In F1, the first person you have to beat is your team-mate. Andrew Davies’ Team-Mate Wars returns.
Star of the Race: Sebastian Vettel
Overtaking Move of the Race: Lap 21: Nico Hulkenberg around the outside of Valtteri Bottas
Season: Lewis Hamilton 9 – Nico Rosberg 8
Chances are that even if Lewis had got pole on Saturday he’d still have muffed the start. From the moment the lights went out and he slumped to 8th it was a determined recovery drive, aided by a Ferrari strategy that took both of the Scuderia’s cars out of the way at convenient moments. So in some respects, it was slightly fortuitous that he was able to catch Max Verstappen (or as Tom Clarkson likes to call him, Versh-tappen) before the end and have his own ‘chicane moment’*
Just as Lewis looked like he was about to throw his Mercedes up the inside of the Red Bull Racing car on Lap 52, Max disrespectfully jumped to the inside forcing Lewis to abort the move and head off down the escape road. Yes, it was a change of line under braking, yes it was a bit of a last minute dart, but Lewis hadn’t committed himself so thoroughly that he was forced to lock up in a cloud of brake smoke. Maybe if Max had done that a couple of times the stewards might have thought about writing an on-screen caption.
Afterwards, the likelihood of Christian Horner seeing anything wrong with the move was as likely as Donald Trump standing outside in South Carolina and letting the full force of Hurricane Mathew re-arrange that million-dollar combover. The late protest (not abetted by Hamilton) from Mercedes blew over.
As for Nico Rosberg, he showed a marathon runner’s canny judgement of pace to get the win with the least expenditure of stress on the equipment and left Suzuka with his big end bearing intact.
*Given that he likes to do everything that Ayrton did.
Season: Vettel 10 – Raikkonen 7
Vettel was Queen of Blue Flag moans this race, but he did it in such an eloquent way that it hardly seemed like moaning. At one time when being held up by a backmarker he used the phrase “Oh, for pity’s sake!” in exasperation, which Kate Nickleby uses in Dickens’ novel, Nicholas Nickleby. What a scholar.
His early move on Daniel Ricciardo was impressive and he really should have been on for yet another Suzuka podium to continue his fabulous run of visits there, but he was let down by what looked like a sub-optimal strategy call for the final stint.
Raikkonen’s undercut of Daniel Ricciardo for 5th place, however, was a great call and Maurizio can hardly be criticised for coming away with 4th and 5th from 6th and 8th on the grid.
Season: Ricciardo 8 – Verstappen 5
Thankfully there was no repeat of a ‘Budgie 9’ incident at Suzuka, no Ricciardo-inspired high jinx after the Japanese GP. Apart from the fact that it was brass monkeys in Suzuka, Dan was a long way off the pace demonstrated by his 19-year-old team-mate.
There can’t be too much wrong with that Renault power unit if the RBR can defend against a World Champion in a Mercedes who has DRS on the main straight. And just to back that up, when Sergio Perez had stopped for his first set of new tyres, he came up behind the yet-to-stop Jolyon Palmer’s Renault, closed on him going through Spoon corner and then tried to outdrag him to 130R – and failed.
Considering that around this time last year Red Bull were threatening to quit the sport because they couldn’t get a competitive engine, it makes you realise how much of an empty (or ill-judged) threat that was.
Season: Bottas 11 – Massa 6
Given that both cars failed to get into Q3 and that the performance between the medium and the hard tyres was curiously close, Williams took their option of starting the race on something more robust than the rest of the grid. Tied to the same strategy, they finished in the order they’d started.
Season: Button 6 – Alonso 10
With Honda’s topline management in attendance at Honda’s own racing circuit, and with no Japanese driver on the grid (Jenson Button being the closest thing to a national hero after his emotional Tsunami-year win with Jessica), this wasn’t a grand prix, this was a PR catastrophe. Black humour began to creep in. That sarcy diablo Fernando responded to a team message of “Push, push push now” with, “I wish. Which tyres I push now”. And he was obviously thinking of pushing with the extra-wide 2017 tyres.
Fernando managed to have some fun with Carlos Sainz, but the McLaren drivers’ greatest achievement at Suzuka was being lapped without being moaned about.
Season: Perez 8 – Hulkenberg 9
Nico Hulkenberg’s pass on Valtteri Bottas round the outside of the chicane on Lap 21 was the move of the race. It’s a pass that rarely comes off when cars are close, and all credit to Bottas, going into the chicane, he held his line.
Checo made his superior grid position count and came home in front of his team-mate, but not without the slighty miffed enquiry on team radio: “Why did you pit Nico early?”
Season: Sainz 10 – Kvyat 3
Despite a radio transmission from Daniil mid-race that sounded like an airline pilot’s Mayday call, he managed to finish in front of the very wayward Carlos Sainz. Sainz had his worst race to date and was clearly affected by being disrespected at the Thursday FIA press conference by having bunny ears pinned on him in a bit of gratuitous tweeting from someone in the front row.
Season: Gutierrez 5 – Grosjean 12
Sensational qualifying from the Haas cars. If Qualifying had been an athletics meeting then WADA would certainly have been notified. As it is, F1 is one of the most technically regulated and supervised sports on the planet (thank you Jo Bauer), so it was just a brilliant set up from the American team and their drivers. Not so good in the race, though.
Season: Palmer 7 – Magnussen 10
Palmer will have the satisfaction of beating his team-mate at the drivers’ circuit and of toughing it out round the outside of 130R with much older tyres than a Force India, but is it too little too late? When Jolyon has a reliable car all weekend he can beat his team-mate.
Season: Wehrlein 2 – Ocon 2
Incurring a lot of wrath this race – the boys didn’t have the experience around what is a tight track to move over at opportune moments.
Season: Nasr 7 – Ericsson 9
It’s never a great move to flatspot your tyres straight after a pitstop, especially when many at the back of the field are going for one-stoppers. Step forward Felipe Nasr
Arse of the Race Weekend: Lewis Hamilton
It really is staggeringly funny that there should be a row about a driver attaching ‘bunny ears’ to a photo he took in the Thursday press conference. If Lewis thinks they are tedious, he should go to the team bosses one.
Lewis is correct in that the format is boring. You have five drivers sitting around listening to the sixth driver answer some ill-constructed rambling question from the lesser media and some oddball local website. There must be a better way of doing it. In Suzuka when some journos got all uppity in print about Lewis not taking them seriously, Lewis put on his best indignant, po-faced sulk face and said he had been disrespected. That was so non-mellow, man.
The problem is… it’s difficult to take the serious moral high ground about the freedom to place bunny ears on photos of your colleagues without sounding like the biggest self-absorbed twat in the paddock. And trust me, in F1 there’s a lot of competition for that hat.
Hopefully by the end of the season he will look back and think, ‘I can’t believe I threw that one.’
Ben Edwards talking admiringly of the dedication of some Japanese fans: “We’ve even got hats with cars that have opening DRS flaps here this weekend, which is very impressive.”
Jack Nicholls on BBCR5: “Suzuka is a little bit in the middle of nowhere.”
David Coulthard: “The body language of Hamilton’s car looks like he’s not feeling very racy at the moment.”
Steve Jones: “Thank you very much Karun (Chandhok). He knows nothing of F1, he just looks a lot like Yoda.”