By Sean Kelly, C4F1 statistician
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to not feel a sense of déjà vu as Lewis Hamilton moves relentlessly toward a fifth world championship triumph, at the expense of early front-runner Sebastian Vettel.
The 2018 season has unfolded in a curiously similar way to last season. Both times Vettel won two of the opening three races and was the championship leader as late as round 10.
In both years, Hamilton’s performances moved to the next level after the summer break, to the point where he leaves Suzuka in a position from which no driver has ever lost a title.
It even pertains to the points total. After 17 rounds last season, Hamilton led Vettel 331-265 and clinched the title at the next race. This season it is 331-264, with the next race at Austin, a circuit where Hamilton has dominated since it was first added to the calendar in 2012.
This past weekend saw Hamilton claim his 50th victory for the Mercedes AMG team he joined at the start of 2013. He’s only the second F1 driver to reach the half century for a single constructor, inevitably behind Michael Schumacher’s 72 wins for Ferrari.
Surprisingly, it was the first time this season that Hamilton has led from start-to-finish, but with six wins in the past seven races, his recent form has been almost irresistible. Midway through the Japanese GP he surpassed Vettel for the most laps led in the 2018 season – he now leads the German 366-341.
A driver leads from start-to-finish at Suzuka every three years. It happened in 2009 (Vettel), 2012 (Vettel again), 2015 (Hamilton) and again today (Hamilton) #JapaneseGP— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) October 7, 2018
Numerologists will note that, driving car #44, Hamilton led Mercedes’ 44th 1-2 finish in F1, and the team's third in the last five years at Suzuka – a circuit where they’ve been 1-2 in every Q3 session in the turbo hybrid era, only being denied five consecutive front-row lockouts by a gearbox penalty for Valtteri Bottas in 2017.
In less controversial circumstances than in Russia, Hamilton was followed home by Bottas as the Finn claimed his first Suzuka podium. He now has eight top-three finishes this season without winning.
Combined with compatriot Kimi Raikkonen’s total, Finland has scored 17 podiums as a nation in 2018 – more than any other nation – yet doesn’t have a win.
What makes this stat doubly unusual is that the all-time record for most podiums in a season without a win by a single driver is 10 (Rubens Barrichello in 2001, Jenson Button in 2004). It is conceivable that two drivers from the same country could beat that record this season!
Why does Max Verstappen prefer day parties and have a staunch dislike for Daniel Ricciardo's taste in music?— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) October 8, 2018
Find out in his amusing interview with our very own @SteveJones from Suzuka #C4F1 #JapaneseGP https://t.co/SB6663oJl6
Max Verstappen's third place gave the Red Bull driver a new personal record on Sunday. After surviving an early collision with Raikkonen (for which he received a five-second penalty), and then another one with Vettel, the Dutchman scored a podium for a third consecutive season at Suzuka, something he had never done at any F1 venue.
For the first time since the French Grand Prix in June, Red Bull had both cars finish in the top four. Daniel Ricciardo was uncharacteristically steaming after another mechanical failure in Q2 left him 15th on the grid, but his pace – combined with the damage to the Ferraris – helped him win the Driver of the Day vote as he gained 11 places.
There's no wonder Daniel Ricciardo was voted Driver of the Day in Suzuka— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) October 7, 2018
The Red Bull racer rose from P15 on the grid to eventually finish a very respectable P4
Allow Steve, DC and Susie to take you through his epic drive #C4F1 #JapaneseGP https://t.co/qJjGjCqAgx
Raikkonen finished fifth for the third consecutive season at Suzuka, which has been a strange track for Kimi down the years.
Most fans remember his dramatic victory in the 2005 race (his final win for McLaren), in which he started 17th and eventually passed Giancarlo Fisichella on the final lap, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Raikkonen hasn’t finished on the podium at Suzuka since then, and has led only seven laps on this track in his career!
Vettel leaves Suzuka knowing that the game is most likely up for this season after his P6, with Hamilton set to beat him to that coveted fifth title and become only the third F1 driver to reach the milestone.
It's been another season full of mistakes for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari which has seen their chances of championship supremacy wane— Channel 4 F1® (@C4F1) October 7, 2018
Here's Steve, DC and Susie analysing what's gone wrong for the Scuderia so far in 2018 #C4F1 #JapaneseGP https://t.co/UIXiwtTOAZ
Strategy mistakes from Ferrari partly contributed to him being only eighth on the grid, and then an ill-conceived lunge at Verstappen caused a costly spin. While the war may be lost, Vettel did wreak a form of revenge upon Hamilton right at the end of this race.
The Englishman was cruising toward what would have been a sixth career 'grand slam' victory – a win from pole, leading start-to-finish and setting the fastest lap. This would have been something for the record books, as it would have surpassed Alberto Ascari and Michael Schumacher’s totals, and left only Jim Clark (8) ahead.
Just as it seemed a foregone conclusion, Vettel – who has four grand slams himself, the last coming in 2013 – dramatically upped his pace and set the fastest lap on the final two laps of the race. He might not have said it, but Hamilton must have at least been slightly miffed…
Vettel sets the fastest lap on the penultimate AND the final lap.... he couldn't deny Lewis Hamilton the championship but he's denied him a grand slam win at the death today #JapaneseGP— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) October 7, 2018
If the situation is settled at the top, down in the 'Class B' championship the battle to be the best of the rest behind the Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull drivers has never been closer.
Sergio Perez finished seventh for the third consecutive year at Suzuka and in doing so, broke a championship tie with his Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon, who took P9.
It moved Perez up to seventh in the table, leading that 'Class B' category for the first time this season – but by the smallest possible margin. Perez, Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg – from three different teams – are now tied on 53 points, with the Mexican only ahead due to his podium in Baku.
As if that were not close enough, Fernando Alonso (from a fourth team) is only three points adrift of them, with Ocon four points behind. It should be a fascinating season run-in!
Some incredible midfield jockeying. I can't recall a time in F1 history when the midfield has provided such exciting racing. It wasn't like this back in the 80s and 90s for instance #JapaneseGP— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) October 7, 2018
Romain Grosjean has led more laps at Suzuka (26) than any active driver other than Vettel and Hamilton (a statistic that is still true even after this weekend).
He qualified fifth – the sixth time this season that a Haas driver has done so – and finished eighth to surpass his best points total for the US team, with whom he has raced for the length of their existence. The Frenchman scored 29 points in 2016 and 28 points last season, but now has 31 with four races to go.
Last season’s Japanese Grand Prix began with Carlos Sainz Jnr crashing out all on his own on the first lap, in what was his final start for Toro Rosso. The Spaniard was 10th on Sunday, scoring Renault’s first point at Suzuka since Vitaly Petrov was ninth back in 2011.
The other Spaniard in the race had another largely forgettable weekend, as Alonso trailed in a lapped 14th, and perhaps the biggest question remaining in the two-time world champion’s F1 career is whether or not he can finish with a notable landmark stat.
On lap 33 of the Japanese GP, Alonso surpassed Barrichello’s 16,631 laps raced in F1, to go second on the all-time list. Schumacher is the record-holder on 16,825, and Alonso goes into the final four races only 174 laps short, with 253 laps still to be raced. At least there’s an incentive for him to keep circulating!
Hamilton sets course for Austin next, and the Circuit of the Americas racetrack on which he has won for the past four years, and where he clinched the championship in 2015.
If he out-scores Vettel by eight points, he will do so again.
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