2017 Japanese Grand Prix: Analysis – Vettel’s sinking feeling


Photo: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Suzuka hasn’t always been a happy hunting ground for Scuderia Ferrari.

Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher (twice…), Eddie Irvine and Fernando Alonso have all seen their title charges shattered in Mie Prefecture. And now, with a certain confidence, you can add Sebastian Vettel to that list.

It looks impossible for the German to overturn a 59 point lead in just four races, barring a barrage of misfortune for Lewis Hamilton.

After the Hungarian Grand Prix at the climax of July, it all looked so promising for Ferrari. Vettel the winner in Budapest – 14 points ahead in the World Championship, Ferrari hunting down Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team in the Constructors’ Championship.

But, as Formula 1 arrived in Asia for its second and final tour this year, it all changed. A moment of madness in Singapore, Vettel causing a dramatic pile-up with team-mate Kimi Räikkönen and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen was followed by technical gremlins in Qualifying for the (potentially) final Malaysia Grand Prix and spark plug problems in Japan on Sunday.

Credit: Ferrari Media

Meanwhile, Hamilton kept on racking up points after assuming the championship lead -for the first time in 2017 – after the Italian Grand Prix; two wins in Singapore and Suzuka and a distant second to Verstappen at Kuala Lumpur.

If he wins the United States Grand Prix – a distinct possibility, having won four out of the five races in Austin – with Vettel finishing in sixth or lower, we will have two four-time world champions on the grid for 2018.

And now, to add salt to the gaping wounds,  Vettel and Räikkönen have to start looking over their shoulders instead of forwards. Valtteri Bottas has his eyes on second place in the Drivers’ Championship – now just 13 points behind the German.

Daniel Ricciardo looks to have cemented fourth over Räikkönen, with Verstappen’s recent change in fortunes bringing him within 40 points of the Finn. Fortunately, the bullish (!) Red Bull are still 92 points adrift of the Scuderia.

Surely that’s not possible?

Red Bull’s power blues

There were plenty of unknowns going into the Japanese weekend. With Red Bull proving to be far superior in Malaysia, many were tipping them for a second successive victory – the ‘Esses’ in Sector 1 are the perfect place to see an Adrian Newey designed car in full attack.

But it never worked out like that. Mercedes unlocked further potential from the W08, whilst Vettel claimed third. It left Ricciardo and Verstappen around a second off the ultimate pace as Hamilton took a career first Suzuka pole – unbelievably.

Team Principal Christian Horner put the gap down to Renault’s power unit – reportedly 50 HP behind their rivals efforts, and without a special engine mode for the final part in Qualifying.

The latter point is a very justifiable argument – as Verstappen and Ricciardo were able to match the two Silver Arrows in the race. Speaking about the effect of the mode, Horner cited the more power dependant nature of the track this year.

“This circuit is quite sensitive given that such a large percentage is flat out, even with load-bearing corners,” Horner told Motorsport.com.

Photo: Octane Photographic Ltd.

“So what we seemed to find is, if we pick a corner like 130R, compared to our immediate competitors, even though that corner is flat-out, we never recover on the exit of the corner.”

With Renault set bring a whole new concept engine in for 2018, including a ‘magic mode’, Red Bull may have their prayers answered.

Cyril Abiteboul is also looking to further reliability, an issue that has hit Verstappen hard in 2017. If improvements in both areas are made for 2018, Red Bull may have a wonderful farewell year with Renault before they switch to whoever they choose.

But before Renault can help anyone else, they need to help themselves – Nico Hülkenberg looked good for points until his DRS stuck open, forcing him into a frustrating retirement.

Speaking about the disappointment, the German didn’t hold back in expressing his thoughts.

“It showed one weakness again, and the car often is not good enough reliability-wise, and also performance-wise of course. There’s still plenty for us to work on.”

Too little, too late

Briefly straying back on to the subject of Red Bull, one has to wonder what goes on in the winter at Milton Keynes. For the past two years especially, a rough start to the season has been followed by a dramatic upturn in performance in the latter stages of the year. A seemingly perpetual catch-up game that has frustrated their two courted drivers and left them stuck in third place in the Constructors’ Championship.

Are Red Bull sacrificing the following year’s car by constantly updating the current spec machine? The sluggish start in 2017 can be forgiven by the huge regulation changes made by the FIA, but the same problem next year may prove to be the final straw for Ricciardo and Verstappen.

End of the road for Palmer

After 37 races, Jolyon Palmer is to say goodbye to Formula 1. For now, at least. It’s tough to know where to stand on Palmer, a driver who romped to the GP2 title in 2014 – but it was his fourth year in a series with an understandably high turnover.

His time with the Renault Sport Formula One Team has been underwhelming – his second year dogged with reliability woes – only managing a solitary point at Malaysia in 2016, with several incidents scattered around, including four at Monaco last year.

Photo: Octane Photographic Ltd.

However, Palmer may look to Formula E, or even follow his father Jonathan into sportscar racing. Said Palmer Snr has been looking around for seats in 2018 for his son with little luck, Williams Martini Racing uninterested in his services.

Additionally, the 26-year-old Horsham born racer has handled himself well in the saga involving Carlos Sainz Jr. joining Renault in his place, whist the latter party have not. His boss Cyril Abiteboul made it perfectly clear that he wanted Sainz in the car before the end of the year, allegedly offering a hefty redundancy package to Palmer before Malaysia. Palmer stood his ground, emphasising his contract terms but was ushered out in the end, everyone left with a bitter aftertaste.

As for Scuderia Toro Rosso, they are yet to announce their line-up. It is widely believed that Daniil Kvyat will return to partner Pierre Gasly – who misses the US Grand Prix due to Super Formula commitments – but Helmut Marko is yet to confirm anything just yet.

Other candidates for the role include former Toro Rosso driver Sébastien Buemi, now with the successful Renault e.dams Formula E squad and the Toyota Gazoo Racing team in the World Endurance Championship and Sergey Sirotkin, the current Renault reserve driver in F1.

Antonio Giovinazzi’s name has been swirled around recently, but not with any conviction – he seems likely to stay under Ferrari’s guidance.

Mercedes get there first

The spark plug issue that blighted and ended Vettel’s race also hit Mercedes and Hamilton – however the Mercedes telemetry picked it up hours earlier, and were allowed to change the component legally.

Ferrari did not spot the problem as quickly – Vettel was coming out of the pits for his reconnaissance lap – and didn’t have the time to resolve it. The rear packaging on the Ferrari is tighter and harder to access without dismantling several other parts in the process.

Ultimately, it’s cost Vettel a realistic shot at the title for another year, and Ferarri’s quality control has to be looked at, given Vettel and Räikkönen’s problems in Malaysia.

A tougher day than expected

Having started comfortably from pole position, few expected Hamilton to be put under the pressure he was subjected to.

Not only struggling with his tyres, the Mercedes’ lack of performance in turbulence was highlighted once more in the last few laps, Verstappen able to close right up to the Briton after the Virtual Safety Car period.

The tyre issue is a mystery. Mercedes have usually performed better on the harder compounds in cooler conditions, however last weekend saw the opposite. The super-soft tyres provided more joy for Hamilton with the track temperature standing at 46° celsius, whereas he struggled on the soft compounds – despite track temperatures falling to 39° celsius.

It’s something that baffled Mercedes engineers, with the team saying in hindsight that they would have adjusted the front wing during the sole stop accordingly.

As for the problems encountered behind traffic, that is more known. The Mercedes cars have never been able to follow well – negative effects are felt as far away as three seconds. Their cars built to lead in clean air, not trail!

But turbulence wasn’t the main downfall – once again, the tyres played their part. Christian Horner revealed that Verstappen put more effort into tyre warming in comparison to Hamilton, which is a risky move, due to the slower nature of the method.

Endgame?

The Formula 1 circus and all of its entertainers will reconvene in Texas in a fortnight. It may mark the mathematical end of the World Championship, which is something that few anticipated just a few weeks ago…