There’s no doubting that the Japanese Grand Prix is unlike any other we visit during the course of the season. There’s the fact that it’s run on a figure of eight track for starters. Then there’s the local fans, some dressed in race suits complete with crash helmet, others sporting hats complete with replica models of the favourite cars that even have a working DRS system! All of them have banners and flags and all are utterly and totally passionate about their sport.
One man who wanted to show his appreciation of his favourite driver even took to bringing a metre long Samurai sword to the track to present to him. Quite how he got it past security or what Fernando Alonso really thought of the gift I’m not sure, but he smiled politely when the fan got his wish that much I do know.
Yes, you see a few things at Suzuka that you wouldn’t see elsewhere. Take for instance the Team Principal who walked past me on Saturday lunch time as I was making my way to the commentary box, carrying with him two large bags of noodles that he’d bought for his colleagues on the pit wall. “Isn’t this just great Crofty” he shouted as he hurried past before the food got cold. “Haven’t you got better things to be doing then fetching lunch?” I replied, as he grinned back at me. Kudos, to Otmar Szafnauer for keeping it real and embracing his week in Japan.
It is great and long may it continue to be just a little bit bonkers as well. If you haven’t been, then try and get a chance to tick it off your bucket list. Just like three fans sporting Stevenage Borough football shirts did this year. Considering what transpired on the race track I’d imagine all went home very happy boys indeed.
Because for all the unexpected, weird and wonderful sights off the track, on it the Japanese Grand Prix took on a rather more predictable order. Ferrari made mistakes, Sebastian Vettel compounded those errors and Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes took full advantage. The drivers’ title can now be wrapped up in Austin, but I dare say the destiny of the championship this year was settled some time ago now.
Since Austria, where strategy errors cost Lewis the lead, before he retired with a mechanical issue, he hasn’t finished outside of the top two. That’s 6 wins and 2 second places, outscoring Sebastian Vettel by 168 points to 93 in the process. Sebastian Vettel led the championship after Austria, now he’s 67 points behind with his title rival taking to social media to defend him.
“I feel the media need to show a little more respect for Sebastian.” Lewis said this week. “You simply can’t imagine how hard it is to do what we do at our level, for any athlete at the top of his game. It is to be expected that being humans we will make mistakes but it is how we get through them that counts.” Now as generous to his rival as that sounds, I can’t imagine that Seb is going to derive much pleasure from reading it.
If Lewis intentions are honourable however, and he’s not playing mind games, then fair play to him for jumping to Seb’s defence. The Ferrari driver has certainly taken some stick at the hands of both journalists and fans alike in recent weeks. He’s become an easy target though and sadly for Seb, those errors aren’t just isolated to this season. They’re mounting up and whilst he can say hand on heart that he should have gone for the gap to get past Max Verstappen at the weekend, it was always going to be a risk and a rather unnecessary one.
Did he deserve a penalty for the collision? In hindsight, and I’ve seen a few replays now, probably not. Max left him a little bit of space but not much and Seb probably thought he was entitled to a bit more. But what was he doing, on a weekend where he really had to start fighting back against Lewis, going for a move that was always going to be risky? Especially given the driver he was trying to overtake. That isn’t a criticism of Max, more an observation that when it comes to attack and defence, he’s consistently robust in both departments. Some drivers you can take a chance with and come out the other side still intact. That’s not necessarily always going to be the case with the dutchman.
So why was Seb attempting that move? Because he started down in 8th place after his team made their latest mistake in qualifying on Saturday.
Ferrari let both of their drivers down and, as a result, both made errors on their flying laps. One mistake was compounded by another and on lap 8 compounded once more. Ferrari unravelling, just as they did in 2017. At a time of the season when all should be pulling together and pushing hard for the common cause, there are stories of an internal power struggle.
There’s no doubt that the sad and sudden death of their chairman and chief executive Sergio Marchionne has affected the team. Likewise the events of Monza where they messed up qualifying for Seb and were outsmarted by Mercedes. That, coupled with the sight of the two Silver Arrows running side by side in formation after the Chequered Flag, has left an indelible mark on the team that they seem to be struggling to shift. To be beaten at Monza is tough for Ferrari to take, to start on pole and end up soundly beaten is humiliating and has affected morale so much that to blame one driver alone is to miss the point. Seb is making errors, but how much of that stems from the situation within? You win as a team and you lose as a team but Seb seems to be going into battle with his team not quite ready for the fight.
That internal power struggle may well see big changes before the start of next season. Already, and before last weekend, the decision has been taken for Jock Clear, the Ferrari Head of Trackside Activities to work as Race Engineer for Charles Leclerc in 2019, which doesn’t seem like a promotion. There’s a feeling from within that they are missing the experience and calm of former Technical Director James Allison and questions are being asked as to how safe his successor, Mattia Binotto currently is?
Finger pointing, strategic errors, mistakes on track. It could all have been so different for Ferrari this year. They have led both championships, they had the fastest car. They look on course to end the season with nothing once again. It’s all so disappointing.