Mercedes are back – not that anyone really doubted they had been away. Putting the disappointment of Singapore behind them, the reigning champions scored another one-two at the Japanese GP, easing last week’s winner, Sebastian Vettel, into third.
It was a sweet victory for Lewis Hamilton in more ways than one. Nico Rosberg may have been on pole but Hamilton squeezed out his team-mate at the second corner and was never headed. The Mercedes ran like clockwork; a relief for Hamilton after suffering a rare mechanical failure seven days before. And in the process of securing his 41st victory, Hamilton equalled the career tally of his hero, Ayrton Senna.
Bringing added poignancy, all of this happened at Suzuka, the track where Senna secured two of his three titles. With five races left to run this year and a lead of 48 points, Hamilton is making all the right moves to be on course for his third championship.
Rosberg, obviously aware of the mathematics, needed to capitalise on pole position and beat Hamilton. That went wrong when Hamilton got alongside going into the first corner and then eased Rosberg onto the outside kerb as they went through Turn 2. Hamilton said he had understeer – but the corner was his. Rosberg claimed he had been forced to back off in order to avoid an accident. The two did not exchange a single word in the cool-down room prior to stepping onto the podium.
Rosberg was left to chat in German with Vettel, doubtless discussing the fact that Vettel had taken advantage of the Mercedes being forced wide at Turn 2 to grab second place. Rosberg, in fact, came out of the corner in fourth and had to wait until the first round of pit stops before jumping the Williams of Valtteri Bottas. Mercedes did an even better job at the second stops just after half distance when Ferrari failed to react quickly enough to Rosberg’s tyre change, the Mercedes getting ahead of Vettel. Had it not been for that tactic, Vettel was sure he would have kept second place.
This so-called undercut strategy worked well for Nico Hulkenberg when the Force India got ahead of both Lotus drivers (Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado) during an impressive drive from 13th to sixth (behind Kimi Räikkonen’s Ferrari and Bottas, who was disappointed with the poor race pace of the Williams-Mercedes).
Despite being outmanoeuvred by Hulkenberg, the Lotus team management were quietly relieved with the points (and money) associated seventh and eighth places, this being on the eve of a potentially difficult court case with the British tax inspector which could have an effect on a possible take-over by Renault.
Force India, meanwhile, had their own internal difficulties – albeit of a less serious nature – when Sergio Perez complained about Hulkenberg’s forceful start having caused the Mexican to leave the road at the first corner.
Perez was one of three punctures caused by the opening lap flurry, a fast start by Daniel Ricciardo ending with what appeared to an innocent wheel-against-wheel brush with the Williams of Felipe Massa sending both cars on a long slow lap back to the pits.
Ricciardo’s eventual 15th place was another setback during a bad weekend for Red Bull, the mechanics having built a completely new car for Daniil Kvyat after the Russian had been lucky to escape from a massive accident during qualifying. Kvyat, struggling with brake issues, would come home 13th to make this the first time since 2006 that Red Bull had not finished on the podium at Suzuka, never mind failing to score a single point.
Hamilton’s record at Suzuka had not bee particularly brilliant but this result changed all that. “I don’t know why, but I woke up this morning and felt really good about everything,” said Hamilton. “`I love this place and the fans are brilliant. The car was a dream to drive. There’s going to be times when we’re tested and have things like Singapore. So, what this team has done is awesome. Suzuka has not been a strong circuit for me for many years. But I never felt so comfortable here as I did today. Yeah, we’re back on track, no question…”