Japanese Grand Prix 2016: Winners and Losers from Suzuka Race

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2016

Japanese Grand Prix 2016: Winners and Losers from Suzuka Race

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    Nico Rosberg claimed his ninth victory of the 2016 Formula One season in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

    The German came out on top in a tense qualifying session on Saturday and, after Lewis Hamilton's poor start from second on the grid, was left to secure the win that sealed Mercedes' third consecutive constructors' world championship.

    Joining Rosberg on the podium were Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who produced a solid drive to claim second, and Hamilton, who recovered from eighth to third at the end of a strange, confrontational weekend for the three-time world champion.

    After another strong weekend for Force India and another day to forget for the likes of Ferrari, McLaren-Honda and Carlos Sainz Jr., here are the main winners and losers from Suzuka.

Winner: Nico Rosberg

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    There was a time when Rosberg would lose pole position by the slenderest of margins—think Singapore 2014 and China 2015.

    He would put up a good fight against Hamilton, running his Mercedes team-mate reasonably close, but would always come off second-best when it really mattered.

    But now?

    Now the moments that once fell in Hamilton's favour are going his way instead.

    That was why his third consecutive Japanese GP pole was hugely symbolic in the context of the title battle—especially after a qualifying session when Rosberg, having dominated until that point, was beaten by Hamilton during the first runs of Q3 before recovering to claim pole by 0.013 seconds.

    It was confirmation that Rosberg is now ready to make the leap from being a multiple grand prix winner to a world champion.

    In a season when pole position has meant precious little, given the Mercedes drivers' habits of making poor starts, coming out on top in qualifying was crucial for Rosberg. It allowed him to start on the clean—and, more importantly, dry—side of the grid after overnight rain left damp patches around Hamilton's grid slot.

    And, sure enough, when Hamilton did make his latest lacklustre getaway, Rosberg was in the clear, free to manage his tyres and the gap to the cars behind as he has so often done this season.

    The similar nature of his nine victories in 2016 will surely lead to suggestions that Rosberg would be an undeserving world champion—with a lead of 33 points, he only needs to finish second in each of the final four races to secure the title.

    Yet the challenge of guarding against complacency and maintaining concentration when there are no rival cars nearby to stimulate a racing driver's senses should never be underestimated.

    Make no mistake, he is ready.

Loser: Lewis Hamilton

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    At a time when he needed to reset, find his focus and avoid every possible distraction, Hamilton found himself picking the wrong fights throughout the Japanese GP weekend.

    His behaviour in Thursday's FIA press conference, when the world champion conducted himself with the etiquette of a naughty boy at the back of the classroom, was embarrassing.

    And his response to the media's use of the "dislike" button—walking out of a separate press briefing after qualifying—was the telltale sign of sensitive soul beginning to crack self-induced pressure.

    It was almost predictable, then, that at the place where he snatched the lead at the first corner with one of the smartest, perfectly executed pieces of driving of 2015, Hamilton's start from second on the grid reflected how sluggish his season has become.

    Eighth after the opening lap and stuck behind a group of cars that wouldn't simply give their positions away, Hamilton only woke up when James Vowles—Mercedes' increasingly impressive strategist—dug him out of the hole during the first round of pit stops.

    That allowed him to jump Kimi Raikkonen and quickly dispose of Daniel Ricciardo, with Ferrari's strategic error with Sebastian Vettel later gifting him third.

    In clear air, Hamilton soon caught Verstappen, but when he got there, it seemed to take him a little longer than it should have to realise his best chance of passing the Red Bull was not on the approach to Turn 1—where Verstappen's superior traction allowed him to escape—but at the final chicane.

    And when he finally did realise, Verstappen swatted his attempted pass in typically bold fashion on the penultimate lap, forcing Hamilton to miss the corner and settle for third.

    Even when he climbed out of the cockpit, Hamilton maintained the persona of a moody teenager, keeping his answers short and simple and acting like a driver who no longer believes he can win this world championship. 

    Distanced, disengaged and very nearly defeated.

Winner: Max Verstappen

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    There have been many reasons to complain about Verstappen's defensive tactics in recent months.

    Most obvious were his high-speed jinks against Raikkonen in Hungary and, of course, Belgium, where he seemed prepared to catapult the 2007 world champion into the Ardennes forest for the sake of 14th place.

    And going even further back, you could highlight his manoeuvres against Rosberg in Canada and Britain as moments where the teenager came too close for comfort to the absolute limit.

    At Suzuka's final chicane, though, his move against Hamilton was a case of a driver doing whatever he had to do to keep a position that was rightfully his.

    Verstappen, after all, had comfortably run second to Rosberg since the very first corner of the race, nursing his tyres and managing his pace with what he told the team's official website was "a really strong strategy."

    And on the penultimate lap, so near yet so far from the chequered flag, a driver as competitive and ruthless as Verstappen was never going to give the position away without a mighty fight.

    Especially just seven days after Malaysia, where his caution in wheel-to-wheel battle with Red Bull team-mate Ricciardo ultimately cost him victory.

    Indeed, the only reason Hamilton was driven to a late lunge at the chicane was the boy wonder's masterful management of the final corner, where—as he did while defending from Raikkonen in Spain—he ensured he enjoyed near-perfect traction along the main straight.

    That meant Hamilton, even with a Mercedes power unit and DRS assistance, was unable to even make an impression on a driver as calm and decisive in defence as he is in attack.

    On a weekend to forget for the world champion, Hamilton does at least deserve credit for persuading Mercedes to withdraw their appeal against Verstappen—as he wrote on his official Twitter account—and admitting he was beaten fair and square.

    As Verstappen told Sky Sports F1: "I'm not going to open the door and say here you go. I saw him moving and as soon as I saw that I closed the door, and I think he was far enough that he could see I was going to do that."

Loser: Ferrari

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    Vettel entered the Japanese GP under the spectre of a three-place grid penalty, but the four-time world champion felt Ferrari—whose drivers were classified third and fourth on Saturday—proved a point in qualifying at Suzuka. 

    "All in all, it's been a really positive day at a track where a lot of people said we don't have any chance with our car," he told Sky Sports' television coverage. "I think we proved that our car is very good."

    True, Seb, the SF16-H—despite its flaws—is a very good car and undeserving of being Ferrari's second winless chassis in three seasons.

    But as Ferrari have been reminded throughout 2016, a very good car is ultimately nothing without a team who can unlock and exploit its full potential.

    As noted by F1 journalist Peter Windsor, chairman Sergio Marchionne's obsession with his cars being on the softest possible tyres at every available opportunity has cost Ferrari potential victories in Australia and Canada.

    And there was an element of that self-defeating philosophy at Suzuka, where Vettel was the only driver in the top 12 to use the soft-compound tyres beyond the opening stint.

    At one stage, Vettel was pressurising Verstappen for second place, but the decision to extend his second stint on hards—a strategic move he was "keen" to make, as he told the team's official website—dropped him behind Hamilton in the fight for third.

    On a compound two steps softer than Hamilton's tyres, Vettel's rubber should theoretically have allowed him to speed past the Mercedes driver.

    Yet on a circuit like Suzuka—with few heavy braking zones and long, fast corners—his tyres effectively destroyed themselves in Hamilton's turbulent air, and Vettel quickly acknowledged the strategic mistake over team radio before fading away to fourth.

    On a weekend when questions over his future surfaced for the first time, another lost result is unlikely to improve relations between Vettel and Ferrari.

Winner: Force India

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    Having been unfashionable for so long, making a fuss over money worries and claiming generally mediocre results, there's a certain swagger about Force India these days.

    And that growth in stature—that surge in confidence—was beautifully encapsulated by Nico Hulkenberg's overtaking manoeuvre on Valtteri Bottas on Lap 20 of the Japanese GP.

    After making his first pit stop for hard-compound tyres on Lap 11, the German soon caught the one-stopping Bottas but found himself being held up by the Finn. 

    Reluctant to hold back any longer, Hulkenberg tracked his rival through the 130R section and pulled off a late-braking move around the outside of the Williams, muscling past Bottas to seize eighth place.

    Aware he'd just completed one of the most impressive passes of the season, Hulkenberg channeled the spirit of Ricciardo to ensure everyone else knew it.

    "See ya later!" he said with plenty of attitude as he sped off into the distance.

    Hulkenberg's move was the highlight of yet another strong weekend for Force India, who were in a class of their own—finishing almost 30 seconds behind the Mercedes-Red Bull-Ferrari trio and around 30 seconds ahead of Williams—at Suzuka.

    Despite being comfortably the fourth-best team of 2016 in terms of both performances and results, they are yet to make fourth place their own in the constructors' championship after initially nudging ahead of Williams at the Belgian GP.

    But now, with a 10-point lead over their rivals with four races remaining, you get the feeling Force India—like Hulkenberg after his move on Bottas—won't look back from here.

Loser: McLaren-Honda

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    Anyone who's anyone at McLaren—chairman Ron Dennis, racing director Eric Boullier, new chief executive officer Jost Capito and chief operating officer Jonathan Neale—flocked to Suzuka for the Japanese GP weekend.

    All of them were there, no doubt, to meet and greet their Honda counterparts, to keep putting the plans in place for a 2017 championship challenge and to celebrate the improvements made by the alliance over the course of this season.

    For even though their current results are still not befitting of the McLaren-Honda name, they—having made more progress than any other outfit this year—must consider 2016 a resounding success.

    With points finishes in 10 of the 15 previous races, the team have scored more than double the amount of points they did in 2015, and with Fernando Alonso warming up for Suzuka with seventh-place finishes in Singapore and Malaysia, it seemed McLaren would finally put on a credible show at Honda's home race.

    And, of course, lay the ghosts of last year's "GP2 engines" to rest.

    At the very place where they most required a positive result, however, McLaren endured one of their most degrading afternoons of the season.

    Jenson Button, the British driver with a Japanese heart, was eliminated from the first segment of qualifying for the first time since Silverstone. Fernando Alonso fared little better, finishing second-bottom of the Q2 standings after beating Button's time by just 0.032 seconds in Q1.

    Having been understandably reluctant to trigger a grid-place penalty at their own circuit, Honda—with nothing to lose—changed Button's engine on the morning of the race, forcing him to start from the back.

    Starting on the hard-compound tyres, however, the 2009 world champion was unable to pass the soft-shod, Mercedes-powered Manors and ran last in the opening stages of the race, ultimately finishing a lapped 18th and two places behind Alonso.

    There were no feisty team-radio messages this time, but there was no need for the drivers to broadcast their frustration over the airwaves.

    The team's performance alone brought enough humiliation at the McLaren-Honda party conference.

Loser: Carlos Sainz Jr.

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    Since Verstappen's promotion to Red Bull ahead of May's Spanish GP, Sainz has finally been receiving the credit he deserves.

    Now Toro Rosso are his team, the Spaniard has matured massively in 2016, combining his natural pace with extra consistency to the extent that he has emerged as a contender for seats at front-running teams.

    As reported by French outlet Minute-Auto.fr (h/t GrandPrix247.com), four-time world champion Alain Prost felt Sainz would have been an ideal team-mate to Vettel at Ferrari for 2017, while he has also been one of the many drivers linked to Renault for next season.

    Sainz, however, has never wavered in his commitment to Toro Rosso, insisting he is "OK to stay" with the Red Bull B-team for a third season before moving to a leading outfit for '18, per Motorsport.com's Darshan Chokhani and Oleg Karpov.

    And his performance over the Japanese GP weekend—and one snapshot of his race in particular—proved why the 22-year-old is perfectly happy to remain under the radar for "one more year."

    After a spin at Spoon Curve saw him qualify behind team-mate Daniil Kvyat for the second week in succession, Sainz was running behind Alonso on Lap 27, when—with the assistance of DRS—he attacked his mentor into Turn 1.

    Positioned on the outside of the fast-right-hander, however, Sainz gave the master an open invitation to ease his apprentice off the track, with the Toro Rosso taking to the tarmac run-off area and losing time.

    Rather than maintaining the pressure on Alonso, Sainz left himself vulnerable to the chasing Williams' of Felipe Massa and Bottas.

    When the inevitable move came, Sainz—perhaps overdriving in an effort to compensate for his team's chronic lack of straight-line speed—defended far too aggressively into Turn 1.

    And when Massa took the traditional wide line into Turn 2, the youngster attempted to hit back immediately by squeezing his car down the inside but only succeeded in locking up, running wide again and losing a further position to Bottas.

    It was a scrappy three-lap period for a driver who has plenty of potential but remains a little too rough around the edges.

    Or, put another way, a driver who would soon be found out if he were parachuted into a front-running car tomorrow.

      

    Timing and tyre data, as well as team radio messages, sourced from the official F1 website, the FOM television feed and Pirelli's official race report.

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