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2018 Japanese Grand Prix analysis: Three strikes and you’re out

6 Mins read
Hamilton's sixth win in seven grands prix leaves him just eight points from a fifth title. Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Sebastian Vettel‘s victory in July’s British Grand Prix moved him on to 171 points in the drivers’ world championship standings, just eight ahead of Lewis Hamilton. In the battle of the quadruple world champions, that was a negligible advantage, especially with 11 grands prix left in the 2018 season.

For the first time since Formula 1 adopted turbo hybrids in 2014, Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport was playing catch-up. Scuderia Ferrari‘s relentless development rate had propelled the Italian team to having the fastest package, which Vettel used to great effect by claiming pole position in his home grand prix, in Germany at Hockenheim.

And it was in his home country, in full glare of the world where Vettel made his first costly mistake of the season. One that arguably, he and Ferrari have not yet recovered from. One that has launched Hamilton to the verge of becoming just the third driver in world championship history, after Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio in becoming a quintuple world champion.

When a championship disintegrates

Vettel’s move on Max Verstappen at Spoon on Sunday afternoon was made requisite by the tyre blunder made by the team in qualifying on Saturday. Deemed “unacceptable” by team boss Maurizio Arrivabene, the mistake left Vettel stranded on intermediate tyres when track conditions were optimal, while on he was slicks when the rain began to fall.

Mercedes meanwhile called it perfectly, as Hamilton powered to his 80th F1 pole, with team-mate Valtteri Bottas riding shotgun on the front row.

But this was just the latest in a line of mistakes the Vettel/Ferrari package has made since Germany. Mistakes that a combination challenging for the world championship should not make.

Ferrari’s decision on intermediate tyres backfired and left Vettel just ninth in qualifying
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Strike one goes against Vettel for his error in Germany that pitched him into the fence and into retirement. Yes, it was easy to do in the tricky conditions, on slightly worn slick tyres, but no other driver followed Vettel’s example. And to compound his misery, Hamilton stormed through the field to take one of his finest grand prix wins to return to the summit of the standings.

Rain in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix was unfortunate for Vettel, and as such fourth on the grid and second in the race behind Hamilton can’t be used against him. He even made those seven points back up on the Brit at Spa, with a dominant win.

The performance of the Ferrari in Belgium was striking. On the charge to Les Combes on the opening lap, Hamilton noted that the Ferrari “sailed past me like I wasn’t there.” On a weekend where Mercedes struggled with traction out of slow corners, and the power advantage of the Ferrari, the next two races in Italy and Singapore liked appetising ground for Vettel to make his move for the championship lead.

Strike two came in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. Due to the high-speed nature of the Monza circuit, receiving a tow would help improve lap time.

On the first runs in Q3 Mercedes had Bottas ‘towing’ Hamilton, with Kimi Räikkönen playing a similar role for Vettel. Logic would dictate that for the final runs, where pole position is so often won or lost, the two title-chasing drivers would be given that advantage.

Mercedes did that for Hamilton, yet Ferrari did not for Vettel. Credit must be given to Ferrari for sticking with principle, as it was Räikkönen’s turn to run second in qualifying, but in the heat of a fierce championship battle, such nicety needs to be ignored.

Would Toto Wolff, Christian Horner, Ross Brawn, or Jean Todt have made the same decision? Unlikely. Räikkönen was not a contender for the championship, thus should have been deployed in a manner that would have benefited the Ferrari driver that was.

While Ferrari stuck to principle by allowing Raikkonen to run second in qualifying in Italy, it arguably hampered team-mate Vettel at the start of the race.
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

That nicety also had an impact on Sunday’s race. As was his right, Räikkönen defended from Vettel on the run to the first corner, hampering the turn-in and exit of the German out of Turn 1. This gave Hamilton a sniff of passing Vettel, and he did so around the outside of Turn 3, after light contact that dropped Vettel to the rear of the field.

In Singapore, the scene where his 2017 title bid began to disintegrate, Ferrari tried to undercut Hamilton by hauling Vettel in for his pitstop earlier than anticipated. In itself, this move should be commended, trying to force the issue and go on the offensive. Only it didn’t unfold as the pitwall would have hoped.

There was a Sergio Perez shaped problem, thwarting Vettel’s progress on those crucial first laps out of the pits, and as Vettel failed to pass the Racing Point Force India driver quickly, this allowed Aston Martin Red Bull Racing to pit net second place man Verstappen. The Dutchman just emerged ahead of the Ferrari. 10 points lost for Vettel, as Hamilton just began to flex his muscles for the first time.

Ferrari simply did not have the pace in Russia, where Mercedes deployed team-orders to hand Hamilton a 50-point advantage over Vettel, with six grands prix to run.

In normal circumstances, it is unlikely that Vettel would have attempted to pass Verstappen at Spoon corner. But being just ninth on the grid meant he had to take risks to try and get on par with the Mercedes drivers before they got too far ahead.

As Verstappen had a five-second penalty for the earlier incident with Räikkönen, Vettel only needed to wait until the run to 130R, and he surely would have passed the Red Bull driver. But that would have lost precious seconds he could not afford to lose.

It’s therefore understandable why Vettel tried to overtake Verstappen, especially as he would have noted the Red Bull was de-rating. But in a season of such fine margins, the Japanese Grand Prix weekend was strike three for Vettel’s championship bid.

The curious case of Kevin Magnussen

For the first time in his F1 career, Haas F1 Team driver Kevin Magnussen is into his second season with a team, and as such he has been one of the stars of the season, scoring 53 points for eighth in the championship, level with Perez as ‘best of the rest,’ behind the big six drivers.

Magnussen’s no-nonsense attitude to racing is refreshing in the media sensitive modern world of F1, but twice this season he has now overstepped the mark, fortunately without major incident.

In Azerbaijan, on the long pit straight, he forcibly defended position by squeezing Pierre Gasly against the inside wall. Fortunately, the Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda driver backed out, avoiding a potentially huge accident, and rebuked Dane Magnussen.

However, in Japan Magnussen was at it again. Charles Leclerc was well within the slipstream of Magnussen and looked set to take the position, but the Haas driver moved to defend too late and was reared ended by Leclerc’s Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team car.

Magnussen got himself a puncture and ruined his own race, while Leclerc needed a new front wing.

Of course, Magnussen’s driving style is something that needs to be celebrated. The ‘After you, Claude’, nature to some overtaking moves is what no fan wants to see, but sometimes other drivers need to be respected.

While Magnussen has driven a fine season, he sometimes lacks spatial awareness in his over-aggressive defensive moves.
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

In the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix, Nico Hulkenberg was edged out onto the grass by Magnussen at Turn 2, leading to the infamous “suck my balls, Honey,” comment.

Leclerc summed it up by saying “Magnussen is and always will be dangerous. It’s a shame,” over team radio, while team boss Frederic Vassuer was more succinct when he told Autosport that the move was “f***ing dangerous.”

It is not that Magnussen should massively change his style. He should just be more aware and respectful on-track otherwise other drivers will give him a wide berth on the circuit, and nobody wants to see that.

Shoots of Honda recovery

Towards the end of the McLaren-Honda years, the embattled Japanese manufacturer made a final plea to Woking saying that it had ideas in the pipeline which would improve reliability and boost performance. It fell upon deaf ears. But McLaren’s lack of patience may evolve to be Toro Rosso, and indeed Red Bull’s, gain.

Aside from engine failure for Pierre Gasly in Australia, reliability for Honda in 2018 has been good. Its latest power upgrade was estimated to bring around five-tenths of performance per lap, a huge amount in F1 terms.

Honda upgrades brought it its first ever Q3 appearance since it returned to Formula 1 in 2015.
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

During qualifying, both Gasly and Brendon Hartley secured top seven finishes, giving Honda its first top 10 grid slots at its home circuit since it returned in 2015 – the scene of Fernando Alonso’s stinging “GP2 engine” review of the product provided.

Although Honda was forced to reduce power to the engine after a setting was changed at the FIA’s request and both drivers fell aside out the points during the race, this was a positive and encouraging weekend for Honda.

And as for McLaren, in qualifying, Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were 18th and 19th fastest, ahead of only Marcus Ericsson, who crashed. The race was much the same, adding further credence to the fact the troubles of McLaren-Honda was not entirely the fault of the power unit and that the ideas Honda had were actually worth a final chance.


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Jake Nichol is a motorsport journalist writing about the Formula 1 world championship for The Checkered Flag. He is currently freelancing for Autosport, where his work includes IndyCar, NASCAR and UK-wide national race meetings.
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