The Japanese Grand Prix was a bit of an anti-climactic race. For the second time in a row I couldn’t believe it when I got to the grid and saw the engine cover coming off Sebastian Vettel’s car. And it was quite clear that things were not normal, and things were not going to be okay. Ferrari were saying it will all be fine, but that wasn’t the case, as we found out on Lap 1.
It was hugely disappointing, if you look at the whole Asian adventure — Singapore, Malaysia and Japan have absolutely destroyed Ferrari’s championship hopes. Combine that with Monza, when they were far off the pace compared to the Mercedes, and that’s basically four races since Spa that the championship has just gone down from Italy to their Anglo-German rivals.
It’s a shame for Sebastian, who has driven well, and ultimately the Ferrari isn’t a quick car on the Saturdays. But he was starting from the front row and the Merc wasn’t that quick in race trim in relation to the Red Bulls. So if Seb had got going then he would have been in the hunt.
What other adjectives can we use for Lewis Hamilton? He was in devastating form yet again in qualifying, and it was really nice to see the 2017 cars here in Suzuka. Those high-speed changes in direction around the Spoon Curve and the 130R were pretty mighty to watch. When you watch Lewis’ onboard lap, it was one of those where you take a step back and go ‘phwoah, that was impressive!’ He put it all on the line and Valtteri Bottas was nowhere close to him, which shows the superlative qualifier Hamilton is.
Come the Grand Prix, it wasn’t as easy for a variety of reasons. The Red Bull camp keeps putting it down to the straightline speed when the Mercedes guys go to their high power modes. Either way, the Red Bull couldn’t get close to within a second in qualifying, but come the Grand Prix, Max Verstappen was there. He was able to sit within a couple of seconds of Hamilton.
Realistically, I don’t think there was ever really a chance but Max got a bit close at the end. The race pace is fine and if he had started at the front then he would have had the opportunity to win the Grand Prix.
The foundations of the Merc victories are laid in those amazing qualifying performances. When you look back at the weekend, Lewis was absolutely stellar. There are no more words to describe him. He is well on his way to becoming a four-time world champion — it’s a case of when rather than if.
The grid penalties were ridiculous in qualifying on Saturday (October 7). We were wandering around the paddock, speaking to different teams and people in the media centre just trying to work the grid out. Nobody had a clue. It is really frustrating that we’re in this situation where nobody at the chequered flag can conclusively tell us what the grid order is. We had Valtteri and Kimi Raikkonen out of contention with gearbox penalties. I still believe they need to find another solution. That could be constructors’ points, or if we think somebody is going to have a penalty or needs to change a gearbox or engine then make him qualify with a 10 or 15 kilos extra fuel load. That’s something David Coulthard mentioned to me and we thought that it might actually be a good solution. At least then everybody knows what the ultimate result is.
On Sunday (October 8), I thought Max was brilliant on Lap 1. Seb had his issues, but Max was very opportunistic, lunging down the inside of the hairpin. He got the move done on Daniel Ricciardo as well, and that was the difference between second and third. Daniel got stuck behind Ocon for a lap or two and by that stage Max was gone. He just continues to prove he is a driver well beyond his years.
Daniel did a typically good and solid job, and finished on the podium again. It’s unquestionably the best line-up in Formula 1 today. If they can arrive in 2018 with a car that can qualify and challenge the Mercs on power, then those guys will be right in the championship hunt. Hopefully, that’s something we’ll see next year.
As for the rest, Force India did a great job. It was a brilliant drive by both Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez. Ocon has come on really strong, and I think they again have got a really good line-up. They push each other hard, they’re two young hard racers. There’s a good balance, and the team has done a good job with the car.
It was a real shame for Nico Hulkenberg. I think the end of the race would have been fun to watch had he put on a new set of tyres. As a driver you’re spending a lot of time thinking about what you need to do at the end. He was gearing himself up for an attack at the end of the race. He should have had fresh tyres then, but it wasn’t to be.
Haas needs a mention too. It has had a really tough eight days between Romain Grosjean’s big crash in FP2 at Sepang and his big accident in qualifying here — two very different reasons for those, obviously. For them to get a double-points finish is a great, great result, heading into its home race in Austin. I was really pleased for Gunther Steiner and the team because they have had an expensive and difficult period.
The final hurrah for McLaren and Honda on Honda’s home territory didn’t go particularly well. Fernando Alonso got close to a point and Stoffel Vandoorne didn’t get there either. All those penalties for Fernando really ruined a good opportunity. He managed to drag the car into Q3 and that showed there was some potential but it didn’t work out.
I’m looking forward to getting home; it’s been a long 10-12 days away in Malaysia and Japan. We’re all looking forward to having some time at home before heading to Austin!