2015 Japanese Grand Prix Review

I have finally decided to start my blog, in an effort to bring my passion for Formula One racing together with honing my writing skills. For my first post, I review the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix. I watched the race intently on television, like I always do, but this time I actually took a pen and jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper. After the race, with the highlight reel in my mind still fresh, I gave it a shot and wrote the majority of the content of this post, which I returned to a few days later to iron it out and put it up here only now. So here goes my rookie effort. Comments and suggestions are most welcome. 

Formula One returned to Suzuka after last year’s tragic incident involving Jules Bianchi, who passed away nine months after sustaining injuries from his horror crash at the treacherous 2014 edition of the Japanese Grand Prix. The paddock and the fans evidently kept Jules in their thoughts, as seen with numerous banners among the crowd paying tribute to the late young driver. Nonetheless, it was business as usual, just one week fresh off the Singapore Grand Prix.

Unlike the Friday practice sessions which saw rainy weather, the final practice session on Saturday morning, qualifying in the afternoon, and the race on Sunday had decent dry weather. The top three qualifiers were the two Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in that order, followed by Williams’ Valtteri Bottas. Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat crashed during the late stages of the Q3 top ten shootout and decided to make changes in his car, resulting in a pit-lane start for the race. Kvyat made a mistake heading into the right-hand  kink before the hairpin corner and lost control of his car, sending him to the tire barrier and into a roll as the car dug into the soggy gravel. Thankfully, the young Russian was unhurt and walked away under his own power.

The start of the race was quite eventful, with three drivers Ricciardo, Massa, and Perez all suffering tire punctures. Ricciardo and Massa touched wheels at the start, resulting in immediate punctures for the two of them before Turn 1. Perez, who was trying to avoid Massa, was clipped by Sainz coming through Turn 1, who was squeezed and had nowhere to go.

At the front of the field, the big story was Hamilton taking the race lead from Rosberg after Turn 2. Initially, it looked like both Mercedes drivers had decent starts coming off the line but Hamilton started to get alongside Rosberg as they approached Turn 1, where they went through side by side. Hamilton maintained his inside line and had to force Rosberg off at Turn 2, where the German lost momentum and lost places to Vettel and Bottas. Later on in the race, Rosberg overtook Bottas going into the chicane and overtook Vettel via a pit stop undercut. Raikkonen also gained a place over Bottas. Eventually, the top five of the race was settled quite easily like that, with Hamilton cruising to another win. Hulkenberg, Grosjean, and Maldonado rounded out P6, P7, and P8, respectively, after clean drives from all three drivers. Nothing against Maldonado, but it is quite unusual to associate him with a “clean drive” but his performance was incident-free.

The thrilling part of the race was the midfield battle, as we have consistently seen throughout the season. With Ricciardo, Massa, and Perez unable to make it back to finish in the top ten, there was quite a scrap for the last points-paying positions. Coming off an impressive comeback drive in Singapore, Max Verstappen again stepped up and hauled in a P9 finish after starting P17. As usual, he drove a level-headed and mature race despite his ripe young age. His highlights include passing Button (double-team style with Nasr) down the inside of Turn 1, passing Alonso around the outside of Turn 1, and passing his teammate, Sainz, at the chicane. Sainz finished P10 to round out all the points-scoring drivers.

Eleventh place finisher Alonso was the most frustrated among all drivers in this race. After being passed by Sainz at Turn 1 and then by Ericsson quite easily down the main straight, Alonso declared on team radio that it was “embarrassing.” When Verstappen came along to pass him towards the middle of the race, the Spaniard further vented out his frustration by saying that he was driving a “GP2 engine.” For me, it was utterly heartbreaking to see a former two-time world champion express such helplessness driving an underperforming car. The same goes for Button, being also a former world champion. We see two respected veterans stuck in a team with an engine that has been stuck in its development. My feelings for them are quite strong as I think they do not deserve their positions in the grid—former world champions toiling close to the back is unacceptable. There’s nothing much to be done except wait for the development of the Honda engine to perfectly suit the McLaren chassis. For the sake of longtime stalwarts Alonso and Button, I’m hoping that would be sooner rather than later.

The battle behind Alonso for P12 was also spectacular. It was mostly a three-way battle between Ericsson, Perez, and Kvyat, until Ricciardo caught up to join the gaggle. What made it more interesting was the leaders coming by to lap them one by one. After laps of tight battling with Perez, Ericsson made his third mistake of the weekend at spoon corner to set Perez up to pass him down the back straight. Shortly after, with Raikkonen attempting to get by, Ericsson let him through at the chicane, only to have Kvyat sneak in by closely following Raikkonen to gain the place. The race finished with Ricciardo unable to make a move past Ericsson, who in my opinion, had a not-so-good race weekend.

I just haven’t seen Ericsson improve throughout the season, where I noticed that he has a tendency for making mistakes on his own (I still haven’t forgotten his silly braking misjudgment at Malaysia earlier this year). The Swedish driver made three separate mistakes at spoon corner starting at Q1 in a spectacular spin where he just managed to avoid the barrier, the second one during the early part of the race where he came off track, and the third one was when he just missed the apex and lost momentum at corner exit, leaving Perez with an easy pass late in the race. It’s a strong opinion but I don’t think Sauber should have retained him for next year. Nonetheless, he’s still young and has room for much improvement. I’m hoping Sauber can develop a package for next year that could get them back to the days when Perez and Kobayashi brought home a couple of podium finishes for the Swiss team. It should be interesting to see if Ericsson and Nasr can match those achievements with a better, quicker car.

Overall, this year’s edition of the Japanese Grand Prix featured quite lonely racing up front but had a lively midfield battle. I was once again impressed by the Toro Rosso duo of Sainz and Verstappen, as well as the two Lotuses of Grosjean and Maldonado, who brought home an acceptable haul of championship points. Also, it was another race at which Ferrari had better race pace than Williams. With his teammate suffering an unlucky incident at the start, Bottas, who qualified ahead of both Ferraris, was left to fend for himself alone, and looked quite vulnerable, against Vettel and Raikkonen.

Championship leader Lewis Hamilton cruised to an easy win, which was the 41st of his career, matching Ayrton Senna’s total. The win pulled him ahead of closest rival Nico Rosberg in the championship battle by an additional seven points. Personally, I’m still cheering for Nico but objectively speaking, Lewis seems to be the better driver during the races. Let’s see if Nico can come out strong at the Sochi Autodrom in the Russian Grand Prix on October 9-11.

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