Front to back: the Japanese Grand Prix

Reviewing every F1 team and driver as Max Verstappen takes second at Suzuka.


Lewis Hamilton:
qualified 2nd, finished 3rd
Nico Rosberg: qualified 1st, finished 1st
The short version of Hamilton’s week: after hinting at a conspiracy theory about engine failures after his smoky retirement at the Malaysian GP, the world champion spent the pre-event press conference in Japan on Snapchat, stomped out of his media commitments after being pipped to pole by Rosberg on Saturday, and then made a mess of the start on the damp side of the track 24 hours later, arriving at the first corner in eighth place and with his title defence in tatters. Hamilton was able to rip through the pack by the end to get to third, which very nearly became second when he made a lunge at Verstappen at the final chicane on the penultimate lap. Rosberg’s fourth win in the five races since the mid-year break has statisticians scrambling to use phrases that include the words “mathematical possibility”, which is never a good sign as the season comes to a close.

While Hamilton’s off-track antics stole the headlines, Rosberg turned the screw with a near-perfect weekend that made amends for losing at Suzuka the past two years after taking pole. The German led all three practice sessions, took pole (by 0.013secs over his teammate, a distance of 82cm), cleared off at the start and never looked likely to be beaten – and now has a lead of more than a race win over his teammate with four Grands Prix to go. It’d take a brave, brave person to get against him from here. With a combined 40 points from their two pilots, Mercedes wrapped up a third consecutive constructors’ championship.

Sebastian Vettel:
qualified 4th, finished 4th
Kimi Raikkonen: qualified 3rd, finished 5th
A fraught weekend for Ferrari, with team principal Maurizio Arrivabene commenting to the Italian press that four-time world champion Vettel would have to “earn” his place at the team once his contract expires at the end of 2017, and respected TV pundit and former driver Martin Brundle wondering aloud if the German has “lost his mojo” after a barren run that has now stretched to just one podium in the last nine races, and three wins in near-on three seasons since he left Red Bull. Vettel carried a three-place grid penalty into Suzuka after his incident with Rosberg in Malaysia a week earlier, but was lively in the opening laps, dispensing of Perez and Ricciardo and running third early on. A battle with Hamilton for the final podium spot looked to be in prospect, but Ferrari zigged while everyone else zagged, fitting soft tyres for the final stint of the race, which left Vettel 20 seconds behind the Mercedes driver at the flag while moaning incessantly about blue flags for backmarkers. Raikkonen had his teammate’s measure all weekend until Sunday morning, when the Finn had to take a new gearbox and a five-place grid penalty. Raikkonen was able to undercut Ricciardo to get to fifth after the final pit stops, but that was as good as it was going to get after starting further back than he deserved.

Felipe Massa:
qualified 12th, finished 9th
Valtteri Bottas: qualified 11th, finished 10th
Scoring three points on Sunday after managing just one in total in Singapore and Malaysia was some good news for Williams, but with Force India out-scoring it for the fifth time in the past six races, Williams looks set to finish fifth overall this season given the comparative pace of its car to the similarly-powered Force India. Both drivers started the race on medium tyres in a clear showing of their intent to make a one-stop strategy work, but rather than quelling the Force Indias in front, both Massa and Bottas were left to fight with Grosjean’s Haas in the closing laps, the trio crossing the line separated by just 1.5 seconds. Massa finished his final Japanese GP half a second in front of his teammate, Bottas conceding afterwards “that was all that was in the car”.

Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo:
qualified 6th, finished 6th
Max Verstappen: qualified 5th, finished 2nd
Verstappen made it two second places in seven days with a spirited drive at Suzuka, where he made the most of Hamilton’s wretched getaway and held off the world champion late to take his sixth podium of the season – and usurp Vettel for fifth in the drivers’ standings. The Dutchman was the faster Red Bull driver for much of the weekend, but while he was a chance to win in Sepang, he was never going to touch Rosberg at Suzuka, admitting afterwards the Mercedes driver was “cruising”, speeding up when Verstappen pushed hard, and easing off when he was in tyre conservation mode. A trademark robust defence of Hamilton in the closing stages prompted some debate, but second on a circuit Mercedes has dominated in the V6 turbo hybrid era was a strong result. Ricciardo came to Japan on a high after his fourth career win in Malaysia a week earlier, but never really got untracked at Suzuka, finishing 28 seconds behind his teammate after feeling his engine was a little breathless in qualifying, saying he was “bleeding” time down the straights. A slow second stop where his right front tyre stuck didn’t help, but he was no match for Verstappen this weekend. The Australian at least kept up his record of finishing every race he’s started this season (a stat he shares with Perez), but Japan was his lowest finish since F1’s first visit to Azerbaijan way back in June, when he was seventh.

Force India
Nico Hulkenberg:
qualified 9th, finished 8th
Sergio Perez: qualified 7th, finished 7th
The clear fourth-best team in F1 duly finished seventh and eighth at Suzuka on Sunday, Perez ahead of Hulkenberg as he has been for much of the season. Perez set an identical time in qualifying on Saturday to the surprising Haas of Grosjean (1:31.961), but recorded it before the Frenchman to qualify seventh, which became a starting position of fifth when Ferrari duo Vettel and Raikkonen were hit with penalties. A smoky getaway for Perez raised pulses on the Force India pit wall, but he briefly slotted into third after Hamilton’s horrendous start halted those around him before regressing to the mean later on. The Mexican is now just one point adrift of Bottas for seventh in the drivers’ standings. Hulkenberg was 1.6 seconds behind his teammate after 53 laps and 86 minutes of racing, and paid a small price for hitting the front jack after pulling away from his lap 11 pit stop. His reaction after passing Bottas at the final chicane on lap 20 – “see you later” – was one of a man who knew he’d pulled off a sweet, sweet move.

Jolyon Palmer:
qualified 16th, finished 12th
Kevin Magnussen: qualified 18th, finished 14th
It might be too late to save his F1 career, but Palmer’s late-season resurgence against teammate Magnussen continued at Suzuka, the Brit out-qualifying the Dane and finishing 15 seconds ahead of him after both Renaults ran one-stop races. Palmer was 0.3secs ahead of Magnussen on Saturday to make Q2, with Italian TV reporting that Magnussen was hampered by a loose seat that saw him slumped further down in the car than he would have liked.

Toro Rosso
Daniil Kvyat:
qualified 13th, finished 13th
Carlos Sainz: qualified 14th, finished 17th
Suzuka shaped as a tough weekend for the under-powered Red Bull B-team, and while Kvyat enjoyed a new engine for the event, Sainz struggled on Saturday with a hybrid battery and ECU issue in final practice that prevented him from getting a qualifying simulation in, and then spinning at Spoon on his final lap in Q2 as he desperately tried to gate-crash the top 10. The Spaniard scrapped hard in the race but points were never likely – he succinctly described his race as “a f**king nightmare” over the radio in the closing stages as he finished a lap down and in his lowest position of the season. Kvyat enlivened the crowds on Friday when he had a lurid 360-degree spin out the final corner without hitting anything, and tried to nurse a second set of soft tyres in the first half of the race with limited success.

Felipe Nasr:
qualified 20th, finished 19th
Marcus Ericsson: qualified 19th, finished 15th
Still no points for Sauber in 2016, and with just four races remaining and almost unparalleled reliability as this iteration of F1 cars reaches its conclusion, the chance of the Swiss team snaring a top-10 finish looks close to impossible. Ericsson, on a track he knew well from his days in Japanese F3, wrestled the recalcitrant Sauber through the Esses lap after lap and lost no points for style, while Nasr began the race on the hard tyres but finished in the same position in which he started.

Jenson Button:
qualified 17th, finished 18th
Fernando Alonso: qualified 15th, finished 16th
So much for home sweet home; Honda’s home race was a disaster for McLaren, with Alonso using the new engine he bedded in at Sepang the week before, and Button having a new power plant installed on Sunday after his worst-ever Japanese GP qualifying the day before. Button started on the hard tyres and tried to play the long game, but made little progress before his lap 20 pit stop and never looked a shot at the points. Alonso was also a lap down and 16th, and his response when asked to push by his race engineer to push – “I wish” – was a rare moment of levity on a dire weekend in front of the Japanese fans. It was McLaren’s worst weekend of the year where both cars made it to the chequered flag.

Pascal Wehrlein:
qualified 22nd, finished 22nd
Esteban Ocon: qualified 21st, finished 21st
Manor predicted they’d struggle at sweeping Suzuka, and their rookie drivers brought up the rear of the field in, for the statistically-minded, just the seventh race in F1 history (952 races) where every driver who started saw the chequered flag. Ocon beat Wehrlein in qualifying for the second time in a week even before the German was hit with a five-place gearbox penalty, and finished nearly 20 seconds ahead of him in the race, but Manor was nowhere near any of the other teams.

Romain Grosjean:
qualified 8th, finished 11th
Esteban Gutierrez: qualified 10th, finished 20th
Haas looked odds-on to snap a seven-race run without points when Grosjean and Gutierrez both unexpectedly made the top 10 in qualifying, the first time the American team had both cars into Q3 in its brief history. It was a good launching pad to score points, but Grosjean finished an agonising 0.9secs behind the one-stopping Bottas in 11th. “I’ve never been as frustrated as today at the end of a race, because I thought we deserved much more,” he said. Teammate Gutierrez had a clumsy spin at the final chicane and was a despondent 20th at the flag, the Mexican failing to add to his sole F1 points finish at the same circuit for Sauber in 2013.


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