The title swings further in Hamilton’s favour: 2018 Russian and Japanese Grand Prix double-header Review

4,914 miles separate the Sochi Autodrom circuit on the Black Sea in Russia and the Suzuka International Circuit in Japan but yet here the two events were side to side in a doubleheader. A part of the reasoning is Russia filling the gap left in the F1 calendar vacated by the Malaysian Grand Prix which held its final race last year. The other was perhaps to allow the Russians to concentrate on hosting this summers world cup. However, both races produced critical moments that may well define the destiny of the 2018 F1 Championship…

The title race took another step in the direction of Lewis Hamilton  in Russia but it was not without controversy. Qualifying saw five cars not take part in Q2 meaning the top 10 as decided by default but in Q3, a mistake by the Championship leader on his final run saw Valtteri Bottas qualify on pole ahead of Hamilton in 2nd and Vettel in 3rd. That remained the front three off the line as Vettel had a look at Hamilton first before Hamilton had a look at Bottas at turn 2. However, the race ended pretty soon for Toro Rosso with both cars not making it beyond lap three.

The race as a whole saw some excellent racing. Charles Leclerc in the Sauber produced a stunning pass on Kevin Magnussen’s Haas around the outside of the long left-hander turn three. Hamilton as well produced a similarly well-executed move on Vettel after coming out of the pit stops behind the Ferrari. Going around the outside on turn three he dived down the inside of turn four to retake 2nd. That is where it got controversial as Mercedes used team orders to instruct Bottas to let Hamilton through in order to take the win while further down the field Force India did indeed use team orders following the coming together of their two drivers in Singapore.

For Hamilton, that was his 70th win in F1 while Bottas finished 2nd ahead of Vettel in 3rd who lost another 10 points to Hamilton in the Championship. Kimi Raikkonen started and finished 4th but the spotlight was also on the man finishing in 5th. Having started 19th after a host of engine penalties, max Verstappen produced an amazing performance and even led for half of the race before making his pit stop to finish 5th on his 21st birthday. Birthday drives don’t get much better than that. Daniel Ricciardo finished 6th while Leclerc finished ‘best of the rest’ in 7th for Sauber. Magnussen and the two Force India drivers completed the top 10.

Romain Grosjean was the unlucky man to finish 11th for Haas while Nico Hulkenberg (12th), Marcus Ericsson (13th), Fernando Alonso (14th) and Lance Stroll (15th) finished one lap adrift of the leaders. Three drivers finished a further lap adrift with home favourite Sergey Sirotkin finishing last in 18th. The Toro Rosso’s were the only drivers not to finish.

2018 Russian Grand Prix Result

Q1: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:32.410……………15th Nico Hulkenberg 1:34.655
ELIMINATED: 16th Brendon Hartley +0.382, 17th Fernando Alonso +0.849, 18th Sergey Sirotkin +0.957, 19th Stoffel Vandoorne +1.322, 20th Lance Stroll +1.782

Q2: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:32.595………10th Marcus Ericsson
ELIMINATED: 11th Max Verstappen (no time set), 12th Daniel Ricciardo (no time set), 13th Pierre Gasly (no time set), 14th Carlos Sainz (no time set), 15th Nico Hulkenberg (no time set)

Q3: 1st Valtteri Bottas 1:31.387, 2nd Lewis Hamilton +0.145, 3rd Sebastian Vettel +0.556, 4th Kimi Raikkonen +0.850, 5th Kevin Magnussen +1.794, 6th Esteban Ocon +2.026, 7th Charles Leclerc +2.032, 8th Sergio Perez +2.176, 9th Romain Grosjean +2.317, 10th Marcus Ericsson +3.807

Race Result
1st Lewis Hamilton 1:37:32.054, 2nd Valtteri Bottas +2.545, 3rd Sebastian Vettel +7.487, 4th Kimi Raikkonen +16.543, 5th Max Verstappen +31.016, 6th Daniel Ricciardo +80.451, 7th Charles Leclerc +98.390, 7th Kevin Magnussen +1 lap, 9th Esteban Ocon +1 lap, 10th Sergio Perez 1 lap, 11th Romain Grosjean + 1 lap, 12th Nico Hulkenberg +1 lap, 13th Marcus Ericsson +1 lap, 14th Fernando Alonso +1 lap, 15th Lance Stroll +1 lap, 16th Stoffel Vandoorne +2 laps, 17th Carlos Sainz +2 laps, 18th Sergey Sirotkin +2 laps, Pierre Gasly DNF, Brendon Hartley DNF

Points
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 25, Valtteri Bottas 18, Sebastian Vettel 15, Kimi Raikkonen 12, Max Verstappen 10, Daniel Ricciardo 8, Charles Leclerc 6, Kevin Magnussen 4, Esteban Ocon 2, Sergio Perez 1

Constructors: Mercedes 43, Ferrari 27, Red Bull 18, Sauber 6, Haas 4, Force India 3


The following weekend in Japan and the momentum remained with Hamilton and Mercedes. They did not require team orders this time as Vettel and Ferrari’s challenge imploded at Suzuka and left the reigning Champion on the brink of a fifth crown.

Lewis Hamilton had set the pace all weekend before the rain began to fall in Qualifying. The only thing that could prevent his Mercedes team from taking pole position was the weather and who utilised the best strategy in Q3. The rain had stopped at the start of Q3 and Mercedes made the right call to go slick tyres while others had to change tyres. However, the rain came down again in the closing stages of Q3 meaning those who had initially gone out on inters had been caught out with Sebastian Vettel going wide on his final run in Qualifying 9th.

In terms of the Championship battle, Vettel needed to have a good launch off the grid. The Ferrari man delivered that as he was up to 5th before Max Verstappen ran wide at the final chicane and came back onto the circuit into Kimi Raikkonen. Vettel was able to pass his teammate there and was behind Verstappen. There was chaos further down the field as Kevin Magnussen moved changed direction in defending against Charles Leclerc with the Monegasque driver having some choice words on team radio. Debris from Magnussen’s car brought the Safety car out.

Following the Safety Car returning to the pit lane, racing resumed on lap 8. Verstappen had been given a time penalty for his earlier mistake but Vettel saw an opportunity to pass the Red Bull at Spoon curve, It ended in disaster with the Ferrari man being sent into a spin and fell back down the field to 19th. From there, it was damage limitation for Vettel and while he was losing time behind other cars, he managed to get to 10th before Ferrari pitted him. There was still more overtaking to do and after gaining 6th from Grosjean on lap 34 even his teammate was too far ahead.

Vettel finished 6th but out in front was Lewis Hamilton taking his 71st career victory having led every lap from pole position. He did not get the grand slam though as Vettel at least took the fastest lap. In 2nd was Valtteri Bottas who had to do some defending from Max Verstappen as he struggled to get through lapped traffic. Verstappen finished 3rd and in 4th was Daniel Ricciardo who had produced a stunning drive from 15th on the grid after being unable to compete in Q2.

The two Ferrari’s were 5th and 6th respectively while the ‘best of the rest’ in 7th place was Sergio Perez for Force India. Behind the Mexican was the Haas of Romain Grosjean while Esteban Ocon finished 9th. The final points paying position was taken up by Carlos Sainz in the Renault having passed the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly; who had been strong all weekend) with three laps remaining to break Honda’s hearts.

Gasly finished 11th with the sister Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley finished 13th despite the pair qualifying in the top 10. Marcus Ericsson finished in between them in 12th while Fernando Alonso finished 14th for the second successive weekend and had Stoffel Vandoorne for company in 15th. Sergey Sirotkin got some form of payback on Lace Stroll finishing ahead of his teammate in 16th. Charles Leclerc and Nico Hulkenberg joined Kevin Magnussen in failing to finish.

2018 Honda Japanese Grand Prix Results

Q1: Lewis Hamilton 1:28.702……………15th Lance Stroll 1:30.317
ELIMINATED: 16th Nico Hulkenberg +0.044, 17th Sergey Sirotkin +0.55, 18th Fernando Alonso +0.246, 19th Stoffel Vandoorne +0.724, 20th Marcus Ericsson +0.986

Q2: 1st Valtteri Bottas 1:27.987………10th Brendon Hartley 1:28.848
ELIMINATED: 11th Charles Leclerc +0.016, 12th Kevin Magnussen +0.378, 13th Carlos Sainz +0.642, 14th Lance Stroll +0.866, 15th Daniel Ricciardo (no time set)

Q3: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:27.760, 2nd Valtteri Bottas +0.299, 3rd Max Verstappen +1.297, 4th Kimi Raikkonen +1.761, 5th Romain Grosjean +2.001, 6th Brendon Hartley +2.263, 7th Pierre Gasly +2.333, 8th Esteban Ocon +2.366, 9th Sebastian Vettel +4.432, 10th Sergio Perez +98.469

Race Result
1st Lewis Hamilton 1:27:17.062, 2nd Valtteri Bottas +12.919, 3rd Max Verstappen +14.295, 4th Daniel Ricciardo +19.495, 5th Kimi Raikkonen +50.998, 6th Sebastian Vettel +69.873, 7th Sergio Perez +79.379, 8th Romain Grosjean +87.198, 9th Esteban Ocon +88.055, 10th Carlos Sainz +1 lap, 11th Pierre Gasly +1 lap, 12th Marcus Ericsson +1 lap, 13th Brendon Hartley +1 lap, 14th Fernando Alonso +1 lap, 15th Stoffel Vandoorne +1 lap, 16th Sergey Sirotkin +1 lap, 17th Lance Stroll +1 lap, Charles Leclerc DNF, Nico Hulkenberg DNF, Kevin Magnussen DNF

Points
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 25, Valtteri Bottas 18, Max Verstappen 15, Daniel Ricciardo 12, Kimi Raikkonen 10, Sebastian Vettel 8, Sergio Perez 6, Romain Grosjean 4, Esteban Ocon 2, Carlos Sainz 1
Constructors: Mercedes 43, Red Bull 27, Ferrari 18, Force India 8, Haas 4, Renault 1

Team by Team Review


Mercedes
 Russia Qualifying: Valtteri Bottas 1st, Lewis Hamilton 2nd
 Russia Race Result: Lewis Hamilton 1st, Valtteri Bottas 2nd
 Japan Qualifying: Lewis Hamilton 1st, Valtteri Bottas 2nd
 Japan Race Result: Lewis Hamilton 1st, Valtteri Bottas 2nd
 Drivers Points: Lewis Hamilton 50, Valtteri Bottas 36
 Constructors Points: 86

Mercedes arrived in Sochi for the first part of the doubleheader with a tremendous record around the Sochi Autodrom. They had won every race since it came on to the F1 calendar in 2014 but despite that Team Principal Toto Wolff warned, ‘we know that Ferrari and Red Bull will give it everything to break our winning streak, so we must fight as hard as ever to make sure we bring home as many points as possible’. The team’s pace though was tremendous as after opening practice they did not look twice and were in control of proceedings. The only time it was not comfortable was after a miscalled pit stop brought Hamilton out behind Vettel but the driver soon restored parity with a stunning move on his title rival as Mercedes secured a 1-2 finish which they ultimately used team orders to swap their drivers around ensuring Hamilton victory. The conflicting nature of the result in Russia was exemplified by Wolff post-race, ‘We should be over the moon with a 1-2 and fundamentally we are. But we also feel that it went against Valtteri – it would have been a race win for him and we changed it…But there is a harsh reality that you can extend the lead by several points in a Championship that has been very tough and very difficult at times. Sometimes you have to take it and this is what we did today.

Lewis Hamilton won in Russia but only after team orders gave him the win he was least proud of. [Image from The Japan Times].

After starting the weekend in Sochi third quickest, Lewis Hamilton looked to be in control of proceedings as he topped the timesheets in the remaining two practice sessions and the first two parts of Qualifying. However, he overcooked it on his final Q3 run which meant he missed out on pole position to Bottas by 0.145 seconds. Describing the error, Hamilton said, ‘I was two tenths up on my final lap but I made a mistake – I went quite wide and then the back stepped out at the next corner. I think I had the pace for pole, but Valtteri did the better job this time.’ Off the start, he had the pace to pull away from the challenging Vettel and threatened Bottas at turn two but did not make a move stick. From the opening lap, he was never too far behind his teammate but was caught out in the pit stop phase with Mercedes pitting him a lap too late. Hamilton had come out behind Vettel and did not let that or what he felt like Vettel moving twice under braking deter him as he dived down the inside at turn four to make the move stick. It was a stunning move! Then came the controversial moment as he Bottas moved aside at turn 13 to give him the lead and ultimately the race win. His 70th career victory in F1 was one that he was not proud to win and insisted Bottas ‘deserved to win’.

Valtteri Bottas secured pole position in Russia, his first pole since Austria and led much of the race before conceding the lead to Hamilton under team orders. [Image from F1i.com].

Valtteri Bottas has a great record in Russia. He grabbed his maiden Grand Prix victory in Sochi last year and has been on the podium three out four races prior to the 2018 race. The Finn also has a distinguished record in never being out-qualified by his teammate at the Sochi Autodrom. That record was maintained but for a large part of the weekend, he was nowhere near Hamilton’s speed. However, in Qualifying the Finn ‘managed to find time in almost every run in qualifying’ and felt he ‘just had to put everything together in Q3.’ Bottas did that as he delivered his first pole since Austria. In the race, he did all he could to maintain the lead on the opening lap and maintained position through the pit stop phase. Bottas had done everything right but the powers that be decided it would not be his win and he duly moved aside to let Hamilton through. Not many teammates will give up a victory and put themselves into the jars of a chasing Ferrari like that but it must have hurt the Finn to do so. Hamilton described him as ‘a real gentleman’ but for the man himself, it was ‘personally a difficult race’ but accepted it for what it is, ‘Ultimately, Lewis is fighting for the Championship and the team for the Constructors’.

For Mercedes and in terms of the Championship, it had not been ideal having Bottas out-qualify Hamilton but a week later in Japan and that was of no concern to them. The team secured a second successive front row lockout following what Wolff described as ‘an intense qualifying session and…we probably got a little slice of good fortune, too.‘ Hamilton took a scorching 80th pole position of his career in tricky and slippery conditions and never looked in trouble as he converted that into his 71st Grand Prix victory to move into range of securing the title. It was a perfect double bill for Mercedes who seemed to hold a considerable pace advantage over both parts of the doubleheader and secured maximum points with two successive 1-2 finishes. Wolff was keen to heap praise on his team, both at the circuit and in the factory for, ‘hard work, creativity and a mindset to channel the pressure of the competition and keep pushing hard to achieve our objectives’and insisted there approach in the final races will remain the same.

Valtteri Bottas started and finished 2nd to collect his first podium in Japan but had to work hard for it to defend from Verstappen. [Image from formula1.com].

For Valtteri Bottas, it was more of playing the same team game for him in Japan. Unlike the week before in Russia Bottas was comprehensively beaten by Hamilton through practice and Qualifying and while he got the quickest time in Q2, he was not close enough when it mattered most. The difference between the two teammates was Bottas missing ‘a little bit in sector 2 and 3’. Still, his time was good enough for second and a second successive front row lockout for Mercedes. In the race, the Finnish driver held 2nd throughout and pitted on lap 23. His position did not seem under too much of a threat until the second half of the race when he struggled to make his way through lapped traffic. That gave Verstappen a chance but Bottas had enough in hand to be able to pull away from the Red Bull man to complete his unofficial ‘wingman’ duties and collect his first ever podium in Japan by finishing 2nd. Describing his battle with Verstappen, Bottas felt ‘It probably looked much closer on TV than it actually was’ and explained he ‘had one lockup going into the last chicane where Max got a bit closer, but otherwise I was just managing and it was all under control’.

Lewis Hamilton enjoyed himself thoroughly in Japan as he secured his third win at Suzuka to near closer to a fifth world title. [Image from Sky Sports].

While he was the slightly lucky and undeserving race winner in Russia, Lewis Hamilton was on another level in Japan and thoroughly deserved his 71st career victory. The Championship leader was quickest in all three practice sessions and was only 0.090 seconds away in Q2 from topping the timesheet in every session. Hamilton then secured a sensational pole position for the 80th of his F1 career and fired an ominous warning to the rest of the field, ‘I don’t think 80 pole positions is the end – but it’s a milestone and I’m very proud.’ From the starting grid it never seemed in doubt. The Mercedes man controlled the race perfectly. Mercedes pitted him on lap 24 and led every lap as he went on to finish the race 12 seconds ahead of his teammate. The only thing that would have made it a perfect weekend Hamilton was the fastest lap, which Vettel took at the end to deny him a 6th career grand slam. However, Hamilton was content having had ‘so much fun driving this track’ and being able to ‘embrace the moment and enjoy every single lap, every single corner and the feel of the car…The pace was really great and this is definitely the best weekend I’ve had here’. It definitely will go down as one his best weekends at Suzuka ever as it has put him on the brink of a fifth world title.

Ratings
 In Russia: Lewis Hamilton 8.5/10, Valtteri Bottas 9/10, Mercedes 9/10
 In Japan: Lewis Hamilton 10/10, Valtteri Bottas 8/10, Mercedes 10/10
Scuderia Ferrari
 Russia Qualifying: Sebastian Vettel 3rd, Kimi Raikkonen 4th
 Russia Race Result: Sebastian Vettel 3rd, Kimi Raikkonen 4th
 Japan Qualifying: Kimi Raikkonen 4th, Sebastian Vettel 9th
 Japan Race Result: Kimi Raikkonen 5th, Sebastian Vettel 6th
 Drivers Points: Sebastian Vettel 23, Kimi Raikkonen 22
 Constructors Points: 45

Ferrari arrived in Russia needing to bounce back after a couple disappointing race weekends in Italy and Singapore. They had been expected to defeat Mercedes in both rounds but failed to do so and arrived in Russia in a role-reversed position. It was Mercedes expected to be stronger in Russia and Ferrari needed to bounce back and stun them. While they started well, ultimately, the Scuderia just did not have the pace to match the Silver Arrows and had to settle for a second-row lockout. Despite the pace deficit, it looked like Ferrari had fooled Mercedes again on pit strategy but Hamilton in the Mercedes just had too much pace for Vettel to keep behind for too long and to compound their misery, the team orders meant the maximum damage was inflicted to Vettel’s Championship hopes. Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene admitted ‘the Sochi weekend was a rather difficult one for us…something was missing here’. He looked to Suzuka the following weekend and vowed ‘we still have the right weapons with which to fight all the way to the very end’.

Sebastian Vettel could have finished ahead of Hamilton in Russia after undercutting the Mercedes man but even with hard racing Hamilton had too much for the Ferrari before team orders came into play. [Image from Grand Prix 247].

The Russian Grand Prix weekend could not have started much better for Sebastian Vettel as he topped the opening practice timesheet. After that though, he was barely within half a second of the Mercedes in practice and Qualifying as he qualified a huge 0.566 seconds slower than Bottas as he admitted ‘we just weren’t very fast enough’. Still, that was good enough for third and with Bottas getting a great launch from there to take the lead last year, he knew all was not lost as he believed, ‘there is a chance to overtake after the start. We need a good getaway’. The German produced a storming getaway and was able to get side by side with Hamilton at turn 1 but could only bite Hamilton’s dust as he pulled away into turn 2. However, Vettel was able to stay close to the Mercedes in the opening stint and jumped Hamilton in the pit stop phase by stopping a lap earlier than him on lap 15. Vettel was in a position he needed; ahead of Hamilton. However, that would not last as despite keeping him behind at turn 2, Hamilton dived past at turn 4 and was then powerless to prevent his title rival claiming an extra 10 points on him. Despite finishing 3rd and falling 50 points behind Hamilton, Vettel insisted the fight was not over, ‘We need to keep pushing and try; who knows what will happen in the next races’.

Kimi Raikkonen’s expression even on the drivers parade foreshadowed the race that was to come, rather dull as he started and finished 4th. [Image from formula1.com].

Kimi Raikkonen had a quiet weekend in Russia. While he started the weekend 1.2 seconds adrift of his teammate in opening practice, he was able to close that gap to Vettel. However, he only held the pace advantage over his teammate in Q1 as he eventually qualified almost three tenths adrift of Vettel in 4th and a huge 0.850 seconds off the pace. It is perhaps alarming of Ferrari’s performance level the Finn suggested that ‘was the best we have seen this weekend’. From 4th on the grid, he maintained position on the opening lap and did not pit until lap 18. He was probably happy to be rid of the hypersoft tyre he started on as he complained of a lack of grip. His stop was later than those ahead meaning he got to lead a few laps but otherwise it was an uneventful race for the 2007 Champion who after Verstappen potted late on, finished where he started in 4thand bemoaned that ‘Not much happened in my race today, I was most of the time on my own. Unfortunately, this is what we kind of expected to happen.

The aspirations Arrivabene spoke of after the race in Sochi were dealt another big blow in Japan. The Ferrari car did not have the pace to challenge Mercedes again and after changing conditions in Qualifying and getting the tyre call wrong meant they started from far from ideal positions. The challenge then crumbled in race day as both drivers were involved in incidents with Verstappen. Vettel took headlines for all the wrong reasons making yet another mistake in trying to pass the Red Bull at Spoon despite Verstappen already having incurred a penalty for an earlier incident with Raikkonen. It was the defining moment of a disappointing weekend in which they were outperformed by Red Bull and the Championships firmly within grasp for Mercedes. Arrivabene acknowledged their position but vowed, ‘Regardless of what is now a very difficult situation in terms of the championship, we will tackle the coming races giving them our best shot, maintaining concentration and determination.

Sebastian vettel’s diving down the inside of Max Verstappen proved particularly costly in Japan. [Image from formula1.com].

Japan was a difficult Grand Prix weekend for Sebastian Vettel The closest the German could get to the Mercedes during the whole weekend was 0.116 seconds which is a plus really given he started the weekend almost a second adrift. In Qualifying, it seemed the most he could hope for would be to split the Mercedes and get on the front row behind Hamilton. However, Q3 went disastrously wrong for Vettel as he went out on Intermediate tyres at the start expecting more rain but that did not come. He confessed this ‘was the wrong decision and now it’s easy to say, but it could have been the other way around’. The four-time Champion needed a stellar start from 9th and he delivered just that as he was up to 5th on the opening lap before benefiting from his teammates incident with Verstappen to be 4th. That meant he was behind Verstappen at the safety car restart. With Verstappen facing a five-second penalty he did not need to be too aggressive. However, his great start was undone by Vettel attempting to go down the inside of the Red Bull at spoon curve. The contact sent his Ferrari into a spin and down to the back of the field in 19th. Despite taking on some damage Ferrari did not pit him until lap 26 after he had recovered to 10th and from there he made several passes to be back up to 6th on lap 34 but by that point, his teammate was too far ahead to be able to finish any higher. The result is very damaging in fact critically damaged his hopes of a fifth title this year but despite that he insisted post-race ‘we keep fighting and resisting and we’ll see what the other races bring’.

Contact with Max Verstappen defined Ferrari’s race in Japan as on the opening lap Kimi Raikkonen had Verstappen come into him which compromised his race. [Image from formula1.com].

Kimi Raikkonen has not been on the podium in Suzuka since his famous win from 17th in 2005. That did not look like changing this year as he spent much of the weekend slower than his teammate. The Iceman was roughly four tenths slower than Vettel for most of the weekend but the correct call on tyres in Q3 enabled Raikkonen to qualify 4th. From the start, he was looking to pass Verstappen when he went wide at the chicane but came back on to the circuit making contact with his car. That cost him 4th to Vettel which he soon regained after the safety car restart when his teammate went for a spin. However, the contact Raikkonen believed ‘affected negatively the rest of my race’. He pitted on lap 17 and after making several passes on track he was back up to 5th on lap 23 but was now behind Ricciardo who had managed to make an overcut work by pitting that lap, From that moment with the loss of downforce he experienced from the contact, Raikkonen just could not get close enough to the Red Bull to challenge for 4th and dropped back in the final laps.

Ratings
 In Russia: Sebastian Vettel 8/10, Kimi Raikkonen 6/10, Ferrari 7/10.
 In Japan: Sebastian Vettel 5.5/10, Kimi Raikkonen 7.5/10, Ferrari 6.5/10
Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
 Russia Qualifying: Max Verstappen 11th, Daniel Ricciardo 12th
 Russia Race Result: Max Verstappen 5th, Daniel Ricciardo 6th
 Japan Qualifying: Max Verstappen 3rd, Daniel Ricciardo 15th
 Japan Race Result: Max Verstappen 3rd, Daniel Ricciardo 4th
 Drivers Points: Max Verstappen 25, Daniel Ricciardo 20
 Constructors Points: 45

Red Bull arrived in Russia anticipating a difficult weekend with both of their drivers taking on grid penalties for an excessive number of engine components. This was described by Team principal Christian Horner as ‘strategic power unit penalties…at a circuit that hasn’t yielded positive results for us in the past’. They were also marking Max Verstappen’s 21st birthday on race day and Ricciardo joked of dedicating his race win to him. Due to the penalties, they did not take part in Q2 after showing some promising pace in Q1 as after all, what was the point? Horner was optimistic that they were on course to challenge Ferrari such was their pace. With the cars set up for the race, both drivers performed well as they climbed into the points and who would have thought a Red Bull would have led the race given they started on the back row? However, their eventual 5th and 6th was perhaps the best possible result for the Milton Keynes outfit.

Max Verstappen put in a birthday performance to be proud of as he recovered from starting on the back row to finish an incredible 5th after leading the race for large parts. [Image from formula1.com].

We’ll start with the birthday then. Max Verstappen started the weekend in great shape being only 0.050 seconds adrift of Vettel in opening practice. In general, though, he seemed to have more pace than Ricciardo and despite having some issues in final practice was a very strong 3rd in Q1 before the team elected not to run in Q2. After Qualifying he felt optimistic about the race with the weekend having ‘gone better than expected so far…from where I’m starting. I think the most realistic birthday present will be fifth’. Well, his birthday showing did not disappoint as he produced a stunning surge through the field in a driver of the day performance. Having started 19th, Verstappen had a stellar start after swerving to avoid the stalling Toro Rosso of Gasly in front and was up to his target position of 5th within the first 7 laps with some sublime racing which his boss described as ‘phenomenal to watch’. Red Bull started him on the more durable soft tyre and led 23 laps of the race before pitting on lap 43. That surprised Verstappen especially as he ‘could keep them behind which shows that we really had very good pace, even on old tyres’. The amazing surge saw him finish comfortably in 5th, 14 places up on where he started from to cap off a ‘fantastic drive’ and ‘really mature performance’.

Daniel Ricciardo similarly had a fine recovery drive as he too started at the back due to strategic engine penalties and finished 6th. [Image from formula1.com].

Daniel Ricciardo did not have such a headline-grabbing weekend in Russia as his teammate did. In fact, there was never a session in Sochi that the honey badger outpaced Verstappen which will be disappointing for him. However, his pace was similarly strong and he was 4th in Q1 before the expected no-show in Q2. He stated post-qualify, ‘Knowing you’re taking planned penalties before the weekend makes it easier to accept that you won’t complete qualifying and then you can just focus on the race’ and his main excitement came with his AFL team winning in the early hours. In the race, Ricciardo had a rather sluggish start which he described as ‘a bit of a mess’ and despite some front wing damage from having caught some debris managed to make some progress through the field. Although he felt he was carrying ‘a bit of a limp’ on his car, he had managed to reach the top 6 by lap 12 and like Verstappen Red Bull ran Ricciardo long into the race on a set of the…tyre. Ricciardo pitted slightly earlier on lap 39 and finished the race in 6th. That is perhaps the maximum he could have hoped for having started 20th but he obviously ‘would like to have been closer to fifth than seventh’.

Hopes were high of a podium finish the following weekend in Japan where Red Bull have had a good record at. The team secured a double podium finish last season, they couldn’t do that again, could they? They seemed fairly competitive but reliability gremlins struck again with Ricciardo not able to take part in Q2. Horner later explained it was ‘extremely frustrating to lose him at the beginning of Q2 due to a throttle actuator issue’. However, after some excellent race craft, they were able to finish 3rd and 4th despite Verstappen incurring a five second time penalty. Horner praised it as ‘a good day for the drivers and the team…All round, it has been a positive day getting two cars to the finish and taking home a good haul of points for the Team’. It did, however, beg the question, where would they be if not for the unreliability, could they have achieved more?

Daniel Ricciardo screams in frustration after his car suffered yet more reliability in Qualifying but he produced another stellar drive to come back and finish ahead of both Ferrari’s in 4th. [Image from Grand Prix 247].

For Daniel Ricciardo, it was another weekend of frustration in Japan. He started it well by going third quickest in opening practice but from there he never had the same level of pace that Verstappen showed. The honey badger had gone 8th in Q1 but did get a chance to get in a lap in Q2 due to a throttle issue. Describing what happened, Ricciardo said, ‘As soon as I came through the last chicane to start my fast lap I immediately felt that something was wrong. I just didn’t have full power and I could hear the turbo or something wasn’t healthy. I came to the pits and we tried to fix it but I think it’s something terminal.’ The frustration was there for all to see as cameras caught him let out a big scream on his way to scrutineering. That was painful to see. The race though was a different story. The Australian made a strong start passing Stroll on the opening lap before avoiding the Leclerc Magnussen incident on the second lap at turn 1. He was 10th when the Safety car was called on lap 4and after the restart he continued to make progress with overtakes on both Force India’s, Gasly and Grosjean before pitting from 3rd on lap 25. He came out behind his teammate in 4th and was comfortably ahead of Raikkonen to finish 4th.

Despite a five second time penalty for the opening lap incident with Raikkonen, Max Verstappen put in another strong performance to finish on the podium and even challenge for 2nd. [Image from Sky Sports].

Max Verstappen had another strong showing in Japan following his driver of the day performance in Russia. While his weekend did not start so well being almost half a second slower than Ricciardo the Dutch driver soon came into form. He didn’t look back from second practice and after getting into Q3, switching to slicks he was able to get a good time in to ultimately qualified 3rd. That was key to his qualifying according to the driver, ‘It was crucial that we swapped the intermediates to slicks at the beginning of Q3, this allowed us to get out ahead of Ferrari and set a strong lap time.’ The race was more eventful for Verstappen. After overcooking it on the brakes into the chicane on lap 1 he came back on to the track right into the path of Raikkonen. He should not have come back on that way and the stewards rightly penalised him. Verstappen though was not impressed and argued post-race, ‘I felt a little hard done by with the penalty I got while defending against Kimi. I was trying my best to get back onto the track as quickly as possible instead of just cutting the corner, perhaps next time I will just cut the track. Then upon the safety car restart, he was involved in the action again as he defended from Vettel at spoon. He was fortunate to avoid too much impact from that collision and despite having a five second time penalty when stopping on lap 21, he still had enough pace in the car to get close to Bottas when the Mercedes man was struggling with backmarkers. Overall though, 3rd and a second successive podium in Japan was a fantastic result for Verstappen which ‘After the penalty and incident with Seb I’m really happy to come away with’.

Ratings
 In Russia: Max Verstappen 10/10, Daniel Ricciardo 7/10, Red Bull 8/10
 In Japan: Max Verstappen 9/10, Daniel Ricciardo 9/10, Red Bull 8/10
Racing Point Force India
 Russia Qualifying: Esteban Ocon 6th, Sergio Perez 8th
 Russia Race Result: Esteban Ocon 9th, Sergio Perez 10th
 Japan Qualifying: Esteban Ocon 8th, Sergio Perez 10th
 Japan Race Result: Sergio Perez 7th, Esteban Ocon 9th
 Drivers Points: Sergio Perez 7, Esteban Ocon 4
 Constructors Points: 11

Some eyes in the paddock were on Force India in Russia after the opening lap incident between there drivers last time out in Singapore. Would the team go through with the threat of imposing team orders in Russia? Team Orders were indeed used in Sochi as the team sought to beat the Haas of Kevin Magnussen in the race but in a fair way to their two drivers as they secured a double points finish after getting both cars into Q3. However, the team were perhaps expecting to be fighting for a couple of positions higher up than 8th down to 10th. However, Team principal Otmar Szafnauer had mixed emotions as he felt they would be equally competitive in Suzuka, ‘Both cars home safely in the points today, but we ended the day a little frustrated that we weren’t able to demonstrate the true pace of the car.

Sergio Perez felt Force India did not maximise the potential of their car in Russia as they failed to pass Kevin Magnussen’s Haas. [Image from The Chequered Flag]

Sergio Perez sat out the opening practice session as reserve driver Nichlas Latifi took over his car though missing the track time did not seem to impact on the Mexicans performance levels. He was instantly quicker than Ocon in second practice but lost some of that cutting-edge going into Qualifying. It is questionable if he’d have made it to Q3 if the five eliminated drivers had taken part but in the end, he qualified 8th. The Mexican was not satisfied with that, ‘My aim was to be in P5, but my Q3 laps were not the best and I lost a little time. Hopefully tomorrow we will be able to pick up some positions at the start.’ Perez held his position at the start but yielded to both Red Bulls before he pitted on lap12. That dropped him to 12th and he was right behind his teammate at this point. The Mexican felt he was quicker than Ocon and could attack Magnussen ahead which the team eventually allowed him to do. He passed Ocon on lap 26 but could make no significant inroads on the Haas and gave the position back on lap 37 as he finished 10th. Perez was slightly disappointed post race but insisted ‘We tried everything as a team today: trying to push all the time and it’s a bit disappointing not to maximise the points we could have scored.

Esteban Ocon led the Force India attack on Magnussen for 8th and even with team orders now used to give Perez a go, they reverted positions back so Ocon finished ahead of his teammate. [Image from formula1.com].

Esteban Ocon had a fairly consistent Russian Grand Prix weekend but will be slightly disappointed he did not come out with more. The French driver put his Force India in the top 10 in each practice session and had the edge on Perez to out-qualify Perez by a tenth. That put him 6th on the grid behind Magnussen who he felt he could have challenged more if not for a mistake on his final Q3 run. However, he was in positive spirits with that performance and post-session told the media, ‘The car performed really well today and it’s clear we’ve taken a good step forward during the last couple of races…starting from sixth gives us a good chance for tomorrow’. The team and driver were hopeful of a strong race result but Ocon lost out to Leclerc on the opening lap as he was battling with Magnussen. Force India pitted their lead man first on lap 10 and he was directly ahead of his teammate after the pit stop phase. He allowed Perez through to have a go at Magnussen for 8th but with his teammate unable to make progress the team reverted the drivers back around as Ocon finished 9th as ‘ultimately it was one of those days when things didn’t really go in our favour.

The following weekend, Force India’s form was still there amongst claims they could be even better as yet again they got both cars into the top 10 in Qualifying. Despite that achievement, the tricky conditions meant there was the feeling of an opportunity missed. Szafnauer explained, ‘In one sense it’s good to have both cars in the top ten, but at the same time in Q3 we didn’t show our true speed. We sent both cars out with enough fuel to complete a few laps, but the first lap was the only one that counted in the end.’ Although a grid penalty impeded Ocon he still delivered points while Sergio Perez finished 7th and best of the rest at Suzuka. Szafneuer was pleased with the result, ‘I think we made the most of our opportunities this afternoon. We had to fight all the way to the flag to score eight important points…Considering our starting positions, we recovered well today and the team did an excellent job with the strategy calls.’ While they may no longer be in the hunt for 4th in the Constructors Championship, it is telling of their performance over the doubleheader they were the only midfield team to get both cars into Q3 in both races and finished both races in the points with both cars. If they can keep this form going in the final four races then there’s no reason why they can’t trouble McLaren for 6th.

In Japan, Ocon was made to rue a grid penalty for ignoring red flags as he could only salvage 9th having started 11th while his teammate finished 7th. [Image from formula1.com].

Esteban Ocon seemed to be finding a nice rhythm around Suzuka. The French driver was 7th quickest in all three practice sessions and was comfortably quicker than his teammate in Qualifying too. Ocon got into Q3 and qualified 8th in the changing conditions. He was not satisfied with the result and explained what went wrong, ‘Our approach to Q3 meant we fuelled up for a few laps because we felt the track would dry up and keep improving. In reality, the track was already quite dry right from the start of Q3 and that’s when the track was at its best, but we were heavy on fuel.’ However, an earlier indiscretion in the weekend would cost him and he later admitted post-race, ‘our final result was dictated by the penalty yesterday.’ The stewards had given Ocon a three-place grid penalty after ignoring red flags. From 11th on the grid, he easily disposed of Leclerc and Hartley to be 9th. Force India pitted Ocon on lap 26 and he came out in 10th behind his teammate. That is where Ocon stayed and could only gain a position with Sainz pitted later in the race as despite having the speed to get close to Grosjean in the closing laps ‘but there wasn’t a chance to make a move’. While Ocon was naturally disappointed with the penalty, it could have been more in Japan and he knew that.

Sergio Perez maximised the Force India package in Japan and finished ‘best of the rest’ in 7th after a disappointing qualifying. [Image from formula1.com].

For much of the weekend in Japan, it did not seem to be going Sergio Perez’s way. The Mexican was at best four tenths adrift of his teammate in practice and still had that deficit in Q1 though there were some mitigating circumstances. His first attempt could not be finished due to Ericsson’s incident bringing out the top red flags. Still, Perez managed to get into Q3 but the difficult conditions played their part as he could only qualify 10th. The Mexican had gone wide on his first run which he felt, ‘a lot of time on my first lap when the track was at its best so there is definitely the feeling I could have done a lot more today.‘ In the race, he started 9th due to Ocon’s penalty and passed Hartley off the line to be 7th at the end of the opening lap. He maintained 7th until Ricciardo charged through on lap 11 and Force India pitted their lead man on track on lap 24. From there, he managed his tyres fairly well and passed the Haas of Grosjean on lap 41 after the restart from the VSC as he finished 7th and ‘best of the rest’. Perez was more than satisfied with that as ‘After yesterday’s poor qualifying we made up a lot of positions and I feel we really got the maximum from the race.

Ratings
 In Russia: Sergio Perez 7/10, Esteban Ocon 7.5/10, Force India 7/10
 In Japan: Sergio Perez 8/10, Esteban Ocon 7/10, Force India 8/10
Haas
 Russia Qualifying: Kevin Magnussen 5th, Romain Grosjean 9th
 Russia Race Result: Kevin Magnussen 8th, Romain Grosjean 11th
 Japan Qualifying: Romain Grosjean 5th, Kevin Magnussen 12th
 Japan Race Result: Romain Grosjean 8th, Kevin Magnussen DNF
 Drivers Points: Romain Grosjean 4, Kevin Magnussen 4
 Constrictors Points: 8

The Haas team came into the doubleheader starting in Sochi in rather high spirits. Both drivers felt their car would go well around the Sochi Autodrom and so it did as both cars qualified in the top 10 with Kevin Magnussen, in particular, being called the King of Sochi after putting his car 5th. However, they could not convert that into a double points finish for the team as both drivers dropped back in the race to finish 8th and 11th respectively. However, given that the two Red Bulls came through Team Principal Gunther Steiner was pleased with his drivers for doing ‘a very good job’ as ‘Overall, it’s been a good weekend. We’re always thereabouts to score points, and we did today’.

Kevin Magnussen was the king of Russia after Qualifying 5th but lost out to Charles Leclerc with a stunning move around turn 3 but an otherwise great drive from the Haas driver. [Image from formula1.com].

Kevin Magnussen likes Sochi. He finished 7th there in his best finish for Renault two years ago and he performed well again for Haas in 2018. The Danish driver held a considerable pace advantage over Grosjean through the three practice sessions. Although that pace advantage was cut in Qualifying he was still comfortably in the top 10 and put in a sensational effort in Q3 to qualify 5th on the grid. The Dane was naturally delighted with that performance as it meant ‘pole position for us’ in terms of the F1 midfield despite hitting the kerb at turn two on his best lap. Magnussen battled hard to maintain that 5th position on the opening lap from Ocon but he lost that position to Leclerc on the long turn 3 the following lap. Haas pitted their lead man on lap 9 and on the fresher tyres he passed Sainz on lap 18 and while he didn’t have enough to challenge Leclerc for 7th, he had just enough in hand for the Force India’s as he finished a rather comfortable 8th. Post-race, Magnussen explained their race pace was not as good as their qualifying pace, ‘so I found myself defending from the Force Indias, basically from lap one. I think we got all that we could. Leclerc was way too fast for us. He just overtook and pulled away easily. So, I think keeping the Force Indias behind was the maximum we could do.’ That is probably a fair assessment for Magnussen.

Romain Grosjean battled hard with Marcus Ercisson in Russia but finished just outside of the points in 11th. [Image from RaceFans.net].

Romain Grosjean struggled a fair bit in Russia and though was practice was between six and four tenths adrift of his teammate in the timesheets. However, the French driver was able to up his game slightly in Qualifying to get into the top 10 ahead of his teammate but trouble with traffic in Q3 meant he was not able to join his teammate on the third row. The traffic on his out-lap meant ‘The tyres were really cold to start the lap and I just didn’t get the grip’. Instead, he started 9th. It was a relatively quiet start to the race for Grosjean as he maintained position on the opening lap but he was soon passed by both Red Bull drivers before Haas pitted him on lap 8. The pit stop dropped him down to 16th and while other teams pit strategies lifted him to 13th he still had to pass both Renaults on track. He passed Sainz on lap 25 and Hulkenberg who had fresh tyres on lap 46 but even with those moves it was only good enough to finish 11th. He was naturally disappointed with that as he ‘thought I drove a good race’. He did, his only issue was the Red Bulls coming from the back row and managing to finish in the top 6 as he just did not have enough in the car to pass the Force India’s.

The following weekend in Suzuka was a similar story for Haas however it was the turn of Grosjean to shine. He got the car into Q3 while Magnussen fell short in Q2 due to traffic as the rain began to fall. Steiner was nevertheless pleased with Qualifying, ‘It was obviously a good qualifying session for us, especially for Romain. P5 on softs puts us in a good position for tomorrow…Magnussen…starting 12th with a free tyre choice – we still have a good chance to get him into the points, as well.’ The race was more disappointing for Magnussen as he was ultimately forced to retire to cap off a poor showing. However, it was the French man who delivered points for Haas despite having issues with the telemetry and a suspected puncture. That was what Steiner highlighted as a ‘Not the best of our days’ but they still ‘closed the gap to Renault by three points’. Over the course of the doubleheader, they outscored Renault to close in on them in the battle for 4th in the Constructors Championship.

Romain Grosjean put in a solid showing in Japan where he finished 8th. [Image from formula1.com].

Romain Grosjean put his disappointment from Russia firmly behind him in Japan and ran 8th quickest in both Friday practice sessions. While he lost a bit of pace in final practice the French driver recovered some of it to get himself into Q3 while his teammate did not. Then in the tricky conditions, he was able to put his Haas car 5th which is a great achievement. He acknowledged that post-session, ‘It’s a great day…I had a great lap. You always look afterwards and I was only two tenths from Kimi (Räikkönen). We’re in a great spot to start the race.’ That gap to Raikkonen was a surprise. The Haas driver had a decent start but lost 5th to Vettel on the approach to Spoon curve on the opening lap. He regained that position when Vettel went for a spin after the Safety Car. After that, he was passed by the Red Bull of Ricciardo on lap 13 and Haas pitted their man on lap 29 having started him on the soft tyre. Vettel came back through five laps later and Grosjean will be disappointed in how he got caught out by Perez on lap 41. This puzzled Grosjean who later spoke post-race of needing ‘to analyse what happened with the Virtual Safety Car restart. I was right on my delta time and Perez, when the gap was 2.4 seconds before, overtook me straight away. We need to check and see if there is not a problem in the system there.’ It was otherwise a strong showing from the French driver who has really found form since a difficult start to the season.

The aftermath of Magnussen’s dangerous move to block Leclerc on lap 2 which eventually brought his race to an end. [Image from formula1.com].

Kevin Magnussen struggled for pace at Suzuka compared to his teammate and was trailing him by half a second in Friday practice. Although the Danish driver went quicker than him in final practice he could not deliver the pace when it mattered and was eliminated from Qualifying in Q2. He would surely have been in the fight for Q3 if he had not started his crucial first run as Gasly came out of the pits, ‘he didn’t do it on purpose, but in sector one, it’s just impossible to get out of the way. I was driving behind him, lost downforce, then I made a mistake which cost the lap…It’s frustrating, as I think I could’ve been in Q3 on the soft tyre.’. The race ended in disappointment for Magnussen as again it was defined by a duel with Leclerc. Having lost out to Sainz off the line, Magnussen had gained a position on the Sauber but on the second lap, the pair made contact. The contact gave him a puncture and caused the safety car to be deployed such was the debris. According to Magnussen, ‘The tyre delaminated and ripped all the floor. It damaged the rear wing, the brake ducts etc’ meaning Haas were eventually forced to retire the car.

Ratings
 In Russia: Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen, Haas
 In Japan: Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen, Hass
Alfa Romeo Sauber
 Russia Qualifying: Charles Leclerc 7th, Marcus Ericsson 10th
 Russia Race Result: Charles Leclerc 7th, Marcus Ericsson 13th
 Japan Qualifying: Charles Leclerc 11th, Marcus Ericsson 20th
 Japan Race Result: Marcus Ericsson 12th, Charles Leclerc DNF
 Drivers Points: Charles Leclerc 6, Marcus Ericsson 0
 Constructors Points: 6

Sauber arrived in Sochi on the back of a fairly strong showing in Singapore where both drivers finished in and around the points. The team made further progress in Russia and although they were aided by Red Bull in particular not running in Q2, they got both cars into Q3 for the first time since… The race was equally solid for Sauber but Charles Leclerc took the headlines for the team with some stunning racing and great race management to finish 7th and ‘best of the rest’. Team principal Frederic Vasseur hailed it as a ‘great event’ and ‘a good sign for us as a team to have one of our cars finish in 7th place in a smooth race. We have to continue pushing and we will see what is possible in Japan.

Charles Leclerc had never raced in Sochi before but delivered an exceptional performance as he qualified 7th and after a stunning move on Magnussen remained there comfortably in the race. [Image from formula1.com].

Charles Leclerc had never driven the Sochi circuit before and said coming into the weekend ‘it will be all about getting into the rhythm of the track and being up to speed as soon as possible’. That inexperience showed in the opening practice sessions but in final practice, the young Monegasque driver began to show his pedigree. Finishing 7th in final practice, he comfortably got into Q3 before qualifying guess where? 7th! That was his best Qualifying in F1 to date and after Qualifying, he felt ‘It is great to see the hard work that we have put in this weekend pay off on track.’ More was to come in the race though as the record of starting 7th and finishing 7th does not do his race justice. Leclerc got a great start off the line and passed Ocon on the opening lap before launching a sublime pass on Magnussen around the outside of the long left-hander turn 3. Both moves the driver credited to being key to the result he achieved. Sauber pitted Leclerc on lap 10 with him in 6th and while he was ahead of Ricciardo when he pitted, the Red Bull man comfortably overcut him. The pace Leclerc had though was fantastic as he regained 7th when Hulkenberg pitted and finished well ahead of the Haas of Magnussen to be ‘best of the rest’. Post-race, Leclerc felt ‘amazing’ with his result and believed it was ‘a good reward for all of the hard work we put in week after week’.

Marcus Ericsson made it into Q3 in Russia but that was only due to five cars not taking part in Q2 and that showed in the race as he fell back to finish 13th. [Image from RaceFans.net].

.Marcus Ericsson had a mixed weekend in Russia. It did not start so well as the man replacing him, Antoine Giovanzzi outpaced Leclerc in his car in opening practice. Ericsson came back in for second practice and had an initial pace advantage over Leclerc that soon disappeared in final practice. The Swede got into Q3 for the first time since Australia and believed it was an ‘excellent achievement for the team to have both cars finish qualifying in Q3’. The truth though is judging from his pace and being nearly 1.8 seconds adrift of Leclerc, he would not have been there if not for Red Bull’s penalties. In the race, Ericsson had a relatively solid start but was made easy meat of by the Red Bulls before Sauber pitted him on lap 11. The stop brought him down to 14th and that’s where it began to go wrong for him. Ericsson said post-race, ‘unfortunately, I was stuck behind another car for the majority of the race and could not advance’. That car was Grosjean. The pair both passed the Renault of Sainz on lap 25 and hoping that fresh tyres would give Ericsson the advantage over the Haas, Sauber pitted him on lap 37. However, it was not enough as finished 13th, two places adrift of Grosjean and behind Hulkenberg to cap off a disappointing weekend for the Swede.

The following weekend in Japan was a bit more difficult. While Leclerc was able to deliver in Qualifying and just missed out on the top 10, Ericsson qualified plum last in Q1 before they came together at the safety car restart in the race. Leclerc’s race was already compromised by the actions of Magnussen at turn 1 earlier in the race while Ericsson could only finish outside the points. Vasseur though remained upbeat following the result in Japan insisting, ‘We can see that we have a good pace overall, and look forward to the next opportunity for points in the United States.’ Sauber finished the doubleheader with 6 points scored and closed right up to Toro Rosso for 8th in the Constructors.

Marcus Ercisson had a lucky escape in Japan at the safety car restart as he gave his teammate what could have been a nasty bump at the chicane. [Image from formual1.com].

Marcus Ericsson really had a topsy-turvy weekend in Japan. His pace was comfortably in the top 10 in both Friday practice sessions but dropped dramatically as others could improve more. The Swede qualified 20th and embarrassingly over 1.5 seconds slower than his teammate in 6th. He made a steady start to the race but gained a few positions on the second lap before the safety car was called. Sauber used the safety car period to pit Ericsson. As the safety car period was coming to an end, he had a nervous moment where he made contact with the rear of his teammate’s car. Other than, it was a composed race from Ericsson as he managed to take the tyres to the end and while it was not enough to get into the points, he still managed to hold Alonso behind him. Ericsson finished 12th. Given his starting position though, Ericsson was pleased with his performance, ‘but taking our starting position P20 into consideration, finishing in P12 is a result we can be satisfied with.

Charles Leclerc’s contact with Kevin Magnussen on lap 2 meant he needed a new nose before he was forced to retire later on in the race when ‘something broke’. [Image from RaceFans.net].

Charles Leclerc was in the thick of the action come race day even if he did not get to the finish. It is a shame though as he had shown promising pace in practice and was even 6th in Q1. The Monegasque driver was unlucky to not get out of Q2 though a spin put those hopes to bed. He was able to start 10th due to Ocon’s penalty and had a free choice of tyres to start on. However, he had a poor start and found himself down to 13th at the end of the opening lap having lost out to Ocon, Magnussen and Sainz. Then on the second lap, he made contact with Magnussen at turn 1 and while it seemed he came off with less damage than the Haas, Sauber pitted him behind the safety car. That dropped him to 18th and just ahead of his teammate where he survived another scare. After that scare, he made positions on Vandoorne and Sitotkin on the first lap after the restart but was ultimately unable to finish due to a mechanical issue. Despite the disappointment, Leclerc felt it had been a fun race and ‘It is a shame not to finish the race, but I look forward to the next one where I hope to fight for some points again.

Ratings
In Russia: Charles Leclerc, Marcus Ericsson, Sauber
In Japan: Charles Leclerc, Marcus Ericsson, Sauber
Renault
 Russia Qualifying: Carlos Sainz 14th, Nico Hulkenberg 15th
 Russia Race Result: Nico Hulkenberg 12th, Carlos Sainz 17th
 Japan Qualifying: Carlos Sainz 13th, Nico Hulkenberg 16th
 Japan Race Result: Carlos Sainz 10th, Nico Hulkenberg DNF
 Drivers Points: Carlos Sainz 1, Nico Hulkenberg 0
 Constructors Points: 1

Renault arrived in Sochi to kick-start the doubleheader with a 15 point advantage over Haas in the battle for 4th in the Constructors Championship. The team were bringing ‘further upgrades and mechanical tweaks’ in the hope of improving the car’s stability as Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul insisted, ‘We need to keep pushing in every area and take points when we can as we know our adversaries will do the same’. However, the upgrades did not have the desired effect as it soon became apparent the Renault package was not the quickest of the midfield runners. Consequently, they did not run their cars in Q2 which Sporting Director Alain Permane explained, ‘We’ve seen an exceptionally close midfield here and we weren’t able to be at the front of this battle on qualifying pace. This meant we looked ahead to the race and the tyre strategy options available. By not running in Q2 we will end up on the grid as the first cars with an open starting tyre choice and we’re expecting this will translate to a stronger race performance.’ That did not really correlate in the race as the strategy did not pay off with both drivers finishing outside of the points and Haas scoring well with Magnussen. Abiteboul defended the decision as the right one as he described Russia as ‘a weekend to put behind us; we knew we would struggle here and we gave it our best so we move on to Japan.

Nico Hulkenberg felt Renault had made a ‘wise strategy’ by not running in Q2 but come race day, he could not make the strategy pay off in Russia. [Image from Sky Sports].

Nico Hulkenberg started the weekend in Russia quite well and was in the top 10 in opening practice. However, the pace could not be replicated by the German who in the end only just managed to squeeze into Q2. The team did not run in Q2 and consequently, he qualified 15th but started 12th after the Red Bull penalties were applied. Hulkenberg felt this was ‘a wise strategy’ as ‘A decent qualifying position was out of reach on pure pace’. Renault started Hulkenberg on the more durable soft tyre and while he ultimately lost ground to the Red Bulls as they made their charge through the field, the German was running in 7th for large parts of the race before making his mandatory stop on lap 35. He came out in 11th and in contention for points but could not keep the Haas of Grosjean behind as he finished 12th. The strategy was pulled off well as he delivered a dependable drive but post-race Hulkenberg felt they just ‘couldn’t make it pay off in the end’.

Carlos Sainz nearly came to blows with Magnussen in Russia as he stayed out to hold ‘bac the other midfield cars’ after early contact with a Williams ruined his race. [Image from formula1.com].

Carlos Sainz sat out opening practice in Russia as Artem Makelov drove his car. He returned to the cockpit for second practice and immediately he held a pace advantage over Hulkenberg of around a couple of tenths. Still, Sainz also struggled to get into Q2 and did so in 14th and just quicker than the German. That meant he would start ahead of his teammate after neither car took part in Q2, a decision the Spaniard felt ‘was too appealing to ignore’. Starting 11th, Sainz was the first man on the grid with a free tyre choice and in prime position to capitalize on the less durable tyres the top 10 were starting on. The Spaniard got a great launch off the line but his race became more difficult after turn 2 where he was hit by a Williams. Even though Sainz did not ‘feel much, the floor and side of the car was destroyed and that made it really difficult to drive’. Renault kept him out to help with the strategy in ‘holding back the other midfield cars as much as possible’. That was maybe a tall order as Magnussen and both Force India’s passed him on lap 18 and he eventually finished 17th with Vandoorne making a move on the final lap. Overall, it was a bad day at the office for Sainz who quirked, ‘Time to prepare for Japan now’.

Japan marked the final countdown for Abiteboul to meet the team’s target for the season. ‘Five races remain in 2018. Five races to define our season and to meet our objective of finishing fourth in the Constructors’ Championship. We’ve defended it since Spain, and now we have to see it through to Abu Dhabi.’ However, after Renault’s struggles in Russia, it was, unfortunately, a similar story in Japan. In fact, it was slightly worse as Nico Hulkenberg failed to get out of Q1 and then failed to finish the race but an alternate strategy for Carlos Sainz paid off and saved face for the team as they took the last point on offer in Japan. Abiteboul described 10th as an ‘important result for the team’ as he stressed where the team needed to improve, ‘It’s clear what needs to be fixed and that’s improving our qualifying pace. We’ve seen that small differences can play a huge role in starting between seventh or fourteenth. We absolutely need to get on top of this and get the car back where it belongs at circuits which should be better for us.

Nico Hulkenberg’s crash in final practice put him on the backfoot for Qualifying in which he disappointingly failed to make it out of Q1 before his race ended in a DNF. [Image from Autorsport].

Despite looking forward to racing around Suzuka, Nico Hulkenberg had a weekend to forget it must be said. The German only got the better of Sainz in the practice timesheets in the second session and going into Qualifying was seven tenths adrift of his teammate’s pace. That was partly to do with a crash in the final practice session and after some great work behind the scenes, he was able to close the gap in Qualifying but agonizingly fell out of Qualifying in Q1 as ‘The improvement in my second lap simply wasn’t enough to get me through’. Starting on the medium tyres in an attempt to do something different with strategy from 16th on the grid, Hulkenberg maintained position on the opening lap by passing Stroll having been passed by the McLaren of Alonso. Hulkenberg held 13th for a while after Vettel’s spin following the Safety car restart but conceded the position back on lap 16 before Renault pitted him on lap 30. However, things soon began to go wrong for Hulkenberg and just 7 laps later was forced to retire ‘as something didn’t feel right at the rear after the pit stop.

Carlos Sainz managed to take the final points paying position from Gasly in the closing stages. [Image from formula1.com].

Carlos Sainz was able to get more out of the Renault around Suzuka than Hulkenberg. Even then though the pace he was able to achieve in practice suggested he only had an outside chance of making it into Q3. So it proved as he could only qualify 13th and bowed out in Q2. However, Sainz explained that ‘the rain came sooner than we expected so I wasn’t able to set a lap on new tyres in Q2. My first run in Q2 with a used set was just not enough and it’s difficult to say how much faster I could have gone with that new set.’ From 13th on the grid, he made he was passed both Magnussen and Leclerc on the opening lap but had been caught by the Sauber before the safety car was called. From the restart, he caught out Hartley and was 10th after Vettel’s spin. Renault had gone long with Sainz’s tyre strategy too and pitted the Spaniard on lap 33. He came out behind Leclerc again but his retirement benefited Sainz as he soon passed the other Sauber of Ericsson which was crucial to his race. It enabled him to chase down gasly for the final points paying position which he secured three laps from time. Sainz felt he achieved the maximum he could stressing post-race, ‘For us, a point here is the best we could achieve starting from P13, so that’s a very strong result for us’.

Ratings
 In Russia: Nico Hulkenberg 6/10, Carlos Sainz 6/10, Renault 5/10.
 In Japan: Nico Hulkenberg 5.5/10, Carlos Sainz 7.5/10, Renault 6.5/10
Scuderia Toro Rosso
 Russia Qualifying: Pierre Gasly 13th, Brendon Hartley 16th
 Russia Race Result: Pierre Gasly DNF, Brendon Hartley DNF
 Japan Qualifying: Brendon Hartley 6th, Pierre Gasly 7th
 Japan Race Result: Pierre Gasly 11th, Brendon Hartley 13th
 Drivers Points: Pierre Gasly 0, Brendon Hartley 0
 Constructors Points: 0

Toro Rosso came into the doubleheader seeking an improvement on the disappointing showing they had in Singapore. While the team were aiming for points in Russia, the eyes of expectation were on the following weekend in Japan for the home race of engine supplier; Honda. Honda also brought a new engine to the doubleheader and while the feelings of it were positive they changed the engine back to an older spec for Russia to save it for Japan which made sense given both drivers were taking on grid penalties in Sochi. That proved to be a mistake as engine issues saw both drivers retire in the opening lap. According to Team Principal Franz Tost, the issues ‘For whatever reason we ended up with very hot front brakes and one piston in the callipers got stuck. This caused the overheating of the brake fluid and a long pedal. Therefore, we called the drivers to come to the garage.

Pierre Gasly had an eventful but short Russian Grand Prix. [Image from Autosport].

Pierre Gasly had a fairly solid Russian Grand Prix weekend before the race itself. The French driver had not driven the Sochi Autodrom since his GP2 days but he was quicker than Hartley in all three practice sessions and looked like he had the pace to challenge for the top 10. That was reaffirmed when he got into Q2 in 13th. Like the Red Bull’s, Gasly did not run in Q2 due to the engine penalties he would be taking which gasly thought was a shame as was ‘really happy with the car, this weekend in Sochi I have a great feeling’. He would have started at the back anyway. The race though was a disaster. Gasly stalled on the grid which Verstappen did very well to avoid and his race came to an early end due to a brake issue. Describing his race, Gasly commented, ‘Since the start of the race I had a really strange feeling with the brake pedal, it went pretty long and got worse very quickly. Then, on the third lap at Turn 4, I braked and the pedal went completely flat, so we lost all the front brakes and had to retire the car.

Brendon Hartley spun due to brake issues and was forced to retire as well. [Image from formula1.com].

Brendon Hartley had only been in Russia for less than 24 hours before arriving in Sochi. His relative lack of experience of Sochi showed in comparison to his teammate as he was at times a second adrift of the Frenchman in practice. The difference between the two correlated into Qualifying where Hartley finished Q1 seven tenths adrift of Gasly and out in Q1. That said, he can be excused slightly for this defeat as they ‘didn’t put a lot of emphasis on qualifying due to the grid penalties’. Like his teammate though, the Kiwi’s race would be short. Oddly enough, he too suffered from brake issues and after pitting early was forced to retire early from the race after the brake issue occurred almost instantly. Hartley described that ‘once I left the pits the pedal went completely to the floor, the rears locked and the car spun.

The following weekend saw the new engine used in full and the results were certainly dramatic. Toro Rosso felt confident that with the improvements Honda made they could compete to be in the top 10. Those improvements were certainly significant as the team got both drivers into Q3 for the first time this season and were ‘best of the rest’ in 6th and 7th respectively. That was Toro Rosso’s best ever qualifying at Suzuka which Chief Race Engineer Jonathan Edolls expressed ‘was a fantastic end to what’s been a challenging and tough day for us.’ However, it did not quite pan out for the team in the race as both drivers lost positions as the race went on. They were still in the hunt for points and Honda were all set to get their first points at their home race since returning to the sport until Sainz ruined the party a few laps from the end. Toyoharu Tanabe, Honda F1 technical Engineer was clearly disappointed, ‘Since we arrived in Suzuka, we have had fantastic support from the Toro Rosso Honda fans, which was a great boost for all of us. So it was a shame that we were unable to repay them with a point or two.’ That, however, will fuel their motivation for the remainder of the season and into 2019.

Pierre Gasly was out-qualified by Hartley in Q3 and had a better race than his teammate but was so cruelly denied a points finish at Honda’s home race three laps from the end. [Image from Red Bull].

Pierre Gasly did not have the best of weekends preparing for the Grand Prix in Japan as his promising pace in opening practice seemed to disappear. He was slowest heading into Qualifying but found the performance to get his Toro Rosso into the top 10. Gasly felt It’s probably the best Qualifying for the team since the beginning of the year, and to do it in Japan is really special’ while layer stating ‘Since the beginning of the season we managed to make it work and catch the opportunities we have had, so once more we need to stay focussed and really try to get the best result possible.’ He will have been slightly disappointed to have been out-qualified by Hartley though. That was something he rectified in the race and managed to pass him off the line with a much better start. While he had been passed by Vettel on the opening lap, he was 6th before Ricciardo came through on lap 13 after the German’s spin. Toro Rosso pitted the French driver on lap 29 which Gasly felt was too long as ‘as we didn’t want to pit into traffic but then several cars undercut us’. The stop dropped him down to 13th though as the strategies played out he was soon back into the points. Running in 10th though, he came under severe pressure from the Renault of Sainz. With slightly more worn tyres on his car, Gasly was powerless as the final points scoring position was snatched from him in the closing laps. He finished 11th which he felt was ‘a shame after such a good qualifying yesterday, it would have been great to reward the team and Honda here in Japan for their home race with some points today’. That is something though I feel he will rectify next year when he returns with the Honda-powered Red Bull.

Brendon Hartley had his best ever qualifying in F1 in Japan but a poor start undid that as he finished 13th. [Image from Crash.Net].

Brendon Hartley has enjoyed racing in Japan as part of the World Endurance Championship but that was always at the Fuji International Speedway and his race day experience of Suzuka will perhaps not be one of his fondest memories. The New Zealander showed huge promise during practice and was able to build on that by getting into Q3 and qualifying ahead of his teammate in 6th! His best qualifying of the season and it was certainly emotional for the driver. Post-session, he said ‘I wouldn’t normally get emotional, but it was just the build-up of all of the effort we’ve put in and the struggles I’ve been having at times during the season. It was nice that today everything worked and went my way and I delivered when I needed to…To get sixth position on the grid in front of all the Honda and Japanese fans feels fantastic. Now I need to consolidate the points, but I’ll enjoy the feeling for the moment’. All that hard work though was undone by a catastrophic start which saw him drop down to 10th on the opening lap. Hartley didn’t feel he’d done much wrong but ‘I just couldn’t get the power down. For the whole first stint, I didn’t have much grip and poor traction cost me a lot of time.’ He had an interesting battle with Alonso after the Safety car period but by this point, he was already out of the points in 12th. Toro Rosso pitted the Kiwi on lap 28 which dropped him down to 17th on the road. Hartley used his fresher tyres to pass both Williams cars on track but he could only recover to 13th as he could not get passed Ericsson in a day that promised so much more.

Ratings
In Russia: Pierre Gasly 6/10, Brendon Hartley 5/10, Toro Rosso 3/10
In Japan: Pierre Gasly, Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso
McLaren
 Russia Qualifying: Fernando Alonso 17th, Stoffel Vandoorne 19th
 Russia Race Result: Fernando Alonso 14th, Stoffel Vandoorne 16th
 Japan Qualifying: Fernando Alonso 18th, Stoffel Vandoorne 19th
 Japan Race Result: Fernando Alonso 14th, Stoffel Vandoorne 17th
 Drivers Points: Fernando Alonso 0, Stoffel Vandoorne 0
 Constructors Points: 0

McLaren came into the doubleheader following getting both cars to the finish line in Singapore hoping they could make progress in Russia. However, it soon became a difficult looing weekend with the car lacking raw pace and Alonso facing grid penalties. Despite using him strategically to give his teammate a tow they Ferran did not want to hide the fact it was a disappointing result for the team to see both cars go out in Q1. In the race, the team from Woking put everything they could into maximizing the performance of the car but it just was not enough to secure a points scoring finish although both drivers did finish again. After the race in Sochi, Gil de Ferran felt ‘Suzuka can’t come soon enough’.

Despite not really trying in Qualifying, Fernando Alonso out-qualified his teammate and then finished ahead of him in the race. [Image from formula1.com].

Fernando Alonso sat out opening practice in Russia as Lando Norris was behind the wheel as he continues his preparations for racing in F1 next year. It is perhaps worrying then that Norris was nearest to the quickest pace than either Alonso or Vandoorne but Alonso easily had the edge over Vandoorne. So it was Alonso out-qualified Vandoorne again who explained ‘we didn’t use our full potential because our starting position is already fixed due to the grid penalties we’ll receive.’ He started behind the Belgian with the penalties but soon passed his teammate on the opening lap of the race. McLaren went for a bold strategy with Alonso in pitting him very early on lap 5. Alonso explained, ‘We were the only one with two sets of Soft tyres so we stopped very early trying to undercut some people and push them to pit early too, and some did. But the yellow-banded tyre behaved with no issues throughout the whole race, so our strategy didn’t turn out as well as we might have hoped.’ That meant Alonso could only finish 14th.

Stoffel Vandoorne did not have the best of times in Russia. [Image from RaceFans.net].

The 2018 Russian Grand Prix was probably a weekend to forget for Stoffel Vandoorne. Not only did he reveal that Sauber and Toro Rosso rejected his services for 2019 but he was outpaced by his successor Lando Norris in opening practice and then was out-qualified by Alonso again despite the Spaniard giving him a tow. His only saving grace there was that he did not qualify last and in doing so met half of his target ‘to try and get ahead of the Williamses’. The opening lap could not have gone worse for the Belgian who lost out to the Red Bulls and Alonso in the opening laps before McLaren pitted him on lap 11. The Belgian felt this was ‘later than was really optimal: I lost about 10 seconds on the track, and it was impossible to make that time back during the race.’ That dropped him down to running 17th for much of the race and his late pass on a struggling Sainz lifted him to a 16th place finish; a position he had not held since opening practice. The pass on Sainz was his highlight of an otherwise ‘lonely race’ for Vandoorne.

After McLaren felt ‘Suzuka can’t come soon enough’, they were probably thinking this season can’t end soon enough. The level of performance in Japan though was not too different to that in Russia. Both cars were eliminated in Q1 for the second successive weekend. Gil de Ferran was not disappointed in his drivers who he claimed ‘extracted everything out of the car’ but with ‘our qualifying positions and our general pace.’ The race was more difficult as Alonso incurred a five second time penalty but Ferran left feeling wondering ‘what could have been, nevertheless we go home with a better feeling, given that we genuinely beat cars that started ahead of us. In addition, our race pace once again proved to be stronger than qualifying’. In truth though, they were nowhere near the points to cap off a disappointing doubleheader for the team all around who must be worrying that even 6th in the Championship is not yet secure from Force India.

Stoffel Vandoorne had another long struggle in Japan. [The Chequered Flag].

Suzuka was Stoffel Vandoorne’s turn to miss out on the opening practice session as Lando Norris took to the track. It made little difference to the timesheets though as Vandoorne returned to the car for second practice and was almost a full second adrift of his teammate. While he was able to reduce that difference he ultimately ended Q1 half a second down on Alonso as he is still yet to out-qualify his teammate this season. His Q1 elimination came as no surprise as Vandoorne felt, ‘we’ve been uncompetitive all weekend and our performance is similar to how we were in Russia. When it comes to qualifying, we don’t seem to be able to make a small step forward’. In the race, the Belgian had a clean start but was passed by Ericsson on the second lap and was a big loser after the Safety Car Restart losing three positions on that first lap as he described it being ‘more or less passengers on the straights’. McLaren pitted Vandoorne on lap 23 and it was a constant battle of avoiding being the last finisher with the Williams pair which he came out on top of courtesy of being able to make the one-stop strategy work which he felt was ‘the maximum possible today’.

Fernando Alonso had an eventful Japanese Grand Prix to say the least including going off circuit twice, picking up a five second penalty for one but he still managed to finish ahead of Vandoorne. [Image from RaceFans.net].

Fernando Alonso has some fond memories of Suzuka especially his win there in 2006 out him on the brink of his second World Championship. Those days must feel longer than 12 years ago as his McLaren struggled for pace throughout the Grand Prix weekend and falling out of Qualifying in Q1 came as no surprise. Still, he maintained his 100% qualifying record over Vandoorne which is a positive of sorts. From 18th, Alonso had an electric start and made up two positions on the opening lap before his opening lap incident with Stroll. With the Williams coming back on the track having gone wide at 130R, Alonso attempted a cheeky move on the outside going into the chicane of turn 16. He was forced wide by the Williams and took to the grass to avoid contact. While the stewards penalized Stroll, Alonso too was penalised for leaving the circuit and gaining an advantage. The two-time champion continued and was battling for 11th with Hartley upon the Safety car restart when a similar incident occurred. This one was not penalised as he gave the position back. The five second time penalty he received was served while he pitted on lap 26. After that dropped him down to 19th, he passed Vandoorne and as the strategies developed he finished 14th on the road after enjoying a few battles with the Williams pair and the Sauber of Ericsson on worn tyres. Overall, Alonso felt that “Even though we were too slow all weekend, in the end, it was an enjoyable race.’. It is just a shame that a driver of Alonso’s calibre seems destined to be fighting outside of the points in his final F1 races.

Ratings
 In Russia: Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren
 In Japan: Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren
Williams
 Russia Qualifying: Sergey Sirotkin 18th, Lance Stroll 20th
 Russia Race Result: Lance Stroll 15th, Sergey Sirotkin 18th
 Japan Qualifying: Lance Stroll 14th, Sergey Sirotkin 17th
 Japan Race Result: Sergey Sirotkin 16th, Lance Stroll 17th,
 Drivers Points: Lance Stroll 0, Sergey Sirotkin 0
 Constructors Points: 0

The doubleheader started with a significant race for Williams. With the only Russian driver on the grid, it would be a big weekend for Sergey Sirotkin and Chief Technical officer Paddy Lowe noted that in his pre-weekend comments. However, what was meant to be a big weekend for the team and Sirotkin on a personal level turned into another long struggle for the team. Both cars were eliminated in Q1 and while Lowe was optimistic of a good result after Qualifying, ‘Our race pace has been a bit stronger relatively than our qualifying pace so we still see some opportunity for a better outcome tomorrow’ it did not materialise. Both cars finished the race they could not be happy with the result when they felt points would have been possible, especially if they had reacted as well as McLaren to tyre graining. Lowe felt that if they had ‘we would have been able to improve our finishing positions, most of all for Sergey, who wouldn’t have finished so far down in his home race.’

Sergey Sirotkin had his home Grand Prix for the first time but it turned into a nightmare he described as ‘the most painful race of the year’. [Image from RaceFans.net].

This was a big weekend for Sergey Sirotkin. This was his first ever home Grand Prix and the crowd were certainly behind him. The Russians pace in practice was good in comparison to Stroll as he was quicker than his teammate in all three practice sessions before he out-qualified him. That was only good enough for 18th on the grid though which he was disappointed with due to a mistake. It seems he was pushing too hard claiming ‘I wanted to do something more than just a good lap’ and to be honest you can’t blame him being in front of his home crowd. With all the penalties applied elsewhere, he started 13th and with a good chance of the points. The race for Sirotkin went downhill from the start where he lost out to his teammate and Verstappen on the opening lap. Williams pitted him on lap 10 which brought him down to 18th and last with a race-long battle Vandoorne. Sirotkin could not pass the McLaren and while Vandoorne gained a place at the end Sirotkin did not meaning he finished his first home Grand Prix as the last of the finishers. Post-race, he described it as ‘The most painful race of the year…We’ve always been in the worst possible position on the track with the worst possible traffic situation… it was a very painful moment for me.

Lance Stroll recovered to finish ahead of his teammate in Russia but lost out in his race long battle with the McLaren’s.. [Image from F1i.com].

The final record will show Lance Stroll did better than Sergey Sirotkin in Russia but that would mask the fact that up until the race he was outperformed by the Russian throughout. Qualifying last and eight tenths adrift of his teammate was embarrassing, to say the least. Some of that though he attributed to his teammate spinning near the end as ‘I was on a pretty good lap, but I didn’t get a final run because there were yellow flags due to Sergey spinning’. However, he was able to turn that around in the race. Starting 14th with penalties applied, he had a customary good start to pass his teammate and hold 14th with Verstappen making his way past. Williams pitted Stroll on lap 7 to react to Alonso’s early stop and came out behind the McLaren. Like his teammate, Stroll was involved in a race-long battle with a McLaren and while the pair gained a place from Sainz the Canadian was unable to find a way past. He finished 15th after frustratingly being close to Alonso but ‘never managed to get the DRS to have a go’.

Japan was frustratingly more of the same for Williams. The team struggled for pace around Suzuka as has been the case for much of the season but they were never bottom of the timesheets in practice. That translated into Qualifying where they managed to get Lance Stroll into Q2. Lowe was happy with Qualifying and stated that with the difficult and changing weather conditions ‘Some difficult choices had to be made but we’re very pleased to get the best we could from the car today on both sides of the garage. It was very close, and Sergey was unfortunate to narrowly miss out on Q2 but congratulations to Lance on getting out of Q1 with a brilliant lap’. The race though was the same story as in Russia. Williams battling the McLaren cars and in the end, they came up trumps to the Woking outfit as this time it was Sergey Sirotkin finishing ahead of his teammate and exacting revenge for his race defeat in Russia the previous weekend. From the teams perspective though, it was a disappointment with Lowe commenting, ‘We had the pace and grid positions to beat some cars today, but we didn’t manage to do so overall not the result we hoped for’.

Lance Stroll finished last in Japan. [Image from formula1.com].

Lance Stroll put in a decent showing in Japan but was ruined within the first lap of the race. The Canadian had the measure of his teammate in two of the three practice sessions highlighting in the final session that he might have the pace to sneak into Q2. He managed to do that but could qualify no higher up than 14th and even though he felt the rain came at the wrong time, Stroll was ‘still very happy and really satisfied to get through and into it, as we didn’t expect that today.’ The opening lap though was always going to be difficult for Stroll. He lost positions to Hulkenberg and Ricciardo before running wide at 130R. That brought him back on to the circuit in front of Alonso and the Canadian squeezed him into the gravel ultimately losing a position in the process. Stroll was perhaps justified in saying post-race, ‘After that, the race was quite bad. Nothing went our way today, as races go, it was just a really bad one’. While he felt it was a typical first lap racing incident, the stewards weren’t impressed and gave him a five second time penalty for his troubles but that was announced after he had pitted on lap 14. He was running in 15th when he had to stop again and serve the penalty lap 38 which contributed slightly to his race day defeat to Sirotkin as he finished last of the finishers.

Sergey Sirotkin had a slightly better race result in Japan despite having to turn their one stop strategy into a two stopper. [Image from formula1.com].

In terms of raw pace, Sergey Sirotkin did not have many answers for his teammate in Japan as he was only quicker than the Canadian in second practice. The Russian came agonisingly close to getting out of Q1 as only 0.055 seconds separated him and Stroll. Sirotkin qualified 17th and with such close margins he felt, ‘We weren’t the luckiest with the traffic we had on our out-lap, so when I started my lap, the tyres weren’t the best prepared but apart from that I think I should be very happy with the lap I did.’ The start to the race was from ideal as he was passed off the line by Alonso and seeing an opportunity, Williams decided to pit him behind the Safety Car. However, this did not work out. That put him behind the other McLaren of Vandoorne but off the restart, Sirotkin passed the Belgian and was running 14th before Williams needed to alter their strategy to a two stopper. He pitted again on lap 38 and finished 16th ahead of Stroll.

Ratings
In Russia: Lance Stroll 6/10, Sergey Sirotkin 6/10, Williams 4.5/10
In Japan: Lance Stroll 6/10, Sergey Sirotkin 6.10, Williams 5.5/10

Talking Points!


 Should Mercedes have done that with Bottas?

The big talking point after the race was Mercedes and their tactical decision to use team orders in telling pole sitter and race leader to let his championship-chasing teammate Lewis Hamilton through. Team Orders are not illegal in Formula One (unfortunately) and they more than often leave a sour note on proceedings. For example, think of the situation at Hockenheim in 2010 with the ‘Fernando is quicker than you’ instruction and the Multi-21 incident at Red Bull in Malaysia 2013.

A look says so many words. The post-race reaction in parc ferme grew sympathy for Bottas after team orders denied him what should have been his race win. [Image from formula1.com].

It certainly left an awkward feeling post-race especially between the two drivers in parc ferme and in the podium ceremony. Hamilton urged Bottas to take the top step of the podium. However, this is what everyone had to say about the situation post-race:

Lewis Hamilton,Valtteri did a fantastic job all weekend and was a real gentleman to let me by. Obviously, he’s now not fighting for the Championship. Usually, we’d be elated but I can understand how difficult it was for Valtteri. He did a fantastic job and deserved to win.’

Valtteri Bottas,It’s a difficult day. A good result for us as a team and we got maximum points but personally, it was quite a difficult race. We always go through all the scenarios, Lewis is fighting for the championship and we are fighting for the constructors’, so we always have a plan – but it’s always difficult to predict what’s going to happen in the race. It is what it is

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas on the podium post-race. [Image from Autoblog].

Toto Wolff, ‘We are all racers at heart and what we want to see is out and out racing and may the quickest man win. But then we are a bunch of rational guys – we discuss things in the morning and then everything is different in the race. We should be over the moon with a 1-2 and fundamentally we are. But we also feel that it went against Valtteri – it would have been a race win for him and we changed it. It’s deflating for a driver and for a team. But there is a harsh reality that you can extend the lead by several points in a Championship that has been very tough and very difficult at times. Sometimes you have to take it and this is what we did today. Valtteri is a tremendous team player. Lewis was far back, we told him to switch position at T13 and he did it immediately. This is what you want to have within the team because you need to rely on these guys in the same way they rely on us’.

Lewis Hamilton in the Post-race Press Conference, It doesn’t feel great. I don’t think I’ve ever finished first and felt the way I do right now. It’s definitely a very conflicting feeling because naturally, you want to extend the championship lead, but we are a team and there are two championships. I assured Valtteri it’s not something I asked for, but it’s what the team feels is right to do. It’s a very awkward position to be in. There are not many team-mates who would do something like that. They said on the radio that Valtteri was going to let me through. I just told them to tell him to speed up because I had Sebastian on my tail.

Valtteri Bottas speaking to Sky Sports,I already understand the situation. If you could put yourself in the team leaders’ position, for them it doesn’t matter if it’s me or Lewis winning as long as we are one-two, we get maximum points. For the team it’s always better that Lewis wins, that’s how it goes. It’s not ideal for me as an athlete or a person but that’s a fact. I took one for the team today and I’d take one for the team tomorrow. But I’m also looking forward to starting a new year. I was supposed to win.’

Toto Wolff is not a fan of team orders.

The backlash from the incident has been huge and extensive with F1’s Digital Presenter Will Buxton discussing it in great detail on the f1 website. In his defence of Mercedes, he hits the nail right on the head as to why it was such a shock and that is because it was Toto Wolff and Mercedes who made the call. Wolff is renown for his dislike of team orders and when it was suggested to him they had done that at Monza by using Bottas to hold up Raikkonen he declared, ‘I don’t really like team orders, they are not cool, not good for the sport or for either driver’. That obviously contradicts what happened in Russia. To make the comparison, let’s look at Ferrari. The Scuderia are notorious for using team orders having prioritised the likes of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso this century. Then this year in Austria, they had an opportunity where they could have switched Raikkonen and Vettel around to give the German the extra points for 2nd place and maximise the damage to Mercedes with Hamilton failing to finish. In fact, there was probably more surprise from spectators on the outside that Ferrari did not do it.

So, why did Mercedes do it? On Monday, Wolff defended his decision in an interview with Sky Sports. He told them, ‘Somebody needs to be the baddie sometimes and it’s me today. You need to weigh it up. What do I hope for? To be the baddie on Sunday evening for many right reasons or do I want to be the idiot in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season? I’d rather be the baddie today than the idiot at the end of the year’.

Formula One is a dual Championship between the drivers and the teams. Consequently, team orders have always been a part of the sport. Team orders or rather not following them at San Marino in 1988 began the now famous tensions between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at McLaren while in the early days of the sports teams would order one of their drivers to get out of the car to allow the lead man to continue. Jordan’s 1998 victory in Belgium came at the hands of team orders as the team told Ralf Schumacher not to attack Damon Hill, incidentally securing them a 1-2. Teams do that. Meanwhile, Ferrari did it in 2002 when Rubens Barrichello all but won in Austria but slowed down on the final straight to allow Michael Schumacher to take the chequered flag.

The 2002 Austrian Grand Prix and the repurcussions on team orders is something Toto Wolff was naxious about.

That incident in 2002 had negative repercussions on the sport and saw team orders banned. Wolff is anxious of similar repressions, ‘I spent half the night yesterday thinking about the situation and thinking about Austria in 2002 and the implication for the brand,” he said. “It’s a super-tough call to make. [Bottas] understands that, but it is hard. In the same way that in my heart and Lewis’ heart and all of our hearts, it just doesn’t feel right that he didn’t win the race because he was the guy on track who was in the lead. At the end, if five points or three points are missing, then you are the biggest idiot on the planet by prioritising Valtteri’s single race result over the championship’. However, from the perspective of F1 being both a driver and team Championship, as Team Principal of Mercedes, it is his job to act in the best interests of the team. In that respect, he was only doing his duty and obligation to his employers in making the call.

The comparisons between the two incidents are there. The swap was not completely necessary in terms of the Championship with in each instance Schumacher and Hamilton having a comfortable lead in the standings. Then, later in the season Schumacher returned the favour as it was to allow Rubens Barrichello to win the United States Grand Prix. Could Hamilton do that later down the line?

Sebastian Vettel inspected Hamilton’s car for the blister Mercedes were worried about post-race. [Image from The Express].

However, the only individual who did not seem so surprised by the decision was perhaps the one man who stood most to lose from it; Sebastian Vettel. The Ferrari man did look at the rear left tyre of Hamilton’s Mercedes in parc ferme leading many to speculate what blister? However, post-race he is quoted as saying, ‘…’.

The decision in Russia was unpopular. It robbed the fans in the stands of the race they paid to see if the race winner is determined on the team’s pit wall. The same for fans watching on the TV in the UK, most of whom have paid Sky Sports subscription charges on a monthly basis to keep the channel for ‘free’. Team Orders are essential in some cases when drivers are on different strategies and I understand that. That was not the case here.

In terms of the Championship, there is obviously the argument that if the call had not been made then those 7 points could be the difference in the end between winning the World Championship and losing it. On the flip side, it may not even become a factor. I felt this way after the multi-21 episode in 2013 but in the now unlikely event Hamilton only wins the title by less than 7 points then while Wolff would avoid looking like an idiot, I feel it would be tainted. The Championship should be fought for fairly and if you cannot beat your teammate at one track or the other, accept it. Do not alter the result and if that does cost you the title then the driver did not do enough over the course of the whole season to earn it. That’s how I would like to see the Championship fought and looking at all his post-race comments that’s what Hamilton himself wanted.

Verstappen lap 1 incident in Japan

The opening laps of the race at Suzuka were certainly dramatic and none so much than the turn 16 chicanes on the opening lap where there were two incidents. The first of those though involved the Red Bull of Max Verstappen and Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.

Max Verstappen forcing Kimi Raikkonen wide on the opening lap. [Image from ESPN].

In 3rd position, Verstappen locked up going into the turn 16 chicane and ran wide. He then returned to the circuit to make the second turn of the chicane but found Raikkonen there. The two made contact as Verstappen held position while Raikkonen lost out to Vettel. The stewards gave Verstappen a five second time penalty. However, what did the parties involved have to say on it post-race?

Max Verstappen,I felt a little hard done by with the penalty I got while defending against Kimi. I was trying my best to get back onto the track as quickly as possible instead of just cutting the corner, perhaps next time I will just cut the track.

Kimi Raikkonen,After the contact with Max I saw some parts flying off my car; it was damaged pretty badly on the left-hand side. Obviously, this affected negatively the rest of my race. What happened is unfortunate and after that, it was pretty difficult to drive on. I had lost a lot of downforces, but there was not much I could do. It’s impossible to know what our performance would have been without that accident at the chicane’.

On the balance of things, the stewards were correct in their decision to penalise Verstappen. While Verstappen’s position is understandable his comments also set a dangerous precedent. Will we see more corner cutting when a driver goes too hot into a turn? It must be said, he was not penalised for missing the turn and coming on to the track hence avoiding corner cutting. He was penalised for the contact he made with Raikkonen. It really compromised his race costing him a position to Vettel at the time but also in terms of performance later in the race.

What was Alonso penalised for in Suzuka?

One of the many talked about incidents in Japan was the steward’s decision to penalise both Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll with five-second penalties each after an incident on the opening lap. The stewards had been busy with that lap also dealing with the Verstappen and Raikkonen incident a few seconds earlier.

Fernando Alonso was forced wide by Lance Stroll at the turn 16 chicane. [Image from Autosport].

On the opening lap, Alonso had already got his McLaren ahead of Stroll but the Williams man had too much speed for the McLaren down the straight. He had moved marginally ahead of Alonso going into 130R but went wide. Upon coming back to the circuit, Stroll moved to the left to give himself the best possible angle for the turn 16 chicanes. He had not seen Alonso and discussed that with him post-race. Alonso however, was forced to take evasive action being squeezed on to the grass and made his way back to the circuit in a not too healthy way for an F1 car.

Both drivers were investigated by the stewards and subsequently given a five second time penalty each. With them being busy with other incidents in the chaotic opening 10 laps, it was not announced until lap 25. That led to some confusion over what the penalty was for as Alonso had a similar incident with Brendon Hartley on the first lap after the safety car restart.

In fact, even the staff writing the articles on the F1 website were puzzled by the decision. In their summary of his race, the website states, ‘He was penalised for gaining an advantage, although what advantage can be gained from using a high-performance vehicle as a lawnmower is a mystery.’ The driver himself had some choice words over the decision post-race…

Fernando Alonso,Unfortunately, the five-second penalty I received in the first part of the race dropped me down several positions. It wasn’t a big drama, because we were out of the points anyway, but it’s difficult to understand the stewards’ decision as I had nowhere to go but off the track when Lance [Stroll] came across not having seen me, as he said.

It has taken me several views of both incidents from the onboard footage to find possible reasons for the steward’s decision. I believe I have found the logic to their reasoning. In both instances, Alonso is behind the car when forced to take evasive action. He is behind Stroll on lap 1 and behind Hartley on lap 8. The lap charts show Alonso did yield the position back to Hartley the following lap. In the initial incident with Stroll, Alonso did no such thing. Whether or not Alonso believed the position to be his I don’t know. Stroll did not complete the move on him within the confines of the track as he ran wide at 130R and was ahead going into the chicane. However, this I feel is a case of two wrongs do not make a right and both were correctly penalised.

Driver Developments from Russia and into Japan…
Kvyat returns!

In my preview of the action in Russia, I predicted nearer the end of the post that there would be news developments concerning a Russian driver being on the grid in 2019. I had anticipated that being an announcement from Williams concerning the future of Sergey Sirotkin. However, that did not come and while there was a Russian confirmed for 2019, that man was Daniil Kvyat. Kvyat will return to the Formula One grid in 2019 for Toro Rosso, more than a year being dropped by the Red Bull family. Speaking on the announcement, Kvyat said, ‘First of all, I would like to thank Red Bull and Toro Rosso for giving me this opportunity to race in Formula 1 again and I am particularly pleased to be returning to a team I know very well’. Team Principal Franz Tost added, ‘I believe he deserves another chance in Formula 1. Daniil is a high skilled driver with fantastic natural speed, which he has proven several times in his career. There were some difficult situations he had to face in the past, but I’m convinced that having had time to mature as a person away from the races will help him show his undeniable capabilities on track. We’ll push very hard to provide him with a good package, and I feel the best is yet to come from his side. That’s why we are happy to welcome him back to our team, to start a successful season together.

What a difference a year makes! It seemed to be the end for Kvyat in F1 last year when they dropped him for the Malaysian Grand Prix in favour of Pierre gasly and did not recall him when Sainz left for Renault early instead for only one race. He scored points for Toro Rosso in that race but that was not enough to save his seat.

So, what has changed?

Daniil Kyat will return to F1 with Toro Rosso in 2019. [Image from Sky Sports]

The starting point I suppose is Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian had been expected to remain at Red Bull for 2019 before making his shock decision to move to Renault. That left Red Bull needing a driver for 2019 they had not planned for and after overlooking Carlos Sainz opted for Gasly who had put in some impressive performances for Toro Rosso including finishing 4th in Bahrain. That has left at least one seat at Toro Rosso with the team confirming Kvyat is replacing Gasly. However, there is perhaps slightly more to it than that.

 

During the summer, it was thought Red Bull were lining up Dan Tickhum for a Toro Rosso race seat in 2019. However, they could not run him at the in-season test in Hungary back in August due to him not having needed points for a Super Licence. That licence is key for a driver to be in the sport. Tickhum certainly has pace having won the Macau Grand Prix in 2016 and has won races this season I the F3 Championship where he has been recently outmanoeuvred by a certain Mick Schumacher. Being unable to field him in 2019, I feel Red Bull and Toro Rosso have turned to an experienced face, who knows the team to give some form of familiarity with the team and the best possible chance for points next season. With Pascal Werhlein being linked to replace Brendon Hartley, I feel this may just be a temporary selection for Toro Rosso at least until another young driver on their books has the necessary credentials to be in F1.

That is potentially being too cynical. It seems that Red Bull have a regained belief in Kvyat who has come back as a more mature driver. Helmut Marko has since told Sky Sports, ‘Daniil changed – he is a far more mature personality. He was working with a different team so he saw the whole atmosphere, working programme, and he also found out how difficult it is to get a Formula 1 seat. We give him a third chance because we always believed he was very fast, but his mental problems, we think he has solved. He is a far more mature driver and I’m sure we will see some very positive races from him’.

This seems to be something backed up by the driver himself, ‘we are grown up enough to be able to turn the page and have a fresh start. I do feel you always change through your life. This year has been a bit different for me, it’s been a year away from racing but yet it was a very important year. You always have to keep working on yourself and that’s what I’ve been doing this year. and next year I’m very much looking forward to it with Toro Rosso.

Only time will dictate which way this will pan out and much of it will depend on Kvyat. Hopefully, it is a different driver as after his demotion from Red Bull it was painful to watch.

Haas unchanged for 2019

The second driver market announcement in Russia came from Haas. F1’s only American outfit will embark on the fourth season in the sport with an unchanged line-up for the third successive season. In fact, they are only the second team after Mercedes going into 2019 with an unchanged driver line-up as they retain both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, Speaking on the announcement, Team Principal Gunther Steiner said, ‘From the very beginning, we needed experienced drivers to hasten the development of our car and our team, and we have two very good and experienced drivers in Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen. We’ve improved drastically from last year to this year, so retaining both drivers was a pretty easy decision. think the 100-point barrier should be and will be broken, and we’ll do it with Romain and Kevin. Both drivers push each other to be better, and their collective feedback allows us to be better. It’s not a coincidence that in their second year as team-mates, Haas F1 Team is having its best year. By keeping Romain and Kevin together, we aim to do even better next year.

Meanwhile, the drivers also had their say on sticking with Haas.

Romain Grosjean,It’s impressive to see what this team has accomplished in such a relatively short time, and for someone who has been here since the very beginning, I take a lot of pride in the time, effort and sacrifice we’ve all put forth to make Haas F1 Team so competitive. Gene Haas has built something very special – something we can make even better – and it’s an honour to be a part of it.

Kevin Magnussen,I’ve never been in a better situation than the one I’m in here at Haas F1 Team. This is a team filled with racers and we’re all striving for the same thing. There’s no bureaucracy and everything is very straightforward. Gene Haas is all about efficiency, and he and Guenther Steiner have created a very efficient environment that gets the best from its people.

Both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will remain with Haas for 2019. [Image from Last Word of Motorsport].

All parties seem content sticking with each other however it was not always thought to be an easy decision this year. Grosjean, in particular, has had some difficult moments this season including causing the opening lap carnage in Spain so much so that some speculated Haas had lost patience with the Frenchman. However, after finishing…in Austria, Grosjean has been a fairly consistent performer and along with Magnussen who has had one his best seasons to date, the decision, in the end, was an easy one to make for the American outfit.

Championship Standings


After that huge doubleheader, the Championships are firmly within grasp for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.

Drivers Championship going after the Japanese Grand Prix. [Image from BBC Sport].

Hamilton leads the Drivers Championship on 331 points, 67 points clear of his nearest rival Sebastian Vettel and could clinch the Drivers Championship next time out if he wins and Vettel is no higher than 2nd. Intriguingly, Valtteri Bottas is nearer to Vettel in the standings than Vettel is to Hamilton as he trails the German by 57 points. Mercedes could still make it a 1-2 in the Drivers Championship. In 4th is Kimi Raikkonen on 196 points. Only 23 points separate him from Max Verstappen in 5th who after two fantastic performances leads Daniel Ricciardo by 33 points; he has 173 points to Ricciardo’s 146. In the battle for 7th, Sergio Perez, Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg are tied on 53 points each while Fernando Alonso in 10th is only three points behind on 50. Esteban Ocon in 11th is only 4 points off 7th as well so it will be interesting to see how that develops. Further down the standings and Romain Grosjean has now only 8 points behind Carlos Sainz for 12th while Charles Leclerc is only 7 points behind Gasly in the battle for 14th. The order of the bottom five remains the same.

Constructors Championship after 2018 Japanese Grand Prix. [Image from BBC Sport].

In the Constructors Championship, Mercedes lead the way on 538 points and have a 78 point advantage over second place Ferrari. Red Bull are comfortable in 3rd place on 319 and cannot reach Ferrari for 2nd. In the battle for 4th, Renault on 92 points have a slender 8 point lead over Haas who after the double header will be optimistic of their chances of beating the Enstone outfit. Mclaren are further back in 6th on 58 points who may well be looking behind their backs to Force India who have 38 points such returning as a new entity in Belgium. Sauber are now only three points behind Toro Rosso in the battle for 8th while Williams reain marooned at the foot of the standings on 7 points.

What next…


Well, with the Drivers Championship on the brink of being decided for 2018, Formula One moves from the Far East and travels to the America’s for the final doubleheader of the season before races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. The first leg is The Circuit of the America’s in Austin, Texas for the United States Grand Prix followed by the highest Grand Prix of the season in Mexico City. Lewis Hamilton is barring a complete meltdown will be crowned World Champion for a fifth time at either of these two circuits and will secure a Championship at the same venue for the first time having secured the 2015 title in the US and last years in Mexico. Which will it be?

1 thought on “The title swings further in Hamilton’s favour: 2018 Russian and Japanese Grand Prix double-header Review”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *