Japanese GP 2016 Analysis: Rosberg coasts clear

Nico Rosberg stretched his lead at the top of the Drivers' Championship to 33 points over Lewis Hamilton with a faultless drive in Suzuka. VAVEL.com looks back on Sunday's race.

Japanese GP 2016 Analysis: Rosberg coasts clear
Nico Rosberg took his ninth win of the year. | Photo: Getty Images

We may have seen the 2016 Formula 1 World Drivers' Championship wrapped up. With four races to go and a gap of 33 points, it's a matter of finishing what he started for Nico Rosberg. He produced a truly commanding drive to finally turn one of his three consecutive Suzuka poles into a maximum point score come Sunday, with his team mate and sole remaining Championship rival Lewis Hamilton recovering from a dreadful start to finish in a very credible third. Hamilton was just five seconds away from the cruising German, but the impressive Max Verstappen ensured that he moved no higher.

It was a race with plenty of overtakes and action, but little attrition. No penalties, retirements, Safety Cars (Virtual or otherwise), or even a meaningful yellow flag period. Plenty of blue shown though, which caused some gaps to close quicker than expected - irking those giving way and cutting through alike. 

With a one and three finish, Mercedes coasted to their third successive Constructors' Championship, completing their clean sweep over the rest of the field in the first part of Formula 1's second turbo era.

The title race - as it stands

Whilst Rosberg cannot win the Championship where Hamilton claimed his third crown, in Austin a little under two weeks away, he may be able to seal his first world title in Mexico, barring an unusual circumstance.

That is if he manages to acquire a 50 point gap. Two wins with Hamilton finishing in second and third would be enough, but is easier said than done; next up is a track that only Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won at, making the Brit odds on favourite to reduce the exponentially increasing gap. 

Can Hamilton himself win the championship? Yes, there are still 100 points on the table, but it would require Rosberg to finish outside of the top three in one race, with Hamilton winning all of the remaining races.

However, this weekend saw the end of Daniel Ricciardo's championship 'hopes', as he lies 101 points behind Rosberg after a sixth placed finish in Japan - not helped by a problem with the front right during his last stop.

He was less than impressed with the news...

Start haunts Mercedes again

Unable to get the edge over a supreme Rosberg on Saturday, Hamilton's start woes continued in Suzuka, dropping from second to eighth in a matter of three seconds, with both Ferraris, Red Bulls and Force Indias streaking past the Briton as he bogged down in the second phase of his getaway.

Before lights out, Hamilton noted a damp patch on his side of the gird, thanks to a bout of rain hours before the start, that had failed to dry on the other side of the racing line. Although his poor start wasn't acquitted to this variable, Hamilton couldn't explain why he had the troubles he had.

Speaking to Autosport, Hamilton held his hands up: "The damp patch didn't really have anything to do with it, I made a mistake."

"I'm not really quite sure, I'll have to see what the engineers say," Hamilton added to Sky Sports. "I lost a lot of ground and had to fight back from there."

Hamilton dropped to eighth after starting second. | Getty Images
Hamilton dropped to eighth after starting second. | Getty Images

Former F1 driver Alex Wurz put the situation down to a Hamilton mistake. A mix of poor reaction time, letting the clutch snap too fast thus needing to pull it in again - topped off by a bout of wheelspin, and an early change into second gear, followed by more wheelspin as the rear tyres rebelled due to excess power.

Happy as he may be with his well executed recovery drive to third place, the 31-year-old can't afford any more mistakes in the next six weeks, if he wishes to win a fourth world title.

Having struggled with the clutches at several races in the calendar this year, Mercedes have gone a step further to ensure that this is not repeated, looking at altering both of the drivers' gloves; more specifically, the stitching.

Mercedes Executive Director Toto Wolff explained the decision.

"The clutch we are giving them is not perfect," Wolff told Autosport. "It is difficult to handle."

"Both drivers have worked on that, going as far as changing the way the glove is done in order to release it - how the glove is sewn."

Hulkenberg's higher ambitions

Following a solid eighth placed finish that - along with Sergio Perez' seventh - helped Force India extend their gap to Williams in the race for the fourth best constructor, Nico Hulkenberg has attracted Renault's interest for 2017 and beyond, and is reported to be closing in on a deal.

With former targets Carlos Sainz, Valtteri Bottas and Stoffel Vandoorne all spoken for, Hulkenberg is set to partner Manor starlet Esteban Ocon, who may return to Renault, after leaving his testing responsibility due to Rio Haryanto's departure in the wake of the German Grand Prix. This would mean that both Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer will be rooting around for a 2017 seat. 

Nico Hulkenberg may look away from Force India for 2017. | Photo: Getty Images
Nico Hulkenberg may look away from Force India for 2017. | Photo: Getty Images

The move may be seen as a 'last-chance saloon' move for Hulkenberg, 29, who is yet to score a podium in 111 starts, despite coming close with both Sauber and Force India, finishing fourth on three occasions. With Renault's alleged 2017 budget standing at over €200 million, a competitive car may not be too far away; with the Enstone team keen to replicate the success of 2005 and 2006.

It may well be a case of Hulkenberg saying "Seeya later" to a Force India this time.

McLaren-Honda's home race to forget

With the Honda bigwigs looking on this weekend, McLaren were unable to continue their recent run of points finishes, with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button finishing 16th and 18th respectively, in a tough weekend from start to finish.

Button was demoted to the the back of the grid due to an engine change after Saturday Qualifying, and both veteran drivers struggled, with the McLaren not suited to the Suzuka circuit; Button conceding that the MP4-31 struggles in the high-speed corners, and even with the new-spec power unit, Honda are still down on speed, compared to their rivals.

All smiles beforehand, Alonso and Button struggled. | Photo: Getty Images
All smiles beforehand, Alonso and Button struggled. | Photo: Getty Images

Alonso was downbeat post-race, saddened by the lack of pace at an important event for the team. "I know our car is much more competitive than we were able to show today," the two-times champion told Autosport. "I'm disappointed about putting on such a poor show at Honda's home race."

Verstappen deserves praise

Having come under considerable fire in the last few months, Max Verstappen's defensive efforts to keep Hamilton at bay deserve recognition, rather than widespread retaliation. His counter to Hamilton's desperate move on lap 52 at the Casio chicane was firm and ultimately fair, despite Hamilton initially complaining of Verstappen moving over under braking.

After an initial appeal, Hamilton is thought to have persuaded the team to withdraw said complaint, citing it as a part of racing.

The 19-year-old was right to defend his move in the media as well. "Well, I'm not going to open the door," he said to Sky Sports. "Of course I saw him and as as soon as I saw that, I closed the door and I think he was still far enough to see that I was going to do that."

But, the Dutchman didn't only rely on a bold move to stay in second, producing a well thought out defence tactic to counter Hamilton's use of DRS. Able to get a better run out of the chicane, Verstappen used his 160 horsepower of battery power to good effect, thus maintaining a steady gap to Hamilton, before utilising the strength of the Red Bull package through the twisty first sector.

Verstappen did well to hold off a fired up Hamilton. | Photo: Getty Images
Verstappen did well to hold off a fired up Hamilton. | Photo: Getty Images

His second place means that Red Bull are now over 50 points ahead of Ferrari, and look to have second place in the Constructors' title all sewn up. But the teenager admitted that they profited from Ferrari's troubles.

"We were lucky with their penalties this weekend, because they were very strong in Qualifying."

"They had a try, but they couldn't make it and we're happy with that."

Verstappen now moves up to fifth in the Driver's standings, level on points with Sebastian Vettel, but ahead due to his historic win in Spain.

More Ferrari troubles

It was another disastrous weekend for the Scuderia, with both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen picking up grid penalties.

Whilst Vettel's punishment was a result of his rash first corner move on Rosberg in Malaysia, Raikkonen had to change his gearbox on Saturday night, after signs of wear arose after Qualifying. Narrowly missing contact between themselves whilst avoiding the sluggish Hamilton at the start, the pair finished in 4th and 5th, with Vettel the lead car.

But, it could and probably should have been much more. A podium had beckoned for Vettel, until it all went wrong at his last stop. With Hamilton pitting a few laps beforehand, Ferrari reacted late, opting to put the German on a set of soft tyres. With the undercut proving to be powerful this weekend, Hamilton had leapfrogged Vettel in the pit stops, and despite a few laps of pressure, the Mercedes driver pulled away as Vettel's tyre performance started to take a turn.

Vettel lost out to Hamilton in the last round of pit stops. | Photo: Getty Images
Vettel lost out to Hamilton in the last round of pit stops. | Photo: Getty Images

"I think we took a lot of risks going onto the softs, which initially felt good," Vettel told Sky Sports. "But, too much degradation."

But, Vettel defended his team's strategic call. "I think it was the right decision. It's very easy to now be an expert and criticise, but in the moment we had to try - that was our chance to get P2. It didn't work; that's a pity because the speed was there."

However, courtesy of a fault in Ricciardo's last stop , and good use of the undercut, Ferrari managed to get Raikkonen ahead of the Australian, into fifth place. Which makes the Vettel predicament even more baffling.

A rethink on the way the Maranello marque go about their strategy is needed, rather than maximising tyre performance, getting track position needs to be the main priority.

Like a London rush hour

Traffic was one of the major talking points of the race, with frontrunners held up due to Suzuka's tight nature, with little room for backmarkers to yield without compromising their own race.

Vettel had particular cause for complaint, and he made his feelings abundantly clear over the radio.

"It's ridiculous! I mean it's ridiculous. Honestly, I lost a second because of nothing. For f**k's sake!"

Followed by a little more in-depth talk.

"For pity's sake, make him go! I mean what do you want to know about Suzuka? It's a quick track, I'm in a quick car, it's difficult to pass. I mean it's ridiculous."

Along with the poor strategy, Seb had a great time.

But, what can be done? Part of the skill is negotiating traffic, and according to the stewards, no lapped car held up a leader for more than the allotted time and distance.