Mercedes win sixth straight title

Lewis Hamilton will be aiming to clinch the world championship, the sixth of his career, as well at the next race in Mexico.

The Mercedes team celebrates after becoming the second constructor to win six consecutive titles.   -  Getty Images

The Japanese Grand Prix weekend was obviously a bit of a strange one. Coming to Japan, we all knew that there was a real risk that Saturday could be a washout as the typhoon was blowing through. In the end, we seemed to escape the eye of the storm, although other parts of Japan were not so lucky. It made Sunday a very intense day of qualifying and a race that didn’t really give people a lot of time to relax in between. But, in the end, it all worked out okay and we had an exciting ‘Super Sunday’ that actually everyone enjoyed.

There are race weekends ever so often when a driver just gets into a zone and delivers a performance that absolutely fulfils his talent and maximises his full potential. I felt that Valtteri Bottas had just one of those weekends at what is the ultimate driver’s circuit on the 2019 F1 calendar.

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Right from the first lap of free practice, the Finn hit the ground running and looked confident with the car around Suzuka. On every run, on every set of tyres, he looked like he was going to be a sniff quicker than his five-time world champion teammate, which is no mean feat on a circuit where Lewis Hamilton has excelled previously.

Ferrari’s pace in a qualifying really underlined that they have unlocked some superb speed in that car. We saw a well-balanced and quick car in pre-season testing. However, between the opening race of the season in Melbourne, and Budapest, we’ve only seen occasional flashes of that speed. Since the August break, however, they’ve been on pole position at every one of the five races, but the session in Japan was the most impressive. In Spa, Monza and Sochi, we expected them to be quick as they’re power-sensitive tracks. Singapore was a bit of a surprise, but it’s also a street circuit, which means that it’s not always a true indicator of a car’s ultimate potential. But Suzuka is a proper, normal circuit and one that is right up there with Barcelona as the ultimate test of chassis balance and downforce.

Bottas' win in Japan clinched the title for Mercedes.   -  Getty Images

 

Looking at the best laps from Sebastian Vettel and Bottas, it’s clear that the Ferrari is now just as fast as the Mercedes in the corners while retaining their straight-line speed advantage in qualifying, giving them a front row lockout. Sebastian’s lap was pretty special and it was great to see him back at his best — confident to attack the corner entries and showing controlled aggression with the steering wheel. The updated package since Singapore has given him the rear-end stability that he’s been seeking all season, which he’s using to good effect. However, in the races — where the points are paid — the Mercedes still is the better car and that’s why they’ve wrapped up an extraordinary sixth consecutive world championship. The Ferrari doesn’t look after its tyres as well, therefore once the degradation starts to set in, the Mercedes cars are able to run at a faster pace for longer.

Sebastian obviously made a mistake by going too early and then stopping at the start, which left him behind Valtteri, but even if he didn’t lose the start, I just think that Mercedes would have found a way with more pace and two cars in the fight to strategically beat Vettel. What would have happened had Leclerc been second behind Vettel on the opening lap is a different question though because then they would have been able to control the race a bit more.

Leclerc made a mistake at turn 2 by running wide into Max Verstappen. I don’t think there was any doubt about that because I think he saw Max going around him and, instead of accepting defeat and relinquishing the position, he decided to try and squeeze him out wide. It was too little, too late as Max was already committed and that ruined both of their races.

Lewis got stuck behind Vettel both in the first stint and at the end of the race, so perhaps I’m wrong in saying that Mercedes would have beaten Seb if he didn’t mess up the start. The straight-line speed advantage from Spoon Curve up the hill to the chicane was just about enough for the Ferrari to stay in front. The championship leader didn’t seem as happy as Valtteri all weekend and had to begrudgingly take a defeat on the chin. I thought Carlos Sainz had a superb weekend, once again showing that he really is a top-quality driver. The fact that he was so far ahead of the rest of the midfield and only 10 seconds behind Alex Albon at the end shows just what a great drive that was. I was listening to his team radio quite a bit during the race and it was impressive to see just how he would relay to his engineer that he could do a certain lap time and on the next lap do that exact lap time. That made life a lot easier for McLaren to plan his strategy and he executed it beautifully in the cockpit.

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Red Bull and Honda were left disappointed this weekend. The ‘Suzuka Special’ engine and fuel combination didn’t deliver what the teams were hoping for in terms of lap time and being seven-tenths down on pole position was not what they were expecting.

Off to Mexico next where Red Bull and Max were superb last year. It will be interesting to see which of the three teams are able to deliver best in the high-altitude conditions in Mexico City. Ferrari will be desperate to capitalise on their speed and convert that into a few victories before the end of the season, while Lewis will be aiming to clinch his sixth world championship as well.