Our new Formula 1 writer Sarah Yip reviews the Japanese Grand Prix, giving unique insights into the mechanics and politics of the sport.
Podium finishes in Japan saw Mercedes finally bag the constructors’ championship, with victory for Bottas keeping him – just about – in contention with his team-mate Hamilton in the race for the drivers’ championship title.
Valtteri Bottas jumped from third early on to leapfrog pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel and take the race win at Sazuka, while his team mate Lewis Hamilton finished third, four tenths behind the German.
In anticipation of Typhoon Hagibis, the Saturday qualifying session and FP3 had been cancelled with qualifying rescheduled for Sunday at 10am local time, 3 hours before the race. There, Mercedes were quickest in FP1 and FP2 and appeared to be the ones to lock out the front row of the grid. However, it was Ferrari who took the front row for the 64th time with Vettel setting a time of 1:27:064 and Charles Leclerc 0.189 seconds behind him. Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton came third and fourth respectively while Max Verstappen and rookie team mate Alex Albon set the exact time of 1:27:851.
Coming into the weekend, fans had high hopes of Ferrari winning and prolonging the fight for, not only the drivers’ but the constructors’ championship. Since the summer break it has been Ferrari that have had the upper hand, despite Mercedes taking first and second place in Russia due to Ferrari’s internal team orders and Vettel’s engine blowing up. Ferrari’s advantage can partially be credited to the improvements to aerodynamics introduced in Singapore. The most noticeable and crucial development was seen at the nose of the car. The addition of ‘nostrils’ on the nose cone forces airflow underneath to take a longer path to match the speed of the air flowing over it, hence creating an area of lower pressure to counteract any effects of lift.
Mercedes followed suit and brought new upgraded bargeboards to Japan, hoping to have to edge on Ferrari aerodynamically. Bargeboards redirect dirty air away from the front wing and around the front wheels either out and around the side pods or into the radiator inlets, aiding cooling.
Some worried that the due to the team orders, tension between the two Ferrari drivers would create a hostile environment, possibly leading to the breakdown of the team. However this was not the downfall of Ferrari in Suzuka. With Vettel almost jumping the start and inching forwards before the lights went out, Bottas overtook Vettel before the first corner and pretty much won the race there and then, becoming the first to win at Suzuka from starting third.
Obviously I had a bit of a poor start… I was a little bit early with the clutch… Obviously then lost a lot of momentum so not a great start.”Sebastian Vettel talking to Will Buxton
Despite the false start, Vettel did not receive a penalty because although his car rolled forwards prematurely, he bought it back to stationary before the five lights went out. However, the four time World champion admitted to SkySports that had it not been for the false start, keeping Mercedes at bay still “would have been difficult”. Even so, Vettel still managed to keep Hamilton behind in the closing stages of the race despite Hamilton having a fresher set of tyres, coming home in second place.
The other side of the garage, belonging to Charles Leclerc, had a more challenging day at the office after colliding with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at turn 2. A combination of being distracted by his team mate moving early and not being able to slow down enough due to loss of grip, Max Verstappen was able to slip in front around the outside of Leclerc where they made contact. This sent Verstappen into the grass and caused damage to Leclerc’s front wing. Leclerc went on to complete two more laps with a broken end plate, disobeying calls from the team and race director for him to come into the pit lane to change his front wing.
Consequently, debris from his broken wing flew off the car and took off Hamilton’s wing mirror off and stewards penalise Leclerc with a 5 second penalty for the incident with Verstappen and extra 10 seconds for continuing to drive his car in an unsafe manner. The stewards also fine Ferrari €25,000 for telling Leclerc to stay out for an extra lap after he ignored their call for a pitstop, creating a “unsafe condition on the track”. Leclerc crossed the line in sixth but with his penalty has dropped to seventh place.
I stayed on the outside at turn two but Charles drove into the side of my car. I guess Charles was trying to recover places after the start but it’s a long race so there was no need to risk so much so early. “Max Verstappen reflecting on his Japanese Grand Prix
In light of Leclerc’s penalty, Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo is pushed up to sixth place, a well deserved result after a rocky start in his rookie season at Renault, racking up 4 DNF’s and only 5 points finishes this season. Ricciardo struggled in the Sunday morning qualifying, coping with a problem with their rear end suspension. He ended up starting 16th on the grid and ended up battling through the midfield and crossing the line seventh, proving that when Renault can get their package perfect, their car is very competitive.
Red Bull Racing and Exxonmobil came to Japan with a specifically designed fuel that was tailored to Honda’s Spec 4 engine, with the hopes that Max Verstappen could deliver a race victory at the home race of Honda, Red Bull’s engine supplier. However, Verstappen completed only 15 laps before the team decide that the car has suffered too much damage putting an end to his race and Honda’s hopes of winning at their home grand prix.
Verstappen’s second team mate of the year, Alex Albon, came home in fourth place, his career best finish, while McLaren’s Carlos Sainz trailed behind in fifth place, making him the best of the rest. However, McLaren’s younger driver, Lando Norris, ended up being collateral damage as debris from Leclerc endplate got caught in his brake duct, setting them on fire at one point. Norris finished 13th, outside the points.
Hours after the race ended representatives for both Renault and Racing Point were summoned by the FIA (governing body) regarding alleged brake bias breach. Racing Point accuses that the two Renault cars of having a “pre-set lap distance depended bias adjustment system”. This means that the brake bias adjusts automatically depending on where the car is on the track as opposed to the driver having to manually input the brake bias on the steering wheel. Brake bias controls the braking power of the car, adjusting the amount of hydraulic pressure applied to the front and rear breaks. If the accusation proves to be true, it not only puts their Japanese Grand Prix race results into question but also previous races if the system has been implemented for some time.
These allegations show how competitive the midfield teams are, doing whatever it takes to gain an edge on their rivals.
As the last few races of the season approach us we turn our attention to the midfield fight for constructors’ and drivers championship. McLaren are set to win ‘best of the rest’, topping the midfield constructors at fourth place. Only 37 points separate fifth, sixth and seventh place for Renault, Toro Rosso and Racing Point respectively.
The 2019 season is quickly coming to an end. Will Lewis Hamilton become World Champion for the sixth time or will Valtteri Bottas take the championship after six years in Formula 1?