Sunday 8 October 2017

Japanese GP Report - When things run away from you

It was deja vu all over again. Literally. In the Japanese Grand Prix for the third race in a row Ferrari was compromised from the first beat. For the third race in a row (in fact more than that) Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes made a major points gain. And now we're in the endgame.

No wonder he's smiling - in Suzuka Lewis Hamilton
all but wrapped up his fourth drivers' title
Photo: Octane Photography
This time it was a spark plug problem for Sebastian Vettel. Just as with Kimi Raikkonen in Malaysia, the Ferrari mechanics were frantic on the grid around Seb's car. Such reliability niggles are becoming a habit.

Unlike Kimi in Sepang Seb got going but the extent of his problem soon was evident. Max Verstappen ambushed him for P2 at the hairpin first time through, then Esteban Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas all swamped him on the pit straight next time past.

Quickly he was pulled in to retire, and Vettel later spoke like a man who knew the championship was gone.

"I think I need to protect them," he said of his team. "We've done an incredible job this year, it's like that sometimes.

"We'll go flat out for the next four races and see what happens. Obviously it's not as much in our control as we would like. But overall I think the team is on a good way. I think we've gone a lot further than people thought."

Yet it took an observing Nico Rosberg to point out it's not a case of bad luck. The onus is on the team to get reliability right. Some have noted it's possible evidence of the Scuderia in an intense title fight seeking to squeeze more out of its power unit than is there.

Vettel is swamped by opponents
Photo: Octane Photography
It all left something else with a pang of recent familiarity, that Lewis Hamilton for much of the way cruised in first place. Verstappen did his formidable best behind but Lewis had him under control for the most part, with an advantage that hovered around three seconds.

We did get late tension though - Lewis complained of tyre vibrations after a late Virtual Safety Car period. Max, despite a tyre blister, got with him at breakneck speed in the final laps and for a time it looked a slam dunk for him. But overtaking is tough here and in any case Felipe Massa getting between him and Lewis on the final lap put paid to any Max attack.

"Max drove an outstanding race and honestly it wasn't an easy one for us at all," said Hamilton.

"The Red Bulls just seem to be rapid in the race trim. Obviously we're quick in qualifying but it got very close at the end with the VSC and the restart. The tyres were cold and had a bit of traffic and he caught right up, so it was very close."

Max meanwhile was sanguine: "We had good pace, it's just really hard to pass. The last two, three laps I gave it my all to try to close the gap," he said.

"The car is improving race by race so I'm really happy with that.

"The first stint, on the supersoft, I was struggling with the left-front, but as soon as we switched to the soft tyre it was very competitive."

Max Verstappen challenged Hamilton late
Photo: Octane Photography
He didn't blame the traffic for missing out on the win either, noting that it was what got him close in the first place.

Lewis's title lead is now 59 - he might even wrap things up properly in the next round, in Austin. A track he's won at four times in five. Mercedes almost certainly will claim the constructors' crown there. How quickly things can run away from you.

"Geez," Lewis said of his points advantage. "Honestly I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap, but I have to put it down to my team. Reliability has really been on point, they're just so meticulous."

Merc boss Toto Wolff too spoke of the deed being almost done. "That's a huge one," he said of today's gain, "the misfortune of Ferrari is unbelievable."

Both driver and team boss refused to say explicitly that it was as good as done, but it sounded like just the usual drill.

Daniel Ricciardo completed the podium, with his day framed at turn 1. Max got the high ground on him and Ocon nipped by too while he sorted himself out. He got past the Force India on lap 10 but by then was nearly nine seconds off the lead and there was little chance of progress. He held off a hard charging Bottas at the end in a mirror image of what happened at the front.

Kimi Raikkonen gave Ferrari meagre
consolation with his progress
Photo: Octane Photography
Ferrari had the meagre consolation of watching Kimi's climb through the field. From an already lowly starting slot he sank to P14 after running off on lap 1. From there his gains were smooth to finish P5.

Also familiar is that the Force Indias were next home, Ocon ahead. And in another deja vu all over again aspect, Sergio Perez grumbled about his team mate on the radio (this time about his pace).

The Haas pair were next with Kevin Magnussen ahead, and the afore-mentioned Massa completed the scorers, holding off his old friend/foe Fernando Alonso.

Thus a fiery title fight is all but snuffed out. Even another of Yogi Berra's famous lines, "it ain't over till it's over," in these circumstances has a hollow ring. But that's not to take anything from Lewis nor indeed Mercedes, who have both been mighty when the pressure really was on. Everything is explainable in the end. And perhaps especially any deja vu all over again.

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