Lewis Hamilton’s victory in Sunday’s Japanese GP saw the Englishman take a massive step toward becoming the first four-time champion in British history.
Sebastian Vettel’s title hopes are not yet fully extinguished and, you know what they say, it ain’t over, til it’s over.
Hamilton came into this weekend having never taken pole position at Suzuka – the only active venue on which pole had eluded him – but that stat was never likely to count for much in 2017.
The now-retired Nico Rosberg was the only driver to have beaten Hamilton in qualifying since 2013, and even then it was only by wafer-thin (and increasingly small) margins. Rosberg beat him in Suzuka by 0.197s in 2014, 0.076s in 2015 and then just 0.013s last year. Taking Rosberg out of that equation, nobody else had qualified within 0.364s of Hamilton in the turbo-hybrid era.
Given that information, it was no surprise when Hamilton claimed a crushing pole position, with an outright track record of 1:27.319 smashing the previous mark held by Michael Schumacher since 2006. The current breed of F1 cars showed almost outrageous pace at Suzuka, especially in the fearsome “Esses” section. Compared to 12 months ago, Hamilton was 1.608s quicker in that sector of the lap alone.
Fourth in sight for Hamilton
As is de rigueur these days, Hamilton can’t go a full race weekend without matching an all-time Schumacher record, and so it was here – a 116th career front row start matches Schuey’s best-ever F1 total, three races after he beat his pole position record. He converted pole into victory for the 39th time in his career, and is now only one behind Schumacher’s “wins from pole” record.
Hamilton had never led the 2017 championship outright until he won the Italian GP last month, but he now goes to Austin with a chance of clinching a fourth world title at the same venue where he clinched his third title back in 2015.
Hamilton and Vettel have started alongside each other 5 times this year - but Vettel has only led the first lap once (Spain) #JapaneseGP— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) October 8, 2017
He has also won four of the five previous races held at the Circuit of the Americas. The sole exception was 2013, when the race was won by Sebastian Vettel. With Hamilton now at championship point, only a repeat of that result will realistically do for the German.
Back-to-backs for Red Bull
Mercedes and Red Bull were 1-2-3-4, and Suzuka has been their private party for a while now – no other constructor has won here since Jenson Button’s win for McLaren in 2011. Max Verstappen matched his 2016 result by finishing second, and when added to his Malaysia win it means the Dutchman has coincidentally scored consecutive podium finishes for the first time since Malaysia and Japan 2016.
The presence of Daniel Ricciardo on the podium for the second race running made this a landmark event for Red Bull Racing. Believe it or not, they had never previously scored consecutive podiums with both cars in the turbo hybrid era. For the last occurrence you had to go back to the 2013 USA and Brazilian GPs, courtesy of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
Ricciardo has now scored nine podium finishes this year, the most of any season in his career, as well as the most by any driver in the last 12 races (Hamilton, by comparison, has eight). The Australian had never qualified nor finished in the top three at Suzuka until this weekend, but as soon as the Red Bulls lined up third and fourth on the grid we should have known their chances of a win were minimal – nobody has ever won an F1 race at Suzuka from the second row!
Finns and Force India on form
Valtteri Bottas originally qualified second fastest until being struck with a five-place grid penalty, robbing Mercedes of what would have been the 50th front row lockout in their constructor history. He was fourth in the Grand Prix, maintaining a 100% finishing record on this track and extending his run of top five finishes to 11 consecutive races.
Compatriot Kimi Raikkonen again finished fifth at Suzuka, matching his 2016 result here. He still hasn’t finished on the podium at Suzuka since his sensational last-gasp win from 17th on the grid back in 2005, but he also hasn’t suffered a retirement at any Japanese GP – either here or at Fuji – since crashing out of the 2001 race in his rookie season.
The remarkable Esteban Ocon continued to rack up quality points for Force India on Sunday, coming home sixth, four seconds ahead of teammate Sergio Perez. Not only was this Ocon’s 15th points finish of 2017 – a number beaten only by Hamilton (16 out of 16), but it means Ocon has now finished his first 25 Grands Prix starts, tying Max Chilton (2013-14) for the most by any driver before recording a first career retirement.
A cautionary tale for Ocon is that Chilton’s record ended ignominiously in his 26th start when he collided with teammate Jules Bianchi on the first lap, eliminating both drivers. Another such contretemps with Sergio Perez will not help either driver’s standing with Force India management, but with the Mexican driver finishing right behind Ocon on Sunday, there remains little to choose between the pink cars this year.
Ocon’s finishing streak overshadows the fact that Perez himself has finished 46 of the last 47 Grands Prix, the exception being after their collision at Baku earlier this year.
Happy at Haas
Speaking of Baku, Kevin Magnussen had not scored points since that Azerbaijan GP, but he brought that streak to an end in Japan by finishing eighth – a welcome birthday present as the Dane turned 25 years old on the Thursday of this race weekend.
Teammate Romain Grosjean was less than a second behind him in ninth, as the Frenchman put a heavy qualifying shunt behind him to good effect. This was only the second time Haas scored with both cars in the same race in constructor history (the other occurrence being the 2017 Monaco GP).
However, teammate Stoffel Vandoorne – although finishing outside the points on Sunday – set a quicker race lap than both Hamilton and Verstappen. Vandoorne had been the slower of the two McLarens through the speed trap in qualifying, but rather amusingly the three cars he beat were all Renault-powered. Honda must surely have noted the irony, given McLaren’s 2018 plans….
Wanna know something fun? Vandoorne was the slowest McLaren in the trap yesterday, but he was quicker than 3 cars - all Renault powered— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) October 8, 2017
Au revoir for Palmer
Jolyon Palmer announced prior to the race that this would be his last stand with Renault, the team with whom he has made all of his 35 F1 starts to-date. Teammate Nico Hulkenberg beat him in qualifying by 0.143s, meaning Palmer leaves with the dubious distinction of being the only full-time driver this year to never out-qualify his teammate. Conversely, his sixth place in the Singapore GP remains tied for the team’s best result of 2017, and is keeping them ahead of Haas in the Constructors’ Championship.
German drivers have won at Suzuka 11 times as well as taking 16 pole positions, but there were no Germans in the points here for the second time in the last three events, having also scored a duck in Singapore. What makes this stat remarkable is that prior to Singapore, German drivers had scored in EVERY race since the 2008 French GP, a run of 176 consecutive races! The streak running from Britain 2008 to Italy 2017.
Vettel heads retirements
Vettel’s retirement ended his record of never finishing outside the top four at Suzuka in his career, as well as being his second retirement in three Grands Prix. Vettel was among five retirements in this race, including Lance Stroll (who saw a 12-race finishing streak come to an end), Marcus Ericsson (a disappointment after keeping his record of never being out-qualified by a teammate here) and Carlos Sainz, who ended his Toro Rosso career rather embarrassingly, crashing out on the first lap for the third time in the past ten races!
Suzuka had seen unprecedented reliability in recent years, with both the 2015 and 2016 Japanese GPs passing without a classified retirement – simultaneously making it the only circuit to have held two retirement-free races in F1 history, and the first to do so in consecutive seasons. Nobody had dropped out of a Grand Prix on this track since Jules Bianchi’s tragic and ultimately-fatal accident in 2014.