The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

GRAND PRIX: Japan: It’s Curtains For Vettel

11-10-2017

By Jack Target

There are moments in sport that can define a race, season, championship or even a career. All of those things may have happened in Suzuka on Sunday.

Another troublesome weekend for Ferrari left Lewis Hamilton with another race victory which left him on the brink of a fourth world championship.

After the car troubles in Singapore, Sebastian Vettel suffered another one in Japan. Starting 2nd on the grid, the German had made a good start in an attempt to get ahead of his title challenger but then the wheels came off. Although not literally the tyres, they may as well have done as  his car started to lose power after never recovering from an earlier spark plug problem. 

With Kimi Raikkonen already retiring his car without leaving the garage, Vettel’s Ferrari drifted further behind Hamilton – much like his chances of bringing a championship back to Maranello.

Ferrari were hoping that they could make amends for some of the errors that had cost them vitals wins and points in the last two races and it looked like they had a chance after qualifying.

Once again much of the grid suffered from grid penalties before qualifying. The last outing of a Honda McLaren in the manufacturers home race summed up how the relationship had been going. Fernando Alonso saw himself with a 35 place grid penalty which negated his good work to get the car in Q3 once again. 

It was a rainy morning in Suzuka which saw Valtteri Bottas almost spin his car on his first run out but he managed to keep the car on track. Something Frenchman Romain Grosjean was unable to as he effectively ended qualifying with a spin that took off his front nose. 

As was the theme for much of the season with these new, faster cars, Hamilton was able to continually break the track record set by Michael Schumacher in 2006 as he eased to another pole position. His teammate qualified in 2nd but thanks to his grid penalty he dropped back, paving way to the prospect of Vettel and Hamilton battling it out at the front when the lights went out on Sunday.

When race day came, the gremlins in the Ferrari had resurfaced as engineers and mechanics worked franticly to fix Sebby’s car. We later found out that there was a loose spark plug which was difficult to get to and in the end it did affect his race. How on earth is it possible that the complexity of these engines makes it impossible to change a plug?

It would be a great shame for Ferrari and also for the race as the German actually had a pretty good start. His pull away forced Hamilton to come over and cover. The last thing he would have wanted was one of the Red Bull’s breathing down his neck and especially someone as daring as Max Verstappen. Coming off his first win of the season, the Dutchman quickly overtook his teammate Daniel Ricciardo before chomping at the bit at the Ferrari. 

He wouldn’t have to wait long to pass him as it was clear to see Vettel’s car was now struggling. One Red Bull passed him and then Esteban Ocon in the Force India rolled past. By the end of the first lap Vettel was in 6th whilst his title challenger stormed ahead. To make matters worse for Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen was down in 14th after a little bump with the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg. 

Renault announced this week that Carlos Sainz will be joining them early, replacing Jolyon Palmer at the US GP in Austin. The Spaniard ended his last race with Toro Rosso on the side of the track after spinning off. From the restart Vettel dropped back further as Sergio Perez in the other Force India went round him with ease. 

Finally on lap 5 the moment that could destine where the championship will go in November. Vettel was told to retire the car. 

It was the perfect gift for Hamilton and Mercedes who have seen their rivals implode over the last three races, turning a potential nail biting finish to the season into a bit of an anti climax. 

There was a chance that the Red Bull’s could help out the prancing horses as Ricciardo moved to 3rd to help his teammate attack the Brit up front.

Further down Kimi was up in to the points and got in to 6th about a quarter of the way through the race. It was around this time that Red Bull blinked first and went for the undercut pit stop, firstly with Verstappen going in. 

Although his pit stop was good and he managed to come out in front of Raikkonen, Hamilton was able to keep his lead after his pit stop. Max was still not that far behind, chasing Lewis down, trying to eat in to a three second gap with twenty laps remaining. 

Despite being on fresher tryes it was Hamilton who was struggling towards the end of the race. As team radio was played out the viewers we heard very mixed messages. Verstappen was given the go ahead to chase Lewis, whilst the Mercedes driver was fretting over vibrations from the wheels. The gap was narrowing. Could Max win his second consecutive race and give Ferrari a slither of hope?

The answer was no. Much like the season has potential to do, the race ended with a bit of a damp squib as Felipe Massa and Alonso were caught up by the front runners. Hamilton managed to negotiate the tricky situation to get past these two former Ferrari drivers and use them as obstacles for Verstappen. 

As Hamilton crossed the line for his eighth win of the season, the dreams of a Ferrari title surely has passed the Tifosi by once again. Hamilton leads by 59 points going in to the final four races with the opportunity to wrap up the title in the next race. Vettel must finish fourth or higher to prevent that happening, otherwise eyes will be on 2018 already.