GRAND PRIX : Japan : Mercs in Devastating Form

Posted on October 6, 2015.

The Mercs were too quick but Vettel got another podium
Kimi ran fifth but jumped Bottas in the pits for a fourth place finish
A year ago it all went wrong but he is well remembered

Report by Alan Brown

With horses definitely prancing wildly around Maranello after the Scuderia’s very solid win and third place in Singapore last week the circus moved swiftly on, hardly pausing for breath, to Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix.

Suzuka, said to be loved by drivers, is the only figure of eight circuit on the calendar. Corners with names like Degner, Spoon and of course the infamous 130R all conjure up images of ‘heart in the mouth’ overtaking manoeuvres. Location wise, Suzuka is not ideal, with the nearest city, Nagoya, over 160 miles from Tokyo and said to be the Japanese equivalent of Wolverhampton! Weather too is an issue, Nagoya being coastal with heavy rain always a threat.

Suzuka though demands skill and bravery in abundance, as evidenced by the fact that in the past 10 years every winner has also been a world champion at some point, and every winner over this past decade is also still competing today.

The Friday race build up was a damp squib and only those who braved out on track early had the benefit of slightly drier conditions. Later in the day the rain worsened and most teams including Ferrari were out on full wets. Both Ferrari drivers in fact did of lot of pedaling on Friday to acclimatise to the conditions and prepare for the possibility race day could yield more of the same. Red Bull and the Toro Rosso made the most of it with Sainz and Kvyat heading the FP1 and FP2 time sheets respectively. Seb and Kimi could only manage 5th and 6th in FP2, some 2 seconds off the front runner’s pace. The two Mercedes were sandwiched somewhere in between.

If Friday offered few clues as to the relative pace of the top teams owing to the wet conditions, Saturday soon cleared up any quandary. The Mercs were back on form in both FP3 and qualifying.
For qualifying the chances of further rain had receded. Hard and medium tyres were on offer here with the white walled mediums yielding a performance edge of up to 2 seconds a lap. The Mercs were dominant in Q1 and over a second quicker than Kimi who was next up. In Q2 the two Mercs swapped places with Nico at the top of the time sheets, now of course shod with tyres that he and the rest must start the Grand Prix on. Q3 was heading the same way but with the Williams cars showing more pace and sandwiching themselves in between Kimi and Seb who both complained of understeer.

How the grid might ultimately have been sealed we will never know. With seconds remaining in the final qualifying stint, Kvyat strayed on to the still damp grass at the outside of the fast right hander approaching the hairpin, lost control, and impacted the barriers heavily, rolling to a standstill. Thankfully the Russian emerged unscathed. The session was immediately red flagged and not re-started with several cars, including Vettel still out on track and being denied the chance to improve their times. Nico already sat at the head of the field at this point and so denied Lewis what would potentially have been his first ever pole at Suzuka.

The race itself was expected to be a two stopper and Pirelli were advocating use of the option medium tyre for the first two stints, switching to the prime hard tyre for the final gallop to the line. Ferrari, unlike Mercedes, decided on a different strategy and deployed the prime tyre in both final two stints. Whether this hampered the Scuderia’s result or was dictated by the availability of tyres they had remaining we were left to guess.

From the start Hamilton emerged at the head of the pack, after the initial jostling through turns 1 and 2. Nico was pushed out wide by his team mate and dropped back to 4th with Seb and Bottas squeezed in between. Massa, Ricciardo and Perez trampled over one another through these first turns, with all three picking up punctures or damaged front wings. The Lotus cars benefitted from the initial mayhem, waltzing off at this point in 6th and 7th places.

The race from there turned out somewhat processional, at least so far as the four front runners were concerned. Like Monza, Lewis pulled progressively away from Seb’s Ferrari with Kimi behind Nico in 5th and Bottas’s Williams maintaining 3rd. By the end Nico had elbowed his way up to second, courtesy of a well- timed final pit stop that saw him leap frog Vettel. Seb maintained that a quicker response to Nico’s ‘box’ call may have safeguarded his second place. He may have a valid point, as his pace relative to his fellow countryman seemed impressive with the gap at the flag under two seconds.

The dicing down in the second half of the grid though presented the real race excitement. Alonso in particular was always in the thick of it, jousting at various stages with Sainz, Ericsson, Kvyat, Perez, and Verstappen. The TV producers soon recognised this and kept their cameras firmly fixed on the Spaniard and the cars chasing around him. Fernando’s reward, sadly, was only an 11th place and a rebuke from Ron Dennis for likening the McLaren’s performance to that of a GP2 car. Jensen fared even worse finishing 16th. Hardly the result the Suzuka circuit owners Honda were hoping for.

After the race the Mercedes hierarchy were ‘less than happy’ shall we say, with the minimal TV coverage of their cars and sponsors. It was very difficult even to keep abreast of tyre strategy, such was the long range TV focussing on their pit stops. Could it be that the Ecclestone Offices influenced television feeds to screen out the leading eam as retribution for Mercedes not signing a deal to provide engines to the Red Bulls next year? A deal Mr Ecclestone was pushing for no less.

Plenty of other gossip also circled around the Suzuka paddock.

Renault are now looking well placed to buy a controlling stake in Lotus and thereby head off an administration. Strong performances from their drivers Grosjean and Maldonado, who finished here in solid 7th and 8th places, very welcome therefore.

Ferrari to provide engines for both Red Bull and Toro Rosso teams to fill the void left by Renault? Without Ferrari power it is difficult to see where these two teams can go now for power units as a Mercedes deal is seemingly not an option. Perversely though Manor GP do look on course to buy in Mercedes power for 2016.

Is Jensen to become the new ‘Richard Hammond’ on ‘Top Gear’ next year? We should know by 30th September being the date by which McLaren, it is reported, can exercise a break clause in the Brit’s contract. Surely McLaren won’t just leave this contract as currently written and allow Jenson’s ‘pay and rations’ to double up to £12m after a season of such abject disappointment all round.

As the teams’ pack up now to head off to the Black Sea, the Silver Arrows look very much back in the frame to retain the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships. Seb is still on the fringes but ideally we needed to see a continuance of the Ferrari race dominance evident in Singapore, which sadly is now looking more like a one off.

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