The 2019 running of the Japanese grand prix at Suzuka wasn’t really that interesting to me, which is a shame since the circuit has hosted some truly classic races in the past, and is one of the all-time greats of circuit design. That said, the final result was an unexpected one. Due to Typhoon Hagibis, qualifying had to run on Sunday, right before the race itself. Ferrari blitzed the opposition to lock out the front row but it was the return of Finger Man as Seb Vettel blew away all challengers to snatch pole and set a new lap record of Suzuka in the process.
Ferrari’s speed advantage over Mercedes pointed to the red cars dominating the race, but clearly nobody informed Valtteri Bottas of the script. I don’t know what he had for breakfast that day but I want some of it! Driving like a man possessed, he got a mega start and bolted from the second row of the grid, around both Ferraris and into the lead of the race. He would stay there until the chequred flag, beating both Ferraris and his illustrious teammate, Lewis Hamilton.
I have nothing at all against Hamilton but when Mercedes put the two drivers onto different strategies, I thought, “here we go again…” Hamilton was to do a one-stopper while Bottas was put onto a two-stop and it was predicted that he would have to pass Lewis on-track to win the race. So it was that I expected Merc to play a crafty one and have Lewis magically appear in first place after benefitting from Mercedes controlling the outcome between their two drivers. Thankfully, I was wrong on this occasion and Valtteri was able to win the race – a win that he thoroughly earned.
Hamilton was, in fact, not happy. He didn’t agree with the team’s tyre strategy and felt that he could have challenged for the outright win. As it turned out, he was on the radio a lot, clearly displeased with the team as he found himself stuck behind Vettel during the race’s closing stages. It was a big battle but no matter what Hamilton tried, Vettel stood firm and just about managed to hang onto his P2.
Away from the front three, Charles Leclerc had an uncharacteristically bad day at the office. He under-steered wide at the first turn and collided with Max Verstappen who was attempting to take the Ferrari on the outside of the corner. The two young chargers – billed by many as the next two protagonists of the sport – clashed and Verstappen was ultimately eliminated from the race, being forced to retire later on as the damage to his car rendered further running pointless. Leclerc continued a clumsy weekend by trying to continue with his damaged front wing dragging on the ground and sending up a shower of sparks. The damaged bodywork on his car eventually parted ways, showering a chasing Hamilton with carbon fibre, ripping the W10’s right-hand mirror off. Hamilton was lucky not to get hit by the debris; Leclerc and Ferrari were fortunate not to get penalised for causing a dangerous, avoidable incident.
The race opened with the above drama and closed with the Hamilton/Vettel battle but the middle was fairly uneventful.
Albon continued his streak of good results by coming home in fourth – some small consolation for the team after Verstappen’s earlier elimination. Elsewhere, Sainz and McLaren impressed once again by finishing fifth.
My main closing thought here: Valtteri Bottas was superb this weekend but how I wish he could be more consistent with it! He is often absolutely nowhere in the races, trundling around well off the pace of Hamilton and also – frequently – Vettel, Leclerc and even Verstappen. Then, out of the blue, he will morph into a completely different driver and annihilate the opposition (as we saw in Australia). Valtteri can mathematically still win this year’s driver’s championship but he will have to carry his Suzuka performance through to every single remaining race of the season. I never say never but all of the smart money is still on an inevitable – and deserved – sixth for Hamilton.