Race Analysis: 2018 Japanese Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton claimed a lights to chequered flag victory to the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix, while title contender Sebastian Vettel struggled with a sixth place finish. The Briton now has one arm on the trophy for his fifth title, to equal Juan Manuel Fangio’s record, as he increases the points gap to 70 points. Hamilton’s current win makes him only 20 victories short of Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of maximum wins in the sport.

Valtteri Bottas finished second and was followed by Max Verstappen claimed the final podium finish. The Dutchman was followed by team-mate Daniel Ricciardo who started 15th on the grid, and gained the maximum number of positions to finish fourth.

This is the first race this season, where both Ferraris finished outside the top three, despite the best engine and car on the grid. All went wrong at qualifying on Saturday, however today a certain Dutchman, cost both their drivers a chance for the podium. Kimi Raikkonen finished fifth while Vettel had to settle for sixth, almost ending his title hopes.

At the start of the race, the German managed plucking three places on the first lap itself after starting eighth on the grid. By the end of lap 1, Verstappen ran wide onto the grass and when he rejoined, Raikkonen who surged ahead to third made contact with the Dutchman. Verstappen was penalised with a five second penalty, but Raikkonnen in the meanwhile had lost a place to Verstappen and Vettel who was by then in fifth place.

A clash between Kevin Magnussen and Charles Leclerc brought out the safety car at lap 4, which indirectly helped bunch up the grid. Although one would have thought there would be carnage at the race start, it wasn’t until the end of lap 8, when Verstappen and Vettel made contact. This time the German tried to overtake the Dutchman at the Spoon (Turn 17), to which he said “as soon as Max saw I was side by side, he did everything to squeeze me and didn’t give me enough of room, and thats why we made contact.” The German lost a few parts of bodywork from his car, and dropped to the bottom of the grid a s a result of it.

On whether the move was a hasty one and if it were possible to wait until later in the race, Vettel replied, “How many times can you afford to wait? i am not just racing him, I am also racing the guys in front ideally”. After the recovery had on lap 1, most would have thought the German would not be hasty enough to make such a move, given what was at stake and knowing Verstappen. Analysing the psychosis of a driver, Vettel seemed confident after a recovery on lap 1 which urged him to make the move, but he has often had run-ins with the Dutchman, the most expensive one being China. Given the track record, and with a title at stake, the hastiness of not letting a race and a title slip away, made the job easier for Mercedes and Hamilton.

Several hypotheticals can be delved into post a race, but the outcome doesn’t change. A possible manoeuvre on Verstappen could have been made on the straight after Spoon or even on the next lap. Another choice was to wait it out, and undercut the Dutchman in the pit-lane, since he was on a similar tyre strategy. However, that one move has been expensive for the title.

Explaining the move that might have cost him a title, the four time World Champion said, “His battery derating, I saw the light flashing. I had saved my battery on the way up through the Esses, trying to stay close, had a good exit from the hairpin and had a big tow through Turn 12, and was side by side when we hit the brakes, and turned in. So I had the similar encounters with others and we managed to make it through the corner. Obviously, its not the prime overtaking spot, but if your side by side then its there. In that scenario on that occasion, I obviously I did my best to avoid contact but, if he kept closing then where am I suppose to go?” .

On being asked whether it was the championship slipping away that made him take the risk as he normally would, he said, “Obviously I am not trying to do something silly, when Im out there. As I said the gap was there, and there are not so many chances you get, when you are close. Being that close as well through Spoon, i was quiet sure it would be difficult to stay there, and try something on the back straight. So I was fairly openminded coming out of the hairpin, and the tow that was there was very powerful and the gap that was there was there as I said, as I was side by side. The problem was the moment he saw I was side by side, he opened the brakes tried to push, but I think thats wrong, because I don’t think he makes the corner either.”

Speaking of Verstappen at that moment he said “I think he just looks at me but I think he should keep an overview of the track. We should both make the corner in the first place and then see whose inside outside the track.” The contact did cost Verstappen later in the race, since he did have minor damage on his front wing and the floor of the car. When he wished to challenge Bottas for second place, he lacked the performance to do so.

For Vettel henceforth, it was a battle up the grid, and it until lap 31 he was nowhere close to a points finish. By the Ricciardo had surged up the grid and demote Raikkonen to fourth, via an effective pitstop strategy by his team. With his Finnish team-mate no where close to snatching a podium, the maximum he could have only swapped him for fifth by the end of the race. On the last race, the Ferrari German set the fastest lap record of 1minute 32.670 seconds, however his drive in sixth place was a lonely one, not even enough to catch up with his own team-mate who was running fifth.

In the mid-field, Racing Point Force India driver Sergio Perez had a strong seventh place finish, followed by Haas driver Romain Grosjean. The Mexican’s team-mate Esteban Ocon finished ninth and was followed by Renault driver Carlos Sainz in the final points scoring place of tenth.

When it comes to performance there have been many theories floating in the public domain as to whether, Ferraris drop in performance engine wise is related to the extra sensor added by FIA to monitor if they were cheating or not.

Earlier in the year, one of Mercedes’ bosses Niki Lauda had been vocal about the incident at Monaco, of the team trying to play with the twin batteries in their engine design. This weekend there was speculation in the paddock, about whether the engine sensor is the reason for the performance deficit. However Charlie Whiting in a briefing post the race, confirmed it wasn’t so.

On the sidelines of the drama at the front, there were a total of three retirements in the race, that of Charles Leclerc, Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen. The Haas driver had damage on his car, as a result of the contact at the beginning of the race. Leclerc who had a chance of a points finish, went off track onto the grass on Lap 38, and damaged his car enough for it to be retired. Hulkenberg on the other hand had a crash on the same lap and retired.

A result of the German Renault driver’s retirement has reflected in the Drivers’ championship in the mid-field where he comfortably occupied seventh place or the ‘best of the rest’ place. Now the 32 year old Renault driver is equalled in his total of 53 points tally by Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen.

The current result of the race has almost end chances of Vettel to fight for a title unless Hamilton has a retirement, which also has to be a race where he wins when Hamilton retires. Ideally if all goes well for the Briton, he should be wrapping the title by the US Grand Prix in Austin by the end of the month, and Mercedes should be able to wrap up the title in the Constructors’ by the Mexican GP on the following weekend.

The points tally in the drivers’ title has Hamilton leading the title with a total of 331 points, followed by Vettel who has a total of 264 points. Bottas moved up to third place in the title at Sochi, and has a total of 207 points. Raikkonen trails Bottas in fourth place with a total of 196 points.