Analysis: Formula 1 2019 Japanese Grand Prix – Assessing the field

by William Brierty

Off the back of one of the biggest qualifying upsets of the season, Ferrari would go onto produce a race washout worthy of super-typhoon Hagibis. Having plucked an unlikely front-row lockout in the opening salvo of Formula 1’s ‘Super Sunday’, the Scuderia somehow managed to add a false start and first lap contact to the team’s remarkable collection of 2019 implosions. Through unreliability, strategic meltdown, the VSC and first-lap farce, Ferrari must surely have finally finished their game of disaster bingo…?

And yet, for anyone other than the Ferrari faithful, Suzuka provided a very fine weekend of action indeed. Amid talk that the typhoon might jeopardise the event entirely, the FIA’s decision to suspend the action on Saturday was made with an unusual amount of common sense. If anything, the mighty circuit itself was the star of the weekend. Not only did it drain excellently following the Saturday deluge, but the sinuous, undulating layout provided a definitive showcase of the prodigious grip of the cars and the supreme skill of the drivers…

Top of the class…

Valtteri Bottas – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.009s | Race margin to team-mate: -13.858s

Valtteri Bottas arguably produced his best lap of the season so far when he pipped his team-mate to take pole position at the British Grand Prix. The Finn was driving with relish and confidence on the demanding high-speed layout. Suzuka’s iconic sequence of fast, sweeping corners was therefore the perfect opportunity for Bottas to put a poor run of form behind him. He was quick straight out of the box: eclipsing Hamilton in both sessions on Friday and producing a lap in Free Practice 2 that could have handed him pole had the delayed qualifying session been rained off.

Come Sunday morning, Mercedes had no answer for Ferrari’s Q3 engine mode; although Bottas succeeded in outqualifying Hamilton for the first time since the summer break. A sweet launch off the line was the start of an uncannily Melbourne-like performance. Whilst Bottas had Hamilton in close proximity for much of the race in Baku, there was little evidence that the Finn was on the racetrack once he bolted midway through the opening stint. Bottas’ pace on the mediums versus Vettel’s pace on the softs at the start of the second stint was particularly impressive. However, a slightly rocky patch before his second stop left Bottas exposed to his off-sequence team-mate. As impressive as the Finn was, he might have struggled to beat Hamilton had the reigning champion not converted to an asymmetric two-stop in the closing laps.

Carlos Sainz Jr – McLaren F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.160s | Race margin to team-mate: -65.033s
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Carlos Sainz is fast becoming a permanent fixture among the top performers each weekend. A man who was bludgeoned by team-mate Nico Hulkenberg last year, a man who has (perhaps unfairly) never received particularly widespread fanfare within the paddock is fast becoming one of the drivers of the season. For the second race in succession, Sainz produced a truly faultless weekend. At Suzuka, the Spaniard didn’t even have the inconvenience of the rocky Friday he suffered in Sochi, with the agile MCL35 immediately gelling with the thrilling Japanese circuit.

A battery problem in Q3 should have opened the door for Lando Norris, however, a small error from the Brit and an inspired run through the esses for Sainz was enough to keep the Spaniard ahead. A perfect start would prove the springboard to an outstanding race. His pace transcended the midfield entirely, allowing him to dice competitively with Alexander Albon and repel the advances of a chasing Charles Leclerc. The McLaren remains very much a midfield car, however, in Suzuka Sainz was so much more than a midfield driver. Vamos, Carlos.

Pierre Gasly – Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.784s | Race margin to team-mate: -3.283s

Minus the burning scrutiny of a top team and at the wheel of a more docile car, it really hasn’t taken Pierre Gasly long to re-establish his credentials in the cockpit. It also hasn’t taken long for Gasly to get his nose ahead of Daniil Kvyat, with the Frenchman qualifying ahead at every race bar Monza since rejoining the team. Gasly’s preparations in Suzuka were confined to a single session following the cancellation of final practice, having made way for a superb showing from SuperGT champion Naoki Yamamoto in Free Practice 1. Despite that, a stunning lap to earn a place in Q3 put him more than eight tenths clear of Kvyat. A fine race saw Gasly run in the points positions throughout, often as the closest challenger to a transcendent Sainz. He was lucky to survive a final lap tangle with Sergio Perez but did a fine job of managing a suspension niggle during the dying laps.

George Russell – ROKiT Williams Racing

Qualifying margin to team-mate: N/A | Race margin to team-mate: N/A

Unfortunately, hotly tipped Mercedes protégé simply has not been able to make a name for himself in 2019. Whilst fellow Formula 2 graduates Albon and Norris have been garnering praise up and down the paddock for their performances, it has often been up to Russell to mark his own homework. At the wheel of the slowest car on the grid, with an unknown quantity as a team-mate, it has been almost impossible to get a feel for how Russell is performing in the car. Then again, the millimetric precision of the lap he narrated with Karun Chandhok at the SkyPad is a fair indicator. Another superb lap in qualifying put him just two-hundredths adrift of a struggling Sergio Perez, with team-mate Robert Kubica crashing out even before he started his first push lap. A respectable race for Russell was called off thanks to troublesome brakes. Increasingly, even finishing the race is proving tricky for Williams.

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Homework to do…

Charles Leclerc – Scuderia Ferrari

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.189s | Race margin to team-mate: +85.308s

A tricky weekend for the new poster boy of F1. He immediately lacked Vettel’s pace on Friday – which was not especially surprising considering the German’s natural flair for the circuit – however, it was surprising to see Leclerc fail to make inroads into his team-mate’s advantage. Leclerc is the undisputed master of the SF90. He has consistently shown that he can energise the Ferrari and take it to heights that Vettel simply cannot. However, there are few circuits as challenging as Suzuka. Leclerc simply couldn’t match Vettel’s rhythmic knack in the esses, despite having a clear advantage in the slower corners.

He might have been wrong-footed by his false-starting team-mate off the line, but there is no exonerating Leclerc from his Turn 2 collision with Verstappen. Despite being ahead of the Ferrari at the time, Leclerc didn’t afford any room for Verstappen; nerfing the Dutchman into eventual retirement. To make matters worse, Leclerc adamantly tried to avoid pitting for a new front wing, despite the shower of carbon fibre confetti bouncing off Hamilton’s car behind. This was the first real flash of immaturity we have seen from Leclerc this year, and despite a respectable recovery drive, it would have been nice to see more immediate, unequivocal punishment dished-out by the stewards. The flip-flop over the first lap incident is just the latest example of the FIA’s ongoing struggles with consistently policing wheel-to-wheel combat.

Kevin Magnussen – Rich Energy Haas F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: N/A | Race margin to team-mate: +20.874s

In typical Magnussen/Haas style, the high of Sochi was followed by a truly rotten weekend in Japan. Everything unravelled in qualifying. The crash itself was a fairly innocuous bout of wind-assisted rear slip, however as Paul di Resta pointed out in commentary, the decision to get off the brakes mid-spin did a nice job of propelling the rear of the car into the barriers. The further decision to trundle a mortally wounded car around one of the longest laps on the calendar, all the while peppering the track with carbon, is Kevin Magnussen in a nutshell: a triumph of determination over reason. His race was an uphill challenge, but his only real achievement was proving that the hard tyre was not competitive, with Magnussen forced to settle for 17th and last of the midfield runners.

The rest…

His epic Saturday FIFA-a-thon was probably the highlight of Verstappen’s weekend. The RB15 never showed much of a turn of speed at Honda’s home circuit – despite talk of an innovative new fuel mix – and that was before Leclerc’s first lap shoulder barge cost the Dutchman 25% of his downforce. There was some solace for Alexander Albon in matching his team-mate to the thousandth in qualifying (although Verstappen didn’t produce a lap up to his usual standards), however, a messy race saw the Thai significantly dislocated from the rest of the front-running cars.

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Renault wasn’t particularly fast in Japan; however, it takes something fairly fundamental to see a driver of Daniel Ricciardo’s quality eliminated in Q1. Talk of a major handling imbalance was vindicated in the race thanks to a meteoric recovery drive from 16th to 6th. Unfortunately, the hydraulic issue in Q2 and the team orders in the race were evocative of Nico Hulkenberg’s current career prospects. Sergio Perez perhaps suffered his worst qualifying of the season, whilst Lance Stroll again showed his penchant for the Suzuka circuit as he vied for a place in Q3. Role reversal in the race saw Perez come back strongly as the young Canadian faded in the closing stages. That said, the Mexican only managed to score thanks to a chequered flag mix-up prior to his needless last-lap tangle with Gasly.

Unlike Sochi, the Alfa Romeo pair did at least have some speed in qualifying, with Antonio Giovinazzi continuing his impressive run of single-lap performances in 11th – pipping the team elder for the third consecutive weekend. Unfortunately, the C38 had no race pace to speak of, with the car only really coming alive once Raikkonen flitted the soft tyres in the final fifteen laps.

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