If Ferrari was relying on the weather gods intervening in an effort to get its title hopes back on track, the Italian team is in for further disappointment today.
Following yesterday’s qualifying strategy disaster the skies above Suzuka are bright blue today, with barely a fluffy white cloud to be seen, far less those dark, ominous clouds that might have brought rain, and thereby possible salvation.
However, as the post mortem into that Q3 mess continues, let’s be serious, does anyone really believe – based on its current form – that the red cars would have challenged the Silver Arrows?
One could be kind and say that today is all about damage limitation for the Italian team, but in reality it looks as though Mercedes is set to inflict further pain.
The post mortem into what has gone wrong at Ferrari is for another time, and rather than concerning ourselves at the Italian team’s fate, much as was the case in the early 2000s we should be applauding those leading the way, for much like the Maranello team back then, Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton is the standard by which others must be judged and it is up to the opposition to raise its game.
This isn’t Hollywood – even if that’s what the sport’s owners want – and there will be no eleventh hour revival from Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel, the titles are already decided, it’s just a matter of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.
While Verstappen sarcastically suggested the title fight is already decided, in the same way he is not under orders to move aside for Vettel today, he is free to take on the Mercedes duo, and would surely love to take a win at this most historic of tracks.
The kiwi, in particular could do with a decent result, and though we doubt even a podium finish will allow him to retain his seat next season, he deserves to leave F1 with some dignity.
As ever, the midfield should provide the real thrills and spills, with Romain Grosjean needing to repay Haas‘ faith in him by delivering today. Once again, despite his great start to the season, Kevin Magnussen appears a little lost, though it’s not clear why.
Of course, both teams need a decent points haul, the American outfit if only to frustrate Renault ahead of next month’s appeal hearing following Grosjean’s disqualification in Italy.
Demoted three places because of radio confusion, assuming the field survives the first few corners, Esteban Ocon should soon find himself pressurising his Racing Point teammate, and hopefully further embarrassing a sport that seems willing to allow a talent like his to slip through its fingers.
Renault continues to disappoint and as a result, looks likely to be running in that netherworld between the back of the midfield and the McLarens and Williams, the French team seeming to have lost direction in the last couple of races… not the kind of news that poor old Daniel Ricciardo will be wanting to hear.
Which of course, brings us back to Ferrari, for like Alonso, Vettel looks destined never to win a title with the Italian team, certainly under its current management, so one can only hope that Leclerc’s career isn’t compromised by future failures at Maranello.
With Vettel and Ricciardo starting out of position, it will be worth keeping an eye on both, though at the moment it is the Australian who appears more fired up, his German rival seemingly having accepted his ‘fate’.
Crashing out of Q1, Marcus Ericsson, who was starting from the back anyway, has been handed a further 15-place grid penalty after taking on a new gearbox and power unit element.
If nothing else, let’s hope that even though it looks likely to be a one-stopper today, we get a race worthy of those ever passionate fans in the stands, who really do make this event something special.
In terms of tyre strategy, the quickest is a one-stopper. One stint on softs for 25 laps, then mediums to the flag. Alternatively, one stint on mediums for 28 laps, then softs to the flag. A bit slower is one stint on supersofts for 20 laps then one stint on mediums to the flag. According to Pirelli a two-stopper is also possible, but slower. The optimal two-stopper is: one stint on supersofts for 14 laps then two stints on softs.
Sadly, that previous paragraph pretty sums up the sport these days, for we ll know that today will be one-stopper, with none of the leaders willing to take a gamble. The fans, the circuit, deserve better, but as the powers-that-be continue in their quest to turn F1 into entertainment it is the sport that suffers.
As the FIA debates whether to have Hankook or Pirelli as tyre supplier, what would really be best is some variety, some competition, but instead, as we see elsewhere in the sport, the inventive element of F1 is being stifled at every turn.
The pitlane opens and one by one the drivers filter out. Interestingly, it is much warmer than on the previous two days, which could begin to play into Ferrari‘s hands. The Silver Arrows remember qualified on the soft tyres, as did Grosjean, while the rest of the leading ten did it on the supers.
The drivers and dignitaries assemble for the national anthem, which is sung by a group of schoolchildren, so much better than reality ‘stars’.
Ahead of the warm-up lap the air temperature is 28.6 degrees C, while the track temperature is 39.4 degrees.
Other than the Silver Arrows and Grosjean, Leclerc, Magnussen, Sainz, Stroll, Ricciardo, Sirotkin, Alonso, Vandoorne and Ericsson have opted for the softs. Hulkenberg is the only driver to start on mediums, while the rest – all of whom are in the leading ten – start on supers.
As they head off on the warm-up lap there’s quite a bit of smoke coming from the back of Hulkenberg’s car. Nonetheless, he gets away.
Hamilton leads the field around the track and back to the grid.
They’re away. All get off the line, with Hamilton covering Bottas and Vettel moving right out towards the pit-wall. Verstappen is all over the Mercedes pair.
Through T1, Vettel is side-by-side with Gasly, the German having the inside line. He moves ahead of the Toro Rosso is T2 and closes on Grosjean.
Vettel continues, now wheel-to-wheel with Grosjean, while Ricciardo passes Magnussen. Vettel nails Grosjean on the approach to Spoon.
At the final chicane, Verstappen locks-up and runs wide, and as he rejoins the track nudges Raikkonen off the track, the Finn losing a place to Vettel in the process. That might be one for the stewards, on the pit-wall Maurizio Arrivabene is clearly less than impressed.
At the end of lap 1, it’s: Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, Vettel, Raikkonen, Grosjean, Gasly, Perez, Ocon and Hartley. Ricciardo is up to 12th.
Meanwhile, Magnussen has a puncture after clashing with Leclerc at the start, his tyre delaminating.
As Vettel shadows Verstappen, Hamilton builds a 2.4s lead as the stewards confirm they are looking at the first lap clash involving Verstappen and Raikkonen.
A great move sees Ricciardo pass his buddie Hartley for 10th, as Magnussen, still on his way back to the pits, is blue-flagged.
With Magnussen shedding carbon-fibre, the safety car is deployed, as the stewards confirm that are investigating his clash with Leclerc also.
As Hamilton heads the field down the pit straight, where there is lots of debris from Magnussen’s car, Leclerc stops for a new nose. Sirotkin also pits.
Verstappen gets a 5s time penalty for leaving the track and not returning safely. “What the ***, I tried to do the best I could,” says the youngster, “he drove around the outside.”
Alonso and Stroll are under investigation for an incident similar to that of Verstappen’s.