Rosberg extends his lead in the Driver’s Championship as a poor start from Hamilton put him in a tight spot. But the real star of Formula 1 right now is youngster Max Verstappen as he grabs his well-deserved podium finish, his sixth of the season.
After qualifying, Rosberg started on pole position with Hamilton just 0.013 seconds behind. Grid penalties for both the Ferrari’s meant third and fourth places on the starting grid went to the Red Bull drivers who were looking to carry on their form from the Malaysian GP win last weekend. Vettel started in sixth and Räikkönen in eighth, the Force India cars between them, and an impressive season-best qualifying by HAAS Racing had them in the top 10 of the grid.
Things looked bad for Hamilton as he had his worst start of the season, his front wheels spinning up and not getting him off the line with much pace as he found himself in a crowd by the first turn, in Eighth place. Rosberg, on the other hand, had a great start and kept his lead right from the start opening up a gap between himself and Verstappen who too had a great start and benefitted from Hamilton’s woes.
The start had placed the Force India cars amongst the top 6 drivers and were more obstacles to get around than competitors simply due to the gap in the abilities of their respective cars. Still, it wasn’t long before Perez lost his third place spot to Vettel while Hulkenberg tried his best to hold his own against Räikkönen and Hamilton behind him. It was Lap 6 before Hamilton started to make up some ground, by which time Rosberg had created enough of a gap going for the perfect driving line with no traffic in front. Ricciardo however, did not have such a great race as he struggled to keep pace with the leaders.
As the race continued, the battle for the podium places carried on between Verstappen, Vettel and Hamilton as Rosberg capitalized on his start and was increasing his lead slowly but steadily. Behind him, there wasn’t much of a battle on the track as the Suzuka circuit offers few overtaking zones and neither man was close enough to make a definite move on the other, especially with Hamilton still climbing up through the order. Pit strategy was key here, and an unusually slow pit stop from Ricciardo definitely put him out of contention for the podium if no racers were to face any engine problems or any accident.
Rosberg had an uneventful race throughout, staying in the lead, losing it only when he would pit ahead of the other drivers, but he drove his perfect line and without incident. His last pit-stop on lap 29 put Vettel in the lead with Verstappen right behind after his last pit-stop just a lap earlier. However, Vettel could not build much of a lead as he had a lot of trouble making his way through the backmarkers, something he and other racers complained much about over the team radios.
In Lap 34, a critical mistake by Ferrari in their pit stop strategy put Vettel back on track BEHIND Lewis who had pitted just before and was now in third place. Lewis had the hard tyres that meant he would have less difficulty taking them to the end and Vettel came out with the faster soft tyres, and at first, Vettel did manage to put the pressure on Hamilton. But as they made their way through the backmarkers, Hamilton managed to pull away from Sebastian. Meanwhile, after the pitting, Rosberg was back in the lead with a relatively comfy gap of 5.5 seconds over Max Verstappen.
Into Lap 41 of the 2016 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix and now it was Max’s turn to have something to complain about as he too was having a hard time getting past the backmarkers, which allowed Hamilton to close the gap significantly. Lap 44 has Hamilton right on Verstappen’s tale, gaining with every passing lap but the Dutchman is doing a fine job of keeping the pace to stay ahead as much as he can even with the faster Mercedes catching him up, along with the DRS. Near the end of every lap, Lewis would close the gap on Verstappen, but the Red Bull driver managed to consistently get a better exit onto the finish straight not allowing the Mercedes to catch up enough to make a move, brilliant driving by the 19-year old!
Up ahead, Rosberg has the win in his bag, while the battle for second rages on behind him. Coming into the final chicane on the end of Lap 52, Hamilton goes for the inside but Verstappen shuts the door on him forcing Lewis to go straight down the exit road and off track. As they enter the final lap, the gap is too much for the Mercedes to make-up and Max Verstappen makes no mistakes and crosses the line in second place, 5 seconds behind the winner Nico Rosberg and 1.5 seconds ahead of defending champion Lewis Hamilton.
Here are the final race results:
The next race is in Austin, Texas, USA, 2 weeks from now, see you then!