Arriving for the Japanese Grand Prix, Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff revealed that the team would reduce qualifying and race trim power at Suzuka following Lewis Hamilton’s engine failure in the Malaysian Grand Prix.
That made little effective difference in qualifying as Nico Rosberg took his eighth pole of 2016 – and the 30th of his F1 career – by 0.013s, or just 82cm over the length of the circuit from teammate Hamilton.
Both Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel appeared to have approached Mercedes’ pace after qualifying third and fourth respectively, however, Raikkonen received a demotion because of a gearbox change and Vettel was set back three slots due to his penalty for spinning Rosberg at the start of the Malaysian round last week. The result was that the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo moved forward into the second row behind the Mercedes squad.
For Rosberg, it was the third year in a row he would start the Japanese Grand Prix from pole position with Lewis Hamilton sitting beside him. A 1-2 victory would guarantee Mercedes its third constructor’s championship in a row. A Rosberg win at Suzuka would ensure him the drivers’ championship if he finished second in all the remaining four races. Hamilton, on the other hand, would need to win all those final four races.
At the opposite end on the grid, an inspired Haas F1 pushed both cars into Q3 for the first time in the team’s history as a motivated Romain Grosjean qualified in eighth place. Esteban Gutierrez rallied for the tenth slot behind the second Force India of Nico Hulkenberg.
Nico Rosberg took a dominating win in the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix, capitalising on topping every practice session and pole position to guaranteed Mercedes a “three-peat”; its third successive Formula One constructors’ championship. The Brackley-based team continues its incredible dominance of the V6 turbo formula era, having won 47 of the 55 races since the start of 2014. There remain four Grands Prix in the 2016 season.
Rosberg’s lights-to-flag victory, his ninth of the year and 23rd of his career, was set up the moment Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes spun its tires off the line. Overnight rain had left damp patches on the circuit, with one of those being Hamilton’s grid box. At the start, Hamilton’s car lost traction and was swallowed by the pack as six cars whistled past his bogging car; he ended the first lap in eighth. Meanwhile, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen leapt forward from third and planted his car’s nose under Rosberg’s gearbox as the duo streaked toward the first turn in tandem. The two then disappeared.
Essentially, Hamilton’s hopes of a third win in a row at Suzuka were over in just six seconds.
From then on, Rosberg calmly cared for his tires as he put down consistently laps in clean air (this season’s recipe for victory). Verstappen captured second just 4.9s back as 5.7s covered the top three at the flag.
Hamilton had managed to close to within a second of Verstappen on lap 44, but the youngster kept his head and produced his now “Barcelona-style” defence of employing his Red Bull’s superb traction out of the last corner to hold off Hamilton’s much faster Mercedes down the front straight. On the penultimate lap, Hamilton went for it at the Casio Triangle chicane, only for Verstappen to cover his attack, blocking the apex. Hamilton took to the escape road, ending his charge.
Behind the top three, Vettel struggled with back markers and tyres to hold on the fourth. Raikkonen, who started the day in eighth after a five-place penalty for a gearbox change took fifth in front of Ricciardo. Force India teammates Perez and Hulkenberg were seventh and eighth, scoring additional constructors points over Williams drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, who finished ninth and 10th on a one-stop strategy.
Lewis Hamilton drove one of his strongest races of the season to recover to third – and it could even have been second but for a rather controversial manoeuvre by Max Verstappen at the final chicane. He had fantastic pace, great management of the tyres, and excellent control of the backmarkers. He clawed back from being 20 seconds down to finish only six seconds back from Rosberg, with only a tenacious Max Verstappen holding him out of second on the last lap.
Sebastian Vettel’s strategy was to make a scalding start and get position on the Red Bull duo after being demoted back three slots for his tangle with Rosberg in Malaysia. He was well on his way from lights out and spent the first two laps chasing down and passing the equally quick Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez’s Force India. At that point, he seemed fast enough to challenge Verstappen for second. Red Bull saw this development and countered by calling Verstappen in as soon as possible to maintain track position, which ultimately set the young Dutchman up for second at the finish. Ferrari gambled on the softer tire on Vettel’s last stint, but running in the turbulent air caused too much degradation, and eventually, Vettel fell off the tail of the Red Bull into the reach of Hamilton.
Max Verstappen’s perfect start allowed him to tuck up under Nico Rosberg’s rear wing and follow the Mercedes into Turn 1 unchallenged. He settled into his usual head down rhythm, with his Red Bull visually balanced and tidy. He made the most of controlling the wear of his second and third sets of tyres to resist pressure initially from Vettel while staying close to the dominant Rosberg, but back far enough to have grip left to defend against the determined and obviously quicker Hamilton over the last six laps.
The battle was a carbon copy of his tussle with Raikkonen in Spain. Hamilton would close on Verstappen going into the (final) Casio Triangle turn, only to have Verstappen use his superior traction to get the better exit onto the front straight each lap to deny Hamilton a chance to draft. On the last lap, Hamilton could wait no more, as he sliced down the outside looking to outbreak the Dutchman.
Verstappen covered beautifully, leaving Hamilton only the escape road for salvation. Verstappen was able to able to stay in-between the two Mercedes cars to the flag to bring Red Bull their eighth 2nd place of the year. Showing more maturity with each Grand Prix, he’s now just five points behind Raikkonen for fourth place in the driver’s standings.
After finishing seventh in Singapore, and seventh and ninth in Malaysia, just last weekend, McLaren-Honda expected great things on Honda’s home track of Suzuka. It was not to be, as Alonzo and Button finished 16th and 18th. The track layout didn’t suit McLaren’s lack of downforce through the faster corners; 2017 can’t get here soon enough for this once immense F1 power.
This was the first time Haas F1 put both cars in Q3, thanks to a reworked front wing. However, their race fell apart. They struggled in the first stint with a green track, and the graining on soft tires. Once off those tires, the car flew. Their pace bettered the Williams’, but their switch to the hard tires was too late. If the team can formulate a better tire strategy with their new updates, they have a reason for optimism going into the US Grand Prix.
Ferrari’s Vettel and Raikkonen can’t seem to buy a break. While some failures have been self-inflicted, they continue to push for all their worth to capture the pace, the championship points, and the victory that Sergio Marchionne has demanded. Vettel has scored only one podium since Baku in June. In that same period Kimi Raikkonen, who was dominated by Alonso in 2014 and then by Vettel last season, has scored 79 points to Vettel’s 57. With the 2017 car well along, the drivers and the team must find a centre line to follow if they are to resurrect their fortunes next season.
Ferrari isn’t the only entity that has consistently stubbed their toe this season. If Lewis Hamilton should fail to win his fourth championship this year, the reason can be squarely placed on his poor starts. Hamilton has given away a total of 20 places before the first corner, with him only able to fight back for one victory, two seconds and one third place.
Nico Rosberg finally is in command of the championship that is now beyond Hamilton’s control. With four races remaining, a 33-point lead and only 100 now to play, all Rosberg needs to do is finish runner-up three times and take third in the other. Hamilton must win all four for his fourth title.
Now it’s on to the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. It’s a track that Rosberg loves, but Hamilton dominates. Gut-check time.