Lewis Hamilton dominated this morning’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, after passing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg on the opening lap.
Sebastian Vettel claimed another podium for Ferrari, after having run 2nd place for a portion of the race.
“It was just a beautiful… it’s like sailing. When you go through the corners here, it’s flowing. Honestly, I wish I could share the feeling with you.”
There is little doubt this was Lewis Hamilton’s day. At the race where he matched Ayrton Senna’s victory total, the Briton was imperious.
After initially getting a good launch from pole position Nico Rosberg, appeared to fall back into the hands of Hamilton, with the pair almost side-by-side as they drew through the first corner.
As turn one unraveled into turn two, Hamilton claimed the inside, forcing Rosberg to the astro turf as the exit of the second corner as they almost clipped wheels. “It was very tight through Turn One but from then on it was just the most beautiful day,” said Hamilton.
Where Hamilton grabbed the lead, Rosberg lost pace and grip in the run-off area, falling backward as a result, with the German adding, “It was very close throughout the corner and on the exit I had to go off the track to avoid a collision, which cost me speed and pushed me back to fourth place…” In just the briefest of moments, the race was won – although there were still 52 laps and sixteen turns remaining.
Admittedly, it was hardly the most thrilling of event thereafter, although there was enough happening in the points places and midfield to keep one entertained, but for the victory? Not a chance. However even this couldn’t explain why the Mercedes pair received so little television coverage from the world feed director…
In a nutshell, Hamilton led Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) by 1.6s after one lap with Valtteri Bottas (Williams) a close 3rd, while Rosberg attempted to recover. By the one-tenth distance, it was 3.2s; then 6.04s on lap ten, before stalling at a 7.6s lead for Hamilton when Vettel stopped for a set of new Hard Pirelli tyres on lap 13.
Rosberg, meanwhile, was still struggling to pierce the top three, but Bottas’ place did come to him with the help of some strategy. Pitting on lap 11 for a new set of medium tyres, the Finn found his replacement rubber not to be quite as effective as his old tyres. Losing a half-second to Rosberg on his in-lap and a further one-second to the Mercedes man on their respective out-laps merely helped the German close in on the Williams. Rosberg eventually pitted four laps after Bottas, with the Mercedes man switching to surprisingly effective new hard tyres. He was quick to depose Bottas from 3rd.
Meanwhile Hamilton pitted for new mediums on lap 16 and emerged to clear air and a 6.9s lead, which had extended to over ten seconds by lap 20. Such was Hamilton’s ferocious pace; neither he nor the still 2nd place Vettel could even be seen on the same stretch of road by the halfway mark. Yet despite the prowess on display, not everything was quite plain sailing for Hamilton mid-race, according to Mercedes Executive Director Paddy Lowe. “During the race, there were a few issues to manage with engine temperatures and a flat spot on Lewis’ second set of tyres, which was through to the canvas. As always, even when you’re in a position with apparent control of the race, there are always risks and worries but it was great to get both cars home, which we haven’t done since Belgium.”
For the leader content on what has usually been a bogey circuit, he barely even noticed the Ferrari man fall away in his mirrors. “I have struggled every year at this circuit, but I always loved it,” said Hamilton. “When you have the balance and the car is doing what you want it to do, and you’re attacking through the corners, there’s no better feeling. We didn’t have much data to go through after practice, but the car felt unbelievable.”
It would not be long before Vettel’s attention switched to the second Mercedes, now with tyres finally switched on and closing in… Rosberg would ultimately take the 2nd place spot from Vettel, but where he pushed by Bottas on track, the Mercedes man was able to utilise pit strategy to pass the Ferrari. Both drivers began the second stints on new mediums, with the battling duo settling for another set of the option tyres for the final laps; however Rosberg would have to run a scrubbed set compared to Vettel’s new rubber.
It involved a little rejigging of the strategies on the Mercedes pitwall, but with Hamilton so far ahead, there was little chance of any overlap between he and Rosberg – although to pin solely on pit stops would do a disservice to the recovering Rosberg.
Once up to speed after his first stop, Rosberg was simply faster than Vettel – much faster; until he caught the rear of the Ferrari. From a gap of over five seconds, Rosberg logged laps in the low-to-mid 1’38s, while his Ferrari rival was locked in the 1’39s, but then a problem – overtaking Vettel.
With all due respect to Bottas, he is not quite Vettel (yet) and the Williams is certainly no Ferrari this year and Rosberg, while a speedy pilot, lacks that steely-eyed aggressiveness possessed by Hamilton. Now strategy was to come into play.
Both Rosberg and Vettel spent the following laps clicking off similar times (early-1’39s for the most part), while the leading Hamilton kept knocking out laps in the 1’38s-1’39s range. Having tyres two laps younger than Vettel, Mercedes brought Rosberg in on lap 29, one tour prior to Vettel. It would be enough. Where Vettel’s in-lap was slightly quicker than Rosberg’s, the Mercedes drivers out-lap was almost two seconds faster in the second and third sectors than anything Vettel could manage. Job done.
As Vettel emerged from the pitlane, Rosberg by, taking 2nd spot. “The team did also a great job with the undercut of Sebastian, this worked out perfectly with a really hard out-lap on the new tyres,” said Rosberg. Meanwhile the now 3rd place Ferrari driver was rather circumspect about the demotion afterward. “Had we pitted one lap sooner, I think it could have been more interesting and challenging for Nico to get past. It’s not so easy to follow the cars here through the high-speed sections, so I think we had a good chance but probably underestimated the out-lap that he had…” Vettel stayed close to Rosberg for the final stint, but it was never close enough to make a meaningful challenge.
But that was for 2nd place. Hamilton continued to stretch his lead out front. He didn’t need to, but he could anyway. As the laps ticked by, the Briton pulled further and further away, eventually by 18.9s from Rosberg, with Vettel a further 2s adrift.
For a delighted Hamilton, it was all about the rush. “I’m buzzing like you could not believe. As I’m walking through after the race I’ve got this rush but I’m thinking about all the different experiences I’ve been through and the people that have helped me along the way: my family, without whom I wouldn’t be here today, and everyone else that’s helped me – they know who they are.” The reigning champion moves to the Russian Grand Prix in two weeks with a 48-point lead over Rosberg. With only 125 left on the table, Hamilton is looking more and more secure for a third world title.