McLaren left exposed
Fernando Alonso’s ire at the Japanese Grand Prix after he was penalised for leaving the track and gaining an advantage after being pushed off by Lance Stroll at the chicane might have been the low point of the Spaniard’s weekend. But for the team, qualifying in Japan will be a moment they would rather forget. Suzuka’s magnificent layout is one of the great tests in F1, it rewards a good car and exposes the failings of others. McLaren looked terribly vulnerable. They were comfortably the slowest cars in qualifying – a statement that would have been dismissed as comic a few short years ago. Yet here for the first time this season they failed to beat even one of the Williams. Their choice of tyres for the weekend was wrong, for which sporting director Gil de Ferran took responsibility despite the decision having been made before his appointment. But it made little difference, the weaknesses of their car were displayed here perhaps as at no other track this season. Work on next year’s McLaren has long been their focus and on this showing any improvement would be a step forward.
Honda makes it a hit at home
The painful irony of McLaren recording their worse qualifying this season in Japan – the home grand prix of their former engine supplier Honda, who scored their best of the season with Toro Rosso – will not have been pleasing for the Woking team. But for Honda, and indeed for Red Bull, there were positive signs. The Toro Rossos with the latest spec Honda power units now in their fourth year of development looked up to the job, with Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly securing sixth and seventh on the grid. Neither scored a point in the race but this was down to poor strategy calls for Gasly and Hartley’s terrible start. Their car is not the quickest but on this indication Honda’s rate of advance is reason for optimism at Red Bull who will take the engine next year. They already have a very strong chassis and are operationally sharp. Gasly and Verstappen may be inheriting Honda power just as it is coming good.
Vettel found wanting again
Sebastian Vettel’s hopes of staying in the championship battle were slim going into the Japanese Grand Prix. By its close they were gone. The manner of his capitulation was indicative of where his season has gone wrong. Ferrari’s tyre call in qualifying was costly but Vettel admitted he also took the damp kerbs at Spoon that caused him to manage only eighth on the grid. Then his move on Max Verstappen in the race was yet another moment of misjudgment in the heat of battle – having made a series of similar errors already this season. He said afterwards to the team: “If I don’t go for that gap and the gap was there, might as well stay at home.” But this has an air of justification in hindsight. He didn’t want to get stuck behind Verstappen of course but knowing he is an aggressive defender, even taking several laps to line up a safer move would have been worth it. These are the decisions that have cost him the title.
Vettel is far from alone in culpability, his Ferrari team also reached their season’s nadir at Suzuka. The call to take inters in Q3 was costly but it was the only the latest in a series of flawed operational decisions that suggest once again there is disarray within the Scuderia. After qualifying, the team principal Maurizio Arrivabene launched a scathing attack on his own outfit. “What happened today is unacceptable,” he said. “I am very angry. It is not the first time that these mistakes have occurred. I do not feel like pointing my fingers at someone in particular, but I’m very disappointed.” That Arrivebene did not acknowledge responsibility himself was extraordinary – Vettel after all had refused to blame the team, and look at the example set at McLaren. It is hard not to equate the timing of these organisational inadequacies with the death of Sergio Marchionne in July, the former Ferrari chairman who had been at the heart of the Scuderia and whose absence is clearly being felt.
Vietnam gets ready to race
Charlie Whiting, the FIA race director, revealed after the race in Japan that the proposed street circuit in Hanoi was in “an advanced stage of design”. Any deal with the Vietnamese government has yet to be made public but it is expected that the race will be added to the 2020 calendar – although building work has yet to begin. It would be the first new venue that Liberty Media has secured for F1 and would finally mean a successful deal after their attempts to bring a race to the streets of Miami appear to have stalled due to local opposition. Whiting has visited the location for the track, which is 12km west of the city centre and would use existing streets with a new purpose-built pit area. The only concern is just how Hanoi will fit into the schedule. Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner said in Japan he believed the current 21-race schedule was its “saturation point”. His next pronouncement may well be simply: “The horror! The horror!”