2018 Japanese Grand Prix report

by Mark Hughes on 8th October 2018

The definitive take on the Japanese Grand Prix, as Mark Hughes reports from Suzuka

As Mercedes skims the Formula 1 waterline like a hydroplane, Ferrari is drowning in it. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas took another 1-2, untroubled aside from a tyre blister or two, around Suzuka. Sebastian Vettel, talisman of an increasingly troubled Ferrari team, tried on the eighth lap of the race to make good the mess they’d made of qualifying when chance presented him an opportunity it would’ve been wiser to pass up: a move down the inside of Max Verstappen into Spoon Corner.

Without the latest Ferrari blunder on Saturday he’d likely never have been behind Verstappen, but the errors just compound. It was a desperate move borne of a desperate situation as the Scuderia’s title challenge collapses just as surely as it did last year. Given a straight run, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Vettel could have fought Bottas, who had to work hard towards the end to fend off Verstappen in a damaged Red Bull.

But Hamilton? Doubtful. He was in a league of his own in a car that’s been honed since Spa into something ever sweeter. He locked a front wheel into the hairpin on lap 49 as he juggled tyre temperatures against pace and wear, coming off the brake pedal before it was too late. He was concerned about an engine hesitation, a harsh-feeling upshift. But these were peripheral problems, punctuations in a speed-blurred essay of total domination.

The extent of that superiority was exaggerated by the circumstances of qualifying and by recent updates on the Ferrari that appear to have been a retrograde step. The recently introduced rear wing and rear suspension were taken off the car on Friday evening and both drivers reported a big improvement into Saturday, tallying with what Daniil Kvyat had found in the Maranello simulator as he did a back-to-back comparison between old and new. Ferrari had a Bottas-competitive car into Saturday, but the operational side of the team threw away the opportunity of that.

Last year, the last cooling embers of Vettel’s title chances lay among the carbon-fibre debris he’d left behind at Turn Two in Mexico. This time they lay on the outside Spoon corner, with barely a glow as night closed in and the wonderfully enthusiastic Japanese fans set off for home. Maurizio Arrivabene seems intent on blowing them out entirely, having erupted into an extraordinary outburst against his own team after the events of qualifying.   

Another Mercedes 1-2 in Austin would seal title number five for Hamilton.          

Qualifying

The rain teased with its on/off tricks, making everyone in the pitlane nervous, trying to ensure they were always on the right tyres at the right time. That’s how it was as Q3 beckoned. The track surface had largely dried from the light shower of Q2, but there was a big black cloud making its way towards the track from the south – and it was already overdue. What to do? Inters anticipating the rain or slicks anticipating it remaining dry for long enough to get in a lap?

Ferrari was in a particular quandary. Realistically, all it had to do was cover Mercedes so it could easily have just waited and copied. Or at least split the choice between their cars. But Ferrari is a nervy entity at the moment and unable to do right for doing wrong. It sent Vettel and Räikkönen down to the end of the pitlane a whole two minutes before the start of the session – on inters. If the heavens had opened at that point, sure, they’d have been the two guys on the least wet track and with the best visibility. But there were so many other ways it might play out – including the actual one where the cloud doesn’t arrive until three or four minutes in and everyone but Ferrari was on the correct choice of slicks.

As Vettel and Räikkönen came straight back in, the rest of them went about doing a lap before the cloud finally arrived. That’s when Hamilton set what would stand as pole a couple of tenths ahead of team-mate Bottas, with Max Verstappen’s Red Bull a further 1sec down and third fastest. Grosjean’s Haas, the Toro Rossos of Hartley and Gasly and the Force Indias of Ocon and Pérez were next up.

The Ferraris didn’t need refuelling and after being hurriedly fitted with their super-softs, were straight back out, Vettel ahead. There was still just about time for a dry lap, but on under-temperature rubber Vettel suffered a big moment at Degner, then another on the entry to Spoon. Räikkönen also slid wide into Spoon. They crossed the line just as the rain began falling hard, with Räikkönen slotting into fourth between Verstappen and Grosjean but Vettel back in a disastrous ninth ahead only of Pérez.

That’s how it played out, but the underlying performance beneath the circumstances suggested that Hamilton comfortably had this regardless. Bottas was scratching a little more and may have had a fight on his hands keeping Vettel off the front row. Instead, the pressure of the title fight seemed once more to be too much for the fragility of the Scuderia’s operational nous.

By contrast, Mercedes arrived here on the crest of a wave and its calm confidence shone through. The W09 was flying down the straights in Friday morning practice, with a speed trap speed before 130R of 312kph, more than 10kph faster than the Ferrari. Some new development, as yet secret, was responsible for that enormous margin. Thereafter either it wasn’t used or its advantage was converted into a few degrees more rear wing flap angle – and for the rest of the weekend it was no faster at the end of the straights than the Ferrari at about 305kph.

Ferrari arrived with further updates around the new front wing package introduced in Sochi – and an insistence (confirmed by Charlie Whiting) that contrary to stories post-Sochi, there had been no extra sensors to monitor the team’s twin battery ers system since Monaco/Montreal time. The apparent fall-off in performance post-Monza is more to do with self-imposed restrictions to get the high-mileage engines through the remaining events – and with the effectiveness of Merc’s recent developments. Overnight Friday, after Daniil Kvyat had back-to-backed them in the Maranello simulator, Ferrari removed the rear wing and suspension introduced at Singapore. With the car halfway back to pre-Singapore form, it was much more competitive on Saturday than Friday, Vettel generally being within 0.2-0.3sec of Hamilton and vying with Bottas. But the benefit of that was thrown away with the pitlane operations.

The fastest car, the calmest team, Lewis Hamilton at the wheel: pole number 80 for Hamilton, a front-row lockout for Mercedes. Merc had used the softs – rather than super-softs – to go through Q2, with both Ferraris on the supers.

Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were faster only than Ericsson’s crashed Sauber…

Verstappen, forsaking the super-low downforce set-up he’d been running with on Friday for the slightly fatter wing Ricciardo had been running all along, had arrived at the conclusion that the RB14 could do much the same lap time on either wing. Both cars were also using the C-spec Renault motor, for the extra qualifying mode it could give them. It was a combination around 1sec adrift of Hamilton wet or dry. But at least Verstappen had made it as far as Q3. Ricciardo’s motor broke as he drove it down the pitlane to begin Q2. You may have heard the single long expletive he screamed inside his helmet as he walked back.

Räikkönen had at least salvaged something for Ferrari with his second-row start, Vettel acknowledged that they’d had better days. Team boss Arrivabene later made an extraordinary outburst criticising his team – and it’s not too difficult to discern between the lines that this is about an internal power struggle.

Romain Grosjean and Haas were in terrific form and headed ‘Class B’ with the fifth-fastest time, around 0.7sec down on Verstappen. Romain had even managed to get through Q2 on the softs, giving an idea of his and the team’s confidence. Team-mate Kevin Magnussen didn’t get out of Q2 after he was baulked by Gasly coming out the pits just as he was beginning his fast lap (also on softs). “He didn’t do anything wrong,” said Magnussen, “it was just unfortunate positioning.” An attempt at getting through on super-softs was thwarted by the rain shower that hit towards the end of the session.

That Q2 shower caught out Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, and in so doing allowed Brendon Hartley’s Toro Rosso-Honda to scrape through to Q3, along with team-mate Gasly. This was the foundation for a great outcome on Honda’s home track. With its latest motor a very noticeable improvement (believed now to be significantly in excess of Renault power), Hartley and Gasly proceeded to qualify sixth and seventh respectively, a vital tenth or so quicker than Ocon’s Force India. Gasly had barely any running time, with a fuel pump problem keeping him out of much of practice, and his engine was being run in conservative mode, with not enough track time to properly calibrate all its modes. Hartley drove a quick and tidy lap and for once everything came together for him. “I was actually a bit emotional on the in-lap,” he admitted.

Force India didn’t judge the Q3 rain quite as well as Toro Rosso and were fuelled up for many laps, expecting the rain to stay away for longer than it did. Consequently Ocon and Pérez were running a little heavy and in addition Pérez suffered a moment on his sole dry-tyred lap, leaving him 5sec adrift and 10th. Ocon was later given a three-place penalty for failing to slow sufficiently for the red flag in Q1.  

Leclerc was deeply disappointed that Sauber had not anticipated the late Q2 shower as he felt he comfortably had the pace to have got in on his second run, which had to be aborted. His first run was good for 11th. The Sauber has responded very well to the aero updates introduced in Sochi and was one of the most impressive cars of all through the Esses. Had he made it through to Q3, Leclerc fancied he could’ve caused something of an upset. Eleventh was definitely not representative but was a lot better than team-mate Marcus Ericsson who brought out the red flags in Q1 with a big accident at the top of the Esses and would start at the back.

Renault has clearly fallen back of late as Sauber and Toro Rosso have made big gains – and Carlos Sainz in the faster of them could do no better than 13th. He may have squeezed into Q3 had he got his new-tyred lap in before the Q2 shower. Nico Hülkenberg went out in Q1, only 16th fastest, this after having crashed heavily at the bottom of the Esses towards the end of Saturday morning practice. The Renault boys did well to get the car ready and Hulk reckoned it felt fine. He just wasn’t quick enough.

Hulk was in fact slower in Q1 than the Williams of Lance Stroll, who put together a great lap to make a rare appearance in Q2. Sergey Sirotkin was on the same tenth and may have made it through instead, but for a traffic-compromised beginning to his lap. The Mercedes engine qualifying mode definitely helped Williams leapfrog some cars it would otherwise have been behind, but both drivers delivered well. The McLarens were left behind by that Williams engine advantage on a track that is much more power sensitive than it used to be. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were faster only than Ericsson’s crashed Sauber…

Race

For Sunday brightest blue had replaced the sky’s previous taciturn grey. The track was around 15 degC hotter than Saturday – bad news for those obliged to start on the super-soft, which is a lower temperature range tyre than the soft (which in turn is a lower temperature range tyre than the medium). Good news for Mercedes.

As was the start, as Hamilton led the pack away, swooping across for Bottas to get the tow as he fended-off the softer-tyred Verstappen ahead of Räikkönen, Grosjean and Vettel, who’d got a flyer off the grid and instantly out-accelerated the Toro Rossos and Ocon. After a slow, wheel-spinning start, Hartley ran out wide in the pack through turns 2-3 and was passed by Gasly and Pérez, with Ocon also grinding through later in the lap.  

Hamilton was up and gone, with Bottas dutifully playing his role and not challenging. Vettel was all over Grosjean and went wheel-to-wheel with him through the kink of Turn 12, flat-out in seventh, the Haas driver eventually giving way and thereby moving Vettel up to fifth, right behind his team-mate.

Down the back straight, flat-in-eighth through 130R, Verstappen braked late for the chicane – the inside-front locked as he began to turn, and he ran out wide, clattering over the grass and rejoining as best he could, with Räikkönen going for his outside. Verstappen didn’t trouble to give the Ferrari any room and it bounced over the exit kerb, breaking off the vertical barge board vane. As Räikkönen lost momentum, so Vettel was able to simply drive past, now up to fourth and chasing the Red Bull, which had also taken some damage in the incident.

Ricciardo in the other RB14 was scything through the pack, up four places from his 15th place start at the end of the lap, having picked off Sainz into the chicane. Ricciardo was on the soft tyre and planning therefore on running long.

Magnussen had just passed Leclerc around the outside of 130R, the Sauber driver was counter-attacking down the pit straight and, catching fast, moved to the right. Magnussen responded by doing the same – but dangerously late. There was nowhere for Leclerc to go but into the back of the Haas. Luckily, he was able to do so square-on rather than wheel-on-wheel. “Magnussen is now and will always be an idiot,” Leclerc raged. “That is a fact.”

The stewards, somewhat surprisingly, looked at the incident but let it go. The pair then got in each others’ way in their damaged cars into Turn One, mangling the Sauber’s front wing further and puncturing Magnussen’s right-rear tyre. As KMag’s tyre disintegrated, it took big chunks of carbon bodywork with it and liberally spread them across the track as he made his way to the pits.

The debris brought out the safety car, just after Ricciardo had picked off Hartley into the chicane.

Verstappen would get a 5sec penalty for the unsafe manner of his rejoining the track. This was great news for Mercedes, for the extra 5sec at his pitstop meant that Verstappen could not be any undercut threat to Bottas, but at the same time he could still be a blockage back to the Ferraris.

In preparation for the rolling restart at the end of lap seven, Hamilton backed up the pack before breaking free of it through the chicane, with Bottas again holding back and doing just enough to stay ahead of Verstappen.

Vettel’s Ferrari was all over the Red Bull, hustling it hard through the Esses and onwards up the hill through Dunlop. “I deliberately didn’t use my battery up there,” recounted Seb later, “while trying to stay close.” As they exited the hairpin, Vettel saw the tell-tale flashing taillight of a de-rating ers system on Verstappen’s car. “I had a good exit from the hairpin and got a big tow through Turn 12 and was side-by-side when we hit the brakes and turned in.”

Well, his right-front was in front of the Red Bull’s left-rear, but the move was marginal and probably began just a little too late. Besides, this was Max Verstappen and Spoon Corner, not ordinarily an overtaking spot but actually it now seems to have become one with this generation of car – and a helpful headwind. But on this occasion, he just wasn’t alongside early enough to claim the corner. It was as if the opportunity was just too tempting. Verstappen turned in and Vettel couldn’t get out of it, they collided, the Ferrari spinning to the back with barge board damage very similar to Räikkönen’s. The Red Bull continued, now chased hard by Räikkönen.

“The gap was there. If I don’t go for it I might as well go home,” said Vettel to the team afterwards. He was pointing the wrong way in a damaged car and last – much like at Monza. He set about beginning his recovery.

Ricciardo, having passed Ocon at Turn One the previous lap, took Pérez into the chicane to go seventh – with Gasly and Grosjean the only ‘Class B’ runners still in front of him, both of whom would be dispatched with ease in the following couple of laps. That brought Ricciardo up to fifth, 8sec behind Räikkönen. The Finn was now beginning to be left behind by Verstappen, whose Red Bull was looking after its delicate super-softs better than the damaged Ferrari, which was very reluctant to turn left and giving its right-front a lot of stress.    

Vettel’s car didn’t seem so badly afflicted. “It was a bit weird at first,” recounted Seb, “but eventually I got used to it.” He was soon passing the tail-enders. The barge board damage was reckoned to be worth around 0.5sec per lap, which still made the Ferrari faster than most of the other cars in the field. Getting past the ‘Class B’ cars before the end was more than feasible.


More: Suzuki makes history at Suzuka


Meanwhile Ricciardo was flying. His softs were holding up fine and he was lapping as fast as the supers-shod leaders and making big inroads into the struggling Räikkönen. Kimi was dropping a lot of pace and was on the radio urging the team to do something as his tyres were pretty much finished. Ferrari was caught between a rock and a hard place, for he hadn’t yet cleared many of the long-running, soft-shod midfield runners – but Ricciardo was coming, threatening to undercut ahead.

Kimi was brought in for a set of mediums at the end of lap 17 – and came out behind Sainz’s Renault, which he passed on his out-lap but still he was behind the Grosjean/Gasly/Pérez/Ocon train that was lapping a couple of seconds slower than Ricciardo. He would take another five laps to pass them. It was going to be super tight with Ricciardo, who stayed relentlessly on it and was even taking time off team-mate Verstappen ahead. Max had some body damage from his various escapades but he was keeping the Mercs in sight – around 8sec behind Bottas as the pitstops loomed, with Hamilton a further 4sec clear in the lead.

Things weren’t as serene for Hamilton as they looked from the outside. An engine hesitation was worrying him, the upshifts were harsh, he was forever on the cusp of blistering his rears, which were running hotter than the 120 degC ideal, by around 12 degC. He was making sure he kept that front-left alive too, to get the required stint length. There was some tyre management to do for everyone, especially on the super-soft.

Verstappen came in on the 21st lap and was fitted with a set of softs, as opposed to the mediums Ferrari had been obliged to fit to the earlier-stopping Räikkönen. This released Mercedes into being able to bring in Bottas a couple of laps later. Coming in on the same lap as the Mercedes, about 10sec behind, was Ricciardo. Having started on the soft, both had to take mediums (as the supers would not have done the remaining distance).

Räikkönen was going by the Class B-leading Grosjean on lap 23, just as Ricciardo was pitting – it was going to be super-close between them. The Red Bull emerged from its stop ahead and proceeded to pull away from the Ferrari. Ricciardo on his mediums was now chasing his soft-shod team-mate Verstappen, who was only around 5sec up the road. As it turned out, the high track temperatures brought the medium – not a tyre anyone had done much running on – into its own. Ricciardo was soon nibbling away at the gap.

Hamilton: It is a collective psychological war we are in

Hamilton made his stop from the lead on the 24th lap and rejoined with a reduced gap over Bottas, but under no threat, cushioned by his rear-gunner team-mate. The Merc pace was being dictated by that of Red Bull, which was strong towards the end of the stints as the RB14 habitually is kinder to the rubber than the Merc. But had Vettel been able to pass Verstappen without clashing, which looked more than feasible given the Ferrari’s much greater pace at that point, it would have been interesting to see if Bottas could have held him off. “I think we could have fought at least one of the Mercs,” said Vettel later. Meanwhile, he was still making his way through the field, latching onto the tail of Sainz, who had that class-leading train within his sights.

Grosjean, despite the Haas pulling hard to the left and being without much of its telemetry, had used his more durable softs to pull clear of the Gasly/Pérez/Ocon train. The Force Indias pulled the undercut plug on the Toro Rosso, which stayed out there. Toro Rosso really needed to have pulled Gasly in earlier to avoid being jumped by the pink cars but they were nervous about him being slowed by the traffic he’d fall into (Sirotkin’s Williams). Both Force Indias did indeed come out behind the Williams but were able to deal with it swiftly enough that they pulled the necessary gap over Gasly, who stayed out until the 29th lap and emerged behind them, now 10th.

After pitting on the same lap as Gasly, Grosjean continued to lead the class, narrowly from Pérez. The recovering Vettel came past him on the 33rd lap, passing him at much the same place he’d done on the first lap. That was as far as Seb was going to get though, for Räikkönen was more than half-a-minute up the road. Kimi seemed unlikely to be receptive to a position swap from there and he wasn’t asked…

Sainz was doing a good job in maintaining a pace on very old softs, actually getting them to run longer than the mediums on which team-mate Hülkenberg had uniquely started. Hulk hadn’t made much progress, only just keeping himself clear of Ericsson and Sirotkin and would later retire with something amiss in the rear suspension. Leclerc, after his lap-three stop to replace the wing damaged against Magnussen, was artificially running up with the Force Indias before pitting. He rejoined near the back and had been out there just four laps when something broke as he was braking for Degner 2. The car failed to turn in and he clattered through the gravel, rejoining the track but crawling along only as far as the next bit of grass before pulling off. It was suspected to have been connected to his earlier collision with the back of Magnussen. Whatever, a brief VSC was imposed as the Sauber was pulled to a safer place.     

In the ‘Class B’ lead, Grosjean believed he had Pérez covered, with the gap showing at 2.4sec in the cockpit. But as they were released between 130R and the chicane, Pérez was able to pounce. Grosjean was demanding the place be given back, but it seems there was a glitch in the Haas’ system and the Pérez pass was perfectly legal. Sainz had finally pitted and was chasing Gasly for the final point. Being on much newer tyres, he was able to retain heat in them better than Gasly after the VSC and this certainly played its part in him catching.   


More: F1’s comeback kings


Hamilton was in car management mode, engine turned down but still bothered by various apparent minor glitches, still concerned at the over-temperature tyres. Bottas was experiencing similar issues behind and on the 43rd lap locked up into the hairpin, allowing Verstappen to get close to striking distance.

The Red Bull was again showing it looked after the tyres better, despite Max being on a softer compound, and was keeping Bottas busy. Valtteri just about had enough pace in hand to take himself back out of reach, but the front tyres were proving more problematic for him than for Hamilton – and on one occasion he locked up and was forced to go straight on at the chicane.

Ricciardo had been able to get himself within around 4sec of Verstappen before his left-front began to suffer and he was forced to settle for fourth – a good effort from 15th and a long way clear of the struggling Räikkönen, who in turn was still half a lap ahead of Vettel.

Pérez pulled away from the struggling Grosjean to take the best-of-the-rest spoils in seventh and a few laps from the end Sainz broke the hearts of Honda by snatching 10th place away from Gasly. Ericsson finished between the two Toro Rossos, Hartley’s drive a quiet one from such a great grid slot.

Alonso and Vandoorne got their McLarens past the Williams pair, but not without some rancour from Alonso after Stroll had squeezed him off track up to the chicane on the first lap. Alonso was handed a 5sec penalty for then having gained an advantage by missing it out altogether, and Stroll also received a penalty for remaining ahead of the McLaren only by driving off track on the exit of 130R. Alonso took an aggressive swerve at Stroll as he finally passed him into Turn One much later in the race. Both Williams ended up having to two-stop, hence their flattering positions in the fastest laps list (5th and 8th).

Vettel remained resolute and gracious afterwards but he’d again probably shown a misjudgement under pressure. It was a pressure he shouldn’t have been under – and that’s down to the team and what it did in Q3 – but the gap to Verstappen’s inside was probably an invitation he should’ve turned down.

“I think together we can claim credit for applying the pressure,” said Hamilton later, “and ultimately maybe that is what happens in head-to-head battles with top competitors. Eventually one of them, even though they are still performing great, can’t always perform the same. It is a collective psychological war we are in. Everyone here has been 100 per cent and everyone has delivered time and time again.”

 

 

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