The Triple. It has been another successful title defense for the Mercedes AMG Petronas team after Nico Rosberg’s Japanese Grand Prix victory clinched the 2016 Constructors’ championship for the team. On the heels of only the squad’s second loss of the season last week in Malaysia, Sunday’s title-clincher in Suzuka came thanks to Rosberg’s ninth win of the season. A Silver Arrow has now won 15 out of 17 races thus far this year and they have now cemented themselves as three-time champions.
I mentioned in a previous review that last month’s race in Singapore was arguably the best of Rosberg’s career but that has rapidly changed after his impeccable performance throughout the Japanese Grand Prix weekend. The German set the quickest time in each of all three practice sessions, nabbed pole position in Qualifying, and cruised to victory in the race. From the lead during the final stint, Rosberg expertly managed his gap ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen by being efficient and driving conservatively. It’s not exactly a spectacular racing style but it has proven to be effective. A controlled pace while in the lead has been the craft that Rosberg has developed for almost a year now and his twelve wins since last season’s Mexican Grand Prix shows that it has delivered the results. Crucially, Rosberg now leads the championship by 33 points from Lewis Hamilton and there are only four races to go.
While Rosberg made a decent getaway from pole at the start, the defending world champion’s race unraveled at the very beginning. The latest of several such occasions this season, Hamilton completely bogged down his start yet again. He quickly apologized through team radio for his poor start, acknowledging that it was his own error with the car’s clutch, and later clarified that it was not because he started on the damp side of the track (courtesy of heavy overnight rain). By the end of the first two corners, Hamilton dropped from second to eighth.
As his championship rival controlled the race from the lead, Hamilton was cooped up behind a couple of fast-starting Force Indias and the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen during his first stint. The first Force India of Nico Hulkenberg was quickly taken care of and a few laps later while coming out of the pit, Hamilton leapfrogged Raikkonen and Sergio Perez after the latter two got stuck behind the Renault of Jolyon Palmer, who was on a different strategy, for one lap. Traffic was a real problem that most of the front-runners encountered in this race. On a narrow track like Suzuka, getting through slower traffic can be annoying—just ask the Ferrari drivers, who complained through team radio over and over about getting caught up with back-markers.
Hamilton then moved up to third later on when Ferrari attempted to run a different tire strategy for Sebastian Vettel. With Hamilton’s Mercedes on the hard compound tire, Vettel was given the soft compound to attempt an aggressive strategy. Ferrari’s tactic proved fruitless as their car simply, disappointingly, could not keep pace with the superior Mercedes. The reigning champion’s third place finish was consolidated even though a late challenge against Verstappen was unsuccessful. On the penultimate lap, Verstappen again performed a borderline blocking move under braking as he defended Hamilton’s onslaught. Hamilton had to take avoiding action as he pointed out over the radio that Verstappen moved late, which he later dismissed. Mercedes had a complaint lodged against the Red Bull driver but that has now been rescinded.
Verstappen was not penalized and his move was not as bad as the one he pulled on Raikkonen at Spa down the Kemmel Straight but Motorsport.com reports that race director Charlie Whiting and race steward Emanuele Pirro have talked to the young Dutchman regarding his driving behavior. Again, it was a borderline blocking move but at least the officials have now identified one late maneuver in a braking zone that deserved a discussion. It’s effectively a nudge to the teenager, saying that he can be dangerous if he doesn’t tweak his style a bit. Given how generally adamant Verstappen is at justifying his on-track defensive maneuvers, we could only hope that he hears out the criticism.
Nonetheless, he was able to hold Hamilton off with sheer pace and strategic use of extra hybrid power. It was reminiscent of the Dutchman’s victory in Barcelona when he kept Raikkonen at bay for many laps like a seasoned veteran. Fans voted Verstappen as Driver of the Day.
Elsewhere, I guess I’ve already alluded to Ferrari’s disappointing race pace despite their promising performance in Qualifying. Raikkonen and Vettel’s third and fourth were both handed their respective grid penalties. Vettel could’ve finished the race on the podium but Hamilton’s Mercedes was just too superior to reign in.
Another disappointing team this weekend was McLaren on Honda’s home race. Both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button struggled in Qualifying and couldn’t do much to recover in the race, running low down the order most of the time. Despite that, the drivers seemed to have enjoyed the weekend in front of their team’s home crowd.
On a more positive note, it is worth pointing out that all cars on the field took the checkered flag in a race that featured no attrition.
That was just about all the highlights of the Japanese Grand Prix. The Japanese sure are passionate about the sport and as always, they provided a great atmosphere at Suzuka. Mercedes have now earned their third consecutive constructors’ title while Rosberg continues to be at the top of his game as he strengthens his grip on what is very well looking to be his championship year. A busy October for F1 will continue in two weeks in Austin for the United States Grand Prix. Last season, Hamilton sealed the drivers’ title there but this time around, the intra-Mercedes championship war for sure won’t be concluding anytime soon.
I can probably consider this race review as a personal milestone because last year’s Japanese Grand Prix review was the first ever post in this blog. It’s been a year writing in this blog and although I missed five race reviews earlier this season, I’m pleased that I’ve kept at it to continue improving my craft. I look forward to writing more about the two things that I’m passionate about: F1 and literature. Odd combination, isn’t it?
If you happen to be a bibliophile, head over to my still very young literary blog The Asian Reader, where I’ll be writing about Asian literature and occasionally, Asian films, culture, and travel.
Until the next blog post,