Japanese Grand Prix success for Lewis Hamilton.
After taking the lead into the first corner of the first lap, Hamilton stormed from the field to take a comfortable Japanese Grand Prix victory. But while he lapped all but the point scorers, those lapped cars ensured the action continued until the chequered flag at a race where Alonso’s frustrations of Honda boiled over.
After rain washed out Friday’s running, the drivers went into Saturday needing to recover their programmes and gather the data for the race. That one dry practice session, topped by Rosberg, led swiftly into qualifying where once again Nico was on top. But the battle for pole was brought to an abrupt end after Daniil Kvyat dropped a wheel onto the grass and fishtailed into a huge crash that wrote off his car, causing him to start the race with a newly built Bull in the pit lane.
When the race began and Kvyat waited in the pit lane, the other Bull was limping back to the pit lane with a puncture. Ricciardo was in fact one of three drivers to get a puncture before anyone had even made it into turn one as Felipe tried to cover the charging Red Bull off the line, but his move came too late and Ricciardo was already alongside the Brazilian. Unfortunately for both as Massa crept to the side, his front wing and front right tyre made contact with the rear left tyre of Ricciardo giving them both instant punctures.
With Massa carrying a punctured front right tyre into the braking zone for turn one, Perez found himself squeezed to the inside and bumped into Carlos Sainz. The contact was enough to puncture Perez’s tyre and force him off the track for a trip through the gravel while Hamilton was charging off with the lead.
As Mercedes locked out the front row, they found themselves out of the danger zone the others were creating into turn one. But with a worse start than Hamilton, Rosberg found his pole race lead disappear after the second clutch drop launch allowed Lewis to take the inside line into turn one and run Rosberg to the edge of the track and back into fourth.
After the anomaly of a poor run in Singapore causing Mercedes to be off the pace, things were back to normal for Lewis over the early laps as he pulled away from Vettel, who in turn was pulling away from Bottas and Rosberg. Nico however could not attack the track like Hamilton in order to create a chance to move back into third as his engine was heating up far more than the team liked, causing him to calm his attack.
But while Mercedes were asking Rosberg to calm his attack, Jenson had no attack to give in a slow McLaren-Honda at Honda’s own track as Jenson became swamped at turn one by Nasr and Verstappen as he ran out of power before end of the pit straight. Verstappen had tucked himself under the rear wing of the Sauber under DRS, but Nasr braked later into the first turn in order to go around outside of Button, while Max dove down the inside as both made easy work of the 2009 Formula One World Champ.
In the other McLaren, Fernando Alonso was also suffering with the long pit straight teeing up other drivers to attack the McLaren with ease. Alonso even took to team radio to devolve his displeasure: “It is like driving on ice. They pass me on the straights like GP2. It is embarrassing, very embarrassing. I do my best…”
By lap nine, a lot of drivers had already ruined their rear medium tyres as the track conditions were not suiting the option tyres for long stints. These pit stops came a lot sooner than most were anticipating, with strategy suiting a two stop race with the first stop coming later than one fifth distance.
For the opening stop, Williams opted to pit Bottas first before Rosberg could attempt the undercut. But while they put him onto the mediums once more, Mercedes changed the compound on Rosberg’s car to put him on the more durable hard compound tyres, allowing him to attack Bottas into damaging his tyres sooner than Williams would have liked. This however did not come as Rosberg darted down the inside at the chicane as Bottas left it too late to cover the overtake, allowing the German into third.
Somehow given how slow the McLaren appeared on the first stint, Alonso was able to stay in the final point scoring position for lap after lap despite a relentless challenge from Verstappen after the first round of pit stops. Most of the reason why Fernando was keeping the youngster behind was Alonso’s ability to take 130R nearly flat out before Verstappen lit up the rears on the exit of the chicane, allowing Alonso to recreate his gap.
Eventually however the inevitable happened and Verstappen sailed down the side of Alonso under DRS and sending McLaren out of the points, much to the displeasure of Alonso. Honda will also have strong displeasure for Alonso after the two-time world champion barked over the radio “GP2 engine. Typical GP2 engine. Aargh!” after Verstappen overtook him around the outside.
In the second pit stop stage, Raikkonen managed to get the jump on Bottas to move into fourth place with the undercut working well for Kimi. In a flip, Mercedes told Rosberg to do the opposite of Vettel who stayed out with Nico pitting first. Now the undercut worked against Ferrari as Rosberg powered down the pit straight as Vettel left his box, moving Rosberg back into the top two.
As Hamilton set about lapping the last non-point scoring runners, he found himself amongst a four car battle for position behind Ericsson, Button, Perez and Kvyat. Unfortunately for Hamilton’s former team-mate, Button was the only man to lose out to the blue flags as Perez moved ahead of the McLaren. Kvyat soon also made his way ahead of the McLaren through 130R despite the newly rebuilt Red Bull suffering from recurring issues throughout the race that restricted him from using the overtaking setting and the brakes kept fading.
While both Bull’s were out of the points, the sister team had both cars in the points. Even if the Toro Rosso’s were in the final two point scoring positions, it did not stop Verstappen from attacking his team-mate. And it was clear he was the faster one between himself and Sainz as he reeled him in with every lap before taking Sainz at the chicane and instantly pulling away from him.
After a relentless attack from Perez, he was finally able to pick off Ericsson for 12th with a couple of laps to go. But for Ericsson, keeping 12th for so long came to nothing as blue flags caused him to compromise his line into the chicane for Raikkonen, allowing Kvyat to move ahead and push the Sauber into 14th.
Unfortunately for the other Sauber driver, Nasr became the first man to retire from the race on the penultimate lap as it appeared the Japanese Grand Prix was going to host the first race of the year without a retirement.
But out in front, Hamilton was taking a comfortable win after lapping the first of the point scorers in Carlos Sainz. Hamilton’s win today means he also equals the win tally of his hero, Ayrton Senna, but in one more race start than the Brazilian.
While Hamilton stretched his championship lead again after Rosberg and Vettel clawed points back in Singapore, Rosberg finishing second today made it the eighth one-two Mercedes finish of the year.
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