Nico Rosberg took control of the drivers’ standings as Lewis Hamilton cut a frustrated figure while Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso had a grand prix to forget.
Here’s five things we learned from the Japanese Grand Prix.
ROSBERG HAS UPPED THE ANTE
Lewis Hamilton was already on the back foot heading to Japan, and, following a curious display from the world champion – both on and oﬀ the track – his quest to win a fourth title is now out of his hands.
He could win each of the four remaining races in the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, and still come up short. So, what has gone wrong for Hamilton? Nico Rosberg has certainly upped the ante.
Two crushing victories in the last three races, has left Hamilton bewildered and confused. The Briton also seems thrown by his own belief, however wild, that Mercedes could yet be sabotaging his campaign.
And his erratic display in the pre-race press conference, and subsequent refusal to speak to the written media, are oﬀ-track distractions that he simply did not need to create.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolﬀ has backed Hamilton to bounce back in Austin, but, judging on his demeanour, it seems wholly conceivable that will not happen.
HAMILTON MAY HAVE TO THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
With the title race now out of his hands, Hamilton may be forced to explore a range of diﬀerent tactics to prevent Rosberg from winning his maiden title. Indeed the German can aﬀord to finish second three times, and third once, and still secure the crown.
But despite winning the constructors’ championship in Japan, and with drivers’ title heading to either Rosberg or Hamilton, Wolﬀ will not be relaxing the team’s so-called ‘Rules of Engagement’.
“If we started to tweak certain details it would open up a can of worms,” Wolﬀ said. “We have never had team orders, so there will be no change.”
FERRARI STRATEGY CALL PROVES COSTLY FOR VETTEL
Sebastian Vettel refused to take aim at his Ferrari team despite a peculiar strategy call potentially costing him the final spot on the podium.
Vettel, whose future with the Italian constructor beyond 2017 has been thrown into doubt by team principal Maurizio Arrivabene after he told the four-time champion to “earn” his next contract, was ahead of Hamilton on track.
But Mercedes utilised their second pit-stop to get Hamilton ahead of the German. “It’s easy to analyse now and say what we could have done and when, but in the moment I think it was the right decision,” said Vettel, who stopped one lap later than the Briton.
TO THE MAX FOR VERSTAPPEN
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has courted controversy this season for his aggressive driving style but he cannot be accused of lacking courage.
When the 19-year-old moved late in the braking zone to block Hamilton’s attempt to pass as the Mercedes swarmed all over him, it enraged the Briton, who subsequently had to settle for third.
Mercedes lodged a formal protest, but withdrew it at Hamilton’s request as Verstappen insisted he had done nothing wrong.
HONDA STILL A ‘WORK IN PROGRESS’
McLaren’s engine suppliers Honda were being tipped as dark horses for next season before their home race at Suzuka, but a year on from Fernando Alonso’s infamous “GP2 engine” rant, little has changed.
An upgraded power unit failed to rev up McLaren as Alonso and Jenson Button never remotely threatened to collect points. Of all the places to flop, Suzuka was not it.
Alonso and Button finished a distant 16th and 18th, results Alonso described as a “nasty surprise.”
Nico Rosberg cruised to victory at the Japanese Grand Prix, piling more pressure on Lewis Hamilton as he closes in on a first world title.
Rosberg claimed his first win at Suzuka from pole as Hamilton took third after a horror start, the German stretching his lead over his teammate to 33 points with just four races left this season.
In today’s #360debate, we ask: Can Lewis Hamilton catch Nico Rosberg in the race for the F1 crown?
STUART APPLEBY, Sport360.com, says YES
The odds are stacked against Lewis Hamilton. But the Briton’s season isn’t over and he will still believe he can win a third consecutive world championship.
While he was quick to applaud the work of team Mercedes in securing yet another constructors’ title, the 31-year-old certainly wouldn’t have had that winning feeling. For all the pitlane politics that have gone on, Hamilton isn’t the type of guy to celebrate finishing second and expect him to dig deep in the final four races of the season.
Let’s not make any bones about it though, Nico Rosberg is well and truly in the driving seat. With a strong 33-point lead and 100 points still on offer, the in-form German would have to suffer a big collapse but it could well happen.
Why? He has yet to get over that final hurdle and even if he doesn’t show it, Rosberg will be carrying mental scars from the past two seasons. It can’t have been easy watching his season ebb, flow and slip away while Hamilton claimed back-to-back titles. It will be playing on his mind and the pressure and expectation rests solely with him.
Yes, the leader is in form and has the luxury of being able to finish second behind his team-mate in all the remaining races and still be crowned champion – but he’s not a world-class front runner.
Hamilton needs to pick himself up and give complete focus to the track – and forget about what’s gone on in the media.
Interviews and press conferences are without doubt repetitive and dull for him. Hamilton is handsomely paid for doing something he has to do contractually and his walkout actually showed he isn’t a media trained robot. For me, this and the Snapchat furore, was far more refreshing than a cliched soundbite but at the end of the day he can’t really win. Speak out or do something away from the norm, equals criticism; if you toe the party line, media are annoyed as you’re not saying anything newsworthy.
This year hasn’t been Hamilton’s happiest in his sport but I expect him to produce fireworks on the track and make Rosberg really work for his maiden title.
NIALL MCCAGUE, Sport360.com, says NO
Momentum means so much in Formula One and Nico Rosberg has it firmly on his side. He looks primed to seal that elusive first championship crown. After being pipped to the post by Hamilton in the final race of the 2014 season in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg has every chance of making amends by having the title wrapped up before arriving in the UAE capital next month.
The gap looks daunting for Hamilton, and even if he were to win the last four races and Rosberg were to finish runner-up, we would have a new champion.
Questions marks have always hung over whether Rosberg has what it takes to be a world champion, but no driver has won nine races in a season and not claimed the drivers’ championship.
Since the summer break, Hamilton – plagued by a series of mechanical failures – has lacked the edge, while Rosberg has looked confident and composed.
Singapore may well prove the defining point in Hamilton’s dented title ambitions as his engine blew 15 laps from the end . Engine failures also wrecked his weekends in China, Russia and Malaysia – fortune and form just doesn’t seem to be on the three-time champion’s side.
By contrast, it is Rosberg’s consistency that has catapulted him to the top of the standings. He has converted eight pole positions into six victories, while Hamilton’s eight poles have led to just three wins. Rosberg has also secured at least a podium position in seven of his last eight races.
It will take a catastrophic turn of events for the German to all of a sudden stop performing at that level; while even if Hamilton was to start qualifying with distinction in the remaining four races, who’s to say he’ll go on to win them all?
The gap between the drivers looks too great, and it will take a miracle for Hamilton to prevail. He may have overturned a points’ deficit earlier in the season, but with pressure building, it seems likely that we will see Rosberg celebrating a maiden title under the bright lights of Yas Marina Circuit on November 27 and end his decade-long journey to the pinnacle of his sport.
Having dropped from second to eighth place on the run to Turn 1, Hamilton had to produce a fighting drive to recover to the top three at Suzuka. While parts of the grid were still damp after morning rain, Hamilton says the start was his own error rather than anything to do with the conditions.
“I don’t think the damp patch had anything to do with it, I made a mistake,” Hamilton said. “Working my way up from there was tricky but I did the best I could.
“I just got wheelspin … Honestly I don’t really remember [feelings after start]. I can’t remember at the end, I was just far back and I was just looking to go forwards.”
With Hamilton closing in on Verstappen he tried to overtake at the chicane on the penultimate lap and had to avoid the Red Bull as he ran wide due to Verstappen’s defence. Asked if he was happy with the move, Hamilton replied: “Well, it doesn’t really matter now. It has happened and we move forwards.”
Despite dropping 33 points behind Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ standings, Hamilton was keen to praise Mercedes as his team won its third consecutive constructors’ championship at Suzuka.
“The team did a fantastic job and a big congratulations to everyone back at the factories and to the whole of Mercedes-Benz. To have had three years in a row of success, I’m very proud to be a part of it and happy that I could contribute to it today.”