ricciardo’s stout defense assured him of the final points paying position and it was job done for Bottas, nice recovery and team job done as well.
On the inlap it was Hamilton on the radio, reporting vibrations from the PU after shifts as the issue that very nearly turned his dream afternoon into a nightmare. Further back, Massa had held off the charging Alonso for the final point to very effectively ruin Honda’s day as it was also announced that Fernando was under investigation for ignoring blue flags. Raikkonen’s race finished a lonely 5th, with Ocon just behind and the ever complaining Perez forced to endure the indignity of finishing behind his teammate, whom he’s very sure he’s faster than.
Speculation will inevitably fall on Hamilton’s gearbox, especially in light of the fact that Bottas had his replaced prior to the race, but given the retirement of Vettel that will certainly be a trade Mercedes is happy to make. Confusing the issue, Lauda issued the dictum post race that it was tyres, not PU that caused the vibrations, but Lauda’s error rate is high enough that it’s best to wait from confirmation from the boffins. Crushing blow to the championship, with Ferrari in the end unable to get on top of their reliability issues when the pressure was on, and a great disappointment to those who were looking for the WDC to go to the final race.
On the other hand, freed from the championship and fired by wounded pride, perhaps Ferrari can bring the challenge and at least supply some proper 3 way racing to see the season off. And in an entertaining sideline, Hamilton’s interest in Sato’s Indy 500 ring as Takuma conducted the post race interviews, raises the specter of him versus Alonso in IndyCar, which would be a thing indeed…
Thanks, as always, for stopping by.
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