Japanese Grand Prix Analysis: Clutching at straws…


Großer Preis von Japan 2016, Sonntag. Credit: Mercedes AMG PETRONAS

This weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix was relatively undramatic as far as races at Suzuka usually go, but yet again we saw Lewis Hamilton falter off the start line to let team-mate and championship rival Nico Rosberg take home the bacon.

The Mercedes AMG PETRONAS driver was heard apologising to his team over the radio after executing probably his worst start to a grand prix this season, which saw the Brit tumble down the order to ninth place at one point, before making one place back up the order to eighth. Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Toto Wolff, believes a poorly functioning clutch could be to blame which the team will investigate further ahead of the next round in the USA.

Bad starts have been the current world champions nemesis this year, and this latest one could well be the most costly of all.

Bogged down…

Hamilton was immediately passed by the RB12 of Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo, who was initially inconvenienced by the Brit going slow ahead of him but managed to make it by without a collision, his team-mate Max Verstappen, the two Scuderia Ferrari’s of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, with the two Sahara Force India’s of Sergio Perez, who expertly moved up to third place, and Nico Hulkenberg, also making it past the current world champion.

Rosberg meanwhile maintained his position at the front, to lead after the first lap and immediately started to pull away from Verstappen in second. Vettel, overtook Perez to slot into third behind the Dutchman, before both Raikkonen and Hamilton overtook the second Force India of Hulkenberg to go fifth and sixth respectively.

Ferrari definitely look to have found some extra performance from somewhere during the week between Malaysia and Japan, with Vettel really able to push the Red Bull hard for position.

The Milton Keynes based squad were the first to duck into the pits to switch from soft to hard tyres on lap 10, opting to double stack their drivers, which they performed to perfection, before Rosberg, Perez and the two Ferrari drivers followed suit two laps later.

Hamilton stayed out one lap longer, an ingenious move that allowed the Brit to jump Raikkonen for position on his return to the track, whilst the Finn had traffic to deal with that lost him too much time. Next up for the Brit was Ricciardo, who he made swift work of to move into sixth place on track, but what was fourth in reality as the two William’s drivers were out of sync, having not yet made a pit stop, opting to tough it out on a one stop strategy.

Ferrari falter on strategy…again!

After the first round of stops, Verstappen had begun to make in-roads into Rosberg’s lead, before the German stepped it up a little and edged out the gap once more, whilst Hamilton was charging down Vettel in third. The two front runners made their second pit stops on lap 28 for Rosberg and lap 29 for Verstappen, but Hamilton rode his luck a few laps longer, until he finally came in on lap 33 for a fresh set of the hard tyres. Ferrari brought Vettel in one lap later but switched the German to the soft rubber for his final stint.

Interestingly, during free practice on Friday, Mercedes had only been three tenths slower on the hard compound tyre than Ferrari were on the softs, and that superior performance really showed as Hamilton was able to stay ahead of the four-time world champion on track, having successfully administered the undercut. The Ferrari driver did of course close in on the Brit, coming within a second of the Mercedes driver at one stage, but he was never able to create a chance to make a pass stick, backmarkers causing him considerable frustration which his radio messages back to the team conveyed, and as his softer tyres began to drop off, he too fell away.

Speaking after the race Vettel made it clear that he felt the team had made the right calls, however you have to ask yourself how many times the Italian squad can get it wrong before they perhaps try a different approach!

Ricciardo also made his second pit stop during th same timeframe, but was hampered when there was a delay in changing his right, front tyre. The Australian lost a decent chunk of time during that error, which put him out of the running then for a decent placing.

Verstappen keeps the door well and truly closed…

Meanwhile, in his attempts to stay ahead of Vettel, Hamilton had eaten into the gap to Verstappen in second place and was now steadily catching the Dutchman with every revolution of the track. In the eight laps from 37 to 45, the Brit rendered a seven second gap non-existent, and was now right alongside Verstappen.

No matter how hard he tried however, Hamilton was unable to find a way past the 19-year-old despite being within the DRS window. That is until the penultimate lap when the Brit saw his chance at the final chicane, but the Dutchman’s now infamous aggressive defending came to the fore, as he appeared to jink briefly left before making a late move to the right to block Hamilton from making his move.

Some will see this as a strong performance from Verstappen just doing all he can to keep position, and the fact he was voted driver of the day makes this appear the more popular view. However, I personally only see a dangerous lack of judgement, and a driver who will continue to make such moves, as long as he continues to go un-penalised by the stewards.

As a result of Verstappen’s “defending”, Hamilton had to back out of the move and run down the escape road, his one chance of taking second place now gone with just the final lap of the race remaining.

Rosberg ramps up the pressure…

Rosberg crossed the line to take his ninth win of the season, in a race where he remained untroubled for its entirety, and also extended his lead in the Driver’s Championship to thirty-three points from his team-mate. The German once again put in a flawless display, to eke out his lead in the standings, and bring him one step closer to finally achieving a world championship.

Verstappen came home just under five seconds later, with Hamilton holding onto third place, which was enough to see the Mercedes AMG PETRONAS squad crowned Constructor’s champions for the third year running.

Großer Preis von Japan 2016, Sonntag. Credit: Mercedes AMG PETRONAS
Großer Preis von Japan 2016, Sonntag. Credit: Mercedes AMG PETRONAS

The rest of the pack…

Vettel came home fourth, just ahead of team-mate Raikkonen in fifth, a disappointing result in the end for the Maranello based squad who had looked like they could really challenge for a podium here at Suzuka, but once again they were let down by suspect strategy.

Ricciardo took sixth place, ahead of Perez and Hulkenberg, who finished ahead of both drivers of the Williams Martini Racing team, their closest rivals in the Constructors Championship. Felipe Massa was ninth ahead of Valtteri Bottas, but both did well to make the one-stop strategy work and come home in the points.

Despite having their best qualifying of the season on Saturday, when they got both cars into Q3 of qualifying, the Haas F1 team were unable to make it into a points scoring position with Romain Grosjean their highest placed driver in eleventh.

Renault Sport F1 team driver Jolyon Palmer, who claimed his first ever point in F1 last time out, could only manage twelfth this time around after attempting a one-stop strategy, that moved him up the order from his starting position of sixteenth, but was not enough to bring home more points for the French team.

The Brit finished just ahead of the Scuderia Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat and team-mate Kevin Magnussen for the second race running.

Sauber F1 Team driver Marcus Ericsson was fifteenth, ahead of McLaren-Honda F1 team driver Fernando Alonso. The Woking based squad had a woeful time of it at the home grand prix of their engine supplier, with both drivers finishing way down the order, having battled with understeer and a performance deficit throughout the race.

Carlos Sainz Jnr came home in seventeenth, after a somewhat messy race for the Spaniard, who looked frustrated in the Toro Rosso, and attempted some reckless moves that only worked to see him off track, rather than make headway in the race. Sainz Jnr cited a lack of top speed as the issue that made the race nigh on impossible for him this weekend.

Jenson Button was eighteenth, ahead of Felipe Nasr, Esteban Gutierrez, who was forced/surprised off track by Sainz Jnr at one stage, and the two Manor Racing Team drivers Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein. The new boy once again finishing ahead of his slightly more experienced team-mate.

Quite astoundingly, no drivers actually retired from the race at Suzuka for what was the second time in succession, and a first for any track in F1 history.

The Championship…

Großer Preis von Japan 2016, Sonntag. Credit: Mercedes AMG PETRONAS
Großer Preis von Japan 2016, Sonntag. Credit: Mercedes AMG PETRONAS

Sunday’s result see’s Rosberg move into a thirty-three point lead over Hamilton in the Driver’s standings, with just four rounds of the season remaining, and that is a big upper hand to have at this point of the year.

Not only will it fill the German with plenty of confidence going into those final rounds, it also means the German now only has to finish second at every race to be crowned champion. Can Hamilton do anything to break Rosberg’s resolve, or is it all just a step too far for the Brit now?

Mercedes secured the Constructor’s title at the Japanese Grand Prix, having carved out an unassailable lead at the top, but who will finish as runner-up by the end of 2016?

Red Bull have a fifty point lead on Ferrari, but despite their somewhat disappointing result at Suzuka, they have definitely upped their game in the performance stakes – can they catch the Milton Keynes based squad in the remaining races?

Force India have now moved ten points clear of Williams for fourth place in the Constructor’s championship, and if results continue in the same vein until the end of the season, it is likely Force India will remain out in front at the end of the year. But can Williams spring a surprise in the next four races?

Despite a poor showing from McLaren this weekend, they remain fifteen points clear of Toro Rosso in sixth place, with the Faenza based squad also experiencing a tough afternoon in Japan. It was a disappointing showing at Suzuka for McLaren who had expected to at least be competing in the top ten at Suzuka.

The Haas F1 Team have a twenty point lead over fellow 2016 newbies Renault, but are still very much catchable if the French manufacturer can have a strong end to the season.

At the bottom of the pile Manor still have a one point advantage over Sauber, who are yet to score any points in 2016. Can the Swiss team change that, before the season is out?