Sunday, 9 October 2016

Japanese GP Report - Everything's coming up Rosberg

It is our contradictions that make us interesting. Even as rational beings we often rely on explanations that have no more basis than hocus pocus. Even in F1, that most empirical of activities.

Nico Rosberg triumphed yet again
Photo: Octane Photography
But we can understand why, particularly after a weekend such as this for the Japanese Grand Prix. When things are going your way, they go your way. Somehow. And it continued that way when it mattered for our most unlikely of world championship interlopers called Nico Rosberg.

The rounds tick down; he remains on top. Things continue to go his way. Somehow.

But it would be wrong to suggest this one owed at all to fortune. Nico's was not a race but a weekend dominated in the finest style. Almost from a wheel being turned at the start of Friday practice he appeared on another level. Every session he topped. And all this with the drivers' championship pressure cranked up to 11. Not for the first time you suspect long-held assumptions about him are being recalibrated. His more entrenched critics will point out no doubt that ho hum Nico in his one trick won from the front. Maybe so (albeit it's a harsh criticism), but as Martin Brundle pointed out a few rounds back, he keeps getting to the front.

The racing further down was exciting and intense, demonstrating again that if you give drivers a proper race track they'll give you a proper race. For the race win though there was no suspense. Not after turn 1 anyway.

Unlike 12 months ago at this venue Nico surmounted this one foreseeable barrier to his victory. His launch was a fine one to retain his lead, and even better his Mercedes team mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton yet again got a stinker, bogging down hopelessly. Once the Englishman had sorted it all out he was eighth. As we see repeatedly in modern F1 the day already was framed.

As is often the case much hinged on the start.
Nico led, Lewis was swamped.
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico almost literally wasn't seen again until the chequered flag, as even the FOM TV director seemed to decide that this one was a foregone conclusion. His advantage was never gaping - indeed it was less than five seconds at the end and rarely was greater than that. But it may as well have been.

"It really worked out well" said Rosberg afterwards of his weekend, summing things up succinctly.

"And I felt comfortable. From the first lap out there on Friday I could push and I felt at ease with the car. And I've always liked the track, it really suits me. One of those legendary, pretty intense tracks."

As for this continuing apparently new model Rosberg? "For me nothing's really changing," he insisted, going against popular impression. "I'm feeling good, yeah, it's been a great weekend."

And of course there is the championship consideration. There is many a slip between cup and lip of course, especially in this game. But it cannot be denied that the drivers' title is now there for Nico. With 100 points available his advantage is 33. Only unreliability or an implosion surely can stop him.

Niki Lauda as ever cut to essentials. "Nico is doing everything right at the moment" he stated. "If everything is going normal Lewis won't be able to catch Nico anymore. This is perfectly clear to me."

Nico Rosberg dominated from the front, as he had all weekend
Photo: Octane Photogra
Nico was more cautious than Niki though. "Of course Lewis is still my team mate" he added, "so I always need to reckon with him at all times. He's always a fighter. It's been a good battle, it's going to continue to be."

But he finished with understated flourish. "My approach is working quite well." Indeed it is.

As for the constructors' title, that now officially is all Merc's for the third year on the spin. That was even more of a foregone conclusion.

For Lewis it was a trying weekend on and off the track. And in that most familiar of knee jerks we hear the armchair psychology - that Lewis has 'taken his eye off the ball', 'mentally checked out' etc etc... But the explanations likely are more mundane. A number said in advance that this is Lewis country, but as noted it was rather a myth. We knew that Nico had taken the previous two Suzuka poles and Lewis by his own admission had often struggled for set-up here. That's almost precisely what we got. As for the start, well Lewis has been struggling all season with those. He got defended by the unlikely source of his team mate too, who said after the race, "I see backstage, and Lewis is as focussed as ever this weekend. Putting in those long hours, working..."

After overnight rain Lewis's side of the track was particularly damp for the launch, and apparently his slot was more damp than most. To his credit though he didn't seek to use this as an excuse.

"I don't think the damp patch had anything to do with it," he said. "I made a mistake...I just got wheelspin." His boss Toto Wolff though spoke later of a clutch problem.

The two Merc pilots had contrasting demeanours
Photo: Octane Photography
And after his start boo-boo Lewis's race was excellent. He recovered to third place on this track that's far from the easiest to pass on, and oh-so nearly rescued the Merc one-two, and was only denied by Max Verstappen's personal brand of defence on the penultimate lap. He also as F1 stats guru Sean Kelly pointed out was 19.8 seconds behind Rosberg at one stage yet just 5.7 seconds behind at the end (and made a similar gain on Verstappen). He did this too without safety cars or anything else like that to assist him. 

Whatever though the upshot of this weekend is that to get his third title in a row he now needs snookers.

Lewis was aided by that on the hard tyre - used for most of the race today - the Merc's advantage is especially great, plus that at both stops the team's strategy was razor sharp. In the first round he somehow vaulted two cars (Kimi Raikkonen's and Sergio Perez's) by pitting later, then vaulted Daniel Ricciardo quickly as well. The second time around it was the classic undercut on Sebastian Vettel, from around 3.6 seconds behind, ordinarily just outside of undercut range. And Lewis was racy and determined throughout, while his out lap sectors to get ahead of Seb were superb.

"Working my way up from there [P8], it was tricky" Lewis mused later. "But I did the best I could. The middle stint the car felt good, generally the car felt great. I fought hard at the end but just didn't make it."

Verstappen spent just about the whole race pedalling intensely and doing his best to keep Rosberg honest from second place. As for the late (in every sense) move defending against Lewis, as ever Max trod the line but this time it was probably just about fair (though Merc's since protested it). As the man himself noted "I'm not going to open the door and say 'here you go'". It could be his calling card.

Max Verstappen did his best to keep Rosberg honest
Photo: Octane Photography
As for the race more generally, "Lewis was 1.5 seconds [a lap] faster at one point" said Max, "and as soon as he arrived behind me he got stuck. And I never had that kind of pace compared to Nico, so I don't think I could do anything [about beating him]."

He was glad to beat the Ferraris though. "We were helped a little bit with their penalties this weekend, because they were very strong in qualifying. But we took it, and we maximised it in the race. They had a try, but they couldn't make it and we're happy for that."

His team mate Ricciardo struggled however in traffic and with as noted an engine that appeared oddly gutless this weekend (one of his stops was tardy too thanks to a sticking right front wheel, and he was another to suffer from starting on the damp side of the grid). Sixth was his lot, near enough half a minute behind his team mate.

"We couldn't really follow the cars that well with the dirty air" said the Australian later, "and we didn't have the straightline speed to make an attack...That was pretty much that, we sort of fell behind the eight ball...I didn't feel there was anything else we could do, it was just a bit of circumstances...".

His boss Christian Horner too, in an old chestnut, spoke of problems with the fuel flow meter.

Ferrari meanwhile did its best to salvage things on race day, which in keeping with its bittersweet season got a little harder in advance as Kimi got a five place grid drop for a gearbox change, which lost him his hard won third place starting slot. Vettel got up to third early and fought from there, though as outlined lost a place to Lewis in the final stops. It, perhaps astonishingly, was his first Grand Prix at Suzuka at which he didn't finish on the podium. Kimi did what he could to end up a place lower in fifth.

The Force Indias showed up well again
Photo: Octane Photography
As always seems to be the case those with Merc power showed up well here, and the Force Indias filled the next two slots home, not far apart, with Perez ahead in P7. Williams meanwhile spent some of the day doing convincing mobile chicane impressions on their one-stop strategies, but the very same tortoise strategies at least got them a double score in ninth and tenth. Felipe Massa, who described the approach as "our only chance to score points", ended up ahead of Valtteri Bottas.

McLaren's day was miserable at Honda's home round, with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button ending up lapped and P16 and P18 respectively, in the modest company of Saubers and Toro Rossos. For the second year in a row there were no DNFs in a Suzuka race. Button described his own race as "horrific".

Rosberg had another adjective for his Suzuka experience. "Straightforward" is how he summed it up with his engineer before heading out to the podium. And it looked that way. But we shouldn't be fooled. What Nico Rosberg is doing right now is rather extraordinary. And he keeps doing it.

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