Formula 1: Japanese GP 2019 Thoughts

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.

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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.

Formula 1: Russia 2019 GP Thoughts

I’ll be honest, I’ve never completely warmed to the Sochi semi-street circuit track. As an armchair spectator at home, the whole thing looks the same to me and I would struggle to recall any specific corners or memorable elements of the track. It’s perhaps fitting then that we’ve not really had any killer races is Russia that are worth remembering. The 2019 edition was no different.

Lewis Hamilton benefitted from the safety car to win his first race after the summer break, finally breaking the red cars’ chokehold. This should have been another Ferrari victory though and I’m sure Mercedes must be just a little concerned now for, without the safety car, either Vettel or Leclerc would have taken the top step of the rostrum without a doubt.

Ferrari’s afternoon was mired by the apparent intra-team politics that were once again kicking off in the background. Vettel had an immense start, surging forth from third on the grid to pass Hamilton and slipstream his Leclerc before passing his teammate and gaining the lead. Initially, it looked like Seb was back, revitalised by his Singapore victory. However, team radio soon revealed a different story and it became clear that there had been some form of pre-race agreement in place that might have helped Vettel gain first place on the road. There was talk of Seb letting Charles by but Vettel was already pulling out a lead and apparently in no mood to comply. Shades of Multi-21?

Whatever the truth behind this mysterious agreement was, it’s not the sort of thing we want to be sitting down to watch at the weekend. To the fans, it looked like Vettel had made an incredible start and put one over on both his big rival in recent years (Hamilton) and the young new upstart from the opposite side of the Ferrari garage. Game on. But then we get all of this crap about agreements and letting other cars by. No thanks. Remember when these sorts of orders were banned in the Schumacher era? I can’t say I fully blame Vettel for holding the lead. After all, there was every possibility that he would have been able to seize it anyway without assistance. He’d certainly already beaten Hamilton and there was nothing to say that he wouldn’t have been able to slipstream Charles and take first place unaided.

 

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The controversy was ultimately rendered elementary in due course, however. Ferrari swapped the pair back around through pit strategy but before we got to see the teammates go at it tooth and nail, Vettel’s car ground to a halt with a power unit failure. The irony was that Vettel’s breakdown triggered the safety car that allowed Hamilton to steal the lead from Leclerc. Ferrari pitted Leclerc again, allowing Valtteri Bottas to get the other silver arrow into second place, a position he would hold until the flag.

Vettel was still voted Driver of the Day by the fans though – a verdict that I didn’t agree with at all. For me, it was all about Alex Albon in the Red Bull, and his charge through the field to fifth place after starting the race from the pit lane. Albon impressed once again with a series of aggressive yet controlled desperado moves as he battled through the midfield, overhauling two former Red Bull drivers – Kvyat and Gasly – in the process. All of this with brakes that were not working properly. For me, Albon has done enough to show that he should get the Red Bull drive in 2020. His assertive performance in the car in the races following the summer break has already overshadowed anything that Pierre Gasly had done in the season’s first half.

The only big surprise at the Russian GP was that Romain Grosjean was eliminated in a clash on the opening lap…and it wasn’t his fault!

Thankfully, we’re off to a classic venue for the next race – Suzuka.