Bottas Storms Japan, Takes Top of the Podium
F1 2019 Japanese Grand Prix was held at an old school track with gravel traps at Suzuka International Racing Course in Suzuka in Mie Prefecture, Japan. Suzuka is an old school track with no run-off areas but gravel traps, and it is the only figure-of-eight track on the Formula 1 calendar. It was the 45th running of the Japanese GP and the 31st time that Suzuka hosted the event.
F1 management canceled Saturday running due to typhoon Hagibis, with the qualifying and race happening on Sunday. Ferrari took pole position in the hands of Sebastian Vettel with a new track record of all time of 1:27.064 sec. Valterri Bottas, who wasn't even on the front row, took a commanding win on Sunday to win his third race of the season. This win now places him as a strong contender for the drivers' championship mathematically albeit not realistically.
Thursday Pre-Race Preparations
The 2019 Japanese GP had two talked-about themes: first, Typhoon Hagibis and, second, whether Mercedes could clinch their sixth consecutive constructor's title in this round. The typhoon was expected to hit Japan over the weekend. It had already affected the Rugby World Cup, with some matches postponed.
F1 management kept a close eye on Typhoon Hagibis and said that they would make announcements promptly on when to stop track action. Mercedes came into the weekend leading the Prancing Horse by 162 points, so it was more a matter about 'when' they will win their sixth title than 'if'. Red Bull was 3rd, McLaren 4th and Renault 5th on the list.
Mercedes introduced a big aero update kit for the Japanese GP and the rest of the season to get some buffer back to Ferrari and Red Bull. The update mostly brought improvement in the bargeboard area.
Renault introduced a new front wing to improve car balance and gain some momentum by scoring good points to achieve their goal of finishing 4th in the constructor's championship currently held by their customer engine team McLaren.
Japan is Honda's home race, and Honda took this opportunity to evaluate a Japanese driver for a future F1 race seat. They announced that Naoki Yamamoto (Japan) would take part in FP 1 in place of Pierre Gasly at Toro Rosso. Yamamoto is the reigning Japanese Super Formula and Super GT champion.
Luckily, the rain and thunderstorms stayed away from the Suzuka track, and the teams got plenty of running in dry conditions. The teams had to alter the running order and compress the workload to make sure they tick all the primary boxes. The Silver Arrows dominated FP 1 and FP 2 with Valterri Bottas taking top honors by going fastest in both sessions.
Number crunching pretty matched with the timing screens, and Mercedes led the pecking order over a single lap pace followed by Red Bull and Ferrari. McLaren again showed tremendous pace on high-speed circuit, and they led the midfield pack. Renault, which introduced a decent set of upgrades, was expecting to close the gap to McLaren. Instead, they had a tough day on the track and were the 9th quickest over short-run pace and needed some head-scratching to get back up the order.
Long-run data again portrayed Mercedes as top dog, and they had a significant margin over the leading competitors. Mercedes were on the average 0.6 sec/lap quicker than Ferrari and 0.9 sec/lap faster than Red Bull. McLaren demonstrated good pace on high fuel and showed 0.4 sec/lap advantage over the rest of the midfield teams. Racing Point, Renault, Toro Rosso, and Haas were all within three-tenths of each other. Alfa Romeo was 9th and Williams 10th quickest.
Saturday Practice (Cancelled)
Typhoon Hagibis was due to land in Mie Prefecture on Friday night, with predicted rainfall exceeding 1000 mm, so the FOM (Formula One Management) canceled the Saturday running in Suzuka. Qualifying was rescheduled to take place on Sunday morning before the race.
Qualifying at Suzuka International Racing Course started with a couple of red flags. Rain followed by Typhoon Hagibis washed away all the rubber laid on the track. When cars returned to track, lack of grip caused Robert Kubica and Kevin Magnussen to crash heavily, resulting in the suspension of the session twice. Two drivers were out, and three more needed to complete the Q1 session.
Q2 was normal running with no crash. Valterri Bottas posted the fastest time on soft tyres from Lewis Hamilton. Pierre Gasly made into the top ten making three Honda cars into Q3. The two Alfa Romeos, Lance Stroll, Daniil Kyat and Nico Hulkenberg all failed to make the cut.
Ferrari turned the heat up on its rivals by locking out the front row, with Vettel taking the provisional pole position with three purple sectors. The Mercedes cars were a distant 3rd and 4th, some 0.6 sec behind the Ferrari. The final run in Q3 saw Charles Leclerc and both Mercedes drivers improve there, but Vettel lowered the benchmark even further with a blistering time of 1:27.064 to take pole position and set a new track record time. Valterri Bottas finished 3rd at more than two-tenths behind. Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon set an identical lap time of 1:27.851, but Verstappen set his time first, so he started 5th. Vettel said that they were quite surprised with the front-row lockout, and enjoyed it. Bottas, on the other hand, remained optimistic and stated that they always knew Ferrari would have something in reserve to turn things up, but that nothing is lost yet.
The race was scheduled to start three hours after the end of the qualifying. Sebastian Vettel was so eager to get going that he dropped the clutch before lights went out, but pulled it back and dropped it again. The loss of momentum allowed the fast-starting Finn to take the lead into the first corner. Max Verstappen made a good start and slipped past Leclerc who couldn't slow himself into Turn 2 and tangled with Verstappen sending him onto the grass. Verstappen retired on lap 15 with significant car damage, and with that, a chance of a home win for Honda doomed as well. Leclerc pitted on Lap 4 to change a damaged front wing and emerged last. McLaren's Carlos Sainz slotted into 4th during the early phase of the race.
Upfront, Bottas controlled the pace, so Ferrari decided to pit Vettel first taking another set of softs which meant a two-stop race. Bottas dived in the next lap to put on a set of mediums. Hamilton changed to mediums on Lap 21 and went for one stopper, but high tyre degradation made it impossible to do the race on a one-stop strategy.
Sebastian pitted on Lap 31 to take new mediums, and Bottas came in on Lap 36. Hamilton took used softs on Lap 42 and went after Vettel with ten laps to go. He drove at sublime pace but would end up 0.4 sec short on the chequered flag. At the front, Bottas controlled the race beautifully to take his 3rd win of the season and the sixth of his career. Alexander Albon finished career-best 4th, Sainz a brilliant 5th 8 sec behind Red Bull, and Ricciardo finished 6th. Leclerc 7th, Pierre Gasly 8th, Sergio Perez 9th and Nico Hulkenberg 10th to complete double points finish for Renault.
Mercedes clinched their sixth consecutive constructor's championship equalling the record set by Ferrari from 1999-2004. Mighty Mercedes is the only team to win all six Hybrid engine era titles.
This round's winner Valterri Bottas could not express enough how happy he was about the win, considering it was pretty close qualifying and starting third was never easy. He added that today proved that everything was possible and there's no point ever to give up on everything.