Rosberg sails to victory at Suzuka after another poor Hamilton start; Mercedes claim 3rd consecutive title; Verstappen powers his Red Bull to P2
A week after his engine blew up en route to a sure victory in Malaysia, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton went back to having only himself to blame for his on-track misfortunes. Starting alongside his pole-sitting teammate Nico Rosberg on the front row in P2, Hamilton once again got a very poor getaway from the line as the lights went out and saw himself swamped by nearly all of the rest of the top 10 starters before he could recover. Meanwhile, Rosberg swanned away and instantly began pulling out a gap on his nearest pursuer, Red Bull’s Max Vertstappen. Starts have been Hamilton’s unexpected bête noir this season and as has often happened after the summer break, he found himself fighting back furiously to recover from his own unforced error. But fight back he did, scrapping with and passing Ferraris, Red Bulls, Williams & Force Indias to claw his way back from a seemingly perilous points deficit. In the end, Rosberg scored an easy maiden victory at Suzuka, his eighth victory of the 2016 season, while Hamilton was able to salvage a hard-fought P3 for some level of redemption for his poor getaway. The high finishing places also insured the Mercedes factory team’s impressive third Constructors’ Championship in succession, a remarkable feat for any F1 team.
But for their battling drivers, everything remains to be settled. With only four Grand Prix left, Rosberg stretched his points lead to 33 over his teammate and arch-nemesis. The German looks well-poised to take his first-ever title from current champion Hamilton but, as the old saying goes, anything can happen in motorsport. One thing’s for sure: Hamilton will never quit and if he is going to go down, he’ll go down swinging. So Rosberg had better be prepared for the four toughest races of his career if he’s going to grab that elusive first Drivers’ Championship.
Splitting the two Silver Arrows, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen drove a superb race to come home P2. The Dutch phenom fought his way forward after Hamilton’s initial slow start and was able to use solid tire strategy and determined driving to outpace both Ferraris, fight his way through stubborn backmarkers and then hold off a charging Hamilton as the laps wound down. His superb effort culminated with making himself just wide enough to thwart Hamilton’s optimistic passing maneuver on then penultimate lap, sending the Englishman down an escape road when he overcooked the overtake. While Mercedes and Hamilton complained that Verstappen made an illegal block at the time, replays showed no such excess movement and eventually the team dropped their protest. It was another sweet podium for Verstappen, his 6th so far in this his breakout year, and an amazing 6 podiums out of only 13 starts with the big Red Bull team.
All was not as joyful for Verstappen’s senior teammate Daniel Ricciardo. A week after his lucky victory in Malaysia, the Aussie had an uncharacteristically poor start from the wetter side of the track and had to fight for the rest of the race just to stay in reach of the leaders. In the end, Ricciardo finished well back in P6, a sure disappointment to him on a day when his precocious teammate thoroughly outscored him. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel could never quite make his tire strategy work even after looking very quick and battling back from a 3-spot grid penalty that saw him start from P7 instead of P4. Try as he might he could never close down Hamilton late in the race and had to settle for P4. His teammate Kimi Raikkonen, who also was penalized for a gearbox change and had to start from P8 drove with controlled aggression to work his way up to P5, decent if unspectacular day at the office for the Scuderia.
Rounding out the Top 10, the two Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were P7 and P8 respectively. After the race rumors swirled that Hulkenberg would be jumping from Force India over to Renault, something of a surprise when it seemed his ride was already settled for next year. And both Williams managed to score points after neither made into the third round of qualifying on Saturday. Felipe Massa was P9 and Valtteri Bottas was P10, as Williams’ race pace proved superior to their nearest competitors, the American Hass F1 team, even after they were comprehensively out-qualified by them.
Top 10 finishers at the Japan GP:
|2||33||RED BULL RACING TAG HEUER||53||+4.978s||18|
|6||3||RED BULL RACING TAG HEUER||53||+33.941s||8|
|7||11||FORCE INDIA MERCEDES||53||+57.495s||6|
|8||27||FORCE INDIA MERCEDES||53||+59.177s||4|
The next race is in two weeks — the United States Grand Prix from COTA in Austin, Texas. With the weather predicted to be much better than last year’s soggy affair, the beautiful purpose-built track should get back to delivering excellent racing and plenty of passing. It’s also a circuit that Hamilton loves, having taken victory in three out of the four GPs held there. With time running out on the season, he’ll be desperate to take the fight to Rosberg and salvage his aspirations of a championship 3-peat. Hope to see you then!