Japanese Grand Prix: Sebastian Vettel’s move on Max Verstappen; can Hamilton clinch title in USA and other talking points

The 2018 Japanese Grand Prix saw the top-3 qualifiers finish in the same order they started. But one would be wrong to judge the excitement quotient of race by this statistic alone; because elsewhere, there was plenty of wheel-to-wheel action - one that also kept the FIA Stewards busy all afternoon. Lewis Hamilton led a Mercedes 1-2 finish, their second consecutive and fourth overall 1-2 result of the 2018 Formula 1 Season. Max Verstappen claimed the final spot on the podium, roughly 15 seconds behind Valtteri Bottas.

Lewis Hamilton - Half a century of wins

Hamilton’s 50th win as a Mercedes driver saw him extend his points advantage over Sebastian Vettel to an almost-insurmountable 67 points. With four races remaining, there are only 100 points up for grabs; so while mathematically possible, it would take more than one miracle result to hand the advantage back to Vettel in this year’s championship battle. However, for reasons of politeness, it would still be right to label Vettel as a ‘title rival’. Hamilton’s previous titles were won at each of the remaining four races - Brazil (2008), Abu Dhabi (2014), United States (2015) and Mexico (2017). And the question now is by which race will Hamilton seal his record-equalling 5th Drivers’ Championship title?

Said a triumphant Hamilton after the race, “I was having so much fun driving this track. I was really able to just embrace the moment and enjoy every single lap, every single corner and the feel of the car. There's still 100 points available, so we have to try and focus and never be complacent. The team has done such an amazing job the last few weekends, we need to bring the same focus and performance and keep pushing.”

‘Momentum’ is a term that is often used to explain success (or failures too!) in sport and currently, the momentum is definitely going the Hamilton-Mercedes way. The pair is yet to put a foot wrong since their retirement at the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix - eight races ago. Since Austria, Hamilton has won six races and finished second in the remaining two. He has amassed enough points to see an 8 points deficit go on to become a 67 points lead. Math aside, there has been a definite spring in Hamilton’s step at the last few Grands Prix. It has been evident in his interviews and demeanour in the paddock.

Ferrari - One mistake after another

Ferrari’s last win in Spa was four races ago - a distant metric in the world of Formula 1. It was assumed that Ferrari’s upgrades worked better than Mercedes’ and that we would be subject to an epic battle between two quadruple world champions till the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. However, for the second season in succession, Ferrari-Vettel’s mistakes have cost the fans an absolute belter and made the Italian team come across as amateurs rather than the one with most championship wins in the history of the sport.

Ferrari’s strategic errors through the season have been well documented and they added one more to the list in Japan. Suzuka, a circuit with a longer than average lap time, requires teams and drivers to make the correct tyre decision in changing weather conditions. In qualifying, Ferrari got it wrong for both their drivers; resulting in Vettel qualifying out-of-place in 9th and Raikkonen managing only 4th. The team’s mistakes have often pressured the drivers to wriggle more out of their car leading them to rely more on luck than on precision in this championship battle which was tightly fought till a few races ago.

Why Vettel was right to attack Verstappen when he did

The result was Vettel’s desperate attempts to qualify higher in his slicks-shod Ferrari on a wet track; as Hamilton clinched his record-extending 80th pole position. Come Race Day, Vettel drove strong opening laps to go fourth, just behind Verstappen. However, a borderline foolish attempt to overtake Verstappen for 3rd at the entry of the epic Spoon corner saw Vettel-Verstappen collide, one that threw Vettel into a spin and re-join the race in 19th place. Just how many times have the two Red Bull Racing prodigies come together on-track while battling each other? Does Vettel have a mental block against overtaking Verstappen, who of course displays this air of entitlement that he shouldn’t ever be overtaken?

Unexpectedly, Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff spoke up defending Vettel’s move, saying, “I’m not sure it’s a mistake with him (Vettel). He recovered well from his starting position and was running a solid fourth at that stage. As a race driver you need to go for it or not and the door looked open and he gave it a go and then there was a race incident that caused him to drop all the way back.”

While Vettel’s charge up through the grid was fun, should the German driver have waited for his turn to attack Verstappen into a slightly less risky corner? Let’s remember, Verstappen already had a 5-second time penalty that would’ve meant that Vettel would’ve leap-frogged him in the round of pit-stops anyway. Fans and pundits debated this question for several hours on social media and while there is no correct answer, we would back Vettel’s decision to attack Verstappen when he did for two reasons.

First, Vettel saw that Verstappen’s battery was de-rating and hence compromised on power output. Second, he saw a gap. In hindsight, it would be easy to debate that waiting to overtake Verstappen (through 130R and the chicane) would’ve made more sense, but had the move stuck, Vettel would’ve been applauded to pull off a blinder against one of the sport’s most difficult drivers to overtake. However, Vettel’s explanation of this situation is a good indication of why he was in a hurry to demote Verstappen, asking, “How many times you can afford to wait? Obviously, I am racing not just him. I’m racing also the guys in front ideally.”

Verstappen - Entitled To Not Be Overtaken?

A lap before the Vettel incident, Verstappen was involved in an incident with Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, one that saw him pick up a 5-second time penalty. After out-braking himself while defending from Raikkonen, Verstappen overshot his mark and left the track only to re-join in a manner that hampered Raikkonen’s natural racing line. The two collided and the FIA Stewards were fair in imposing the time penalty. As expected, Verstappen was quick to offer his opinion on the penalty on the radio by suggesting that Raikkonen should have waited for him (Verstappen) to re-join safely. A gentle reminder to Verstappen would have been apt - that they were racing in a Formula 1 Grand Prix and not waiting at a roundabout.

Ferrari Mess Up Raikkonen’s Strategy

Daniel Ricciardo started 15th but finished 4th after a series of aggressive overtakes and smart tyre strategy by Red Bull Racing. Ferrari, who had only Raikkonen at the front of the pack, made a messy call that saw Raikkonen come out in traffic after his first and only pit-stop. The Red Bull Racing pit-wall made the most of this opportunity to help Ricciardo jump Raikkonen in the pits. For Ferrari fans, to see their team crumble to the championship pressure must be heart-wrenching.

The mid-field battle played out intensely as the Force India cars battled the Haas of Romain Grosjean for the ‘best of the rest’ (seventh place) finish, one that Sergio Perez eventually clinched ahead of Grosjean (8th) and Ocon (9th). Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. scored a solitary point by finishing 10th. However, it was disappointing to see both Toro Rosso-Honda cars not finish in the points after a top-10 showing in qualifying on Saturday.

FIA’s Favourite - The 5s Time Penalty

Ferrari-bound Charles Leclerc was enjoying scraps with his peers while being hit at the front and the rear by the Nordic drivers - Kevin Magnussen (front) and Marcus Ericsson (rear). In what seemed an obvious penalty-inducing move by Magnussen, the FIA Stewards decided otherwise after explaining that both drivers chose to move right at almost the same time with Leclerc’s higher speed eventually resulting in the clash. Elsewhere, Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso battled around the 130R and into the chicane, a moment that saw Stroll not leaving Alonso enough space. Alonso had to use the escape road to rejoin the race, eventually finishing 14th and ahead of Stroll. However, it was strange to see the FIA Stewards penalise both drivers for this incident. While Stroll’s actions justified a penalty, Alonso’s reactions were normal and hence the penalty was questionable.

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Championship Standings

In the Drivers’ Championship, Max Verstappen is closing in on Kimi Raikkonen for 4th place - only 23 points separate them. After being on the podium in five consecutive races (from France to Hungary), Raikkonen has stood on the podium just once in the last five races. Sergio Perez, Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg are tied for 7th place with 53 points, with Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon trailing them by 3 and 4 points respectively. If the Hamilton-Vettel battle seems to one-sided, we are sure the mid-field battle will keep you glued till the final race of the season.

Similarly, in the Constructors’ Championship, Renault’s 4th place seems under threat by Haas - only 8 points separate them. Further below, Mclaren’s 6th place will most definitely be clinched by Racing Point Force India as the gap between the two teams is narrowed down to only 15 points. As for 8th place, Toro Rosso hold a slender lead of 3 points over Sauber. Given the prize money earnings and championship bonuses that increase with a higher standing in the Constructors’ Championships, expect teams and drivers to fight tooth and nail for every available point in the next four races of the season.

The Development Race In Formula 1

Mercedes’ 1-2 finishes in Sochi and Suzuka have helped bolster their lead ahead of Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship (538 points to 460 points). While Mercedes might have to wait longer than the next race in America to seal their title, their recent upswing pace has made it evident that Mercedes are back to being the pace-setters in the sport. In the recent qualifying sessions, the Silver Arrows have been unmatched - offering them track position come race day. On the other hand, after delivering strong upgrades all the way till the summer break and till Spa, Ferrari seems to have lost out to Mercedes in the in-season development war. Reports from Japan indicate that Ferrari’s updates didn’t work as planned and had to revert to their pre-Sochi parts.

“Not only have they (Ferrari) lost a lot of performance, lost performance… just performances have not been coming in the same as they had before, as strong as they were before. I don’t really have an answer for that and it’s not something I’m really focused on,” expressed Hamilton when quizzed about Ferrari’s sudden lack of pace.

Lastly, Lewis Hamilton can clinch his fifth Drivers’ Championship by finishing 9 points ahead of Sebastian Vettel. His winning the title is now a matter of when rather than will he; with the 2018 Formula 1 Season definitely going a long way in cementing Hamilton’s place as one of the sport’s greats - in numbers, form and performance. As for Vettel fans, we were forwarded an interesting message - Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari dominance started from his fifth year at Ferrari and 2019 will be Vettel’s fifth with Ferrari...

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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2018 15:06:06 IST

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