I must start with a confession…I did not see the race live. I slept through it and instead decided to stay up until 4am playing Super Mario Run!
Lewis Hamilton took pole for the race, for the first time at the Suzuka track. This race has provided a lot of title deciding drama throughout the years, including Schumacher winning his first world title for Ferrari and Prost being taken out on the first lap by Senna. Unfortunately, tragedy struck here in 2014, when Jules Bianchi was fatally injured in a crash in appalling conditions which should have seen the race stopped.
There were 5 place grid penalties for Raikkonen and Bottas for gear box changes, 20 places for Palmer and Sainz and a 35-place penalty for Alonso for changing various parts of their power units.
After qualifying, Renault announced that this would be Palmer’s final race for the team, as he was going to be replaced by Carlos Sainz and has agreed to leave the team by mutual consent. Toro Rosso are going to bring back Danil Kvyat to partner Pierre Gasly.
The race got under way with Hamilton claiming the lead from Vettel, while Verstappen jumped Ricciardo, and Sainz parked his Toro Rosso in the gravel. That brought the first retirement in the race, and the first in three years, as the previous two races here haven’t seen a single retirement. I know that this is Sainz’ last race for Toro Rosso, but it was supposed to be 53 laps, not three corners!
Nico Hulkenberg pushed Raikkonen wide, which dropped the Ferrari down to 14th place – it was going to be another long afternoon for the Ferrari fans!
Verstappen passed Vettel who appeared to be struggling with a lack of power, which certainly wasn’t good for either this race, or the championship battle. The following lap he was passed by the other Red Bull, Bottas and Ocon and was now down in 6th place, when the safety car came out to clear up Sainz mess.
Vettel was fine while behind the safety car and if Ferrari had any sense they would bribe the stewards to keep it out for the entire race, because as soon as it came in at the end of lap 3 he was swallowed up by Sergio Perez. Vettel was all over the road, desperately trying to keep the Force India ahead of him, when he was told over the radio to “box and retire the car”. And this weekend, just like how Malaysia and Singapore started off with so much promise turned into another disaster for the Italian team.
Lap 8, and there were yellow flags in sector 2 as Ericsson had crashed out, forcing the virtual safety car to be deployed. Ericsson was now the only full-time driver who has not managed to score a point this season and like Palmer, is in danger of not having a ride for next season.
The virtual safety car ended on lap ten, with Ricciardo and Bottas both right on the tail of Ocon. Ricciardo swept around the outside of the Force India into turn one, while Bottas breezed past him down the pit straight a lap later. It is all too easy for the Renault and Mercedes powered cars to breeze past their rivals, and is not a good advert for DRS, or the sport.
Kimi Raikkonen was fighting his way back up through the field, and got passed by Massa for 7th place at the end of lap 14.
Adverts? This will teach me for sleeping through the live coverage!
Raikkonen passed Perez for 6th, putting a car in between Perez and Ocon, much to the relief of the Force India team boss and the mechanics tasked with fixing their cars!
Lap 21 and not much was happening. Hamilton had a 5.1 second lead, and Ocon pitted, moving Raikkonen up to 5th. A slightly slow stop for Ocon left him behind Alonso, but with a much faster car and fresher tyres getting back past him is like taking candy from a Swampy.
Verstappen and Hamilton both pitted one lap after each other. Verstappen was making significant gains during the pitstops, as Hamilton was stuck behind Bottas who was on soft tyres, and had not pitted yet.
Sky F1 interviewed Sebastian Vettel, who claimed “We got further than people thought we would”, which is odd, as I thought he would do a few more laps than 5 – after all that is a Ferrari he is racing and not a Honda. Maybe that’s why the Ferrari has been so unreliable? Hamilton has switched the power units in the two cars…? Come on, it is not the worst conspiracy theory you have heard this week, right?
Force India update: Perez was right behind Ocon.
Ricciardo pitted with Bottas in the lead and starting to back Hamilton into Verstappen – not very smart tactics from Mercedes! Verstappen closed to within a second of Hamilton, before Hamilton jumped on the team radio and demanded that Bottas either pit or let him through. Bottas slipped inbetween Hamilton and Verstappen, and proceeded to hold up Max. See, now that’s a much better tactic!
Kimi Raikkonen pitted and came back out in 5th place, in front of the Force Indias.
Force India watch: Gap was now 0.921 seconds and Perez asked the team “can I attack Ocon now?” only to be met with a resounding “NO”! Even if the drivers are unwilling to learn, at least the team have taken notice!
Bottas finally pitted and lost time to Ricciardo, while playing the team game and holding up Verstappen. He came back out in 4th place with a ten second gap to make up to Ricciardo if he wanted to be on the podium.
Nico Hulkenberg pitted, but was forced back in a lap later as his DRS was stuck open. His team briefly tried the Hamilton method of fixing it (his head rest in Azerbaijan), by hitting as hard as they could but it didn’t work, and Hulkenberg was forced to retire from the race.
Lap 42 and Felipe Massa was really struggling for grip, and was being pressured by both Haas cars, with Magnussen right behind him and Grosjean right behind Magnussen. Magnussen squeezed past him, making slight contact only for Grosjean to sneak through too while no one was watching! It was a brilliantly opportunistic move from Grosjean though.
Force India watch: gap 1.697s on the end of lap 43.
Lance Stroll was forced to retire with a front right puncture, his first retirement in 13 races. This brought out the virtual safety car for the second time.
Force India watch, Perez: What the **** is Ocon doing? Gap down to 0.910. I am no expert, but I would say racing a Formula One Car around Suzuka, Sergio. Might be wrong though, he could be doing his taxes.
There was a battle brewing between Massa and Alonso for the final point, one for the lead between Verstappen and Hamilton and Ricciardo and Bottas for third place. The battle for the lead intensified when Alonso held up Hamilton so badly, he was going to be investigated for ignoring blue flags.
The race ended with Hamilton taking all 25 points and moving to within the possibility of winning the title in Texas in 2 weeks’ time. Verstappen second, Ricciardo third, Bottas fourth, Raikkonen fifth, Ocon sixth, Perez seventh, Magnussen eighth, Grosjean ninth and Massa took the final point in tenth.
Drive of the day, fan Vote: Max Verstappen
Drive of the Day, Fiona’s Vote: Again, this one is as tough as Malaysia was last week but for the wrong reasons. A boring race with no stand out performances, Raikkonen did a good job to fight back from 14th at the end of the first lap, Verstappen did a good job, but he should have done better, Hamilton was really struggling at points during that race and he was in the DRS zone, but didn’t once get close enough to make it a real fight. So, I used a random number generator and it picked Valtteri Bottas, congratulations Valtteri!
Conclusions from Suzuka:
- The Force Indias can go 4 races without hitting each other, and can even obey team orders.
- Hitting various parts of a Formula One car does not fix them! That method doesn’t work on headrests, or rear wings.
- Ferrari need to get this reliability issue sorted, and quickly before it is too late!
- Good luck at Renault for the rest of the season Carlos, and don’t worry Jolyon. I think my local bus company is hiring!
- Fernando Alonso deserved both the reprimand and the two points on his licence, his driving today was not even rookie standard, let alone the behaviour expected of a former double world champion!
I believe that is everything, I will see you in two weeks for Texas!
Edit: Both Fiona and all of us at Full Throttle Motorsport would like to pass on our best wishes to Sahara Force India, who announced after the race that their night security guard Robert had passed away while on duty at the Japanese Grand Prix. He was an integral part of the Force India team and our thoughts are with the team, his family and friends.