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ANALYSIS: Silver Arrows Back on Song in Suzuka

ANALYSIS: Silver Arrows Back on Song in Suzuka

Lewis Hamilton scored his eighth Grand Prix win of 2017 and his third Japanese Grand Prix victory in four seasons with a fine performance at Suzuka.

The result puts him 59 points clear of Sebastian Vettel in the Drivers' Championship as Scuderia Ferrari suffered more reliability problems. A fighting fourth place from Valtteri Bottas, after a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change, means that Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport now has a 145-point Constructors' Championship margin over Ferrari.

Suzuka is a true driver's circuit and heading into the weekend it was one of the sport's great anomalies that Lewis had started from pole position on all current F1 circuits with the exception of the Japanese venue. He soon addressed that and was clearly delighted with a 1m27.319s lap that gave him a 71st F1 pole, some 0.34s faster than Valtteri - whose penalty dropped him to seventh on the grid - and 0.48s clear of the Ferrari threat from Vettel.

Valtteri, after some struggles folowing the summer break, was much happier at Suzuka. Despite running wide out of Spoon Curve in FP3 and glancing the barrier, to the detriment of his front wing and right-side wheels, he still topped the session and was satisfied to demonstrate the kind of pace that would have given the Silver Arrows their 50th front row lock-out but for his gearbox issue. He also used the yellow-walled Soft compound Pirelli tyres in Q2, intending to run a long opening race stint. That slightly compromised his Q3 preparation and explained at least some of his Q3 deficit to Lewis.

The race was expected to run to a single-stop strategy by the leading teams, with race pace expected to be close between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. But, for the second successive race, Ferrari hit problems before the race started. Feverish work around Vettel's car on the grid was prompted by a suspected spark plug problem, the opening lap confirming that Lewis's main Championship rival had an issue.

When the red lights extinguished, Lewis and Vettel made similar starts but car No. 44's additional 8m pole advantage meant that Lewis was able to sweep through Turn 1 ahead. Further around the lap at The Hairpin, Max Verstappen's Red Bull went inside Vettel to claim second and it was soon obvious that the Ferrari was lacking engine power. By the end of the second lap Vettel was down to sixth and, after just four laps, Ferrari retired the car.

Kimi Räikkönen was also having a tough race in the second Ferrari after he, too, suffered a five-place grid demotion for a gearbox change after a crash in free practice. Pushed wide by Nico Hülkenberg at Spoon Curve on the opening lap, Räikkönen came around in 14th place.

Red Bull thus presented the biggest race threat. Although Daniel Ricciardo had outqualified team mate Verstappen by 0.03s, the young Dutchman forced through on the inside of Turn 1, with Ricciardo losing another position to Esteban Ocon's Force India on the exit of Turn 2. Trapped behind the Frenchman for the first 10 laps, Ricciardo was 6s behind Verstappen by the time he made it a Red Bull 2-3.

Valtteri, meanwhile, had been running in Ricciardo's wheeltracks and followed him past the Force India a lap later to go fourth, now 12s behind Lewis. Running the opening stint on the harder Soft Pirelli tyre, however, it was not inconceivable that Valtteri could challenge for a podium later on.

"The first stint was tricky," he explained. "There was always a car in front. Suzuka is such a difficult circuit on which to follow other cars in sectors one and two, so there was not much for me to do in the first stint because I knew I had to go longer than the others to have the opportunity at the end of the race. The key was managing the tyres behind other cars and then, when they pitted, pushing hard."

For Lewis, it was all about achieving and maintaining a big enough margin over Verstappen to protect against a possible undercut at that all-important pit stop, on red-walled SuperSoft tyres that had sometimes proven difficult at previous races.

Felipe Massa was the first of the top 10 qualifiers to pit for a set of Soft tyres after 17 laps, meaning a 36-lap second stint to the end of the race that was a more marginal one-stopper than at recent tracks. Simulations suggested that a one-stop was around 2.5s quicker over the 53 laps, and possibly 3.5s if the driver pushed harder.

The reason the call was more marginal in Japan is because the tyres were taken to much higher degradation levels. Whereas normally teams might take the degredation levels to 2s or so, at Suzuka it's up around 3s, which does not feel great for the drivers but is still faster than doing an extra pit stop and having to make their way through traffic on a circuit where overtaking is so difficult.

At the time Massa pitted, Lewis did not have the necessary 22s pit window to the Force Indias, running fifth and sixth, two seconds apart. Räikkönen's Ferrari had also recovered to be right on their tail, on a set of Pirelli Softs on which he would run a long opening stint.

Team strategists were confident that so long as Lewis had a 3s cushion to Verstappen, they could afford to react to a Red Bull stop. When Max headed in for Soft compound Pirellis on lap 21, Lewis' margin over Räikkönen was also now big enough (26.7s) and Lewis was able to stop on lap 22 and still pit out in front of Verstappen and the Ferrari.

Ricciardo now led, 4.3s ahead of Valtteri, with both cars yet to pit, while Lewis' margin over Verstappen was below 2s thanks to the Red Bull stopping a lap sooner. The No. 44 Silver Arrow, on its fresh rubber, was now also just 3.7s behind the No. 77 car.

Ricciardo made his lone SuperSoft-to-Soft pit stop on lap 25 but the team kept Valtteri out until lap 30 on his Softs. Two laps into those additional five, Lewis was right with Valtteri, who pulled over to let him by as they entered Suzuka's chicane on lap 28. The switch cost Valtteri a couple of seconds but allowed Lewis to extend his lead over Verstappen by a similar margin before Valtteri pitted out of the way to go onto SuperSofts for the final 23 laps. He rejoined 10s behind Ricciardo.

 

On lap 31 Lewis radioed in that he was "struggling a bit with the rears" and Verstappen started to cut into his lead by a tenth or a tenth and a half over the next few laps, the gap coming down to 2.2s with 12 laps ramaining.

Lewis responded and picked up the pace, setting three consecutive laps in the high 1:33s to open the margin back out to over 3s again. If the team was surprised by any facet of the race, it was that. Where at previous events the SuperSoft compound Pirelli had proven to be something of a weakness relative to car performance on the Soft, in Japan it seemed to be the other way round.

While Lewis certainly seemed to have the opening SuperSoft stint under control, his cause was partially aided by Verstappen slightly blistering his left-front tyre. Once onto the Soft compound, however, the Red Bull looked a genuine threat and a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) for Lance Stroll's abandoned Williams with five laps to go was another challenge for Lewis.

Under the VSC, drivers must maintain a specific time delta and it was interesting that Lewis's lead before the VSC period (2.59s) was out to 5.19s after the first lap of VSC running, but back to 2.54s after the first lap back under racing conditions. Why?

Perhaps one of the less widely appreciated components of running under the VSC is that, more than anything else, the gaps boil down to how much weaving a driver does on the straight to maintain tyre temperature. The delta is a distance-based algorithm, so there are two choices: the driver can either warm their tyres or minimise their distance, with Lewis taking the latter approach. One gives them time, the other warmer tyres. Utimately, the driver must take their pick.

Certainly, the Red Bull had its tyres working again quicker than Lewis, with Verstappen able to set his fastest lap of the race with two laps to go, just as the pair of them hit traffic in the form of a battling Massa and Alonso. Another phenomenon already noted this year, is that the W08 seems to be affected significantly more by turbulence from cars in front than its main rivals.

This was a pressure moment for Lewis: Verstappen was now almost within DRS range and indeed was as they flashed across the line with one to go. But Lewis was equal to the task and duly held the Red Bull at bay to a fine 61st Grand Prix victory.

"Today I was kind of thinking, 'He won the last race, I'm not letting him have this one!" Lewis smiled afterwards, while paying tribute to Verstappen's speed and consistency as well as the race pace shown by Red Bull. "I'm enjoying being in an era with such great young talent coming through. Max will be here far beyond when I stop but, until then, I'll try not to give him too many poles or too many wins..."

A strong final stint on his SuperSofts saw Valtteri close back to within less than a second of Ricciardo and a podium finish.

"The pace was good and I had the quickest lap of the race," Valtteri confirmed. "The balance was quite a lot better in the second stint, I could actually attack, and I got quite close to Daniel in the end.

"I think from the last few difficult weekends I've definitely learned a lot. I performed better, controlling some of the issues I've had before. At Suzuka it can be very difficult to manage the tyres and their overheating, and car set-up can be tricky. Without the grid penalty, I would have been in a better position."

Regarding his own performance step from Malaysia, Valtteri elaborated, "One thing we did was with the new upgrade package. We approached the weekend with a very different set-up. We managed to get the car working much more in the very narrow window that it has. I don't think we set it up right in Malaysia, not even for the old package, but especially for the new package. We learned something, mainly related to the aero balance."

Despite relatively comfortable leads in both the Drivers' and Constructors' Championships with four rounds to go, Toto Wolff insisted that the team would neither lose focus nor change its approach.

"You must continue to look one race at a time," he said. "We still have a 'Diva' of a car that needs to be understood. I wouldn't say that we are utterly dominant against the Red Bull or Ferrari. We've benefited from Ferrari's misfortune and reliability woes in the last three races, but it doesn't mean that we are slapping ourselves on the back just yet. On the contrary, we need to continue to push.

"We've probably all had a look at the points now, and it gives you a positive feeling. But I wouldn't want to change the approach of trying to maximise performances at each race weekend. That has so far proven to be the right one and we want to maintain it. We won't take our foot off the throttle until the job is done."

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