Hamilton closes on a fourth title in Japan as Ferrari stumble again

Just a week after the Malaysian Grand Prix the Formula 1 circus moved on to the mighty Suzuka circuit in Japan last weekend for the 16th race in this year’s thrilling season. The classic figure of eight track is a real challenge for drivers and they just love it if their car handles well enough and has sufficient power. After races in Singapore and Malaysia which rather unexpectedly went the way of Mercedes due to various Ferrari issues Lewis Hamilton arrived at Suzuka with a 34 point lead in the Drivers’ Championship over his main rival Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. How the Ferrari autumn nightmare was to go from bad to worse at the Japanese venue as Vettel was forced to retire soon after the start of the Grand Prix, leaving Hamilton to pick up another victory and maximum points.

IMG_1933In initial practice Vettel had outpaced Hamilton and the second practice session proved fairly meaningless due to heavy rain, with only five of the 20 drivers setting a time. Mercedes then dominated the final practice session with Valtteri Bottas quickest ahead of Hamilton, Vettel and Max Verstappen, fresh from winning the previous race.

The qualifying hour was all about Hamilton, who was simply untouchable as he claimed his first ever pole position at Suzuka. He broke the outright track lap record three times on his way to pole position, lowering Michael Schumacher’s 2006 record to 1m27.319s. His Mercedes team-mate Bottas proved to be second fastest, but a five place grid penalty for a gearbox change dropped him down to seventh and promoted Vettel from third to the front row of the grid. The Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen were the best of the rest, lining up behind the Mercedes and Ferrari for the all-important start the following day.

IMG_1930There was high drama even before the race began as Vettel sensed a power unit problem as he drove his Ferrari from the pits to the grid and his red clad mechanics feverishly sought to solve the problem in the minutes before the start. The issue related to a faulty spark plug and it was to rear its ugly head again as soon as the Grand Prix began.

From pole position Hamilton made a good start and cut across in front of Vettel to hold him at bay before the sweeping first and second corners. Second placed Vettel was soon in trouble though as his underperforming engine dropped him down to sixth position by the end of the first lap as he radioed in”I’ve got a major problem!”.

Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz suffered an even bigger, albeit self-inflicted issue as he fired his car into the Esses barriers soon after the start, forcing the Safety Car to be called into action. A sad end to the promising young Spaniard’s last drive for Toro Rosso before moving to Renault from the next race onwards.

IMG_1933Vettel continued to lose places and on lap four was instructed to return his ailing car to the pits. Repairs proved impossible and retirement was the only option. Out front Hamilton was leading from Verstappen, Force India’s young French star Esteban Ocon and the ever-smiling Ricciardo. A Virtual Safety Car period was triggered on the eighth tour when Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson rather clumsily crashed his Sauber at the second Degner corner.

Come lap 11 Ricciardo pulled a brilliant move on Ocon at Turn 1 to move up to third place and one tour later Bottas did the same to Ocon at the same corner. Hamilton proceeded to comfortably hold off the pursuing Verstappen as the pit stop phase began, with the Brit matching the Dutch driver’s stop to switch to Soft tyres.

Once all the leading contenders had made their stops the order was Hamilton ahead of the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo, with Bottas to their rear.. Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen soon made fifth place his own after having dropped to 14th position on the opening lap. Late in the race young Canadian Lance Stroll had a scary moment when his front right tyre parted company with its wheel, throwing him off the track and causing a further Virtual Safety Car period.

After this had ended we were left with a four lap sprint to the finish, with Verstappen unsuccessfully trying to attack the leading Hamilton and Ricciardo having to fend off Bottas to retain his hold on the final podium position.. Räikkönen and Ocon completed the top six come the chequered flag.. British driver Jolyon Palmer finished a creditable 12th for Renault in his final race for the French team and possibly his last outing in F1.

IMG_1931So, Ferrari handed yet another early Christmas present to Hamilton and his Mercedes team. Lewis, supported by a very excited Sir Mo Farah attending his first ever F1 race, took his third victory at Suzuka and his 61st career win, extending his Drivers’ Championship lead over Seb to a mighty 59 points, as Mercedes consolidated its Constructors’ Championship advantage.

Such is Hamilton’s lead that he might wrap up his fourth F1 title in just two weeks time at the superb F1 track just outside Austin, Texas and I hope you’ll join me there to find out. If he doesn’t, there are still three further Grand Prix to follow before this exciting season reaches its conclusion.

IMG_19292017 F1 Japanese Grand Prix Results

1 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1hr27m31.194s

2 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +1.211s

3 Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) +9.679s

4 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +10.580s

5 Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari) +32.621s

6 Esteban Ocon (Force India) +1m1.788s

7 Sergio Perez (Force India) +1m11.424s

8 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +1m28.953s

9 Romain Grosjean (Haas) +1m29.883s

10 Felipe Massa (Williams) Lapped

11 Fernando Alonso (McLaren) Lapped

12 Jolyon Palmer (Renault) Lapped

13 Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) Lapped

14 Stoffel Vandoorne (McLaren) Lapped

15 Pascal Wehrlein (Sauber) Lapped

16 Lance Stroll (Williams) Retired

17 Nico Hülkenberg (Renault) Retired

18 Marcus Ericsson (Sauber) Retired

19 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) Retired

20 Carlos Sainz (Toro Rosso) Retired

2017 F1 Drivers’ Championship (after 16 rounds of 20)

1 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 306

2 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 247

3 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 234

2017 F1 Constructors’ Championship (after 16 rounds of 20)

1 Mercedes 540

2 Ferrari 395

3 Red Bull 303


By Graham Read

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