After Lewis Hamilton moved closer to securing his fifth world championship in Japan, we reflect on the main talking points to come out of Suzuka, which once again centre around Sebastian Vettel’s faltering championship campaign.
Our F1 editors Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders join columnists Kate Walker and Maurice Hamilton to discuss the standout topics.
What did you make of Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen’s clash at Suzuka? Was either driver to blame?
KW: I think it was a racing incident in which both were partly responsible. Sure, Seb was being a bit risky trying to take him around the inside of Spoon, especially with a championship at stake — a little more patience could have seen the Ferrari pass the Red Bull elsewhere and fight for the podium. … Max turned in when Seb had half a car length or more alongside him, which isn’t exactly cricket, but Max has been around long enough now that most of the other boys have learned not to play rough with him. Give him an inch and he’ll take a front wing endplate…
LE: I think it was a racing incident, but there’s no doubt that Vettel risked a lot by putting his car in that position. Without the benefit of hindsight, I think it was a risk worth taking as it’s rare you get a clear opportunity to pass Verstappen, and he needed to start attacking the Mercedes drivers as early as possible. But Max was still entitled to take the line he did, and sometimes collisions happen when you go wheel to wheel in 140 mph corners.
MH: The stewards said “racing incident,” and that’s about right. However, Vettel knew who he was dealing with — he’d just had a ringside seat at the chicane — and was unwise to put himself at risk with so much at stake. Although predictable, Verstappen also put himself at risk by continuing to take the racing line as if Vettel wasn’t there; the Red Bull could just as easily have been spun out or terminally damaged.
NS: That Senna quote is great as a one-liner but is actually not a very good mantra for someone clinging on to a championship by the skin of their teeth. A bit more patience is all Vettel needed, especially against a guy he knows isn’t that easy to pass wherever the attempt is made. Blame lies at Vettel’s doorstep; the move was never on.
What impact will the second half of 2018 have on Vettel’s legacy in F1?
KW: That rather depends on one’s belief in Vettel’s legacy and the extent of the role played by one Adrian Newey in said legend. For those who have long believed that a certain F1 recordbreaker benefited from four unstoppable cars and pit wall favouritism, and meanwhile suffered from a tendency to crumple under pressure and make silly mistakes, the second half of 2018 is simply confirmation of a long-held belief.
LE: This year will always be seen as a championship Vettel should have won. The best drivers in history don’t end up with many of those on their CV, but arguably Lewis Hamilton should have won in 2007 and in 2016. However, the true judgement of Vettel should be based on how he comes back from this setback next year.
MH: It’s done a lot of damage already. Drivers make mistakes; it happens. But Vettel has made so many basic errors this year that it’s bound to have an impact on any overall assessment of his standing in the F1 driver hierarchy. When he’s at one with the car, and out front, he’s unbeatable — as in the Red Bull era. But the pressure of driving for Ferrari, dealing with their management inadequacies and being put under the cosh by Hamilton is having a disastrous effect. Not many drivers could cope with that — but Vettel is not handling it well.
NS: It certainly hasn’t enhanced his reputation. It doesn’t help that, since his run of four straight championships, he’s been outperformed by Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull in 2014, had incidents in Baku and Singapore in 2017, and has now blown a championship that should have been his. The memory is skewed in favour of more recent events, and Vettel will need to win a fifth championship to end those lingering whispers that his success was solely down to the Red Bull he was driving at the start of the decade.
Is criticism of Kevin Magnussen fair after his incident with Charles Leclerc early in the Japanese Grand Prix?
KW: To be honest, I can’t even remember the incident. Maybe? Maybe not? No opinion either way here, m’lud — I’m pleading ignorance and forgetfulness.
LE: When the stewards don’t intervene in an accident like that, you know there’s probably more than initially met the eye. From Leclerc’s on-board camera, it looks like Magnussen blocked him and caused the collision. However, the stewards found that both drivers made the move within a fraction of a second, and it was just an unfortunate coincidence that they ended up on the same piece of track at the same time.
MH: I don’t know why — because he’s quick and producing some impressive performances — but Magnussen has been doing himself no favours with some of his tactics. But each incident needs to be taken in isolation. From where I was sitting, he’d made a late move, which is unacceptable. The stewards, however, see it from every angle and decided against a penalty. Whether you agree or disagree, that has to be the end of the discussion — over this incident.
NS: I’ll side with the stewards on this one. It’s never right or fair to judge an incident on one camera angle, and the stewards have access to everything.
Honda’s upgraded power unit showed encouraging signs in Suzuka. Can the Japanese manufacturer edge in front of Renault for 2019?
KW: I’d like to think so, if only because Honda had such a rough time of it at the hands of McLaren that it would be great to see them being one of the big improvers. But both Renault and Honda are big budget efforts to realign major OEMs with their racing roots, and both projects are staffed with all manner of capable and passionate racers. We’re not really looking at David and Goliath, but at two corporate giants facing down over a dyno.
LE: I think the Suzuka upgrade has already put Honda ahead in terms of outright power, even if it still needs some tuning in race trim and has yet to prove its reliability. Renault made a step with their Spec 3 engine, but as we saw with Verstappen in Singapore, it wasn’t without its problems. Given Honda’s budget and the progress it has made at recent races, I suspect it will have the edge on Renault at the start of 2019.
MH: Renault may be restructuring impressively enough to tempt Daniel Ricciardo, but the old hands at Enstone and Viry will know enough about the power (in every sense) of Honda once the Japanese firm’s racing department gets on a roll. And that finally seems to be happening. The combination of that power unit and an Adrian Newey creation has to be a concern for everyone, not just Renault.
NS: The future is finally looking very good for Honda at a time when things appear to be going backwards a bit for Renault. Honda will be invigorated by Red Bull next year, a team probably as fired up to beat Renault as it is to win another championship, so I can see the Japanese manufacturer being third in the pecking order next year.
There’s a great championship forming for ‘best of the rest’ honours in both championships. Who are you backing to win those?
KW: Force India for constructors, because they’re the little engines that could of F1, and they have been for years. Force India tend to impress on the technical and engineering fronts because of their limited resources, and I’m worried that future cash injections will change the team’s approach for the worse as they won’t know what to do with themselves. One more “best of the rest” for them please. As for drivers, has anyone been more impressive than Charles Leclerc?
LE: He is currently four points off his teammate Sergio Perez, but I’m putting my money on Esteban Ocon to finish seventh in the standings. He’s a real fighter and has four races left to prove what a big mistake it is to leave him off the F1 grid in 2019. As for the constructors’, I’m backing Haas. Renault seems to be fading slightly, but the Haas has the potential to get one a major points haul between now and Abu Dhabi.
MH: The way Force India has bounced back from points reset caused by the change of ownership has been mighty impressive. But with just four races remaining, there’s probably not enough time to do anything about Renault and Haas. The outcome now will depend on how much each team devotes to improving the current car while working on 2019. On that basis, Renault probably has the edge. As for the drivers, what a fantastic fight! I can see Ocon edging it.
NS: I’m going to buck the trend and say Kevin Magnussen. His form is not quite where it was at the start of the year, but (when he’s avoided controversy) he’s been great for much of this year. I’ll stick with Haas for the constructors’ championship, too, especially if it gets the points back from Romain Grosjean’s disqualification in Monza. If it doesn’t, it will be tight, but Renault appears to be hitting a slump at the worst moment, while the American team always seems to have at least one of its drivers in great form every weekend.