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View from the Pit Lane: Japan

Are Red Bull on the rise? Verstappen was Hamilton's closest challenger in Japan. 

By C4F1 technical analyst, 
Karun Chandhok 

I always love going to Japan. It has a long history of Formula 1 and the love of the sport is really ingrained in its incredibly passionate fans. 

You forget just how far Suzuka is from Tokyo but it’s amazing how at every step - whether it’s Tokyo airport or Nagoya train station – the fans are waiting to get autographs and photos with the travelling F1 community. 

Steve and DC decided to film a bit of C4F1’s Sunday show out in the fan zone. As soon as you throw David into the mix with the fans in Japan, they just collapse and go into a complete frenzy for him! 

How the race was won 

I’m running out of adjectives really to describe Lewis Hamilton’s performances on a Saturday when he took his career-first pole position around Suzuka.

He was absolutely stellar once again. The car is obviously very, very good and when they turn the engines up to their high power mode for qualifying, they’re untouchable.

Hamilton was half a second ahead of Sebastian Vettel in qualifying and more than a second clear of the best Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, so his pole wasn’t a small margin. 

It was really impressive to see the 2017 cars tackle the big, high-speed change of direction at Suzuka, the blend of corners, they looked really, really impressive and no surprise Hamilton’s pole was an all-time lap record. 

On paper it looked easy and straightforward for Hamilton on Sunday but when the pressure was on during the last few laps Max Verstappen was right there. 

The Mercedes, for whatever reason, seems to struggle more in dirty air and traffic and we saw Fernando Alonso get a reprimand for holding Hamilton up towards the end of the race at Suzuka. 

Even when Hamilton got behind teammate Valtteri Bottas in the dirty air early on, he struggled and Mercedes had to get Bottas out of the way.

Verstappen had a chance to get close but he admitted afterwards that he never really got close to overtake Hamilton and challenge for the win.  

Ferrari’s title tilt falls apart

I was really amazed to have a sense of déjà vu when I went to the grid on Sunday and saw, yet again, panic around a Ferrari on a front row. This time it was Vettel’s car and you could clearly make out there was a problem.

I was told by one of the cameramen, who was standing at the back, that Vettel’s car sounded really rough on the way to the grid.

This time Vettel’s race was ended by a faulty spark plug. The spark plug supplier’s headquarters are in Nagoya so I don’t know if Vettel popped in to have a word! 

It’s just massively disappointing for Ferrari and Vettel who between them have thrown away good points. 

After Spa the Championship looked liked it was going to go all the way down to Abu Dhabi but between Monza and the three Asia races after that, Ferrari’s entire world championship campaign has just fallen apart.

It’s a real shame for them and for F1 in general and the fans because we were building up to a really nice world championship decider.

Headaches at Maranello

There are two things for Ferrari to reflect on.  One is the car hasn’t been as quick as the Mercedes and certainly on the power unit side; especially when it came to qualifying they’ve been lagging behind Mercedes.  

If you can qualify at the front, like Hamilton and Mercedes are doing, then you control the race, you dictate the pace and you control the narrative a lot more on Sunday.  Fundamentally the Ferrari hasn’t been quick enough on a Saturday, 

Sergio Marchionne has said since Japan that Ferrari have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to quality control.

It’s an obvious thing to say but he’s right because they had a lot issues to deal with from with power units to gearbox changes.

We’ve also seen Vettel get the red mist, like in Baku, and being too aggressive at the start in Singapore. Those were two races combined where he probably gave away 35, maybe 38, points. 

Then if you throw in the unreliability from Malaysia and the grid penalty that cost him more vital points, maybe another 10.

The weekend in Japan cost him another 18 or 28 so as soon as you add the 28 to the 38, he’s arguably lost that’s 66 points. 

You could argue, without those lost points, that Vettel should be leading the championship by seven points at this stage.

Full Max or nothing 

The great thing about Verstappen is that there’s no ‘let’s steadily find our rhythm and find our feet in the race.’ If you look at the first lap of a weekend in FP1 he is just out and on it! It’s the same in the race, there’s no sense of settling down and seeing how it unfolds. From the moment the lights go off he is just 100% on it. 

Verstappen is an opportunistic racer but he’s also smart. There is some youthful exuberance but there is also an intellect where he thinks about his moves and plans them in advance. He’s just a really, really strong racer! 

There’s no doubt Verstappen has shone in the last two races but if you look at his season and the non-finishes he’s had – Canada, Baku, Spa, Singapore alone are four races where he had a good haul of potential points - there’s certainly an argument that he’s lost 60-70 points through no fault of his own. 

Red Bull in the hunt

We can’t discount Red Bull anymore and Austin could be another interesting race the team.  

Malaysia showed it’s a three-way fight at the front. In Japan, we got further confirmation that the Red Bull is nowhere on a Saturday but on the Sunday Verstappen was only 1.2 seconds behind Hamilton. 

When it comes to race day, there’s nothing wrong with the Red Bull, it’s right there in the fight. But ultimately the issue still lies in their Saturday performance, unless they can unlock the speed during qualifying they will still struggle to beat Hamilton on Sunday. 

Best of the Rest 

It was a great race for Force India, who were the best of the rest and underlined they have the fourth best car out there on the racetrack. 

We were robbed of a race in the midfield because Nico Hulkenberg was running on a totally different strategy at Renault and had just put on a set of super-softs for the final stint.  It was going to get exciting for him at the end before he had a rear wing failure.

I was really pleased to see Haas get two cars in the points because they’ve had a tough and expensive week with two big accidents for Romain Grosjean – one not his fault in Sepang and the other which was in Suzuka. 

Kevin Magnussen was typically aggressive getting past Felipe Massa in Turn Two and that was a great move and a great result for the team.

Dignified Palmer bows out 

We have to talk about Jolyon Palmer. It’s unlikely that we’ll see him again this season but we don’t know what’s going to happen next year. 

He conducted himself really well over the weekend. It must have been a tough weekend knowing that he was not going to be racing in Austin.  Renault made the announcement late on Saturday evening when most of the F1 community were out to dinner but he would have known going into the weekend. 

The way Palmer dealt with the whole situation was really very professional and good testament to his character. 

He could have hidden away from the media but he didn’t; he came out and spoke to Steve and DC after the race and all the different TV crews, not shying away from the tough questions. 

I thought he handled himself with great dignity.

Sainz steps up to Renault

Carlos Sainz will fill Palmer’s seat at Renault for the next race in Austin. It’s a win-win situation for him, it’s a chance to drive a different car and join the team he will be with in 2018 to get some early mileage and start the learning process.

There will be low expectations on him in terms of beating Hulkenberg straight away. They are already confirmed for next year and so it’s a low pressure situation where Sainz will be able to find his feet and build up a relationship with the team.

Now that the championship battle at the top is looking like it will be settled in Hamilton’s favour, and a question of when and not if, it’s nice to have a few sub-plots through the field. 

Next stop Austin 

I’m looking forward to Austin, it’s a fantastic city and there will be a really good atmosphere with F1’s new owners Liberty really pushing the boat out with an extended build-up before the race. 

The race was absolutely packed last season – although that might have had something to do with the amount of Taylor Swift fans there over the weekend! 

Hamilton could be crowned world champion in the U.S. although I think it’s likely to be Mexico because if Vettel finishes the race he will be in the top-three, which would be enough to delay the title celebrations. 

But Ferrari’s reliability has not been stellar in recent races and that could mean that Hamilton would be crowned in Austin. Luckily we can watch it all unfold live on Channel 4.