Ferrari bounced into the 2017 world championship with a bang, but look set to end it with a whimper as another failure on the Ferrari power unit in Japan handed Lewis Hamilton an unassailable 59 point lead.
Hamilton has won five of the last seven Grands Prix and the swing of points due to Vettel having two non-finishes in Singapore and Japan and a compromised race in Malaysia shows how unforgiving motor racing can be.
Hamilton can clinch his fourth world championship in Austin with a win and Vettel finishing sixth or lower. And Mercedes have an even stronger chance of closing out the Constructors’ championship.
“The misfortune of Ferrari is unbelievable, the third bad race in a row. Their car is super fast and it just lacks reliability, that is their next step,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff who went to the Ferrari pit wall after the race to commiserate with his opposite number Maurizio Arrivabene.
Hamilton has been driving extremely well of late, but Ferrari’s run of results beggars belief given how quick their car is and how strong the challenge. We have quickly forgotten that Vettel led the championship after every round until last month.
It was another strong weekend for Max Verstappen, second ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, but he had a good chance to win a second race in succession.
He finished only one second behind Hamilton after the champion-elect ran into trouble with vibrations, he said, on the power unit after upshifts. He also struggled with the tyres after the final Virtual Safety Car.
Verstappen had a real chance in the final laps, but Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa who were having their own dog fight for 10th place, got in his way after Hamilton lapped them and that gave Hamilton the breathing space he needed.
Afterwards Verstappen played down the part played by the famous backmarkers, saying that he had only been able to close on Hamilton due to traffic and admitted that he was on the limit with the front tyres himself. Everyone was mindful of what happened with Vettel and Raikkonen at Silverstone.
Ricciardo’s race was compromised by losing the start to Verstappen and then losing a place to Ocon. That separated him from his team mate and meant that Red Bull could not try one of their ‘pincer’ strategy moves on Hamilton, with one car undecutting and the over running long.
Ricciardo also had to contend with a charging Valtteri Bottas at the end. He and Kimi Raikkonen did a reverse strategy, starting on the soft tyres, which worked out to gain places. Bottas finished fourth from seventh on the grid and Raikkonen fifth from 11th grid slot. But there was disappointment for Bottas that he didn’t have enough laps on the supersoft at the end to manage to catch Ricciardo for the final podium position.
Red Bull again showed some impressive race pace for another double podium, but once again Ferrari’s reliability issues played a key part in that. It’s one thing to have a quick car, as Ferrari undoubtedly has, but with Raikkonen’s gearbox grid penalty and Vettel’s retirement, Ferrari certainly handed it to Red Bull.
After the race, Christian Horner observed of his car that “chassis wise I can’t see it’s second to anything”, a familiar refrain from the Englishman with regards to the missing element.
But they also need to start the season more strongly. Think back to the way they performed (or didn’t) at the Australian Grand Prix.
Jolyon Palmer – exit stage left
Jolyon Palmer’s F1 career ended with a twelfth place finish after an engine penalty, summing up his season. The Renault car has improved a lot in recent months and the team want to maximise their points scoring in the final races at the same time as giving new signing Carlos Sainz a benchmark for next season’s car.
“Carlos was signed for next year and Cyril (Abiteboul) made it clear that he wanted him in the car for the rest of the season, it’s a shame not to finish the season but I respect the decision,” said Palmer.
“The stress levels have been pretty huge, it’s been very difficult. I’m out, that’s F1 and it’s a shame but I’ll move on, there’s plenty to life.”
What did you think of the Japanese Grand Prix? Do you think Verstappen would have been able to pass Hamilton without the backmarkers