I am not a lover of early starts, but I am prepared to put myself through it for Formula 1, so I was up at 5.40am, for a 6am race start in Suzuka. Could I have stayed in bed and spared myself a potentially dull race? Well, in hindsight, maybe I should have, for it wasn’t riveting to watch, even if Japan might prove the decisive blow in the world championship race. The key moment happened arguably before the race even began (as was the case in Malaysia last Sunday) when Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari developed a problem with a spark plug. Despite frantic efforts to fix the problem and despite starting the race, Vettel would be down on power and retiring after a few laps.
To add to the disappointment, Vettel had started second on the grid (bumped up after Valtteri Bottas took a five-place grid penalty), and might have been a threaten to Lewis Hamilton at some stage during the race. Instead, Vettel had to watch from the sidelines and hope that someone could take points off Hamilton. That person was most likely to be Max Verstappen, who moved up to second as Vettel dropped back.
The race became somewhat pedestrian, with only a handful of incidents to provide talking points. Carlos Sainz, in his final race for Toro Rosso (before he replaces Joylen Palmer at Renault) crashed out on the opening lap, whilst Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber joined him not too long after. Lance Stroll had a fairly dramatic late exit from the race when his tyre popped on the fast ‘Ss’ section of the track, nearly collecting Daniel Ricciardo in the process.
Ferrari suffered, not only with Vettel’s exit but a bit of first-lap hijinks between Kimi Raikkonen and Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg, who stuck to the inside line around the Spoon and thus left Raikkonen with no choice but to run wide. Raikkonen (who had also taken a five-place grid penalty, and like Bottas, this was due to a gearbox change) did climb up the field quite swiftly, highlighting the good pace of the Ferrari, and for the third race in a row, leaving them to wonder what might have been. Up front, the tyre stops (switching from supersofts to softs in most cases) yielded better performances from Verstappen, who began to chip away at Hamilton’s lead. Hamilton was reporting problems with his rear tyres and later on, vibrations (not a driver’s best friend) in the car. Could Verstappen claim a second consecutive win?
Down the field there were a couple of potential duels between teammates that didn’t quite bear fruit, which would have come as a relief for Force India (Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon have had a couple of accidents and with both cars in the points, the team didn’t want to risk another collision, denying Perez the opportunity to attack Ocon), and a similar situation developed as the Haas’ of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean trailed Felipe Massa’s Williams. In the end Massa, struggling with his tyres, slipped wide and got messy into turn 1, and both Haas were able to force their way through.
The biggest moment of excitement (from Hamilton’s point of view) came very late on, as Verstappen began to creep toward DRS range and the pair came across a battling Massa and Fernando Alonso. Alonso was seeking to put his McLaren into the last points position but his charge to get past Massa was interrupted by Hamilton lapping him, and Alonso in turn disrupted Verstappen’s chase of Hamilton. It was enough for Hamilton to stay clear and win, an outcome that sees him put one hand on the championship.
He is now 59 points clear with only 100 remaining. Unless he has two or three very poor races, it is highly likely Hamilton will become the first British driver to win four world championships, and he could even make this happen next time out, in Austin, USA.