2016 Japanese Grand Prix: Rosberg Extends Lead as Hamilton Muddles the Start
The 2016 Japanese Grand Prix was only the seventh in the history of Formula 1 racing not to have any retirements. Despite this, there was plenty of drama to enjoy throughout the weekend; in fact, one could say drama is almost mandatory at the Japanese Grand Prix.
For years, the Suzuka circuit where it is hosted was featured as the last race on the calendar, so that many title fights were decided there—some still controversial today, like Alain Prost’s championship victory in 1989 and Ayrton Senna’s the subsequent year.
There was no controversy surrounding this weekend’s race but plenty of up and downs depending on who you rooted for and no shortage of good racing all throughout. Let’s jump in.
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The top three teams—Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari—were closer to each other than they had been all year. Mercedes was still ahead but only by a small margin, albeit because its cars were running on a lower engine mode to avoid a repeat of Lewis Hamilton’s engine blowout at the Malaysian Grand Prix just over a week ago.
Both Ferrari drivers managed to qualify ahead of Red Bull but only by a hair, and again, both Red Bull drivers had just about nothing between them. At the front, Nico Rosberg put in a superb flying lap to stick his car on pole by a mere 0.013s margin. All told, less than half a second separated the top six cars.
Unfortunately for Ferrari, two grid penalties meant they had to start behind the Red Bulls despite qualifying ahead of them, which would allow the Force India boys and perhaps the Williams to give them trouble should they have a bad start. Fortunately for them, they didn’t; the problems came after.
Last year, Hamilton rather rudely pushed Rosberg wide and off the track as they wrestled for the lead at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix. This year, he didn’t even get the opportunity to try, as he muddled the launch and found himself in eighth place by the time the first corner came around.
Getting past the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg proved easy enough, but overtaking Kimi Räikkönen and Daniel Ricciardo proved a more difficult task. Fortunately for Hamilton, the Mercedes pit wall has been brilliant all year at using strategy to gain its drivers crucial positions and this was no exception in Japan. Hamilton was able to jump ahead of Räikkönen and Ricciardo by pitting at the right time and then got to work on catching Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen.
Vettel was catching Verstappen as well but then suffered from (yet another) sudden bout of Ferrari Strategy™. Instead of pitting Vettel at the same time or a lap after Verstappen to help him stay in the chase for second place and to simultaneously cover off Hamilton’s undercut, Ferrari chose to leave him out and ruin his chance at both. Hamilton got past without even having to overtake on the track.
The Brit then managed to catch Verstappen with a few laps to go but the young Dutchman once again proved difficult to pass. Ultimately, Hamilton only got one real good opportunity and that’s when Verstappen pulled out his now patented wait-until-they-move-and-dangerously-cut-them-off maneuver to stay ahead and finish second.
Meanwhile, Rosberg had only to cruise—flawlessly—to the finish.
The podium ceremonies were awkward to say the least. Hamilton has lost another 10 points to Rosberg in the championship fight, putting him 33 points behind with a total of 100 points still to play for in the remaining four races.
As mentioned before, anything can still happen, but unless a reliability issue hits Rosberg I don’t see him letting the title slip past him. He is in the form of his life and making no mistakes.
On the other hand, Ferrari is making plenty. Both Vettel and Räikkönen were quick this weekend—very quick and undeniably faster than Red Bull, but that didn’t stop Ferrari from conceding several points to its championship rival yet again thanks to bad strategy calls.
Still, the gap to Mercedes is slowly closing and Red Bull in particular is looking increasingly fearsome. I can’t wait for 2017 when the new aero regulations kick in.
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- Kurt VerlinEditor
Kurt Verlin was born in France and lives in the United States. Throughout his life he was always told French was the language of romance, but it was English he fell in love with. He likes cats, music, cars, 30 Rock, Formula 1, and pretending to be a race car driver in simulators; but most of all, he just likes to write about it all. See more articles by Kurt.