Curly's Corner: A Nerd's Eye on Formula 1 – Japanese Grand Prix
Round 15 Recap: Malaysia GP
The 15th race of the 2017 Formula 1 season took place in Malaysia. While we have already provided an in-depth look at how that race transpired, here is the short version. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen were the two performance benchmarks, trading quick times throughout practice while Mercedes Benz’s Lewis Hamilton struggled with an aero update that left the Silver Arrows third best of the grid. Qualifying should have been a cakewalk for Vettel, but a broken intake manifold after final practice meant he was unable to complete a single qualifying lap and started dead last. Hamilton landed on pole with Kimi Raikkonen beside him and Verstappen behind. Come race day, Raikkonen was unable to start due to the same intake problem that befell Vettel the day before. While Hamilton took the lead early on, Verstappen pulled off an excellent pass and never looked back, winning his second ever Grand Prix. Meanwhile, Vettel brilliantly carved his way through the field, showing why he is a 4-time world champion. Hamilton’s 2nd place finish allowed him to extend his points lead over Vettel, further hampering the German’s chances of becoming a 5-time World Champion.
This brings us to the cool down lap and Vettel’s very odd crash with Lance Stroll. I still lay more portion of blame to Vettel on this one. After watching the three on-board replays, Stroll does drift wide slightly, but it seems he is making room for the Haas of Romain Grosjean who is on the inside. Meanwhile, Vettel is flying up the outside, cuts across the nose of Stroll, and clobbers Williams. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but the fact of the matter is, this is the second time this season Sebastian Vettel has been involved in a crash under yellow flag conditions. His incident at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was unacceptable and the fact that the FIA only gave him a slap on the wrist is an embarrassment. It makes no difference whether or not Vettel intentionally hit Hamilton; Vettel was still guilty of running into a competitor not once, but twice in the space of a few seconds, under yellow flag conditions. This type of behavior is not accepted at a go kart track, much less at the pinnacle of motorsport. And here we are again, Vettel gets into another wreck, this time much more devastating, under yellow flag conditions. Even worse, track marshals are on track congratulating the drivers on a good show. What would have happened if Vettel’s airborne car had hit one of those marshals? Or even just a piece of debris? Again, fault and intent matter not when a marshall is being airlifted to the hospital because he or she was hit by a piece of debris. Sadly, I don’t think this will be the last time Vettel is involved in an accident of this nature. There will be a third time. Will it be bad enough for the FIA to finally step in and make an example of Vettel? That remains to be seen. 20 years ago, Michael Schumacher attempted to run Jacques Villeneuve into the gravel trap at Jerez. Schumacher failed, put himself in the gravel, and out of the race. His punishment? Disqualification from the 1997 Formula 1 World Championship. I’m not sure how absurd things have to get for the FIA to step in and put a stop to this, but we will surely find out.
With Vettel’s car all rebuilt (with fresh zip ties of course) and in Japan, he is once again a man on a mission. If Vettel and Hamilton finish 1-2 throughout the final 5 races, Vettel will win by a single point. That’s quite a tough task for him right now. 2nd, 3rd, 18th, and 4th since the end of the summer break are all the German has to show for his efforts. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s finishes of 1st, 1st, 1st, and 2nd in that same period are a bit more telling as to who is in peak form at the moment. On top of that, Hamilton’s worst finish at the remaining tracks (Japan, USA, Mexico, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi) since 2014 is 3rd. Meanwhile, Vettel’s best finishes at these same tracks is…3rd. The deck is very clearly stacked against Vettel, though as I have said before, if he is able to pull out a miracle and beat Hamilton to a championship, it will be a story worthy of Rush 2.
FP1 was a high mark for Ferrari, with Vettel topping the timing charts. 0.2 behind Vettel was Hamilton, with Ricciardo a further 0.375 seconds behind Hamilton. The major highlight was a big crash by Carlos Sainz Jr. in the second half of the session. Once his car was cleared, there were a few more minutes of running, but the heavy fall rains came and washed out the last 10 minutes of the session. The early benchmark for Vettel would be a good way of lifting spirits for his Ferrari team after the dual disasters of Singapore and Malaysia.
The rains that began in FP1 continued in FP2, making it a useless session. Only 6 cars turned laps, with Hamilton on top, but the data was useless. For the teams, this is an issue, but for the fans it can bring the potential for an exciting Sunday. See, the general flow of the practice sessions goes thusly: FP1 is a general shakedown session where teams ensure the cars are running well and to begin honing in on setups. FP2 is usually reserved for race simulations where teams determine tire life, fuel consumption, and begin to plan out a Sunday strategy. FP3 is where teams finalize downforce and setup packages and perform qualifying sims. Teams knew that rain was on its way during FP1, so some race sims were conducted, but effectively losing a full practice session hampers their data gathering. Engineers feed on data (who needs Wheaties when you’ve got numbers!) and with less data comes more variability. More variability means more chance of mistakes, which is good news for fans.
FP3 was a dry session, with the two Mercedes cars topping the time charts, Bottas leading Hamilton. Unfortunately for Bottas, he would go off-track after the Spoon curve and clip the wall, ending his session. Vettel was third followed by the Red Bull pair. Raikkonen was unable to put in a fast lap as he went off at the Degner curve, damaging his suspension and gearbox. Fortunately for Ferrari, he had spent the early part of the session on race simulations, so his practice was not a total write off.
After their mad dash scramble to put the Ferrari S70H back together (with a new gearbox), Raikkonen was able to get into Q1 and was even fairly competitive! As Q1 wound down, Grosjean lost traction in the Esses and spun into the tire barriers with just over a minute to go in the session. Grosjean was unhurt, but the final 1:18 of Q1 was abandoned. Q2 was nothing to write home about, though both Renault drivers would be disappointed to not move into Q3. Alonso barely squeaked into the top 10, but it would all be for naught as the complete power unit replacement the day before puts him at the back of the field. Fortunately, grid penalties from other drivers did eventually bump Stoffel Vandoorne into the top 10, but surely it was not how Honda wanted to qualify at their home race. Up front, Lewis Hamilton was untouchable, smashing Michael Schumacher’s 2006 lap record by a full 1.6 seconds. He easily landed on the pole with his teammate beside him. Vettel landed in 3rd, followed by Ricciardo, Verstappen, and Raikkonen.
As for grid spot penalties, well there were a raft of them. Fernando Alonso was hit with 35 positions for replacing his entire power unit (PU) on Friday. He is now on his 8th engine, 10th turbocharger, 10th MGU-H, 7th battery, and 6th ECU. It should be noted that each driver is allotted 4 of each of these components per season, so the fact that Alonso has already used twice his allotment shows just how much of a problem Honda is having. His penalty was especially severe because McLaren was forced to break the nighttime curfew to perform the swap. Small wonder why McLaren is so frustrated with Honda when their engines are failing every other race! Carlos Sainz Jr. incurred 20 positions for moving to his 5th PU. Raikkonen’s FP3 accident required a new gearbox, giving him a 5 position penalty. Bottas incurred the same penalty when his gearbox was switched out earlier in the weekend. Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, who was already facing down what could be his final F1 start, also required a full engine change, which knocked him back 20 positions.
With all of the penalties applied, Hamilton retains pole, with Vettel alongside. Ricciardo starts 3rd followed by Verstappen, Esteban Ocon, and Bottas. Raikkonen’s supporting Ferrari drops to 10th where it will be difficult, but not impossible, for the Finn to support Vettel’s title fight.