Would You Bet That Verstappen Would've Made At Least One Move On Hamilton In Suzuka?

After a nail-biting start to the battle for the 2017 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship, it seems we might need to brace ourselves for an anti-climax as we near its conclusion. Lewis Hamilton, who was trailing Sebastian Vettel in the championship till six weeks ago, now finds himself comfortable on the top with an unexpected 59-point lead.

He added 25 points to his lead on Sunday by winning the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix, ahead of Red Bull Racing drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. Vettel scored his second ‘Did Not Finish’ in three races due to Ferrari’s recurring reliability issues. The result at Suzuka has often been pivotal in the World Championship and the 2017 edition was no different.

In Formula 1, Customer Is Never King

By scoring his 71st pole position on Saturday, also (strangely!) his first in Suzuka, Hamilton now has held pole position across all the 20 circuits on the calendar. His pole time of 1:27:319 is now the fastest lap record at Suzuka, breaking Michael Schumacher’s time from 2006; proving that the 2017 cars are much quicker than their predecessors.
On race day, Hamilton converted his pole position to a rather straightforward victory barring a few half-challenges from Verstappen. With Vettel out of the equation, Hamilton’s straightforward win almost made for a boring race, until the last few laps, in which vibrations from Hamilton’s car slowed him down and allowed Verstappen to get within half-a-second and half-a-chance to overtake for the lead.
However, Hamilton held on till the end, with some unexpected help from former adversaries and old boys, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa – who ignored the waving blue flags much to Verstappen’s disadvantage. We had bet on Verstappen making at least one valid attempt to overtake Hamilton, had the older boys played fair.

Daniel Ricciardo’s New Podium Trick

The two-three finish was Red Bull Racing’s second double podium finish of the season, the first being in Malaysia last weekend. In fact, this was their first back-to-back double podium finish in the hybrid turbo era. Red Bull Racing are now 92 points behind Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship and if Ferrari’s reliability woes continue, their second place could be under threat.
Verstappen was voted the ‘Driver of the Day’, while Ricciardo’s podium exploits (Ricciardo’s eighth podium, his highest ever in a season) proved that there was no other driver in the paddock with a cooler attitude than his. While Hamilton was interacting with Takuma Sato (former Japanese Formula 1 driver, current Indy 500 Champion and podium interviewer), Ricciardo took Hamilton’s unlocked phone, opened Instagram and uploaded funny-faced selfies of himself!
The other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas could at best manage a fourth place finish, despite starting in second. Bottas’s form post the summer break has been questionable, with the Finn agreeing that his confidence is running low. He has been beaten by at least one Red Bull Racing driver four times in the last five races.
However, given the might of his performance in the first part of the season and his Mercedes car, Bottas, who is currently third in the Drivers’ Championship, is aiming to beat Vettel in second, 13 points ahead. It would be strange if Bottas finished second in the Drivers’ Championship, because his season-long performance is certainly not worthy of such a high finish, but such is how the championship system is devised.
Finally, Ferrari has been in form and has set the pace at all the Asian circuits in the past month. However, it is luck that has eluded their championship attack in Singapore, Malaysia and now Suzuka. While fingers could be pointed at Vettel for their misfortune in Singapore, Ferrari’s suppliers seem to have let the team down in Malaysia and Suzuka. Vettel’s car suffered a spark plug issue minutes before the start of the race, one that his engineers tried to fix on the starting grid without much luck. Ironically, the spark plug supplier is Japanese!

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After the summer break, Vettel did well to limit championship damage at Spa and Monza – classified as ‘Mercedes’ circuits – with the aim to capitalise at the ‘Ferrari’ classified circuits of Singapore and Malaysia. The implications of Ferrari’s reliability woes mean that Hamilton will head to the 2017 United States Grand Prix with a mathematical chance of winning the 2017 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship, which would be his fourth. Should Hamilton be able to extend his lead to 76 points (Hamilton needs to score 17 points more than Vettel) in Austin, Vettel’s hopes would officially be over and both title rivals will start the 2018 Formula 1 season as ‘four time world champions’.

Given Hamilton’s love for the US, he would love to clinch his fourth title in that country and statistically, he is well placed to do so. Since the revival at the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit Of The Americas (COTA), Hamilton has won the race four times out of five and even clinched his third Drivers’ Championship title (in 2015) at this venue. Would his fourth title be won on the land of the ‘great satirist’ Donald Trump?
The nature of Ferrari’s reliability woes and Vettel’s method of dealing with them do offer a flashback to Schumacher’s similar woes back at Ferrari in the 1990s when he was battling title rivals such as Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen. The other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen finished in a distant fifth place, after a penalty-marred qualifying session (thanks to Ferrari’s gearbox this time) saw him start in a lowly 10th place.
However, the biggest loser of Ferrari’s reliability woes has been the sport and its fans. After three seasons of Mercedes’ domination, Ferrari’s challenge for the titles added a breath of fresh air to our Grand Prix weekends. Despite Hamilton and Vettel sharing the Formula 1 grid for nearly a decade, this was the first proper season where we have had the chance to see the two greats go wheel-to-wheel for top honours. Let’s hope that Ferrari get their quality controls in check to make sure that they still make the most of the remaining four races of the season.
Force India’s Esteban Ocon finished sixth or in the ‘best of the rest’ position, after a stupendous start that saw him run in P3 ahead of Ricciardo and Bottas. Sergio Perez’s seventh position meant that Force India have now scored double points in 13 out of the 16 races contested this season, which is also their highest ever and second only to Mercedes (who have a score of 15/16). Ocon’s impressive show with Force India will definitely put him on the radar for a switch to Mercedes (he is already a Mercedes junior driver) in 2019. Ocon also equalled Max Chilton’s record of most number of consecutive race finishes with 25.
The other team that scored double points was the Haas F1 Team. Kevin Magnussen (eighth) and Romain Grosjean (ninth), finished ahead of the Williams of Felipe Massa (10th). Their double-point finish helped them jump ahead of the Renault F1 Team in seventh place and this will be an interesting battle to follow as the season nears an end given the millions at stake.
Lastly, the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix was also Jolyon Palmer’s last race with Renault and most probably in Formula 1. Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr will replace Palmer and partner Nico Hulkenberg from the United States Grand Prix. Meanwhile, in the Toro Rosso, there’s no clarity on whether Pierre Gasly will skip his Super Formula weekend in Japan and attempt to win the title, or head to the US Grand Prix and partner the returning Daniil Kvyat. For the first time, the Red Bull Junior Programme seems to be out of young drivers capable of jumping into a Formula 1 car. So will Red Bull recall Sebastian Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari or offer Anthony Felix da Costa his break in Formula 1?

This article was first published on Firstpost and was co-written with Mithila Mehta

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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