Sunday, 5 October 2014

Japan: post-race analysis

A quite entertaining race, book-ended by tedium at the start and concern at the end. Frustratingly, when it seemed the race might be a 2 lap trundle behind the safety car (making my bet a winner), not only did it not come off, the 1.5 hedge didn’t get matched. To be honest, given it was red-flagged after barely a lap I was surprised it didn’t get matched, and a bit disappointed.

It was wetter than expected at the start. So much so that everyone started not only on full wets but behind the safety car. After completing a single lap, the safety car led the whole field into the pit lane. (Technically, this meant they ‘completed’ lap 2, making half-points available for award, when crossing the line in the pit lane).

Later, the rain eased, but was still heavy, and all departed the pit lane, once again following the safety car. Alonso suffered some sort of electrical failure and his car ground to a halt, taking him out of the race before it got really underway.

When the safety car came in, the Mercedes drove away from the rest of the field at an alarming rate of knots. For a time it was pretty much formation flying. Button and Maldonado came in first for intermediate tyres, and were shortly followed by pretty much everyone. Maldonado, for whom track limits are a challenge rarely to be refused, left the circuit twice, but Button kept his car on the track and ended up much higher up the order due to his good call.

When the track was still wet but drying it became quickly apparent that the Red Bulls were a good margin faster than the Williams (directly ahead of them). This was at least partly due to setup, which appeared to be very wet for the former team, but they have typically been better in the wet anyway. Once past Bottas, the two Red Bulls pulled ahead by roughly a second a lap.

At the front, it was weird. The gap was about 1.5-2s for quite a while, going up and then down but staying roughly the same. When Hamilton passed Rosberg I thought it was because the German’s tyres had degraded more. Certainly, he then lost about 2s a lap to Hamilton, and pitted the sooner. But afterwards, he was also substantially slower. Not sure if he had a small technical fault or what, but the second bout of slowness was peculiar.

For a time the Red Bulls (and Button, who was driving very well, and as fast as any on circuit at various times) seemed to pose a potential threat to Rosberg, but they had to pit again and they didn’t get much glory in the end.

Late on the rain increased once more, Sutil and Bianchi appeared to have crashed (same place but separately) and Bianchi is, at the time of writing, still receiving medical attention, and may be seriously injured. Let’s hope he’s ok.

A second and final red flag appeared, and the race ended about six laps early.

Hamilton and Rosberg got the one-two, extending the former’s lead to 10 points, the largest it’s been all season. However, the race for the title is far from over.

Vettel got his second podium of the year, one spot above Ricciardo. Button’s excellent wet weather driving and good tyre call enabled him to achieve an impressive 5th. If he does leave the team after 2014 (and probably the sport) they will miss him on days like today.

Bottas and Massa were next. Neither drove badly, they simply lacked the grip cars with more downforce enjoyed. They’ll be disappointed as, in the dry, they were probably on for a much better result. On the other hand, they strengthen their grip on the third spot in the Constructors’, which is important.

Hulkenberg and Perez got 8th and 10th respectively. I was surprised to hear (after reading Twitter rumours yesterday Hulkenberg might leave Force India for Porsche sports car racing) that the team are apparently dissatisfied with Hulkenberg and more impressed with Perez. Whilst Perez got the team a podium and Hulkenberg has not, the German is on 76 points, a long way ahead of Perez’s 46.

Vergne got 9th, which will hopefully help him get a seat next year. He does have the pace for it.

Kvyat was 11th and Raikkonen a lacklustre 12th.

So, when the switch to intermediates occurred the Bottas bet looked unlikely. But given the race was super-wet to start and got red flagged early on I was disappointed and, frankly, surprised it didn’t get matched. The forecast I checked (and which is generally highly accurate) significantly underestimated the rainfall. However, with special circumstances (such as a typhoon) that’s understandable and I should’ve probably considered that.

Annoyingly, this means my poor run in the latter half of the season continues.

After the race Hamilton leads by 10 points, with four races left (including the double points nonsense at season finale Abu Dhabi). I expect the title to be decided in Abu Dhabi. The other circuits are the new track at Sochi in Russia, the excellent Austin track in America, and perhaps my favourite, Interlagos in Brazil. I do not expect Ricciardo to be in a position to tilt at the title in Abu Dhabi (he’d need to be within 50 points).

The Constructors’ standings:
Mercedes 522
Red Bull 332
Williams 201
Ferrari 178
Force India 122
McLaren 121

The top two will finish as they are. Williams has a hefty lead over Ferrari. It’s not insurmountable but I do not think the Prancing Horse will manage to get ahead. I believe Williams were 9th last year, so to move to 3rd is a very impressive achievement indeed. Button’s excellent drive today narrows the gap to Force India to a single point. The McLaren looked better today, and that battle with Force India will continue until the last race. I think McLaren will end up winning it. Their car looks better right now.

The next race is Russia, a new circuit, and is the very next weekend. Let’s hope it’s a great and profitable race, and that we see Jules Bianchi driving there.

Morris Dancer

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