The Japanese Gran Prix race was set to be a fight between Lewis Hamilton and challenger Sebastian Vettel, with the two sitting on the front row of the grid, with the ever present danger of the newly resurgent Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen placed just behind them. But the race wasn’t to go Ferrari’s way at all.
In some ways it looked like the two Ferraris had switched places from last week’s Malaysian race and Vettel’s car saw some frantic inspection on the grid. While deemed OK to start, the gremlins affecting Ferrari were to reoccur as Vettel first tried to put in a challenge on Hamilton and then tried to stave off some hard manoeuvring from Verstappen who had made a brilliant charging start as usual only to start slipping back. By the time Force India’s Esteban Ocon swung past only to be followed by Ricciardo and the second Mercedes car of Valtteri Bottas, the team called Vettel back into the pits for an early retirement.
After the race, despite the obvious mechanical issues linked to a spark plug failure with the Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel fielded questions with an answer that refused to blame the team.
“It’s normal you’re critical, especially if things go wrong, it’s part of our job,” said Vettel. “I feel I need to protect them [the team] – we’ve done an incredible job so far. It is obviously a pity the last two races with the reliability issues, but you know, it’s like that sometimes. Of course it hurts, and we’re all disappointed. But now we need to get back, get some rest and then go flat-out for the last four races and see what happens.”
Max Verstappen continued to keep the pressure on Lewis Hamilton, with his Red Bull actually looking the better car for much of the race, while Kimi Raikkonen battled his car up from the 10th place on the starting grid, displaying none of the problems that Vettel had.
The chequered flag saw Hamilton take the race just a second ahead of Verstappen, with ValtteriBottas not really able to challenge Ricciardo for third. Raikkonen brought in a well deserved fifth spot ahead of Ocon, with Ocon’s team mate Sergio Perez tailing him in to seventh. The other three point positions were taken up by the two Haas cars of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean with Felipe Massa gaining that last point for his Williams.
As the teams fly over to the US, Carlos Sainz will be replacing Jolyon Palmer at Renault for the remainder of the season, with his last race with Toro Rosso ending in a crash.