The Suzuka circuit is among the icons of Formula 1 racing and often known as the ultimate test for both driver and machine. It cuts across itself like an 8-loop with many types of turns, twists and still keeps you flat out on the throttle. After the result at Russia, Mercedes were looking to finalise their 6th consecutive constructor’s championship and the driver’s title is almost Lewis’ already. Ferrari may have proven to be hard to beat since the summer break, but Red Bull Racing Honda was the home favourites for this one.
Heading into race weekend, the typhoon near the coast of Japan was close enough to the circuit as well. Even though we did get to see the Friday practice sessions, Saturday and qualifying was completely written off as a no-go, as a safety precaution for drivers and fans. That meant qualifying and race, both were held on Sunday itself which did make things a bit more exciting than a usual F1 weekend.
While Ferrari doesn’t necessarily have the best record at Japan in recent years, Sebastian Vettel seems to be consistently good around here when he’s in a good car. Since summer, the SF90 has been the best car on the grid and this time too it was able to smoke the Silver Arrows and Red Bulls in quali trim. The German managed to secure Pole position, his fifth at Suzuka, with teammate Charles Leclerc being second fastest allowing Ferrari to lock out the front row.
Valtteri Bottas managed to out-qualify Lewis Hamilton as the Mercedes driver lined up third and fourth on the grid. The home heroes seemed to lack outright qualifying pace as Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon started fifth and sixth respectively. More interestingly, both drivers posted the exact same fastest lap – 1m27.851s.
McLaren Renault were best of the rest in the morning’s qualifying as Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris were seventh and eighth fastest respectively. Pierre Gasly was able to secure ninth on the starting grid alongside the Haas of Romain Grosjean starting tenth.
Ferrari’s race was screwed from the start as Vettel messed up the start allowing Bottas to rocket past into the first corner. Leclerc had a bad start too but was able to hold off Hamilton, which allowed Verstappen to catch up around the outside. But the Monegasque was too close to the rear end of his teammate into turn 2 which led to a loss of front end grip causing him to understeer into Verstappen who was trying to overtake around the outside. Charles’ SF90 suffered some front wing damage while Max was sent into a spin and also suffered significant damage to his RB15. The front right endplate on Leclerc’s front wing was hanging loose and scraping along as he hung onto P3 and didn’t pit at the end of Lap 1.
Charles did get a radio message but it did not seem to relay how severe the damage was because the driver argued that the car feels fine. But it wasn’t just about driveability but also about the safety of others as he was strewing bits of carbon fibre debris in his wake. Leclerc actually stayed out for a couple of laps with Hamilton right behind him and in the end, the broken endplate snapped off and took out the Merc’s rearview mirror. It looked quite dramatic in slow-motion replays but it could have been a lot worse if that flying shard had been headed for Lewis’ head instead. He pitted on Lap 4 for new front end and switched to medium tyres, rejoining the race at the back of the order.
Initially, Charles incident was deemed to not require a penalty before being investigated again and penalties were applied after the race. While some may argue that an accurate punishment is better late than never, penalising offences that took place at the start of the race afterwards are simply not good for viewer engagement. A final result affected by post-race penalties for first lap incidents nullifies the driver’s entire performance in my opinion. But then again, the FIA doesn’t need to care about that.
Consequently, Verstappen had to retire the car after just 14 laps as it was pretty much undrivable. Leclerc meanwhile was driving at his limit to carve his way back up the order with a few breath-taking overtakes along the way. He was clearly on a two-stop strategy before Ferrari pitted him again on Lap 47 of 52 to try and steal the point for fastest lap, but it was not to be. Charles finished P6 but was given a 5-second penalty for crashing into Max and a 10-second penalty for driving his car in an unsafe condition. The final classification lists the Ferrari driver in P7.
At the front of the race, Bottas was doing a phenomenal job in the lead. He pulled ahead of the chaos quite early, making the most of the clean air ahead of him and putting some distance between himself and Vettel. Ferrari pitted Seb first on Lap 17 but didn’t change tyre compounds, clearly on a two-stop strategy. Mercedes pitted Bottas the very next lap and put him on a set of mediums and managed to come out still ahead of Vettel. Hamilton’s first stop came on Lap 22, also for mediums, but he came out on track in P3 again. The Brit wasn’t too happy when he was informed that he wasn’t on a race-winning strategy and would not have a chance to fight his teammate for the win.
Vettel made his final pit stop on Lap 32 and switched from the softs to the medium tyres, rejoining the race in P3 while Bottas led. Then the Finn pitted for soft tyres on Lap 37 and still come out on track ahead of the Ferrari. but it did allow Hamilton to take the race lead for a few laps. Hamilton looked like he could just about make it to the chequered flag without stopping but Mercedes chose to pit him again on Lap 43 which sealed his fate to finish P3. As I write this, it seems eerily similar to something that happened last year but with the roles reversed.
There was some confusion towards the end as well when the chequered flag was waved a lap too soon, so the 53 lap race was concluded in 52 laps only.
Bottas took a convincing victory in the end and a win at Suzuka means more than most to almost any driver on the grid. He did not put a foot wrong and thoroughly deserves this result which also keeps him in statistical contention for the world title. Sebastian finished P2, his eighth podium at this track in F1 after fighting off Lewis in the final few laps using the straight-line speed of the Ferrari against the Merc’s pace in the corners.
But the reigning F1 World Champion was able to set the fastest lap of the race snatching that one extra point which allowed Mercedes to claim the Constructor’s Championship title for the 6th year running, a new record in the sport. With four races still to go in the 2019 season, Mercedes won the title with a 179-point lead over second-place Scuderia Ferrari.
Alex Albon got his best F1 result yet with a P4 finish in the Red Bull Racing Honda. Definitely not the result the home-favourites were hoping for but a good performance from the rookie nonetheless. He was also lucky to not get penalized for his collision with Norris on Lap 4 as he dove down the inside of the penultimate chicane and clattered into the orange McLaren. Norris came off worse, having to pit right away with more damage to his car that made it hard to recover. The Brit finished P13 in the end.
Carlos Sainz was best of the rest once again finishing P5 and earning McLaren crucial constructor’s points as they stay ahead of Renault. However, because of Norris’ incident, the team missed out on what could have been a double-point finish for sure. Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo managed to finish P6 after an impressive charge up the middle order considering he started 16th on the grid. Nico Hulkenberg was able to pick up the final point for grabs as he finished P10 having started 15th.
Toro Rosso got some points too, thanks to Pierre Gasly finishing P8 while teammate Daniil Kvyat finished P12. Sergio Perez did crash out on the last lap when Gasly was trying to pass him down the inside of Turn 1, but the Mexican is classified with a P9 finish because of the timing error and the race being concluded a lap earlier. Lance Stroll finished P11 and out of the points. Racing Point has filed a complaint against the Renault cars for a violation of technical regulations, so further changes may happen to the final classification.
Alfa Romeo Sauber was not able to secure points once again as Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi finished P14 and P16 respectively. The Haas team also failed to score in Japan as Romain Grosjean finished P15 ahead of Kevin Magnussen in P17. George Russell finished P18 and Robert Kubica behind him. Williams pulled off a miracle to put together a car for Kubica after he crashed in qualifying that same morning.
There’s a two-week gap before the next F1 round in Mexico. Can Max and Red Bull repeat last year’s winning performance? Or will Ferrari be able to get over its mistakes and driver-related problems and secure a strong finish? Stay tuned for more F1 and subscribe to The Auto Loons for the latest updates.
Final race standings
- V. Bottas Mercedes — 1:21:46.755
- S. Vettel Ferrari +13.343
- L. Hamilton Mercedes + 13.858
- A. Albon Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda +59.537
- C. Sainz McLaren Renault +69.101
- D. Ricciardo Renault +1 Lap
- C. Leclerc Ferrari +1 Lap
- P. Gasly Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +1 Lap
- S. Perez Racing Point BWT Mercedes +1 Lap
- N. Hulkenberg Renault +1 Lap
- L. Stroll Racing Point BWT Mercedes +1 Lap
- D. Kvyat Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +1 Lap
- L. Norris McLaren Renault +1 Lap
- K. Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +1 Lap
- R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari +1 Lap
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 Lap
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari +1 Lap
- G. Russell Williams Racing Mercedes +2 Laps
- R. Kubica Williams Racing Mercedes +2 Laps
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Honda DNF