Formula 1 championship leader Nico Rosberg has extended his points lead with a comfortable victory in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, with his path to victory all but guaranteed thanks to a terrible start by teammate Lewis Hamilton.
After narrowly edging Hamilton to pole position by just 0.013 seconds in the most closely fought qualifying session of the season, the German still had statistics and past history to worry about. Victory from pole position at the Suzuka Circuit was by no means guaranteed, particularly against a three-time World Champion teammate enduring one of the most mercurial weekends of his career.
Hamilton’s stint in Japan had been the subject of intense media speculation after he had the cheek to post a series of selfies on his SnapChat feed during Thursday’s FIA press conference.
Elements of the press didn’t take kindly to the defending champion’s antics and took to him in their subsequent reports, and after being pipped to pole by Rosberg (and not asked a single question by any journalist in the post-qualifying unilateral press conference), he stormed out of the team’s scheduled Q&A session for print media.
Hamilton claimed to be offended by the ‘disrespectful’ coverage his SnapChat antics had earned from some tabloid circles, but his behaviour off the track – rather than the great tussle he and Rosberg had enjoyed battling for pole – became the headline story.
Come race day, an overnight shower had washed the grid and left noticeably darker (and damper) patches on the right-hand side of the starting grid, precisely where Hamilton would be launching from and had won from on previous occasions.
The track had all but dried when the race came to start, and as the lights went out, Hamilton fluffed his getaway and fell to eighth off the start line. He couldn’t blame the track conditions, and was quickly on the radio to apologise to his team for his error.
The race was effectively done and dusted at the first corner. Rosberg’s getaway was smooth and put him into an early lead from Verstappen and Force India’s Sergio Pérez, who made up several places at the expense of Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel having to swerve around Hamilton’s slow-starting Mercedes.
Vettel would pass Ricciardo’s down-on-speed Red Bull Racing RB12 into 130R on the opening lap to claim fourth place, while Rosberg eased away from Verstappen at the front.
The story would then be about damage limitation, and what Hamilton could do to limit an already wide 23-point gap to his teammate in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
The Englishman avoided a near-miss with Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India at 130R to pass the German into Turn 1 for seventh place, putting him behind Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen, who lost his third-placed grid slot thanks to a five-place grid penalty for an overnight gearbox change.
On Lap 10, both Verstappen and Ricciardo pitted to dispense with their Soft tyres and switch to Hards. Pérez kept his advantage over Räikkönen by pitting earlier than the Finn to undercut him, although their positions would quickly switch when they came upon Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, who hadn’t yet pitted.
Hamilton emerged from the pits and jumped the lot of them to move into sixth, before disposing of Ricciardo’s ill-handling car at Spoon and overtaking Valtteri Bottas’ Williams (which hadn’t yet stopped) for fourth.
With the first cycle of pit stops run, Rosberg was keeping his powder dry at the the front with a four-second lead over Verstappen, with Vettel a further three adrift. Fourth-placed Hamilton was twelve seconds behind the Ferrari and closing.
After losing out in the first pit stop cycle, Räikkönen triggered the next lot of pit lane visits by making an early second pit stop in an attempt to undercut fifth-placed Ricciardo. The ploy worked, thanks to a slow front tyre change for the Australian when he pitted in response.
Verstappen and Rosberg followed suit to make their final stops, with Vettel now handed the lead, ahead of Hamilton albeit by an ever-reducing four-second margin.
Hamilton made his final pit stop on Lap 34, forcing Vettel to respond to maintain track position – it was too late, as the four-time champion emerged behind the Mercedes as he exited the pits.
Hamilton’s next target was second-placed Verstappen. With his Mercedes turned up, he quickly brought down the gap and closed to within DRS range with six laps to go but couldn’t mount a challenge until the penultimate lap.
The pair exited Spoon Curve, and with Hamilton carrying far more speed through 130R, he tried a move up the inside on the approach to the Casio Triangle chicane. Verstappen was wise to the move, but once again made his now-customary – and increasingly more criticised – late attempt to shut the door to prevent a pass.
Hamilton dodged left to avoid contact, but leaving his braking far too late, he slide up the escape road and rejoined behind Verstappen, too far behind to challenge over the final lap.
In the wake of celebrating its third Constructors’ Championship title, Mercedes would later launch a protest over Verstappen’s eager defence before withdrawing it – seemingly at Hamilton’s insistence. On a weekend where communication was the central theme, this was another example of the disconnection between team and driver that has been a feature of this season.
Vettel finished a distant fourth ahead of teammate Räikkönen, while Malaysia Grand Prix winner Ricciardo crossed the line in sixth ahead of the Force Indias of Pérez and Hülkenberg.
The Williams’ of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas rounded out the top ten, but were once again outscored by their fellow Mercedes runners to lose more ground in their Constructors’ Championship battle.
Haas’ celebrating at getting both cars inside the top ten in qualifying proved to be a false dawn on Sunday. Romain Grosjean compromised his race with a lock-up at the first corner to finish out of the points in eleventh place, while teammate Esteban Gutiérrez’s underwhelming year continued with a clumsy spin trying to overtake one of the Toro Rossos at the chicane.
Jolyon Palmer looked assured en route to finishing in twelfth place in his Renault, ahead of Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, the sister Renault of Kevin Magnussen and Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber.
It was a terrible race for McLaren at Honda’s home event. Fernando Alonso ran off the track at Turn 1 in a botched attempt to pass Massa at Turn 1 and later ran out of tyre grip, finishing a lowly sixteenth. Teammate Jenson Button was two spots behind after starting from last place when the team opted to swap out a number of power unit elements to give him fresh parts for the rest of the season.
|2016 FORMULA 1 EMIRATES JAPANESE GRAND PRIX – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (53 LAPS)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|1.||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1W07 Hybrid||53||1:26:43.333|
|2.||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB12||53||+ 4.978|
|3.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1W07 Hybrid||53||+ 5.776|
|4.||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF-16||53||+ 20.269|
|5.||Kimi Räikkönen||Scuderia Ferrari SF-16||53||+ 28.370|
|6.||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB12||53||+ 33.941|
|7.||Sergio Pérez||Sahara Force India Mercedes VJM09||53||+ 57.495|
|8.||Nico Hülkenberg||Sahara Force India Mercedes VJM09||53||+ 59.177|
|9.||Felipe Massa||Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW38||53||+ 1:37.763|
|10.||Valtteri Bottas||Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW38||53||+ 1:38.323|
|11.||Romain Grosjean||Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-16||53||+ 1:39.254|
|12.||Jolyon Palmer||Renault Sport F1 Team RS16||52||1 lap behind|
|13.||Daniil Kvyat||Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari STR11||52||1 lap behind|
|14.||Kevin Magnussen||Renault Sport F1 Team RS16||52||1 lap behind|
|15.||Marcus Ericsson||Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C35||52||1 lap behind|
|16.||Fernando Alonso||McLaren Honda MP4-31||52||1 lap behind|
|17.||Carlos Sainz Jr.||Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari STR11||52||1 lap behind|
|18.||Jenson Button||McLaren Honda MP4-31||52||1 lap behind|
|19.||Felipe Nasr||Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C35||52||1 lap behind|
|20.||Esteban Gutiérrez||Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-16||52||1 lap behind|
|21.||Esteban Ocon||Manor Racing Mercedes MRT5||52||1 lap behind|
|22.||Pascal Wehrlein||Manor Racing Mercedes MRT5||52||1 lap behind|
Images via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team