By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst
The Japanese Grand Prix seemed like the final nail in the coffin in the Sebastian Vettel-Ferrari title challenge for 2018.
This was a weekend where they needed Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton to make mistakes or suffer from reliability issues but once again, it was the red squad that cracked.
With a 67-point lead and only four races to go, the only question mark is ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ Lewis will clinch his fifth world championship.
I’ve been hugely impressed with how Mercedes has dealt with this season from Silverstone onwards.
After their home race, the Brackley-based squad were on the back foot. Sebastian had beaten them a few miles from home at the British GP and, more ominously, the Ferrari looked like the quicker car.
The Silver Arrows had also made big strategic mistakes in Australia and Austria as well as smaller ones in Bahrain, China and Russia, and at all those races I believe that I was right to criticise them.
But the team have rallied and, as the season has gone on, they’ve dug deep, made sure that they were operationally more slick than their Italian rivals – and as the pressure ramped up on Vettel and Ferrari to deliver a result for the tifosi, Mercedes just kept their heads down, stuck to their core engineering values and just brought a fast car with sensible tyre choices, and racked up the points.
There’s no doubt in my mind that something has changed on the Ferrari car since Monza.
On average, the two teams had been absolutely joined at the hip. Only 0.006% separated them across the season on Saturday night in Monza. If we look at just the past three races, that gap has become 1.084% to Mercedes’ advantage.
Now, you may ask the question of perhaps Mercedes have taken a step forward rather than Ferrari going back, but if you compare the Anglo-German team’s performances with every other team in the paddock, it’s only changed by a small margin whereas the pack has clearly closed on Ferrari.
There have been plenty of rumours around the paddock that whatever advantage Ferrari had in terms of electrical energy deployment before Monza has now gone away, and that initial punch in acceleration that proved to be very advantageous for the first 10 races is no longer there.
Both the FIA and Ferrari are staying tight-lipped on the subject, which is entirely predictable. However, as the saying goes, the stopwatch never lies and it’s glaringly obvious from the numbers that they’re no longer a threat on pure pace to the Mercedes.
To compound the lack of pace, Ferrari then made the bizarre decision to send both of their cars out on the intermediate tyres for the final part of qualifying at Suzuka.
It was a slightly tricky decision to make, but I was standing in the pit lane – and looking up at the sky it was pretty clear to me and all the other teams in Q3 that there would be a very small window of dry running, so they needed to get out straight away and get a time on the board.
A tactical blunder prevented Ferrari from seriously challenging Mercedes in the battle for pole in Q3— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) October 6, 2018
Just what went wrong for the Scuderia? Allow Steve, DC and Susie to analyse the situation #C4F1 #JapaneseGP https://t.co/kL7719OVAK
Sebastian drove well in the early laps of Sunday's race to get up the order but I do find it slightly odd – and predictable – that he tried to blame Max Verstappen for the contact at Spoon Curve after lunging down the inside of the Red Bull.
Yes, Max had a de-rate on the climb up to Spoon but still, the braking distance into the corner wasn’t really long enough and we all know that in terms of entry speed into a fifth-gear high-speed corner, the Red Bull is probably not going to be beaten by any other car.
That to me seemed like an impatient and frustrated lunge by someone who could see his hopes of a fifth world championship disappearing up the road in the lead of the race.
On the whole, Suzuka was a great reminder of what race tracks should be. Fast, flowing, undulating and, most importantly, unforgiving.
We even saw a driver of Fernando Alonso’s calibre getting caught out on the entry to Degner 1 in free practice – that certainly doesn’t happen in Sochi.
For many years drivers have been going on and on about how much we need to have natural penalties (grass, gravel or high kerbs even) rather than the flat double kerbs and acres of tarmac that are increasingly being used.
For a variety of safety reasons as well as the balancing act of creating circuits to also cater for motorbike racing, the FIA has gone down the path of asphalt run-offs and flatter kerbs, so it was fantastic to come to Suzuka and see drivers really having to creep up to the limit for a change, rather than the modern practice of going over the limit, through a run-off area and then bringing it back a notch.
It was a disappointing end to final practice for Renault and Hulkenberg, as the German racer dipped a wheel onto the grass and spun into the barriers— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) October 6, 2018
Here's a quick reminder of how Hulkenberg's practice smash unfolded #C4F1 #JapaneseGP https://t.co/e3PDh62xSb
The other big story of the weekend was the qualifying performance of the Toro Rosso duo, who qualified sixth and seventh at Honda’s home track.
I was really pleased for my former Le Mans team-mate Brendon Hartley, who has had a tough season and just needs a few solid clean performances to get his confidence up.
Toro Rosso were outfoxed strategically in the race by Force India, who I believe, along with Red Bull, are the two best teams when it comes to strategic decisions. Fundamentally, the Toro Rosso isn’t as fast a car as the Force India but it was particularly good news for Red Bull looking to 2019 to see that the Honda engine upgrade has worked well this weekend.
Both Toro Rosso drivers shone in the tricky conditions in qualifying— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) October 6, 2018
Hartley in particular surprised many with his best qualifying result of the season in P6
Here's Hartley and Gasly catching up with Steve, DC and Susie #C4F1 #JapaneseGP https://t.co/xXmihxhFK9
We’re heading across the planet to Austin next. It’s a track where Hamilton has been brilliant in the past, winning the US Grand Prix in five of the six years it has been held at the Circuit of the Americas.
Ferrari need the prayers of every member of the global tifosi fan club, plus perhaps some divine intervention from the Vatican to win this title now, but more than anything they need to solve the mystery of just how and why their competitiveness has unravelled.
So that concludes our race coverage from Suzuka— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) October 7, 2018
Steve: "It gives me great pleasure to inform you that two weeks from now we will be at the United States GP in Austin live. From us, lots of love. Thanks for watching. Bye bye!" #C4F1 #JapaneseGP pic.twitter.com/XNHGPlC9mE