Order was restored in Japan last Sunday,with Lewis Hamilton leading Mercedes to yet another one-two finish, after the shocking lack of pace they showed last time out in Singapore.
In Qualifying on Saturday it was clear that the Mercedes’ pace was back and stronger than ever around the power hungry circuit in Suzuka, with Rosberg securing pole early on before Daniil Kyvat’s crash brought out a red flag, ending the session.
Off the start Lewis Hamilton jumped up alongside Rosberg going into turn one, steadfastly sticking to the outside line and gaining the lead entering turn two. The overtake forced Rosberg back into the clutches of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and Valtteri Bottas’ Williams, both of whom moved up demoting Rosberg to fourth.
Meanwhile, on the third row of the grid, Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo were in a battle for sixth place. Ricciardo had a good start and lined up alongside the Williams resulting in contact and punctures for both cars. Massa’s subsequent fall down the field squeezed Sergio Perez who ran onto the Astroturf.
Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado in the Lotus’s had gained sixth and seventh in the midst of the many battles- a positive place for a team who have been in the depths of financial problems in recent weeks. Fernando Alonso had also managed to place the power deprived McLaren up in ninth place, from 12th at the start.
Hamilton sped off into the distance up front whilst Rosberg and Bottas took their fight into pit stop strategy. Bottas attempted the undercut on Rosberg by pitting early on lap 12 to the harder tyres, a rare proactive move from the Williams team. The move proved to be right one, as when Rosberg pitted three laps later he returned yet again behind the Williams- the undercut had worked.
However, the joy in the Williams garage did not last long as on lap 18 Rosberg finally caught and easily passed Bottas with a move down the inside of the last corner before the straight, and used the DRS to put further distance between them.
McLaren’s party was also spoilt, as on lap 26 promising rookie driver Max Verstappen cruised up behind Fernando Alonso using DRS and passed him easily to take the last point placing position. Alonso complained on the radio of his, “stupid GP2 engine”, presumably much to the chagrin of the host company, and McLaren’s engine supplier, Honda.
The familiar, and seemingly inevitable, sight of a Mercedes one- two emerged on lap 33 as Rosberg finally moved past Vettel into second place as the Ferrari driver exited the pits.
The battle however, did not end there. Unlike his teammate Rosberg was unable to canter off into the distance and Vettel stuck with him until the very end of the race, with the gap staying at around 1.5 seconds as the pair manoeuvred their way through equally battling back markers.
This battle included Marcus Ericcson and Sergio Perez who were fighting tooth and nail for 11th place. It was clear that Perez had a speed advantage – his teammate Hulkenberg was up in 6th at this point- but was seemly unable to pass the Sauber driver. Perez finally made the pass on lap 49 with a move around the outside going into 130R causing Ericsson to run wide and allowing Red Bull teammates Kyvat and Ricciardo to join the fight behind.
Ericcson showed his inexperience or perhaps the pressure he was under on lap 51, when he adhered to blue flags to let Raikkonen pass him through the chicane. Raikkonen appeared unsure if he was being let through in such an unusual place, and the opportunistic young Russian Kyvat took the opportunity to dive down the inside whilst Ericcson was off the racing line.
All in all it was a very successful race for the Mercedes team, so much so that we barely saw them on screen with battles all down the field holding more attention.
Lewis Hamilton not only increased his championship lead to 48 points with five races to go, but emulated his hero Aryton Senna’s 41 wins, and also looks almost assured of a third world championship.
Ferrari didn’t show the pace that they had last race out in Singapore, but finished well with Vettel third and Raikkonen fourth. Bottas and Hulkenberg came away with good points in fifth and sixth respectively, whilst Fernando Alonso bemoaned McLaren’s lack of progress just out of the points in 11th.
Going into the Russian Grand prix in Sochi this weekend it looks all set to be another Mercedes victory, or can Ferrari find that return to form again? We’ll have to wait to see on Sunday.