Sunday morning’s Japanese Grand Prix opened the door to another series of “what ifs” in what has been a topsy-turvy second half to the 2019 season.
The only guarantee was that Mercedes is still very much the dominant force at the top-level of motorsport.
What if Sebastian Vettel had not botched the start, thereby not gifting the lead to Valtteri Bottas?
What if Charles Leclerc had been a little bit more circumspect on the first lap and not clattered into the side of Max Verstappen?
What if Bottas season had not gone to sleep following a brilliant opening to the year?
What if the chequered flag had not been waved a lap early..?
What if Lewis Hamilton had not had his own poor start, dropping him out of the fight for the win by the first corner?
The final entry brings a number of follow-on questions, but one thing is for certain: Hamilton’s easy run to the championship has dissipated somewhat since the season break.
That’s not to say that his charge to a sixth title is under threat – it really isn’t – but rather, this is a deal that, under previous circumstances, would probably been done and dusted had:
Leclerc and Ferrari not come good;
Vettel had not woken from his competitive coma;
Bottas experienced a spike of form in Suzuka.
To be completely fair, Hamilton did win out in Russian a week ago, but again, there was a touch of good fortune there too, when a mechanical issue for Vettel and an ill-time virtual safety car not nobbled Leclerc.
Sometimes though, races are won in just that manner. Hamilton has lost races in similar situations too.
Mercedes have played an odd game of late. Their strategic plays have indicated a lack of decisiveness, particularly when one driver or the other has their race hamstrung as a result.
Indeed, Hamilton was leading with ten laps to go, when Mercedes brought the Briton into the pits for a fresh set of tyres. Although his pace at that point had yet to drop off, it is believed it may have done so, but it is unlikely that leaving Hamilton out on the medium-shod Pirelli’s would have affected the result too much.
Having stopped six laps earlier, Bottas was closing once he has deposed of lapped traffic and was always likely to take the lead away from Hamilton, while Vettel was some 18s adrift. Had Mercedes left Hamilton out on the now aging mediums, it is unclear whether or not Vettel would have caught him, but it is possible.
Alas, Mercedes brought Hamilton in and gave him a set of used softs – the gap was 4.3s once he re-joined and although he quickly drew to the rear of Vettel, Hamilton could do nothing to pass the Ferrari.
But in the meantime, the pair made it quite thrilling. With the gap mere tenths each time by, Vettel used better corner exit and quicker acceleration to great effect, while Hamilton’s prowess came in ultimate top speed and a more defiant braking and corner entry combination.
The gap across the line was just 0.5s, in Vettel’s favour. Hamilton taking the bonus point for the fastest lap eight tours from the end sealed the Constructor’s title for the German marquee, but that could have also been achieved by electing to leave Hamilton on track to finish 2nd (had his tyres held up).
Giving up 2nd place in order to go for the fastest lap bonus does seem en vogue at the moment. Indeed, the situation between Vettel and Hamilton was not too dissimilar to Sochi a week before, when Ferrari pitted Leclerc from what seemed like an assured 2nd place to push for the fastest lap.
In theory, Leclerc would not only set the fastest lap, but also have enough spare to retake the runner-up spot from Bottas. Neither happened – on that occasion, Hamilton had enough in spare to set the fastest lap himself, while Leclerc could not break past Bottas.
Three points dropped to obtain none…
But where Leclerc’s run to a certain victory in Sochi had initially been humbled by an ill-timed virtual safety car, Hamilton’s race was compromised by a sluggish getaway, followed a tentative defence against both McLaren’s of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz through the first few turns.
The former was dispatched easily enough – hung out to dry around the outside of turns one and two, Norris quickly fell from view. Sainz, however, took a little more force and compliance, with the Spaniard giving way into the first part of the ‘S’ curves, knowing full way that if two went in, two would not be coming out.
Hamilton was fortunate in this instance. Despite errors off the line by both Ferrari’s, Hamilton’s own start came close to leaving him mired in the pack. While the Mercedes man defended and attacked the McLaren’s, Verstappen also got by and was about to take 3rd when Leclerc struck the Red Bull Racing Honda in the middle of turn two, taking out the Dutch driver and leaving his Ferrari with a damaged front wing, that would eventually see him pit on lap four.
In only a few moments, the goodwill that Leclerc had built in the past few months took a hit and while he is still learning, these rough edges need to be smoothed out if he is to eventually become a World Champion. Meanwhile, for Hamilton, in a situation where he could easily have dropped to 7th, the soon-to-be six-time champion emerged in 3rd place. Sometimes that’s just how championships are won.
Though the myriad of strategies weaved, unfolded and intersected, for the most part, the leading trio consisted of Bottas leading; Vettel a distant 2nd and Hamilton a distant 3rd.
Mercedes could have altered that by leaving Hamilton out on track, but he had already been complaining about the mediums early in the stint. Sometimes, it is best to placate, but one could almost feel Peter Bonnington’s frustration on the pitwall – even watching from afar, one just wanted Hamilton to put his head down and drive.
Truth be told, this was Bottas’ race. Lining up on the second row was far from ideal, but his pace through the Grand Prix was exceptional and while Hamilton believes he had the pace to win, the evidence suggests otherwise.
In saying that, Hamilton was leading and pitting him on lap 43 removed the equation of having to make Bottas pass him on track. There is little doubt that Bottas probably feels he was “owed” this win, particularly considering how Mercedes hobbled his race in Singapore to ensure Hamilton was ahead at the flag – a strategy that backfired and dropped the Mercedes’ pairing behind both Ferrari’s and Verstappen.
Winning at Suzuka would certain have given Bottas a smile, but while technically the championship is still open and Bottas is the only driver who could potentially catch Hamilton, it is desperately unlikely that it will happen, for Hamilton is 64 points ahead with only 104 left available.
Mercedes are keen to avoid a repeat of 2016, when tensions between Hamilton and the now retired Nico Rosberg came to a head and as such, the manner in which their strategies play out come across as quite odd – almost as if they are attempting to distance their two drivers, whenever Bottas happens to be on song.
Thankfully for Mercedes and Hamilton, that has not happened enough this year and Bottas’ brilliant form in the opening six races faded quickly, allowing Hamilton to dominate.
Now with both Ferrari and Red Bull interloping amongst the leading positions, Mercedes need to start working hard on their strategic references. With only occasional challenges in recent seasons, it is the one area where Mercedes are still very rusty.
Oh, and the race being classified a lap early due to a malfunction on the flag stand. Now, that’s just weird.