2016 Japanese Grand Prix

by Mark Hughes on 10th October 2016

Mark Hughes on Nico Rosberg's controlled win, and team-mate Lewis Hamilton's continued woes 

Mercedes-Benz left Suzuka as world champion constructors. Its race-winning driver Nico Rosberg left there walking on the air cushion of a 33-point lead with four races left. The team’s other driver, Lewis Hamilton – a busy third after blowing his start from the front row and completing the first lap eighth – left still beneath the cloud that had covered him since that anguished cry in Malaysia. He was out of sorts all weekend, creating bother for himself with his antics in the various media sessions, made a great recovery in qualifying from a difficult start by almost snatching pole, then dumped the clutch on Sunday in a way that made the car shudder and allowed past six other cars almost immediately.

That of course made Rosberg’s task vastly simpler. He was helped further by the fact that it was Max Verstappen’s Red Bull in his mirrors rather a Ferrari, for the red cars were faster than the blues this weekend courtesy of a very effective aero upgrade, but both had started from penalised grid positions behind the Red Bulls despite qualifying ahead.

With Hamilton’s Sepang engine blow-up still very much to the forefront of their minds, Rosberg was guided to a contained drive, keeping Verstappen always just off his back, not allowing him to get within the undercut range. Had it been a Ferrari hovering there, Rosberg’s engine would probably have needed to have been pushed harder.

Hamilton’s recovery from the botched start was aided by Ferrari’s botched strategy with Sebastian Vettel. In this two-stop race, the concept of a long enough middle stint to be able to get on the softs for the last dozen laps or so was a good one from the pre-race perspective of Vettel’s penalised sixth-place starting position. But in the reality of the moment – with Hamilton hunting them down as the second stops loomed – they under-estimated the power of the undercut around a track at which tyre degradation is high and against a car and driver that can be relied upon to deliver a big hammer time out-lap. They really needed to have pitted Vettel much earlier than they did. So Hamilton was handed that position on a plate. Ferrari stuck with the plan of going onto softs (even though it was a much earlier stop than originally planned) and that allowed Vettel a few nibbles at the hard-tyred Hamilton upon rejoining. But soon the tyres, just like Vettel’s challenge, were spent.

Vettel has frequently carried the team this year, often even making – correct – strategy calls from the cockpit, and without ever a raised eyebrow of criticism. So he was doubtless surprised to hear of Maurizio Arrivabene’s TV interview in which the Ferrari team principal stated that Vettel should focus more on driving the car than getting involved in other aspects of the team, and that he would need to earn his next contract. After the race Vettel magnanimously accepted the blame for the strategy and tyre choice in public. But the picture behind the scenes is believed to be rather less rosy-cosy.

After under-cutting the Ferrari, Hamilton chased down Verstappen’s slower Red Bull in the closing stages. The teenager was using his energy store in all the right tactical places to thwart the Merc’s passing attempts. Hamilton got creative to put himself on a beautiful trajectory on the penultimate lap through 130R and into the chicane. Verstappen, using his patented hovering in the middle of the track technique, then chopped across to block Hamilton’s attempt down the inside, obliging Lewis to quickly swap sides to avoid a collision (much as Räikkönen had been forced to do against Verstappen at turn one Hungary), this sending him up the run-off. Hamilton was thereby forced to settle for third, 15 points rather than 18. Mercedes lodged a post-race protest about Verstappen’s move but subsequently withdrew it.     

Qualifying

Mercedes went through its usual weekend routine; the tyre comparisons and long runs of Friday, the overnight number crunching, the quali preparations of Saturday morning, the set-up changes to Hamilton’s car – switching to Rosberg’s settings after practice three, having gone down a blind alley – the locking out of the front row in the afternoon, Rosberg a few hundredths ahead of Hamilton, Nico probably just a little better dialled in to that set-up around a track at which Hamilton has never been able to set pole. But it wasn’t like it usually was. The Ferrari was damned close, 0.3s off around a long lap, most of the deficit in the fast corners of the middle sector. The big-end bearing failure on Hamilton’s Malaysia engine had been forensically examined and for here, a tough engine track at the best of times, the motors were being run quite conservatively. Plus, Ferrari had found lap time from a clearly effective aero upgrade.

“I’ve felt great all weekend,” said Rosberg, “just incredibly comfortable in the car. It gave me the confidence to push even harder at the end of Q3 which meant I pulled out a great lap to recover pole from Lewis. Suzuka is a really difficult circuit because of the varying corners which means it's even more difficult to get the car set-up just right.” Rosberg just aced Hamilton’s earlier Q3 effort, each having found around 0.3s on the final run to pull themselves out of Räikkönen’s reach.

Hamilton was far from crestfallen to have lost out in the pole battle. “We just veered off in a different tangent on set-up this weekend,” he reported, “and it wasn’t until qualifying that we veered back – so some big changes. It’s not that easy to go straight into qualifying with a completely different car so that’s why I’m relatively happy considering.” He’d be starting from the same position as in his last two victorious races here.

Other than a little too much understeer through the Esses – requiring the front pressures to be increased from the Pirelli minimum of 23psi in order to get the early lap temperature – Räikkönen was satisfied with the Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel was half a tenth behind Räikkönen in the other car, albeit taking a three-place grid drop for his Malaysia first corner. The soft tyres were being run at Suzuka for the first time and needed to be treated incredibly carefully on the out lap in order not to overheat them. As the pack was leaving the pitlane for the final Q3 runs, Vettel instructed his team to hold the car in the garage, so as to be able to crawl around and still have the gap. It was working, as he was slightly up on Räikkönen on his lap, but he then over committed through Spoon, taking a rough ride across the exit kerb, slowing him all the way down the following straight to 130R.

Ferrari has decided to continue to develop its 2016 car, as a try-out for a new flatter operating structure (people further down the hierarchy contributing ideas) at the factory. Here it featured the changes that were trialled in Sepang practice – front wing pillars extending 5cm back to give a cleaner airflow to the wing underside, revisions to the turning vanes and ‘bat’ wing on the sidepod – in conjunction with a different foot place section of the front wing. Together they were estimated to have found the car between two and three tenths. There was further disappointment in store: Räikkönen’s gearbox – a regular weak point of the car – had to be changed, incurring a five-place grid drop 

At Red Bull there was general disappointment at being behind Ferrari, Max Verstappen shading Daniel Ricciardo to fifth quickest, the latter losing out on straight line speed to the former despite the same downforce settings. Verstappen remarked that the car’s usual dynamite performance on the slow corners wasn’t really apparent here, the soft tyres bringing with them an understeer balance. Ricciardo failed to improve on his final run, finding that nailing the Esses better than ever before simply resulted in his tyres being too hot for the final sector. These tyres could not even be driven flat-out for one qualifying lap around here…

Force India was around 0.8s slower than Red Bull but that was still good for next best, Sergio Pérez putting together a great final lap, Nico Hülkenberg not getting a clean exit through the final chicane and 0.3s down. This was enough to allow them to be split by Romain Grosjean’s much-improved Haas, which matched Pérez’s time to the thousandth. It featured a new front wing and accompanying upgrades that brought a powerful boost in front grip, though Grosjean continued to struggle with locking brakes. Esteban Gutíerrez also made it through to Q3 and went 10th there. It was the first time Haas had made Q3 with both cars, a milestone achievement for the team in its first season.

The improvement in Haas left Williams unable to make Q3, with 11th-fastest Valtteri Bottas more than 0.3s adrift of Grosjean. In order to get heat into the tyre surface without overheating the bulk, both drivers did an out-lap back to the pits, using the brakes to transfer yet more heat into the hubs then pitting for fresh tyres and only then doing the pukka out-lap and qualifying lap. But it wasn’t enough, the car’s balance on new tyres a little too understeery.

At Toro Rosso Daniil Kvyat out-qualified Carlos Sainz by a few hundredths, the latter having spun at Spoon on his final attempt, having missed out on track time due to a control unit problem on Saturday morning. But the STRs were at least faster than the McLaren-Hondas, which were perhaps the biggest disappointment of all. “Our package works best in lower-speed corners and under heavy braking,” explained Jenson Button, “and Suzuka has lots of mid-to high-speed corners and long bends – plus long straights – which are all trickier for us.” It all left Fernando Alonso (with new spec floor) and Button 15th and 17th, split by Jolyon Palmer’s Renault. It was decided that as he was so far back it was a good time to introduce more engine and associated components into Button’s allocation, the resultant penalties ensuring he’d be starting dead last.  

In contrast to the McLaren the Renault was enjoying the long corners, enabling Palmer to continue his recent good run, out-qualifying team-mate Kevin Magnussen by a couple of crucial tenths that got him out of Q1. Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr lined up the Saubers a tenth apart ahead of the Manors, though Esteban Ocon had been shaping up to out-qualify the Swiss cars until a ragged moment at Spoon. Pascal Wehrlein again had a reliability-interrupted preparation for qualifying and was at the back.

Race

It had rained heavily Saturday night into Sunday morning and although it had stopped by mid-morning the cool conditions meant there was still a damp patch on the right-hand side of the grid – partly in Hamilton’s grid slot. As others were in their cars he was still stalking around the patch, trying to enlist marshals’ help in drying it out. Eventually he climbed into the car and off they all went on the slow formation lap, Rosberg pulling up with his car angled slightly towards Hamilton who had positioned himself to the left of the patch.

Stint One

Although both Mercedes drivers have been afflicted by inconsistent clutch behaviour this year, this was more clearly just an awkwardly abrupt release of the paddle. The engine bogged down badly, a warning light flashed for a millisecond – suggesting the anti-stall had been on the brink of being triggered – and he was swamped as Rosberg got away clean in the lead from Verstappen and Pérez. Had he just become so preoccupied with the damp patch that the basics of routine had been forgotten?

Directly behind Hamilton, Ricciardo was forced into a swerved avoidance across to the middle of the track, where things got mighty squeezed between him, the two Ferraris and Hülkenberg’s Force India. Räikkönen, starting a row behind Vettel, had initially got the drop on his team-mate and now went for Ricciardo’s inside on the approach to the first turn, Ricciardo’s defence forcing Räikkönen to lift, so that Vettel could grind back ahead around the outside, with Hülkenberg also able to take advantage of Räikkönen’s checked momentum. Hamilton was eighth just ahead of the two Haas cars, the Toro Rossos and the Williams pair – with Massa having given no quarter at turn one to the McLaren of Alonso, who was forced to take the run-off.

The Ferrari was the fastest car through the speed trap at the end of the straight before 130R, 6kph faster than the Red Bull – and that’s where Vettel was able to slipstream by Ricciardo on the opening lap to go fourth. Next in his sights: Pérez, the Force India lacking a little traction exiting the chicane, allowing Vettel to pounce even without the help of DRS as they went into turn one to begin the third lap. The Ferrari was confirming its qualifying pace and now Vettel began to edge into the margin that Verstappen had established, the Red Bull lapping around 0.5s slower than Rosberg.

Räikkönen, with Hamilton shadowing him, was dealing with the other Force India a few places back, slicing around Hülkenberg’s outside with DRS assistance into turn one on the seventh lap, a move that Hamilton replicated a lap later after thinking better of a marginal 195mph attempt up the inside of 130R, tyre walls briefly almost kissing. Rosberg-Verstappen-Vettel-Pérez-Ricciardo-Räikkönen-Hamilton they now ran, sweeping through the majestic contours of this narrow ribbon between the solid scenery, modern marvels of performance let loose upon an abstract 1960s fantasy of the ultimate race track.

Even outside the top 10 qualifiers, most had started on the soft tyre and so the opening stints were going to be short. Thermal degradation of the rears as the tyre’s bulk overheated was the limiting factor and the first pit stop had been calculated to be from around lap eight onwards. Red Bull was keeping a wary eye on the Ferraris behind each of their cars. The red cars were faster and were therefore a potential undercut threat. The best form of defence is attack, especially for a slower car with track position over a faster one and Red Bull began to think in terms of anticipating any Ferrari undercut attempt. Meanwhile Räikkönen was pushing hard to get into Ricciardo’s DRS zone and on the eighth lap suffered a bit of a moment through the fast downhill of Degner 1, just kissing the gravel with his outer rear tyre and getting away with it, but dropping half-a-second right there. Maybe that played its part in distracting Ferrari at a critical moment, because even as Räikkönen was quickly closing that gap back up, Red Bull was about to play a masterstroke. 

Because Ricciardo had been delayed running at Pérez’s pace, there was by lap 10 enough of a gap between second place Verstappen and Ricciardo in fifth (around 10 seconds) that it was feasible to bring them both in on the same lap without having to stack the second car – thereby defending against both potential Ferrari undercuts (Vettel on Verstappen and Räikkönen on Ricciardo) simultaneously. It was bold, slickly done and left Ferrari looking a bit clay-footed.

The others ran for a couple more laps, Rosberg, Vettel, Pérez, Räikkönen in on the 12th lap, Hamilton on the 13th. They were all fitted with the slower but more durable hard tyre, reckoned good for more than 25 laps.

Stint Two

Rosberg-Verstappen-Vettel had got out comfortably ahead of the medium-tyred Bottas and Massa who were planning on running a long time yet before making their one and only stop each. But the others came out behind the Williams pair. Ricciardo’s early stop had undercut him to the head of this group. On his out-lap he dived inside the one-stopping Renault of Jolyon Palmer into Spoon but ran wide onto the run-off from his compromised entry. On the next lap he made the same move stick – but with Pérez and Räikkönen on their out-laps looking on from very close quarters.

Down the pit straight, DRS deployed, Räikkönen was able to get a pass going on Pérez – it being made more exciting as they were both passing Palmer. Adding to this dangerous-looking drama of the moment, Hamilton was emerging from the pits from his stop just ahead of them. Because Kimi had been obliged to lap at the pace of Pérez in front of him, and the Force India was not fast on its out-lap, Hamilton had managed to do a faster in-lap on his 16-lap old softs than Pérez and Räikkönen’s hard-tyred out-laps, thereby jumping past both the Force India and the Ferrari. Hamilton then nailed Ricciardo on the back straight before 130R, the Red Bull relatively defenceless given its lack of end-of-straight speed. This remained more acute than that of Verstappen’s sister car. “Yes, both engines are getting towards the end of their lives,” explained Christian Horner, “and Daniel’s was perhaps a little more tired than Max’s – and it seemed Daniel’s car was hitting [the track surface with its underside] more.”

A lap after passing Ricciardo, Hamilton passed both old-tyred Williams cars to go fourth. Yes, he was in a faster car than those around him, but it had been a dizzily impressive few laps by Hamilton nonetheless, vaulting him from seventh to fourth. Clear track ahead of him now as he set about closing the 13-second gap to Vettel.

So the strategies of the one and two stoppers interweaved as Ricciardo, Räikkönen, Pérez and Hülkenberg shimmied and DRS’d their way past the old-tyred Palmer, Massa and Bottas and left them far behind. Grosjean had been vaguely hanging onto the back of Hülkenberg but found Palmer’s well-driven Renault to be a bit of a road-block. Eventually Palmer was warned about moving more than once in the braking zone into turn one, and the Haas was through, chasing after the 10th-placed Massa. Two consecutive impressive races from Palmer though, determined to make a strong case for himself in the remaining 2017 driver market.

Further back, Kvyat had retained the upper hand in the Toro Rosso battle, using a short middle stint on softs to leapfrog past the likes of Alonso, Ericsson and Magnussen, while Sainz’s later stop brought him out behind the slow McLarens and without the straightline speed to pass, this losing him ever-more time. He got a little desperate at times, taking to the turn one run-off after a failed attempt at passing Alonso, though his incident with a spinning Gutíerrez (on his out-lap) at the chicane looked firmly the Haas driver’s fault.

Verstappen and Vettel meanwhile were not allowing Mercedes or Rosberg to relax. The second stints of a conventional strategy were set to come around the 30-lap mark of the 53-lap race and by half-distance Verstappen was still less than 5s away from the leader, with Vettel a further 2-seconds back from there and gradually closing. Not that they were setting any great pace. Rosberg was lapping around 7-seconds off his pole time, around 2.5s of that accounted for by the weight of the fuel load, perhaps two-seconds from the reduced tyre performance, around 1s from a lower engine mode. The unaccounted 1.5-seconds was the pace dictated by the necessity of keeping the tyres alive.

Red Bull had a double Ferrari challenge on its hands again, with Vettel closing on Verstappen’s second place and Räikkönen doing the same to Ricciardo’s fifth. Ferrari brought Räikkönen in early – on the 25th lap – from less than one second behind. There was no point Red Bull responding to that – the place had already been lost. Instead they planned to keep him out for as long as was feasible, to give him a short enough final stint that he could attack on fresh tyres. How long he could stretch this middle stint out would determine whether he would be fitted with hards or softs for the final stint. He came in on lap 32 - for hards. He wasn’t going to catch Räikkönen from there on those.

Red Bull suspected that Rosberg would always be able to keep himself out of Verstappen’s reach and was preparing instead for a challenge to Verstappen from Vettel. Max was beginning to feel a marked reduction in grip and was being encouraged to use the tools on his steering wheel to minimise the loads on the rear tyres. By the 27th lap the Ferrari was theoretically close enough to undercut him. So Verstappen was brought in next lap, fitted with another set of hards and sent on his way. This in turn triggered Mercedes into bringing Rosberg in from the lead for his final set of hard tyres, emerging around four seconds ahead of the Red Bull.

Ferrari had already missed the undercut opportunity on Verstappen and remained wedded to Vettel’s long middle stint idea, so as to be able to get onto softs for the last stint. They’d need to get through to about lap 38 before stopping to be sure that the final stint wasn’t too long for the softs. He was now leading the race from Hamilton but with each still needing to make another stop. Hamilton was eating rapidly into Vettel’s advantage. From 13 seconds behind on lap 15, by the 32nd lap the gap was just 4.2 seconds, an average gain of half-a-second per lap.

Mercedes was initially planning on running Hamilton long in this stint – for that short, aggressive soft-tyred final one. But it was now being forced to reconsider. Räikkönen on his new tyres was flying and getting dangerously close to being able to undercut back ahead of Hamilton. Ferrari potentially had Hamilton in a strategic head-lock – with Räikkönen threatening to undercut them from behind and with Vettel surely about to come in before Hamilton got to within undercut range of him. Amazingly, it didn’t happen that way. Mercedes could barely believe its luck as it prepared to pit Hamilton to protect him from Räikkönen – and Vettel stayed out there on his old tyres, still wedded to the original strategy! Therefore Hamilton not only was protected from being passed by Räikkönen but undercut his way past Vettel too! 

Stint Three

It was as if Ferrari had totally under-estimated the power of the undercut here, just like at Singapore (with Räikkönen against Hamilton). From 3.8-seconds behind the Ferrari, Hamilton came in, got underway on his set of used hards and under instruction to give it everything, to treat it as a qualifying lap and disregard the tyres. It was all about this lap and gaining track position. As Hamilton set about delivering that monster qualifying-style lap Ferrari tried to respond, instructing Vettel to box next lap. It was a bad time to encounter a run of backmarkers through the Esses. The line is so narrow and interlinked here, especially late in the race with tyre marbles off the line, that it’s almost impossible to respond quickly. Vettel’s frustration about this had been building as he repeatedly screamed “Blue flags!” At one stage he even said, “Make him disappear”!

This was going to be incredibly close. Hamilton’s new tyres versus Vettel’s 22-lap old hards would be worth around 2.2s per lap, the Merc’s natural advantage over the Ferrari maybe another 0.5s, adding to around 2.7s but with Vettel delayed lapping traffic. Would he lose one second or more? The Mercedes timing software indicated the gap to be precisely zero as Vettel entered the pitlane. Soft tyres! As per the original plan. If it was all going to be about track position, then perhaps Vettel could use their greater grip to nail a pass on Hamilton if he came out behind the Mercedes.

Freed of its pitlane limiter the Ferrari accelerated back onto the track as Hamilton bore down upon it. The Mercedes skimmed past the Ferrari as Hamilton took up his line into the first turn. If Vettel was going to overtake Hamilton he was going to have to do it quickly, before those softs faded while Hamilton’s hards held on. On his out-lap Vettel’s new softs gave him better traction out of Spoon, getting him into the Merc’s slipstream as they charged towards 130R. Vettel popped out of the tow, had a look, but it wasn’t close enough. For a couple of laps Vettel kept himself within DRS range but Hamilton always had enough in hand – and a few backmarkers later, Vettel had fallen off the back of the Merc, the tyres had given their best and Hamilton was off on a chase of Verstappen, four seconds up the road. It took just five laps for that four seconds to be less than 1s.

Each time through the chicane the Red Bull appeared to get better traction, leaving Hamilton to use DRS only to make up what he’d lost on acceleration. Verstappen was also being cute with how he was using the battery power and when to harvest, always with enough power on tap in the emergency zones. Going into the penultimate lap Hamilton took a different line into Spoon, giving him a better exit. This time he was tight into the Red Bull’s slipstream all the way down that back straight, each flat through 130R but the Merc with more grunt to power past the tyre scrub – giving him a better exit on the run to the chicane. After Hamilton moved for the inside Verstappen blocked, Hamilton forced to switch sides to avoid contact – sending him onto the run off. That was the moment. Verstappen was safe from further attack. Five seconds before Verstappen crossed the line, Rosberg had taken the chequer. Three wins in succession and an increased lead in the championship.

Vettel backed off to nurse those tyres and was 20s adrift of Hamilton at the end, a few seconds ahead of Räikkönen who led Ricciardo, Pérez, Hülkenberg, Massa and Bottas, the Williams drivers transposed after a delay at Bottas’ pit stop. Everyone finished, but not everyone finished happy.

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