Qualifying Analysis: 2018 Japanese GP

Lewis Hamilton claimed the 80th pole of his career at the Suzuka circuit, for the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix. The Briton was followed by his team-mate Valtteri Bottas in second place and Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen in third. The current pole aides both Mercedes and the reigning world champion to move a step closer as rivals Ferrari had both their drivers outside the top three qualifying positions the first time this season.

Kimi Raikkonen qualified fourth while his team-mate and title contender Sebastian Vettel qualified fifth. Amongst the long list of strategy errors and tyre choice errors made by Ferrari this season, another one at a crucial weekend, has cost them top spots for both their drivers.

The final session of qualifying spelt doom for the red squad, when every team in the top 10 started the session on super-soft tyres, and they sent their drivers out on the intermediates assuming it would rain. According to the accurate forecast the rain was due to hit, towards the end of the second session.

After Vettel was heard ranting on his radio ‘I told you it was dry’, the Maranello outfit pit both their drivers for a change to the slicks. When both Raikkonen and Vettel went out on the super-soft compound tyre, there was only enough time to get one attempt for a timed lap, where the German went off track after making an error at the Degner curve.

On the other hand, the Silver Arrows team who had their strategy in place had enough time to bring in both drivers for a second change and send them out to have a second attempt before the rain started. A result of Ferrari’s miscalculation over the weather, now makes Vettel start ninth on the grid, 63 points behind where he should be to give a last fight for the title.

Although Red Bull Racing driver Verstappen gained from Ferrari and Vettel’s mistake, his team-mate did not. Daniel Ricciardo suffered a technical failure, which the team confirmed was a ‘throttle actuator issue.’ The Australian could not attempt the second qualifying session and was eliminated, having to settle for 15th place on the grid.

In the mid-field Romain Grosjean qualified fifth for Haas, while the team stole the show was Toro Rosso. The Faenza based Red Bull sister teams’ driver Brendon Hartley qualified sixth ahead of team-mate Pierre Gasly who secured seventh place on the grid. For their local engine supplier Honda for whom it is a home race, and are the title sponsor of the race, this comes as a boost in confidence, post disappointing performances in previous years with McLaren.

Racing Point Force India’s Esteban Ocon qualified eighth while team-mate Sergio Perez qualified tenth. Both were split by Vettel’s Ferrari. However, Ocon has now been penalised with a three place grid penalty, which drops him down to 11th on the grid.

The Frenchman was reprimanded for failing to slow down during a red flag period in the third free practice session earlier in the day. This promotes Vettel to eighth place, Perez to ninth place, and Sauber’s Charles Leclerc to 10th place on the grid.

The drivers to be eliminated in the first qualifying session which was interrupted by red flags were Nico Hulkenberg (P16), Sergie Sirotkin (P17), Fernando Alonso (P18), Stoffel Vandoorne (P19) and Marcus Ericsson (P20). The red flags were brought out by Saubur’s Swede when he spun at out Turn 7, and crashed into the barriers.

In the second session, Ricciardo was the only driver to not set a time while the drivers to be eliminated were Leclerc, Kevin Magnussen, Sergie Sirotkin, and Lance Stroll. However, Monagasque and Ferrari junior driver gets promoted to the final points scoring place on the grid due to Ocon’s grid penalty.

Overall although the qualifying was interrupted by rain and red flags, the final session in particular had a catastrophic outcome. The race might have dry and windy conditions, but there is no prediction of rain for now. For Ferrari and Vettel, the only possibility that could save their day is a problem with Hamilton’s car or a first lap incident that brings out a safety car, or there is a retirement for Hamilton. For what it’s worth, a miscalculation on the tyre strategy has cost them the title fight.