When the historians write the obituary on Sebastian Vettel’s attempt at the 2017 Drivers Championship, the Japanese Grand Prix will be in the lede.
Vettel entered the weekend more than 25 points, a full race win, behind Lewis Hamilton. Vettel and Ferrari needed a good result after the disaster of Malaysia, where both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen suffered engine troubles that doomed their races.
Red Bull, meanwhile, looked resurgent. It had won in Malaysia and the combination of the vaunted Red Bull aero engineers and the Renault engine looked to finally be in sync.
Friday practice was cut short by monsoon-like weather, meaning that there were lots of wild cards in the car set-ups and team engineers and viewers hadn’t a clue as to how things would shake out.
As Saturday dawned in the land of the rising sun, Mercedes was the team to come out on on top in qualifying. Hamilton, who had historically struggled at the technical Suzuka track, put together one of his best laps to take the pole position. Vettel was in second (on the inside for the first turn), followed by the two Red Bulls. Bottas had qualified second, but a penalty pushed him back on the grid.
As the lights went out on Sunday, Hamilton made it around the first two corners successfully and seemed to scamper off into the sunset. Behind him in second, Vettel was reporting a power issue and was quickly swamped by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. On the starting grid, Vettel had reported a power issue and the team had performed a last minute spark plug change. It seemed the failure was not solved and Ferrari pulled Vettel into the pits to retire the car within the first few laps. It did not want the wounded car circling the track getting picked off car-by-car. Continuing on could have damaged the engine, but the team was probably more concerned with Vettel’s fragile ego and the likelihood that he would have wrecked the car resisting a pass by a car that was actually firing on all six cylinders.
Verstappen was never able to mount a successful challenge to Hamilton. Notably, Verstappen seemed to lose several seconds to Hamilton during each Virtual Safety Car, during which the cars are limited to lap times that should be easily achievable (even for the Saubers). That suggests that Hamilton knows how to exploit some loophole in the VSC, or young Max is too inexperienced to handle them properly. This correspondent would put money on the latter because no other driver seems to suffer from the same issue.
Ricciardo was able to hang onto third against a charging Bottas, who was running the opposite tyre strategy. Ricciardo has been steady this season, but is regularly outqualified by his teammate. On the rare occasion when Verstappen finishes a race, Ricciardo can’t seem to match his Sunday pace either. When Ricciardo’s contract is up, he should find a teammate that is more manageable.
Bottas recovered from his penalty-marred start to finish P4, followed by Raikkonen in P5. Raikkonen’s drive was one of the most impressive of the day because he was pushed off the track at Spoon and was down in P18 or P19 on the first lap.
On tyre strategy, it was disappointing to see that the punishing Suzuka track, which demanded Hard tyre compounds AND two stops last year, was handled with one stop and SuperSoft and Soft compounds in 2017. The single stop minimized the strategic decisions.
After he retired, Vettel changed into his dungarees, waved to the crowd and disappeared, just like his championship hopes. He can expect a hefty fine for failing to talk to the media after his retirement. But given his fragile mental state, maybe that is the best money he’s ever spent.