Events

Sunday Is Double Fun Day At Suzuka For Mercedes Double Win.

Formula 1 organisers called off Saturday’s schedule due to the presence of Typhoon Hagibis, leaving drivers across the scheduled categories to find their own things to do. Max Verstappen went digital racing online, whilst Romain Grosjean went old school, and bought a model kit of a Tyrrell six-wheeler. His twitter posts had 1979 F1 World Champion Jody Scheckter invite Grosjean to his farm in South Africa to see the real car! George Russell declared that he would go ten-pin bowling. Robert Kubica and Daniil Kvyat found a games arcade and chose to exercise their digital skills in a driving simulator race against each other. As usual, the chirpy Daniel Ricciardo saw it differently. “I don’t know, find a bar I guess. What else do you do? I heard that Wi-Fi is going to be down. Millennials, we’re going to struggle.”

Qualifying itself was shifted to Sunday, race day, for a 11am (local) start time, leaving no margin of error for anyone if they binned the car. With race start just three hours later, everyone would be aware that an impact may have them out of the race completely. With windy but crystal clear blue skies above, the cars entered the Suzuka circuit st exactly 11am. The first session lasted less than five minutes, effectively enough for an out lap and start of the first flying lap, before Robert Kubica did exactly what no one wanted. An excursion onto the grass coming into the start/finish straight had his Williams front and rear into the tyre barriers. Outside of the time frame required to have the car repaired for a start, questions also were raised about the availability of spare parts. The red flag was brought out and allowed the marshalls to clear the track.

It took about the same amount of time after the restart for Kevin Magnussen to nose in at the same spot. Thankfully damage appeared to be restricted to the rear wing kicking into the barrier before the car spun and tapped the wall with the nose. However, Magnussen had to then drive the full length of the track to get the car back to the pits.

With clean laps under the rubber, Leclerc would top Q1 with 1:28.405, 0.03 ahead of Hamilton and 0.349 ahead of Verstappen. Norris would find 4th and Bottas 5th in Q1. Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez would miss the cut, as would George Norris.

Ricciardo’s team mate, Nico Hulkenberg, would also miss out on progressing, albeit from Q2 to Q1, with a major electrical issue late in Q2. In Q3, Leclerc was momentarily outshone by Vettel, with the German taking pole just 0.148 ahead. Hamilton gridded up in 4th with Bottas sliding into 3rd. Ferrari’s one-two on the grid at Suzuka, their first since 2006, means they equal Mercedes’ record of 64 front row lockouts. Verstappen and Albon take the third row, ahead of Sainz and Norris in their McLarens. The 5th row is Gasly and Grosjean. Amazingly both Magnussen and Kubica made the start.

First start shenanigans and Leclerc would have wing damage whilst it seems a tap from Leclerc forced Verstappen off. Leclerc made it through the first lap with his left front wing end hanging loose. Hamilton would query why Leclerc would not pit and it was a fair call as the winglet fell off and blew away Hamilton’s wing mirror. It took effectively three laps for Leclerc to come in. Verstappen? He was seemingly undamaged and annoyed that the tap was seen by the stewards as no further action required as it seems Leclerc lost downforce due to Vettel coming across and disrupting his airflow. Minutes later the stewards reversed that decision and said they would investigate.

Albon and Norris would tangle soon afterwards with Norris suffering floor damage and a superheated front right brake. Ricciardo and Hulkenberg, starting from close to the rear of the field, were 8th and 10th by lap 10. Leclerc would pass Verstappen on lap 10 as news came in that it appeared Vettel had jumped the start. Up front Bottas and Hamilton would lead with Vettel sandwiched in between. The three would be separated by no more than five seconds. Sainz would hold down 4th by a gap of 14 seconds, watching his mirrors with Albon filling them. Lap 14 and Leclerc made a move on Raikkonen with a chop that had Leclerc’s rear miss the nose of the veteran’s car by mere inches.

Lap 16 and Verstappen was garaged, and it appeared that there was subframe damage not immediately seen after the impact with Leclerc. “I had a really good start for once, which was a positive. Then into Turn 2, Charles just drove into the side of my car. My whole car is destroyed, the whole side. What more should he do to get a penalty? I like hard racing, but this wasn’t hard racing – just irresponsible driving into Turn 2.” says a disgruntled Dutchman, clearly forgetting his own race incidents in the past.” Vettel pitted on lap 17 and unusually was given the same rubber he started on, the softs. This confirmed that Vettel would have to make two stops thanks to the regulations saying two different compound have to be used. Mercedes immediately responded, calling in Bottas. This started a flurry of stops, including Gasly, Giovinazzi, Grosjean, and shortly afterward, Hamilton. Yet again Renault appeared to have a peculiar strategy for Ricciardo as he was kept long on his starting rubber and when Hamilton pitted was in 6th.

Hulkenberg lights up and makes a superb pass on both Perez and Kvyat. It’s lap 28 and the mid pack is hungry for track space. Hamilton, meanwhile, is looking to the horizon but has both Vettel and Bottas to see, with the German and the Ferrari close to 8 seconds ahead. Lap 30 and over half way through, and finally Renault take the opportunity to box Ricciardo. He’s made up eleven places to be in a position to be a top ten finisher, with his pit taking him from 5th to 11th on re-entry. Leclerc is still charging too, passing Perez for 9th. Then the second box for Vettel and he’s out in clean air. Bottas leads and comfortably over Vettel, a gap of over ten seconds before the pit. He’s backout in 3rd. Shortly after, Leclerc makes a move on Lance Stroll, who’s been quiet but inside the top ten.

Haas, and Kevin Magnussen calls in to say his seat is loose. That would be a disconcerting feeling at over 250 kilometres per hour. It’s lap 35 and both he and Grosjean are outside the ten, with Grosjean in 12th.  Then a seemingly odd call, but crucial in championship terms. Bottas is boxed and hands the lead to Hamilton, losing his 13 second gap, and space is out to 9 seconds when he rejoins. Bottas is back out on softs, hunting down Hamilton on mediums, with Vettel also on mediums and five laps older than Bottas’ new softs. Alexander Albon has repaid the faith, sitting quietly in 4th.

Lap 40. Hamilton has the lead over Bottas, Vettel, Albon, with Sainz and Leclerc 14 seconds ahead of Gasly. Stroll is inside a second, as is Hulkenberg on Stroll. Perez rounds out the ten but has the Australian breathing down his neck. A lap later and Renault are 9th and 10th, and level on points before the race. lap 43 and Mercedes call Hamilton. This hands the lead to Bottas and looks to consolidate the constructors’ championship. Vettel is still 10 seconds adrift, and is five seconds ahead of Hamilton. Albon is a huge 37 seconds away.

Renault are still 9th and 10th, but it’s now Ricciardo and Hulkenberg. Moments later and it’s Australia versus Canada, with Ricciardo winning the battle over Stroll and takes 7th. Bottas continues to strengthen, with his lead over Vettel out to over ten seconds. Vettel is within striking distance of Hamilton, with the Briton getting both the fastest race laps and the vital extra point needed to consolidate the constructors’ championship. Leclerc had been brought in but was still in 6th, albeit a lap from the lead.

Three laps are left and Vettel is broad shouldered, holding out a very determined Mercedes. the pits radio in and wind ou the gas, giving Vettel’s engine more power in the closing stanzas. Hamilton asks for the same. This bickering has allowed Bottas to drive away and he’s now 14 seconds ahead. Race finish and the Finn takes the flag, ahead of Vettel and a somewhat disconsolate Hamilton. He’s told that Mercedes have won the championship for the 6th year in a row, and his muted response tells the story. Bottas, on the other hand: “Yessss, whoo hoooo,” “I’m happy, very happy. Starting third isn’t easy. I had a really nice start, managed to get the lead and then the pace was super good, I could really control the race.” said Bottas later. Hamilton’s body language hinted at his displeasure with the team orders and there’d be little doubt he have a discussion with Toto Wolff later.

Marring that last lap was Sergio Perez being tagged by Gasly in almost the same spot as the offs by Kubica and Magnussen. It’s what happens in close quarter racing. Albon has impressed with his 4th, ahead of Sainz, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Gasly and Hulkenberg. Shortly afterwards the stewards would classify Perez as 9th in place of Hulkenberg in lieu of further investigations, as they would with Leclerc and Verstappen’s coming together. Stroll, Kvyat, Norris, Raikkonen, Grosjean, Giovinazzi, and Magnussen finished the field.

The win puts Bottas into 274 points, substantially behind Hamilton’s score of 338.

EDIT: A post race penalty for Charles Leclerc, of fifteen seconds, sees Daniel Ricciardo elevated to 6th. This would be as a result of the impact of Leclerc’s Ferrari on Max Verstappen’s Red Bull in the first lap.

F1 heads back to the Americas, with the Mexico round in two weeks, followed by the United States round a week later.

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David Conole

Dave Conole is the former long-term circuit commentator for Sydney Motorsport Park, has worked trackside at the Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne and is self-employed as an automotive content producer.

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