The Japanese Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Phill Horton from Motorsport Monday and Motorsport Week.
The Japanese Grand Prix was a weekend of twists and turns — of a typhoon cancelling Saturday running, of Ferrari scoring a shock front-row lockout after a dreadful Friday and, finally, of Mercedes taking victory and with it the team’s sixth constructors championship.
The typhoon was a decisive factor of the grand prix. Not only did the teams lose a practice session and have their regular momentum disrupted, but the track condition on Sunday morning, fresh from being hammered by rain for the previous 24 hours, was dramatically different to that presented on Friday.
But so too was Ferrari’s pace turnaround from Friday practice to qualifying on Sunday morning a key element. With Red Bull Racing wilting in the crunch moment of qualifying as the distant third-best team, Sebastian Vettel made himself the key obstacle to Mercedes claiming the result that looked so likely on Friday evening.
‘Typhoon Hagibis’ were the words on everyone’s lips from the moment F1 arrived at Suzuka. The cyclonic storm, rated the most severe ‘violent’ category by the Japan Meteorological Agency, was bearing down on the archipelago and due for strike the circuit between Friday night and Sunday morning. The seriousness of the situation moved race organised to close the track on Saturday, cancelling final practice and postponing qualifying to Sunday morning.
Suzuka Circuit is already among the most abrasive on the calendar, and the lashings of rain from Hagibis only emphasised this trait by clearing all the rubber from the tarmac. Further, the warm and sunny post-typhoon conditions meant degradation was more severe than predicted by Friday data.
These matters combined to shift the race from what should have been a comfortable one-stop race into marginal territory, with cars eating through their tyres faster than modelled. It proved key to the strategic battle for the lead.
The race-winning move
The race for the lead was effectively run and won at the first turn. Both Ferrari drivers butchered their starts — Vettel jumped then stopped, escaping penalty but losing momentum, while Charles Leclerc was distracted by his teammate and suffered a poor reaction time as a result — allowing Valtteri Bottas to sweep into the lead.
Vettel held second place and went onto the offensive, stopping on lap 16 for a fresh set of softs. The thinking was that the German would be at an advantage if a safety car were called, allowing him to switch to the mediums and potentially run to the end while also earning him a potential undercut advantage on Bottas at the second stops if Bottas went for the medium tyre.
The Finn did so, but the Mercedes pace was too strong for the Ferrari strategy to make an impression, and Vettel’s stop on lap 31 for a set of mediums was easily covered by Bottas five laps later, effectively securing him victory.
To one-stop or two?
With Mercedes’s race pace so strong, only Lewis Hamilton had the machinery to stop Bottas from marching to victory — except that the Briton was caught behind Charles Leclerc’s damaged Ferrari for the first three laps, costing him three seconds to Vettel in P2.
He ran until lap 21 before stopping, which was right on the cusp of the one-stop pit window — indeed the plan appeared to be to have him run to the end, the split strategies catching Vettel, who was without Leclerc for backup, in a pincer.
But the high-degradation conditions meant his tyres were in poor shape late in his stint — from lap 37 to lap 41 the drop-off was severe, and he was forced to stop on lap 42 for a used set of softs to unsuccessfully chase down Vettel for P2.
In the circumstances it was the correct call, but Hamilton suggested afterwards that better communication from the team could have allowed him to manage his first and second-stint tyres to the end of the race, which could have given him a chance of holding off teammate Bottas late in the race.
The Briton also queried early in his second stint why the team didn’t give him a set of hard tyres if it intended for him to make only a single stop, but the pit wall replied it had no data on the white-striped tyre, having not run them during practice given the medium and soft compounds were expected to be able to handle the race comfortably.
Ricciardo gambles on medium, wins big
Daniel Ricciardo was among the most disappointed drivers on the grid after qualifying, having been eliminated 16th in his uncompetitive Renault. But he was one of the most significant movers in the race, thanks in part to his decision to start the grand prix to start on the more durable medium tyre rather than the soft compound favoured by all but five others.
The medium dealt better with the warmer weather under the weight of full tanks and allowed him to make rapid progress, a problem with the rear of the car having been rectified after qualifying. Despite making no places on the first lap, he moved up to 10th on lap seven and was fifth when he made his stop on lap 29, falling to 11th. From there he was able to race to the end on the quicker oft compound while he rivals dealt with their expiring mediums.
His way was eased by Nico Hulkenberg letting him past on alp 44 to assault Lance Stroll, who he relieved of eighth place almost immediately on his way to seventh at the flag, which became sixth after Charles Leclerc had 15 seconds added to his race time.
How many stops?
The midfield was as finely balanced between one and two stops as the frontrunners, albeit with more opting for a single stop to avoid the risk of getting in traffic twice at the hard-to-pass circuit.
Sergio Perez showed a two-stop race was viable, albeit with the assistance of Lando Norris’s damaged McLaren making a gap for him to make his second top into without losing more than a place. The Mexican stopped on lap 19, the same window as his one-stopping rivals, but a late change to new softs on lap 41 allowed him to move from a pre-stop 10th to a post-stop eighth — at least had he not crashed with Pierre Gasly on the final lap. Happily a bizarre misfire of the chequered flag system meant that final lap didn’t count, restoring him to ninth place behind the Frenchman.