As Sebastian Vettel’s championship hopes ground to a halt, some spectacular drives made the Japanese GP worth getting up for. Some made silly errors or saw their hopes ended by punctures, but points were available for those who strung together the Suzuka twists and turns perfectly.
Ocon wins Force India battle
Esteban Ocon, Sahara Force India F1 Team: Started 5th, Finished 6th
Max Verstappen may grab the headlines but it was the man just over a year his senior that really impressed in Japan. Esteban Ocon was the star of the show at Suzuka, qualifying best of the rest in seventh which would become a very impressive fifth on the grid after penalties for Bottas and Räikkönen. Ocon’s Q3 lap was a tenth and a half faster than vastly more experienced teammate Pérez, showing the potential of this young star.
The Frenchman made a terrific start, forcing his way past Daniel Ricciardo which soon became third as Vettel lost power due to a spark plug issue. Ocon was able to hold on to a podium position until lap 11 when Ricciardo got his revenge for the start. The Force India star was unable to hold off Bottas and Räikkönen in superior cars as they recovered from grid penalties, however that shouldn’t be held against the youngster as his biggest challenge was yet to come.
Sergio Pérez was directly behind him and desperate to assert his seniority on the team. After stupid incidents earlier in the year, the Mexican couldn’t make a rash move though and Ocon showed maturity to stand firm and secure sixth place, his tenth points finish in a row and 15th out of 16 – only Lewis Hamilton has more.
Magn-ificent result for Haas
Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team: Started 12th, Finished 8th
Quietly Haas are having a very solid second album. Japan proved that once again with a double points finish that moved the team up to seventh in the championship, and K-Mag was the lead threat. Magnussen qualified an impressive thirteenth, showing the strength of the Haas strategy.
From 12th on the grid, Magnussen made a great start up to tenth on the first lap, making points a real possibility. Magnussen pitted from 10th on lap 19, dropping him to eleventh as the strategies played out. There was one key obstacle between Magnussen and points: a struggling Felipe Massa, backing the Dane into teammate Grosjean.
Both Haas’ eventually made it past on lap 42, just after the Renault’s late stops which jumped Magnussen up to eighth and with the Force Indias out of reach, the pair were left to fight over eighth. They easily opened up a 10 second gap to Massa behind and Magnussen led home Haas’ best ever double points finish.
Verstappen takes fight to champion elect
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing: Started 4th, Finished 2nd
Maybe it’s a sign of his youth but Max Verstappen has come alive now that his bad luck has ended and the Red Bull is competitive for race wins. Suddenly he is a real threat and were it not for back to back unreliability issues for Sebastian Vettel, the Flying Dutchman could be a major factor in the championship battle.
The intra-Red Bull battle was tight all weekend but in the end, it was Daniel Ricciardo who edged it by less than three hundredths as the Austrian team locked out the second row, following Valtteri Bottas’ gearbox penalty, and splitting the Ferraris comfortably - though they were a second off the pace of the imperious Hamilton.
The last two weekends have proven that Verstappen is back to his best
Come raceday it was roles reversed, as Verstappen made a lightning start and used the right-hand side of the grid to good effect as it became the inside line for the first corner to jump up to third, putting him in Red Bull’s prime strategic position. It became a gangbusters first lap when Verstappen dived down the inside of the ailing Sebastian Vettel into the hairpin. Now Verstappen was in a battle for the win. Crucially with teammate Ricciardo behind Ocon, Verstappen was able to build a gap to the chasing field, although he couldn’t match the starting pace of Hamilton before the Dutchman pegged the gap under five seconds.
With everyone holding out to make a one stop strategy viable it became a waiting game. Red Bull decided to pull the trigger on lap 21, moving to the soft tyres. It worked as a single lap of undercut cut the gap to Hamilton from five seconds to less than two. Verstappen was back in the hunt. Try as he might though, Max just couldn’t get by, even with Bottas hindering teammate Hamilton’s pace. All appeared lost until a late VSC to recover Lance Stroll’s stricken Williams. Verstappen was able to heat up his tyres far quicker than Hamilton but couldn’t find a way by with Felipe Massa effectively ending his chances.
That said, the last two weekends have proven that Verstappen is back to his best.
Alonso recovers well on McLaren Honda’s final homecoming
Fernando Alonso, McLaren Honda: Started 20th, Finished 19th
While it didn’t result in points, there were definite signs of potential for McLaren. The McLarens were both right on the edge of Q3, with four hundredths separating Alonso in tenth and Vandoorne in eleventh. Sadly for McLaren, Alonso would start from the back after more engine penalties. To make matters worse, Vandoorne slipped to the back as he was squeezed on to the grass on the outside of turn two.
It gave Alonso the opportunity to fight for a point as he passed Vandoorne, Stroll, Gasly and Palmer
Alonso made a great start and was able to jump up to 14th by lap 8. It then took clever strategy to progress further up the field as Alonso ran a long first stint, pitting on lap 25. The stop would drop the Spaniard down to 16th but it gave Alonso the opportunity to fight for a point as he passed Vandoorne, Stroll, Gasly and Palmer during the second half of the race.
Hülkenberg’s retirement set up a tense finish as Alonso chased down former teammate Massa but ran out of laps to make the move and close the gap in the championship to Stoffel Vandoorne.