Conclusions from the Japanese Grand Prix

Date published: October 9 2017

To finish first, first you have to finish may be an age old cliche but it couldn’t be more apt than in Sunday’s Japanese GP.

To finish first, first you have to finish
In the 35 races from the start of the 2016 season in Australia all the way through to this season’s Singapore Grand Prix, Ferrari suffered two retirements owing to mechanical problems (Can you remember which races? See below for answers). To underscore the Scuderia’s recent reliability woes, the team has endured as many failures in the past two races that have resulted in no points. Add a third issue – which ruined Sebastian Vettel’s qualifying in Malaysia – drives home the point that Ferrari have a problem with quality control.

Team boss Sergio Marchionne has already said new procedures will be put into place to avert future problems, but for Vettel these failures have cost him a shot at winning the title.

Ferrari have made a tremendous leap forward in 2017 and in a bid to maintain their title challenge have most likely pushed their systems and development to the limit. The SF70H is an excellent car, but it is, on balance, not as quick as the Mercedes. To have stood a chance of beating Lewis Hamilton the prancing horse needed nothing less than bulletproof reliability.

1, 2, 3 ,4 for Hamilton
With a 59-point lead and four races to go, it will take a series of catastrophes hitherto unknown in F1 for Hamilton to lose the title from here. The Brit felt that he should’ve beaten Nico Rosberg to the 2016 crown and his campaign has been a stinging riposte to the disappointment of last year (despite the occasional off day, as in Russia, for example).

This season’s battle with Vettel and Ferrari has lacked the intensity of the intra-Mercedes strife against Rosberg, but it has had its moments; most notably the bumper cars incident in Baku in which Vettel swiped the side of Hamilton’s car behind the safety car. Going into the summer break, Hamilton was 14 points adrift of the Ferrari man in the standings.

Yet Mercedes have persisted with their “difficult” 2017 challenger and Hamilton has delivered when it matters most to overturn the deficit and stretch it. Hamilton, this season, also claimed the all-time record for most pole positions and has now won 61 races – ten more than Alain Prost and 20 more than Ayrton Senna. In many ways winning the 2017 title will be the sweetest of all for Hamilton, who is on course to equal Prost and Vettel’s four Championships. And he should savour it: a resurgent Red Bull and stronger Ferrari will be nipping at his heels in 2018.

Does Asia offer guidance on what to expect next year?
Max Verstappen followed up his brilliant victory in Sepang with second at Suzuka, while team-mate Daniel Ricciardo has bagged three consecutive podiums in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

It has, to a large extent, been a season of two halves for the men from Milton Keynes. Reliability problems and a lack of pace relative to Mercedes and Ferrari severely compromised the first half of the year, but a change in development direction – returning to the high downforce, high rake approach that underpinned the titles successes from the early-season low downforce configuration – has allowed Verstappen and Ricciardo to prosper.

Red Bull said after Verstappen’s win in Malaysia that they had the pace to beat Ferrari, which was considered the car to beat until Vettel’s qualifying was compromised. On recent form it’s hard to dispute that line of thinking. Verstappen, meanwhile, has called on Red Bull to learn from the mistakes of recent seasons and start the season with more momentum so they don’t have to play catch-up as the year goes on. Red Bull will be contenders if they manage to do that, because as they have proved repeatedly, few teams can match their pace of development after the summer holidays.

Other observations
Fernando Alonso is too good a driver to be a backmarker but even a two-time Champion must respect the rules. Yet in both Malaysia and Japan the Spanish star flagrantly failed to move out of the way of leading cars, ultimately robbing fans of potential wheel-to-wheel action.

Both Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne ended Honda’s home race a lap behind the leaders and out of the points. Given the embarrassments that McLaren and the Japanese manufacturer have suffered in recent years this doesn’t even feel that bad.

Esteban Ocon, who set a podium as his goal for 2017, ran as high as third in the opening stages of the Japanese Grand Prix. The young Force India star beat team-mate Sergio Perez to the line in Japan and although the podium may be out of reach this year, he has further underlined his potential.

Carlos Sainz bid adios to Toro Rosso with an ignominious trip into the barriers at Suzuka. Another to bid farewell to his team, though under slightly darker circumstances, is Jolyon Palmer. Sainz will replace Palmer at Renault in Austin after the Brit’s relationship with the French team soured over his inability to score points.

Pierre Gasly has done a solid job at Toro Rosso in Malaysia and Japan after replacing Daniil Kvyat. However, the crash-prone Russian, AKA ‘The Torpedo’, will return to the cockpit for Toro Rosso in the US to take Sainz’s seat.

Remarkably, Toro Rosso might have another driver in the car alongside Kvyat as Gasly is expected to miss Austin to take part in the Super Formula title decider, which he will hope to win.

The answer to the Ferrari reliability quiz
Before the disasters Malaysia and Japan, the two mechanical problems that have forced Ferraris into retirement in 2016 and 2017 both affected Kimi Raikkonen.

At the 2016 opener in Melbourne Kimi Raikkonen had to retire due to a turbo issue, while an oil leak forced the Finn out of the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Richard F Rose

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