Japanese Grand Prix 2015: Winners and Losers from Suzuka Race
The odds were against Hamilton after his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, claimed pole position on Saturday, but a strong start allowed Hamilton to snatch the lead and control the race to match three-time world champion Ayrton Senna's tally of 41 victories.
Despite starting from pole, Rosberg was quickly forced into damage-limitation mode at Suzuka after falling to fourth. But while he recovered to finish second, securing his team's eighth one-two finish of the year, he now trails Hamilton by 48 points in the drivers' championship with five races remaining.
With a look at one of Red Bull's darkest days and Fernando Alonso's decision to finally take a stand against McLaren-Honda, here are the winners and losers from Japan.
Winner: Lewis Hamilton
After qualifying, both Mercedes drivers told Sky Sports how they would be unable to use the undercut technique—whereby drivers make an early pit stop, using the benefit of fresh tyres to pass the car ahead—at Suzuka.
On a narrow circuit, and without the variables—rain, safety cars, pit-stop and driving errors—coming into play, that meant any overtaking manoeuvre between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had to be completed in the old-fashioned way: on the track.
It was fascinating, therefore, to observe how Hamilton, the racer's racer, lined up Rosberg for the inevitable move, which effectively began before the grand prix got underway.
As the field exited the final chicane on the formation lap, Hamilton slowed his pace substantially, backing the pack up and allowing his team-mate—presumably unaware of what was happening behind—to sit alone on his grid slot, losing tyre temperature with each passing second.
Since the revised race-start procedure was introduced at the Belgian GP, placing a greater emphasis on a driver's skill and judgement, the difference between the Mercedes drivers has been increasingly vivid, with Rosberg making poor getaways ever since.
And it was again the case at Suzuka as Hamilton almost immediately drew alongside his team-mate.
Despite Rosberg's attempt to intimidate him, Hamilton's position on the inside line meant he was bound to emerge in the lead after Turns 1 and 2, where the cars are funneled and made to run in single file.
The British driver's decision to simply run Rosberg out of road created a two-car buffer between the Silver Arrows, allowing Hamilton to disappear into the distance and secure his 41st career victory.
It was the perfect example of a driver identifying an opportunity and executing it to perfection, and while there were complaints that Hamilton's car was starved of television coverage over the course of the 53 laps, we simply didn't need to see him.
The race was won within the first two corners.
Loser: Nico Rosberg
Nico Rosberg had appeared to be enjoying one of his better weekends of 2015 at Suzuka, matching Hamilton for pace in the early stages of the weekend and claiming only his second pole position of the year on Saturday.
Finally with the privilege of being able to control a grand prix, this was the chance for him to erode a chunk of his team-mate's 41-point advantage and perform rehabilitation therapy on his own championship chances.
Yet as has been the case all season long, Rosberg—suffering from a headache, as noted by Ted Kravitz during Sky Sports' coverage of the grand prix—was out-thought and out-muscled by Hamilton in racing conditions.
As he was eased on to the grass by Hamilton at Turn 2, losing further positions to Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas, Rosberg's best chance of victory since June suddenly became yet another day of recovery, yet another afternoon to settle for second.
Unable to undercut Bottas at the first round of pit stops, his forceful pass on the Williams at the final chicane on Lap 17 was the latest example of the aggression and decisiveness Rosberg will happily employ against those who stand between him and Hamilton—but never in direct battle with Hamilton himself.
Mercedes' return to form meant passing Vettel was almost a formality and the undercut allowed him to overtake the Ferrari on Lap 31. Yet the very fact Rosberg couldn't pull away from his compatriot over the remaining 22 laps—per the official F1 website, the pair finished just 1.886 seconds apart—showed just how poor his performance was.
On a day when Rosberg, as he told the post-race FIA press conference, "had to win," his machinery and the pit wall once again had to rescue him from another inadequate result.
Winner: Nico Hulkenberg
Despite his victory in June's Le Mans 24 Hours, 2015 has been the least-convincing season of Nico Hulkenberg's entire Formula One career.
The momentum behind the man so often regarded as a potential world champion has faded in recent months, with the German scoring just six points since July's Hungarian GP, lacking the pace of team-mate Sergio Perez and suffering handling and reliability issues with Force India's B-spec car.
When drivers find themselves stuck in a rut, the misfortune of one event carries into the next and the German's three-place grid penalty at Suzuka—following his collision with Felipe Massa in Singapore—would have left Hulkenberg with limited expectations from 13th on the grid.
Yet his latest strong start, which saw him hold the inside line against Carlos Sainz Jr. and help to nudge Perez into the gravel trap, saw him surge to eighth on the opening lap.
By stopping at the end of Lap 10, Hulkenberg managed to undercut both Lotus drivers for sixth place and from there—unable to catch Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen ahead, but with more than enough pace to keep Romain Grosjean behind—was left in a race of his own.
It was the kind of tactical, consistent and brilliantly boring performance we have come to expect from Hulkenberg since his arrival on the grid in 2010 and, as deputy team principal Bob Fernley told Force India's official website, "it’s just the result Nico needed after a difficult run of races."
Now just one point behind Perez and six adrift of ninth-placed Grosjean in the drivers' standings, Hulkenberg's season is back on track.
Loser: Red Bull
Throughout their spell at the summit of the sport between late 2009 and 2013, Suzuka was the one place where Red Bull Racing were untouchable, setting five pole positions and winning on four occasions with Sebastian Vettel.
It was fitting, then, that the team's fall from grace in 2015 hit a new low at the venue where they were once so dominant—and this time it wasn't the fault of Renault, Red Bull's much-maligned engine supplier.
Starting from seventh, Daniel Ricciardo's race was ruined within seconds after his rear-left tyre touched Felipe Massa's front-right on the run toward Turn 1, a function of Suzuka's narrow track surface, giving the Australian an instant puncture.
The incident—akin to Fernando Alonso's collision with Kimi Raikkonen at the beginning of the 2012 race and Lewis Hamilton's contact with Vettel in 2013—forced Ricciardo to complete a full lap at low speed and, as he told Red Bull's official website, left him struggling with a damaged floor for the remainder of the race.
Daniil Kvyat, of course, had damaged his car in a crash at the end of qualifying, forcing him to enter the grand prix with a new chassis.
While a pit-lane start meant he safely avoided a similar incident to his team-mate, his inability to get the car to his liking was evident as the race progressed and he was hindered by tyre and brake problems, with Kvyat telling the team's official website how he was unable to use the "overtake button" on his steering wheel.
Kvyat deserved nothing more than a 13th-place finish after his most untidy weekend for sometime, yet his mistakes across the Japanese GP should perhaps be viewed in the context of F1's return to the scene of his friend Jules Bianchi's ultimately fatal accident in 2014.
After July's Hungarian GP, which took place a week after the Frenchman's death, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told Motorsport.com's Charles Bradley how Kvyat needed time to "settle down" following a pre-race tribute to Bianchi.
Racing at a place with such terrible memories may have had an adverse effect on Kvyat and, much like his team, he will be eager to move on from Japan.
As it's contaminated by power struggles, political conflicts and cheating scandals, it is easy—especially in the modern era—to overlook the true meaning of sport.
Above all, sport is about escapism, about being transported to a world that feels like everything but, in the grander scheme of things, means nothing and, essentially, about forgetting all the rubbish in your life every once in a while.
Lotus have had to deal with plenty of rubbish in 2015, from being the subject to a "winding-up petition," as reported by Autosport's Ian Parkes and Dieter Rencken, to being denied a set of tyres for their car in Hungary.
And as they arrived at the Japanese Grand Prix, Lotus—world champions just a decade ago—discovered they had been locked out of their hospitality unit in the Suzuka paddock, per Sky Sports' James Galloway, leaving Bernie Ecclestone to feed the team's employees.
Without a point since their podium finish at Spa-Francorchamps, Lotus have found little respite as their purchase by Renault reaches its conclusion.
Yet when their colleagues needed them most, both Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado delivered to claim the team's second double-points finish of the season.
Grosjean was, arguably, the star performer of qualifying, hauling his E23 to eighth on the grid, and while Maldonado only managed 13th—which became 11th after Hulkenberg and Kvyat's penalties were applied—a strong start allowed him to nestle behind his team-mate in seventh.
Hulkenberg's eventual finishing margin over Grosjean—per the official F1 website, the Force India driver was 16.738 seconds up the road by the chequered flag—meant Lotus could have done nothing to contain his pace.
But their seventh and eighth-place finishes, after clean, error-free drives by Grosjean and Maldonado, was the best result Lotus could have achieved at Suzuka.
And for 90 minutes or so, they were finally able to forget all that other rubbish.
Loser: Valtteri Bottas
For once, Williams kept their side of the bargain.
Over the last 18 months, the team have found themselves in a position to win a number of grands prix, but a reactive, unadventurous approach to pit-strategy calls—most notable at Austria 2014 and July's British GP—meant they have often failed to claim the results their speed has deserved.
In Japan, however, the pit wall took the initiative, pitting Valtteri Bottas as early as Lap 11 to effectively dictate Nico Rosberg's strategy, guarding against the undercut and forcing the Mercedes driver to stretch his first stint until Lap 15.
The master plan worked, with the German rejoining behind the Finn and forcing Rosberg's crew to reassess their strategy.
"Push to attack Bottas to destroy his tyres," Rosberg was told by his race engineer on Lap 17, per the FIA television feed.
Seconds after that message had been transmitted, however, Rosberg claimed third place after one of the finest defensive drivers on the current grid—not for the first time in 2015—failed to protect the inside line at a prime overtaking spot.
Bottas enjoyed one of his most-impressive weekends for some time at Suzuka, claiming third in qualifying and finishing behind Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen after the team, as Rob Smedley told Williams' official website, left his final pit stop "too late."
Yet there is a lingering carelessness preventing Bottas from making the leap from an excellent grand prix driver to a world champion in waiting.
And while he may tell the team's official website how he "expected more" from Williams this season, Bottas himself still has a lot to learn.
Winner: Fernando Alonso
Fernando Alonso was the enemy within at McLaren-Honda at Suzuka.
In the first race on Japanese soil since one of the most-legendary chassis-engine partnerships was re-established at the beginning of 2015, the team's marquee signing—the man they signed to lead their operation—produced a performance for Honda to be proud of.
After navigating his way from 12th on the grid to ninth on the opening lap, Alonso defied the pitiful excuse for a power unit to outstay his welcome in the top 10, frustrating the Renault-powered cars of Carlos Sainz Jr., Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen.
And while his combative drive was unable to contain those behind, as he ultimately finished 11th, Alonso's 2015 Japanese GP will not be remembered for what he did but for what he said.
Alonso and team-mate Jenson Button have remained fiercely loyal to McLaren throughout their season of struggle—only occasionally showing signs of frustrations—but this was the day the two-time world champion could take no more.
As heard over the FIA TV feed, per Sky Sports, Alonso repeatedly mocked Honda's engine over team radio, reporting how "embarrassing" it was to be unable to fight his rivals on even ground, comparing the powertrain to a "GP2 engine" and, at one point, roaring over the intercom.
The stream of messages, as is often the case with Alonso, felt pre-meditated.
And while it may be considered a crime to voice such criticism in Honda's home country and at a Honda-owned circuit, where senior Honda executives were present, it might be the only way for the team, the drivers and the engine manufacturer to get the action they need to be competitive in 2016 and beyond.
And besides, it's about time someone carved through the nonsense spouted by McLaren and Honda all season long.