The Suzuka circuit is one of the few old- circuits on the F1 calendar and has been changed the least in recent years. Its fast stretches, tight overtaking corners and series of wide turns that make it a favourite amongst many drivers including Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Ferrari doesn’t have a particularly strong record at this Japanese F1 circuit and hasn’t won a race there since 2004, whereas Mercedes has won every race here in the hybrid era, ie, since 2014. So, Lewis and Mercedes were the favourites to win going into this weekend, especially given how strong the Brit’s form had been since the mid-season break.
Qualifying was a bit tricky on Saturday with the rain in Q2 and Q3 which led to some exciting surprises in the results. But the front row was predictably locked out by Mercedes who made a crucial and brilliant strategic decision to have both cars go out on the SuperSoft tyres while the track was dry. Lewis put in a splendid lap to secure pole position and Valtteri Bottas was able to qualify second fastest. Vettel had a spin around spoon (Turn 13 and 14) in Q1 and then Ferrari sent their drivers out onto a dry track with Intermediates to set a qualifying time. Both him and Kimi Raikkonen got back on track with the slick Super Soft compound but didn’t have enough time to put in a good enough lap and the rain had resumed which made it impossible to rectify the results of the terrible strategy. Kimi did manage to qualify 4th fastest while Seb was only 9th fastest.
Red Bull Racing is still credited with the best chassis in the business and around Suzuka the team has performed well with Max Verstappen finishing P2 for the last two years. He was in form yet again and was able to qualify third-fastest while his teammate Daniel Ricciardo had a technical problem and was out in Q2 for the second time in a row. He started 15th on the grid and even the happy Aussie couldn’t contain his frustration as he was seen screaming inside his helmet while walking back into the garage from his parked Red Bull. Sister team Toro Rosso had a strong result with Honda putting in their best engine for their home GP and the results spoke for themselves – Brendon Hartley qualified 6th fastest and outqualified his teammate Pierre Gasly who was 7th fastest. Romain Grosjean was able to make the most of the chaos and put Haas as best of the rest to start 5th on the grid.
Racing Point Force India got both cars into Q3 with Esteban Ocon outpacing Sergio Perez as the pair qualified 8th and 10th fastest respectively. However, Ocon received a three-place grid penalty for an offence committed during FP1 on Friday and thus started P11 on the grid which meant Charles Leclerc of the Sauber started P10.
On race day, the weather was dry with little to no chance of any rain at all. Hamilton got off to a great start and was able to get away from Bottas and Verstappen in the first lap itself while Vettel had made his way from P8 up to P5. Into the penultimate corner, the tight chicane after the fastest section of the track, Verstappen braked too late and with a full fuel load he locked up and went wide. Worse though was his haphazard return to the track wherein he banged wheels with Raikkonen who had stuck to the racing line to go around the corners and pushed him off the track. This incident allowed Vettel to move up into P4, all within the first lap which put him in a promising position for the race. After a virtual safety car period on Lap 2, the racing resumed and Vettel was right on Verstappen’s tail.
On Lap 8 as the two were going into spoon, the Ferrari was carrying a lot more speed than the Red Bull and so Vettel tried to go down the inside of Max but the Dutchman closed the door and the two collided with the German coming off much worse. Max did not lose any track position while Sebastian suffered damage to his bargeboard, went into a spin and rejoined the race in P19 (video below). This moment is what decided Vettel’s result and while fans of either driver blame the other, it was most surprising that no penalty was awarded by the stewards for this incident. Verstappen did have a 5-second time penalty for his incident with Raikkonen but the way Red Bull timed their pit stops, they were able to bring him back on track ahead of the Ferrari.
Daniel Ricciardo who had started in P15 was already up in P3 as he was able to run for more laps on his Soft compound tyres before pitting on Lap 23 to switch to the Medium compound tyres. The team was able to get him back on track just ahead of Raikkonen as well but since Max was on the Soft compound tyre, he had the pace advantage to pull ahead. Meanwhile, Mercedes were dominating at the top of the order and Hamilton charged to victory at the end of 53 laps. Bottas had a slightly more challenging end to his race as Verstappen had caught up with him in the closing laps but the Finn was able to outpace the Red Bull as they crossed the line in P2 and P3 respectively. Ricciardo meanwhile finished an impressive P4 after having started P15 on the grid. A good result for both Red Bulls to finish ahead of the Ferraris but there was indeed that lingering feeling that Ricciardo starting up front as per usual, could have done more with how strong the car was that weekend.
A disappointing result for the Italian stallions as Raikkonen finished P5 and Vettel crossed the line in P6. Ferrari is now 78 points behind Mercedes in the Constructor’s Championship while Lewis Hamilton has extended his lead over Sebastian Vettel to 67 points in the Driver’s Championship. With just four races to go, Hamilton with his current form could be crowned the 2018 Formula 1 World Champion after the next race in the USA, his fifth world title. Given how strong Ferrari and Vettel were at the start of the season, if anyone had said that Hamilton would win the championship with three races to spare, we’d probably have called them daft. But since the summer break, Mercedes and Lewis have only gotten stronger while the Italian team seems to have just gone off the rails. Some have raised the factor of Sergio Marchionne’s death having a deeper impact at Ferrari than expected as one of the possible reasons their performance has tailed off so drastically.
There was more action behind the top three teams of course with some exciting overtakes as well. Notably, two of the three non-finishers, Kevin Magnussen and Charles Leclerc, had a scary moment down the straight on Lap 2. The Sauber was rapidly catching up to the Haas and committed to the inside line when Magnussen turned in at the last second giving no room to Leclerc to avoid him or brake in time. Leclerc drove into the back of Magnussen but didn’t appear to suffer too much damage while the Haas had a punctured rear left which was then driven all the way around the track and into the pits before being retired a few laps later. It was debris that had spewed from Kevin’s tyre which brought on that early Virtual Safety Car. Leclerc had another incident during the VSC as his teammate Marcus Ericsson bumped into the back of him but it was on Lap 38 that the car finally packed in and brought an end to the youngster’s race. Charles had given the fans another replay moment of the season with another 360-degree spin during qualifying, a mistake he rectifies with quite some panache.
Perez managed to finish best of the rest in P7 after a brave overtake on a cautious Romain Grosjean who crossed the line in P8 while Ocon got Racing Point a double point finish by crossing the line in P9. Both pink racers were involved in some decent racing action in the Japanese GP. Renault driver Carlos Sainz took the last point with a P10 finish after having started P13 while his teammate Nico Hulkenberg started P16 and was the only other DNF this race as he had to retire his car soon after pitting. Marcus Ericcson started last and crossed the line in P12 in his Alfa Romeo Sauber.
The biggest losers on Sunday in terms of places lost was the Honda-powered Toro Rosso team. Hartley was almost out of the points before the end of the first lap and in the end, he finished the P13 while Pierre Gasly was running P11 when he crossed the chequered flag. Williams may have been able to outqualify McLaren with Lance Stroll making it to Q2 but he finished the race in P17 behind his teammate Sergey Sirotkin who finished P16. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso started P18 on the grid and finished P14 while Stoffel Vandoorne started P19 and crossed the line in P15. Alonso had Stroll had a fierce battle of their own on the first lap, the Canadian forcing the Spaniard off the track at one point, but both got a 5-second penalty each for that moment.
A few interesting statistics after the results of the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix reveal that this was Hamilton’s 50th win for Mercedes and is only the second driver ever to do so and his sixth in the last seven races. It was also Mercedes’ 44th one-two finish in F1. The action resumes in two weeks time at the Circuit of the Americas in USA. Stay tuned and subscribe to the Auto Loons for the latest updates on the freshest content.
Final Race Standings:
- L. Hamilton Mercedes – 1:27:17.062
- V. Bottas Mercedes +12.919
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing +14.295
- D. Ricciardo Aston Martin Red Bull Racing +19.495
- K. Raikkonen Ferrari +50.998
- S. Vettel Ferrari +69.873
- S. Perez Force India Mercedes +79.379
- R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari +87.198
- E. Ocon Force India Mercedes +88.055
- C. Sainz Renault +1 Lap
- P. Gasly Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +1 Lap
- M. Ericsson Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 Lap
- B. Hartley Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +1 Lap
- F. Alsono McLaren Renault +1 Lap
- S. Vandoorne McLaren Renault +1 Lap
- S. Sirotkin Williams Racing Mercedes +1 Lap
- L. Stroll Williams Racing Mercedes +1 Lap
- C. Leclerc Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari DNF
- N. Hulkenberg Renault DNF
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari DNF