Japanese Grand Prix 2016: 5 Bold Predictions for Suzuka Race
The three-time world champion held a 19-point lead over Nico Rosberg just two months ago, yet after failing to win any of the last four races—having retired from the lead of the recent Malaysian GP—he now finds himself 23 points behind his Mercedes team-mate with just five grands prix remaining.
If he is to win a fourth world title in 2016, a return to winning ways is a matter of urgency, but Hamilton's predicament may get even worse before it gets better.
With a look at the latest development in the championship battle, an unexpected podium finisher, a setback for McLaren-Honda at the latter's home race and a crash for a driver fighting for his future, here are five predictions for Suzuka.
Lewis Hamilton Will Incur a 10-Place Grid Penalty for a 3rd Reprimand of 2016
Hamilton's retirement from the lead of the Malaysian GP felt for all the world like the beginning of the end of his 2016 championship challenge.
Yet given how quickly the momentum shifted after Rosberg established a 43-point lead after the first four grands prix—and again following Hamilton's run of six wins in seven races at the midseason stage—it would be foolish to write him off just yet.
With five races remaining and 125 points still available—and with a strong record in Japan, the United States and Abu Dhabi in particular—Hamilton has more than enough time to overturn Rosberg's 23-point lead.
But now, more than ever, it is time for him to remain calm. To stop alienating the team who have given him so much. To shut off from social media. To focus only on the essentials.
And, perhaps most importantly, to keep his discipline.
So agonising was his engine failure at Sepang that Suzuka has arguably come too soon for Hamilton, both in terms of digesting his retirement and weathering the storm that quickly formed after his emotional, if disrespectful, post-race comments, per BBC Sport.
And there is a danger that, rather than resetting and immediately cutting Rosberg's lead, he will be shrouded in self-pity and ultimately self-destruct.
Hamilton has been stuck on two official reprimands since the fourth race of the season, having reversed up the pit lane at the end of qualifying in Bahrain and rejoined the track in a supposedly unsafe manner after running wide in Russia, with a third set to trigger a 10-place grid penalty.
He was extremely fortunate to avoid that in Germany, where he almost collided with Romain Grosjean in the pit lane, and we fear the reprimand will come at the worst possible time this weekend.
A relatively innocuous incident—a track-limits violation, a near-miss in the pits or unintentionally blocking another car in practice or qualifying—will see Hamilton's wrists slapped for a third time, leaving him starting no higher than 11th at a circuit where first-lap collisions are commonplace.
Nico Rosberg Will Win from Pole Position to Move a Step Closer to the Title
That's it, that's all he needs now.
Provided Mercedes end this season with a series of one-two finishes—which, admittedly, is far from guaranteed—just one more victory will be enough for Rosberg to become the champion of the world.
With a lead of 23 points, he can afford to sit in his team-mate's turbulent air and settle for second in four of the final five races, waiting for his chance to come and for the title to float gently into his hands.
And assessing the Mercedes drivers' respective records at the remaining venues on the 2016 calendar, it is relatively easy to identify where that win could come.
The obvious places are Mexico, where Rosberg claimed an assured pole-to-flag victory in 2015, and Brazil, where he has won from pole in each of the last two seasons—and where Hamilton has never stood on the top step of the podium in nine previous appearances.
But Rosberg may also fancy his chances of upstaging the No. 44 car in Abu Dhabi and Japan, two places where he has exceeded expectations alongside Hamilton since Mercedes' rise to prominence.
As noted by F1 journalist Peter Windsor, Suzuka—one of the few tracks in the modern era where the drivers can make the difference—is theoretically a Hamilton circuit, but that didn't stop Rosberg claiming pole for the 2014 and 2015 events.
Only his struggles in the wet and Hamilton's cunning plan at the start of last year's race prevented him from converting those poles into victories. And should his team-mate prove to be his own worst enemy this weekend, Rosberg will be left with a comfortable route to victory.
If he gets the job done in Japan, the title will be close enough to touch.
Kimi Raikkonen Will Finally Return to the Podium
Strange, isn't it?
Since his Ferrari contract extension was announced ahead of July's British GP, Kimi Raikkonen has performed at a higher, more consistent level than at any stage since the height of his Lotus career in early 2013, but his results have hardly improved.
The 2007 world champion has been classified in the top six in six of the seven races since Silverstone, yet he still remains without a podium finish since the Austrian GP.
Circumstances—a first-corner collision at Spa, Ferrari's panicked pit call in Singapore and being barged out of the way by Rosberg in Malaysia—have prevented Raikkonen from converting those performances into results. Having finished fourth in the last three races, however, a return to the podium is on the horizon.
With four victories and four pole positions, Sebastian Vettel is the most successful driver on the current grid at Suzuka, although the four-time world champion's three-place grid penalty for causing a first-lap collision in Malaysia could allow Raikkonen to become Ferrari's main focus for the Japanese GP weekend.
And just like Bahrain 2015, Abu Dhabi 2015, Bahrain 2016, Russia 2016 and Austria 2016, Raikkonen will take advantage of his team-mate's misfortune to deliver a strong result after outqualifying Vettel on merit.
The SF16-H car will be a handful around the fast sweeps of Suzuka, but Raikkonen—who took victory in one of the greatest races in F1 history 11 years ago—will tame the red beast to finish third behind Rosberg and Red Bull's Max Verstappen to finish third and claim the podium finish his recent resurgence deserves.
Fernando Alonso Will Have Another Rant After Retiring from Honda's Home Race
Honda's preparations for the Japanese GP, their home race at their own circuit, began in the days leading up to Malaysia.
As reported by Autosport (h/t Eurosport), the manufacturer's decision to introduce their latest upgrade at Sepang was a result of their desire to get the inevitable grid-place penalties—a function of exceeding F1's engine-component usage restrictions—out of the way before Suzuka.
So after dropping 45 places in Malaysia, Fernando Alonso will be allowed to demonstrate the full force of McLaren-Honda in front of the Japanese crowd this weekend, when the MP4-31 could be the fourth-fastest car.
Honda's determination to have a clean weekend at Suzuka, where several executives are bound to be in attendance, is understandable, yet the decision to choreograph an engine change might come back to bite them.
As McLaren racing director Eric Boullier told an FIA press conference in Malaysia, the revised power unit is "mainly" aimed at improving reliability, but Alonso—who has retired from two of the last four Japanese GPs—will slow to a halt with a Honda-related issue at less than half distance.
And, a year after his "GP2 engine" rant over the team radio, the paddock will await Alonso's speech at what effectively is the Honda party conference.
With a substantial power boost still required if McLaren are to challenge for victories—and potentially the title—in 2017, will Alonso embarrass Honda in the same, brutal style he did in 2015 with the intention of provoking a reaction?
Or, given the amount of progress the team have made over the course of this year, will the two-time world champion adopt a softer, more encouraging tone this time?
Alonso's behaviour this weekend may reveal whether he truly believes in McLaren-Honda.
Daniil Kvyat Will Crash at Spoon Curve as His Fight for an F1 Future Continues
It was at last year's Japanese GP where the wheels—literally and metaphorically—began to fall off Daniil Kvyat's F1 career.
Having claimed his maiden podium finish in Hungary and kept team-mate Daniel Ricciardo honest in the drivers' standings, the Russian was reasonably pleased with his first year as a Red Bull driver.
But, as reported by Motor Sport Magazine's Mark Hughes, all that changed ahead of Suzuka, when Helmut Marko informed him that, in actual fact, he hadn't yet done enough to secure a second season with the team.
Shaken out of his bubble of self-satisfaction, Kvyat went on to drive "more aggressively" than before, "taking huge speed into the corners, using up every inch of track on the approaches" in sheer desperation to prove he was worthy of a 2016 seat.
The result? He was far too aggressive for his own good in qualifying, running on to the grass at the right-hand kink before the hairpin and paying for it with one of the most violent crashes in recent years.
Ever since that day, Kvyat has been under the pressure of fighting for something every time he has climbed into the cockpit, first for a Red Bull seat and then—following his demotion to Toro Rosso earlier this season—his entire future.
As team principal Franz Tost told Autosport (h/t Eurosport), Toro Rosso would prefer to retain Kvyat for 2017 and—with Marko telling Sky Sports F1 a decision is due in mid-October—the Japanese GP represents his last chance to seal survival.
With that in mind, it will be fascinating to observe how Kvyat wrestles with the ghosts of Suzuka 2015 this weekend.
With his career on the line, we suspect he will again be lured into the trap of driving too flamboyantly and make the classic Suzuka mistake of dipping his rear-right wheel on to the grass on the entry to the double-apex left-hander of Spoon Curve, losing control and spinning into the barrier.
That will raise yet more questions over his future, but—after an encouraging return to form in Singapore—Kvyat has already done enough to earn another chance in 2017.