Following a Sunday morning qualifying session for the 2019 Japanese Grand Prix thanks to Typhoon Hagibis sweeping across Japan closing the circuit on Saturday, it ended up being a very team symmetrical first four rows of the grid with the two Ferraris locking out the front row and Sebastian Vettel on pole at Suzuka and teammate Charles Leclerc lining up alongside him. The two Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton were on the the second row with the two Red Bulls on the third row and the two McLarens putting in a strong qualifying performance, getting both cars onto the fourth row.
However, it was Valtteri Bottas who took off like a bolt as the lights went off at the start, getting past both Ferraris by the first corner and controlling the race pretty much from start to finish, taking a well-deserved victory, his first for five months, having last won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. He is also the first driver to win at Suzuka from the second row of the grid in the 31 years the race has been run at the circuit. It also marked Bottas’ 100th career points finish and the Mercedes team’s 99th victory in Formula 1.
A strong drive from Lewis Hamilton, who came third and got the extra point for fastest lap, gave Mercedes the FIA Formula One Constructors’ Championship for the sixth time in a row. It also means that both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are now the only two drivers who can still mathematically win the Drivers’ Championship, which will mean a sixth consecutive Drivers’ Title for the team as well, making Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport the first team in Formula One history to win both titles six times in a row, which is quite an achievement in this highly competitive sport.
Toto Wolff commented after securing the Constructors’ Title at the Japanese Grand Prix: “When we embarked on the journey six or seven years ago, we wanted to win races more regularly and then fight for a Championship – and now, six years later, we win our sixth Championship in a row. We never thought this would be possible and I’m incredibly happy for everybody who has been a part of this journey. It’s not always been easy, the entire team put in a lot of hard work and we had our fair share of painful moments, but we were always able to pick ourselves up. Everyone in Brackley and Brixworth worked incredibly hard for this achievement and I can’t thank them enough. We also could not have done this without the continued support from Daimler and PETRONAS who have always been by our side. This sixth Championship is a very special one – and we dedicate it to Niki. He has been such an important part from the beginning, and we all miss him dearly. I think about him every day and still find it hard to believe that he’s not here anymore; I keep thinking to myself “What would Niki say, what would he think?”. Today, he probably would have said “Congratulations for the sixth one, but you have a challenge on your hands for next year”. It was his way of making sure that we’re never complacent. Today has been an emotional rollercoaster; we were disappointed in the morning because we weren’t quick enough in qualifying. And now we’ve won the race and also both Championships – which is still hard to fully grasp.”
Hamilton now leads the Drivers’ Championship by 64 points over Bottas with a total of 338 points, with Leclerc 53 points behind Bottas in third.
Ferrari did not live up to their strong qualifying performance, with Sebastian Vettel bogging down at the start and losing the lead almost immediately. He did however manage to come home in second place and ran a strong race overall, where we saw a fighting Vettel of old.
Charles Leclerc on the other hand, had a coming together with Max Verstappen at the first corner, who span off, ending his race, while Leclerc was forced to pit after three laps to change a damaged front wing, putting him into last place, from where he managed to claw his way back up the field and crossed the finishing line in sixth. He was however dropped down to seventh after the race by the stewards, who reviewed the incident with Verstappen at the start and imposed a 15 second time penalty.
Sebastian Vettel said after the race, “We had a very good morning, but the afternoon was less good in terms of the result we were able to achieve as a team. The start wasn’t good for either me or Charles and without that, we could have had both cars fighting at the front. It was difficult today and to be fair. Our rivals were simply quicker, Valtteri was just flying. I had a poor start; I was a bit early with the clutch initially then clutched in again and lost a bit of momentum. Usually our starts are very good but not this time. After that we were missing out a little bit in terms of speed in the race compared to our rivals. We went through the tyres more than Valtteri and Lewis. Especially at the end of the stints they were dropping off a bit more, whereas our rivals kept the pace throughout.
Towards the end my only target was to stay ahead of Lewis. I knew that down the straights he struggled to overtake, so I just tried to have clean exits in the places where it mattered.”
Red Bull Racing
It turned out to be a disappointing Japanese Grand Prix for Red Bull, particularly as it was the home race for engine supplier Honda. Both cars qualified poorly, complaining of a lack of speed. Max Verstappen’s race was then over on the first lap after the incident with Leclerc’s Ferrari.
A delighted Alexander Albion however faired a lot better to finish fourth, saying, “Fourth is my F1 career best finish and this weekend has definitely felt like my best with the team. Immediately from FP1 I felt comfortable with the car and the balance, which is important for a track like Suzuka where you need a lot of confidence, especially on your first visit! I wanted more in the race and felt like I could have done better at the start, but I had too much wheel spin off the line and lost a couple of places to the McLarens. I managed to get back past them but by then I had already lost a lot of time to the lead pack. The move on Lando for P5 was on, he gave me space and left the door open, but it was a bit tight! We then managed to get past Carlos with some good strategy by undercutting him, but from then onwards we were in no man’s land in P4. It was just about managing the tyres to the end but with Max’s DNF it was good to score some points for the Team and fourth was the best we could do. I’m still finding my feet but overall, I’m happy with my pace and progress and we took a step forward this weekend. Coming into the weekend we probably wanted more, especially for Honda, and we were close, but we just didn’t quite have the pace. Now we’ll do our homework and hopefully come back stronger in Mexico.”
Haas F1 Team
It was also a disappointing weekend for the Haas Team with Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen finishing 15th and 17th respectively. They must be hoping for better fortune as they head to North America for the next two rounds of the championship.
The top ten finishers at the Japanese Grand Prix were: Valtteri Bottas, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Alexander Albon, Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly, Sergio Perez and the final point going to Nico Hulkenberg in his Renault.
The next two rounds of the championship take place in North America, with the Mexican Grand Prix on Sunday 27th October followed by the US Grand Prix a week later on 3rd November in Austin.
Simon Burrell is Editor of Our Man Behind The Wheel, a professional photographer and former saloon car racing driver.
Photographs courtesy of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, Scuderia Ferrari Press Office, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool and McLaren