In a Grand Prix weekend with more unexpected turns and surprising carnage than Godzilla versus Rodan, Lewis Hamilton once again laid waste to all challengers in the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.
The Mercedes’ ace had virtually no competition as he charged from the pole to earn his 71st career Formula One victory, his series-leading ninth this season and his fourth in a row. Hamilton beat his Mercedes teammate and second-place starter, Valtteri Bottas, by 12.919 seconds to take his fourth victory at Suzuka and maintain “Merczilla’s” recent stranglehold at the track, as no other team has won the Japanese Grand Prix since 2013. Hamilton also won in 2014, 2015 and 2017 while former teammate Nico Rosberg won in 2016.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen withstood two separate collisions (with both Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen) and an additional five-second time penalty from the race stewards and still captured third-place on the podium.
Hamilton’s victory, combined with Vettel’s sixth-place finish, pushed Hamilton’s lead over his Scuderia Ferrari rival in the World Driver’s Championship standings to 67 points. Although this championship battle of the giants is in the final reel, Vettel still has a chance – like any great science fiction film, should Vettel finish second or better in F1’s next round in Austin, he’ll survive to battle Hamilton and his “Merczilla” beast of a machine for the title again in Mexico City. Anything less and Hamilton and his fifth title reign supreme.
Suzuka’s Saturday Qualifying script’s threat of approaching rain put Ferrari’s technical staff and pit wall pundits under extreme pressure. They had to give Vettel and Raikkonen a maximum chance to out-qualify the Mercs’ monster cars to stay competitive in the Driver’s Championship. To accomplish their mission, they had to judge the rain’s timing and the amount expected – their response brought both surprise and disappointment.
Believing the rain would significantly increase at the beginning of Q3, Ferrari chose to put both of its cars on intermediates on the relatively dry track, even though all their opponents left the pits with slicks. The rain held off, and by the time the team corrected its mistake and switched Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen back to slicks, the rain finally arrived, and both drivers made errors on the damp circuit in their desperate attempts to set a competitive time.
Raikkonen ended up a heroic fourth, behind Max Verstappen, while Vettel fell to ninth fastest time – but would start eighth – after he had an off-script mistake at Spoon Curve. Mercedes, on the other hand, put Hamilton on pole, with teammate Valtteri Bottas alongside in second place.
At lights out, both Mercedes driver’s had the track covered for Verstappen’s expected attempted pass into Turn 1. Back in with starting slot, Vettel had the start of his season, dispatching both Toro Rossos to slide into P6 through the long uphill Esses. He then picked of Haas’ Romain Grosjean for P6. As the front group approached the final chicane before the front straight, Verstappen left his braking too late and slid through the beginning of the turn and the outside run-off area, coming back on track in front of Raikkonen. They touched, and Raikkonen was nudged off track, letting Vettel through for P4. Verstappen was given a five-second time penalty by the stewards, to be made up at his tyre stop before his mechanics could service his car.
In the rear of the field, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen’s made a late move to block the pass by Charles Leclerc and received damage and a punctured tyre for his blunder. With debris everywhere, the Safety Car controlled the field to clear the carbon fibre shards from the track.
At the restart on Lap 8, Vettel took advantage of the bunched up field to attack Verstappen for third place at Spoon corner. With a strong tailwind coming into the corner, Vettel’s Ferrari entered the corner with too shallow of an angle at the last instant, hitting Verstappen’s left side. The Dutchman carried on in P3, but with significant floor damage. Vettel came off much worse, losing his right-side bargeboard and spinning to the rear of the field.
And with that, Vettel began his second charge up through the field to salvage points and keep his Driver’s Championship chances alive, if only on life support.
Tyre stops string began on Lap 18 (Raikkonen), then Lap 19 (Bottas) with Verstappen waiting until Lap 22 and taking on Softs and Hamilton coming in on Lap 24, at just under mid-race distance, with everyone remaining in the same order after their stops, with Verstappen having served his penalty.
The overall race had settled down for a run to the finish the when Charles Leclerc’s Sauber pulled off course on Lap 40 with an undesignated car failure in an exposed area next to the track. The stewards set a Virtual Safety Car period just long enough to have the car pushed back behind the Armco barriers, but long enough for the field to bunch up.
Vettel had stayed out longer on his tyres to take advantage of others stopping, and while he dropped out of the Top Ten during his tyre stop, he had switched to Softs, as had Verstappen, and was now slicing back up through the field to P6. The VSC had helped him close the remaining distance to teammate Raikkonen.
The VSC ended on Lap 42, with Verstappen closing up on Bottas, but coming within 0.8-seconds was as much he could muster. Three times he closed, but even with full battery boost available, each attempt fell tantalisingly short.
Lewis Hamilton took the flag a worry-free 12.9-seconds ahead Bottas. Daniel Ricciardo took fourth behind Verstappen, with Raikkonen and Vettel in fifth and sixth respectively. Vettel could only deny Hamilton fastest lap of the race. Force India Racing Point returned to their points gathering ways with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon taking seventh and ninth places, separated by Romain Grosjean in eighth. Carlos Sainz took the last championship point for struggling Renault.
So its to be seen if the Scuderia can reorganise, re-arm and rejuvenate its team of Vettel and the departing Raikkonen to stop the seemingly overpowering entity that is “Merczilla”.
Ferrari will make their stand in the wild west of Austin, Texas in two weeks, where they hope they can turn the tide with a perfect matinee comeback.