The Japanese Grand Prix has often played a decisive role in the outcome of the battle for the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship – indeed the title has been won in Japan 11 times in the past – and though this year’s race didn’t present the ultimate prize to Lewis it did allow the Mercedes driver to lay one hand on the crown.
An eighth win of the season for the Briton and early race heartbreak for Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel handed Hamilton a massive 59-point lead over the German in the standings with just four rounds to go. Here, Ross Brawn, Managing Director, Motorsport, Formula 1, looks at the recent contrasting fortunes of the Silver Arrows and the Prancing Horse and details his other key takeaways from a fascinating 2017 Japanese Grand Prix.
Hamilton tightens his grip on the championship
Lewis Hamilton left his mark on Suzuka, not just literally, when he pressed his hands into a clay mould after the podium ceremony, but also metaphorically, as his eighth win of the season – his fourth in Japan – handed him a sizeable 59-point championship lead over Sebastian Vettel.
In Singapore and Sepang, despite being pressured by a more competitive Ferrari and a Red Bull Racing team finding form, and battling technical difficulties, Mercedes still came away with a 68-point haul.
In Suzuka, on a relatively level playing field, they dominated in qualifying and profited hugely in the race, as Ferrari faltered again.
Lewis made the most of starting from pole and after Sebastian Vettel’s early retirement he then managed to fend off the threat from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Hamilton’s win means he has an opportunity to take his fourth title at the next round in Austin. Two months ago that would have seemed impossible, even looking through the most rose-tinted glasses.
However, the Silver Arrows can’t afford to drop their guard, because while Hamilton’s title trajectory was mapped over the past five races, there are still 100 points up for grabs and the team, and especially Hamilton, know well that it’s not over ’til its over.
One more red nightmare
This Asian leg of the seasion has been a real nightmare for Ferrari. On pure pace, the team probably had the best car over the past three rounds, certainly in Singapore and Sepang, and though the advantage was less obvious in Suzuka, where Mercedes dominated in qualifying, Ferrari’s race pace arguably made front-row starter Vettel a real contender for victory. However, despite the pace shown on recent weekends, events conspired against them and Vettel and Raikkonen have scored just 22 points since the Italian Grand Prix, notching up four retirements in the process.
During the podium interviews in Suzuka, Lewis paid tribute to the reliability of his car, and it has been Ferrari’s Achilles heel over the past two race weekends, as quality control issues badly affected their efforts in Malaysia and a spark plug problem destroyed Vettel’s race in Japan. The team’s woes were compounded by the heavy toll exacted by Kimi’s off in final practice. It led to a gearbox change, a grid penalty and a battle from 10th on the grid to fifth. Add the Singapore crash into the equation and a meagre 22-point haul from three races in which Mercedes took 105 points tells all.
Having experienced reliability woe of this kind at first hand with various teams, I know how painful it can be to see the hard work of so many people undone in a moment, so I have some sympathy for Ferrari at this difficult time. The team comes under incredible pressure, especially at home, and it’s easy for heads to drop. But the key is to stay calm and focus on immediate goals.
However the season ends, Ferrari should be pleased with what it’s achieved in 2017. For the first time in the hybrid era, Mercedes has come up against a rival capable of fighting for the title. It’s been a long time since Ferrari have been as competitive and the problems of recent weeks haven’t erased that fact.
Red Bull rising – again
A win and five other podium finishes: that’s the score for Red Bull from the five rounds since the summer break. This year has once again confirmed the Milton Keynes squad’s recent tendency to get the best from its package in the second part of the season. If this was the early phase of the championship, then Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo might be considered serious title contenders, but that’s out of the question because of the early-season performance gap the team suffered.
There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this, including a power deficit, the time needed to mitigate that through other development opportunities, and obviously the efforts made to address that power deficit by the team’s supplier, but for the whole team I’m sure there’s something a little bittersweet in the team’s recent form. The team has done an excellent job in building performance across the season, and for everyone involved I’m sure there’s a hint of ‘what if’ about this season.
Another solid weekend for Force India, with Suzuka being the 13th race of this campaign in which the team has seen both its drivers score points The Silverstone-based team is pretty much guaranteed fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship for a second consecutive season, which is an impressive achievement.
I must really congratulate them, because they have shown that good organisation and effective use of available resources can deliver impressive results. Furthermore the Ocon-Perez line-up is a potent combination and the intense level of competition between them is bringing out the best in both. Also, it’s simply great fun watching the inevitable battle develop between them each weekend.
The two team-mates found themselves racing one another again, but unlike previous recent occasions when this happened, the sparks didn’t fly: some might regret the excitement that had delivered, but I’m sure the team were glad of a quieter afternoon in Suzuka at least.
It was a day for farewells in Japan as Carlos Sainz and Jolyon Palmer, the two sons of famous fathers, said goodbye to the teams with which they made their Formula 1 debut.
Unfortunately, for both of them, their leaving was not marked with a good result. Palmer finished the race in 12th place, not far off the points, just under two seconds behind the 10th-placed Felipe Massa, at the flag.
Sainz’s departure from his final race with Toro Rosso was swifter as the Spaniard finished up in the gravel just a few corners after the start. It’s a shame it finished like that for Sainz who will replace Palmer at Renault from the US GP onwards. The son of two-time Rally World Champion Carlos Sr is about to embark on the second part of his career with a team that has big plans. With available 2018 drives drying up Jolyon’s future seems less certain, but I’m sure everyone in his camp is working hard to find a solution that makes the most of his talents.
Presenting a slightly different view of the 2017 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix…
As always, Stoffel was on-message about the team’s new aero package. “The vortices created by the upturned front splitter feed around the skullcap, forcing airflow towards the rear winglets and into the airbox, while the dorsal fin aids stability in high-speed corners.”
“It’s just a silly hat isn’t it?”
Daniel was the latest unsuspecting rival to find out that Felipe had long ago perfected his own version of the Vulcan death grip.
Now we know the real reason Renault have signed Carlos. Surely any man who can levitate across the pit lane must also possess other godlike powers.
Japanese fans are incredibly passionate but also demanding. Here, having obtained an autograph, a young Williams fan makes Lance draw in every red square by hand.
Evidence that Renault’s early-season slips may have been of their own making…