Japanese GP winners and losers
Nico Rosberg has one hand on the title, Lewis Hamilton loses on and off the track, and McLaren suffer the 2016 curse of the home GP...
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 11/10/16 7:49am
It's his to lose now.
In the form of his life and the definitive year of his career, Rosberg has one hand on the world championship after his Sunday cruise at Suzuka.
A 33-points lead with 100 remaining on the table may not be insurmountable but it's getting there. In a car without equal in the field, Rosberg doesn't even need to win any of the final races to clinch the title. He's already nearly there and if he can keep his nose clean in the United States and Mexico he almost certainly will be.
A deserving champion? With nine victories this season already, Rosberg would have to be regarded as such. Forget about the fractional speed deficit to his team-mate and focus instead on Rosberg's relentless faultlessness this year. Rosberg hasn't put a wheel offline all year (or indeed a tweet). Only in Monaco has he genuinely struggled. As Mercedes boss Toto Wolff pointedly noted on Sunday, "If you want to be a world champion you should avoid mistakes to the minimum and that's what he's doing."
From his first lap in Friday practice, when he found his W07 car perfectly balanced to the circuit's complex and conflicting demands, Rosberg appeared to have the measure of Lewis Hamilton this weekend. His cruise to victory in the wake of his team-mate's error off the line was suitably measured too, a calm, controlled and convincing demonstration of frontrunning driving.
Rosberg has unquestionably gone up a level this year and it is increasingly difficult to argue he doesn't fit the bill as a credible champion. Only a head-to-head, wheel-to-wheel defeat of Hamilton, something he has failed to deliver in any of their four years together as team-mates, remains absent from his candidature.
But in this sort of form, and with Hamilton so out of sorts, it would be no surprise if its long overdue deliverance is Rosberg's crowning glory between here and Abu Dhabi.
Nico and Lewis in 2016: A sprint to the finish
|Nico Rosberg||Lewis Hamilton|
|Best possible finish||413||380|
|What they need for title||2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd||1st, 1st, 1st, 1st*|
|*four wins would still not guarantee title|
Not only did they clinch the Constructors' Championship on Sunday, securing the third successive season to reinforce the impression they have overtaken Ferrari - without a crown in a decade - as F1's first among equals, but it's now also a certainty that Mercedes will win both of this year's titles. As the third-placed Daniel Ricciardo has slipped 101 points off the summit with only 100 still available, it's guaranteed a Mercedes driver of one name or another will win the drivers' crown.
Kimi Raikkonen has tried and failed on numerous occasions, Rosberg has tried on at least two occasions and on at least two occasions come a cropper, and Hamilton ended up off the road when he had a go this weekend. As yet, nobody has found an answer to the vexing question of how Max Verstappen can be overtaken.
It's going to be quite a bloody scene in Turn One when and if this lad ever starts out from pole position.
Although his speed superiority this weekend was nullified by an unfortunate pre-race gearbox change, Raikkonen was unquestionably the faster Ferrari driver at Suzuka. He also happens to remain ahead of his team-mate, the highest-paid driver in F1, in the 2016 standings with just four races to go.
Vettel may well hit some overdue form over the remaining quartet to reassert a measure of authority within the team, or at least in the garage, but it can already be stated with conviction that 2016 has marked a steady and sure, if unspectacular, improvement from Raikkonen: last year he barely scored half as many points as Vettel and the year before that his team-mate beat him 161-55.
On his way to Renault, if the paddock gossipers are to be believed. If so, it's a risky move, not least because Renault have seriously under-performed this term while his present employers have seriously over-performed. But perhaps a roll of the dice is what Hulkenberg's career needs - and at the age of 29, this might have been his last chance to throw it.
Formula 1 has never quite happened for Hulkenberg, at least to the extent his talent deserves. He's been oft-mentioned as a potential Ferrari candidate and he was only beaten to a seat at McLaren in 2012 by Sergio Perez. There's some irony therefore to the door being left open at Renault by Perez rejecting the move because he was holding out for a one-year deal in case a vacancy emerges at Ferrari in 2018. Looked at another way, Perez's decision to stand still in the hope somebody big will one day pick him up is more of a risk than jumping into a struggling manufacturer outfit.
Hulkenberg, no stranger to fudging the present in the hope of a better future, evidently sees it that way and the German is reported to have signed a three-year deal. It's a long-term play but one which makes sense: Renault have manufacturer backing, plenty of clout and a large cheque book. Force India don't.
For a driver who is still yet to claim his maiden podium finish, rolling the dice is less risky than declining to play.
He's still new to F1 but it looks like Esteban will soon be a veteran of F1's myriad complications and intrigues. While Hulkenberg's appointment at Renault ought to suit his own candidacy - the team are still searching for a Frenchman for the 'French national team' and Ocon's youthful promise would be perfectly complemented alongside Hulkenberg's veteran status - the word on the paddock street is that Ocon may miss out if Fred Vasseur loses the power struggle reputedly being slugged out behind the scenes at Renault.
On the other hand, Hulkenberg's departure would open up a seat at Force India which, because of their engine deal with Mercedes, one of the Silver Arrows' young proteges would be expected to fill. In which case, Ocon's double defeat of Pascal Wehrlein in Malaysia and Singapore may have been very, very significant…
The title turning points keep turning against the world champion and a title race which swung wildly between its two protagonists through the opening months of the season is now pointing in only one direction.
It almost comes a jolt to recall that Hamilton entered the summer break 19 points clear. While his team-mate has subsequently won four of the last five races, Hamilton has collected just 63 points from a possible 125. Where did it all go wrong? From the start of the second half, when his grid demotions in Belgium shifted the momentum towards Rosberg, and at the start in both Italy and Japan. The blowout in Malaysia cost Hamilton 25 points, but those false starts at Monza and Suzuka also triggered a points swing worth at least as much.
And while blowouts and slow getaways have been the story of Hamilton's season, the sting has actually been in the tale. On all three occasions - China, Russia and Belgium - when Hamilton has suffered an engine-related grid drop, Rosberg has won the race. And on all four occasions - Australia, Bahrain, Italy and Japan - when Hamilton has lost five or more places off the line, Rosberg has won those races too.
Mercedes' lost positions off the line
|Australia||- 5||- 1|
|Bahrain||- 6||+ 1|
|China||+ 1||- 1|
|Canada||- 1||- 8|
|Hungary||+ 1||- 1|
|Germany||+ 1||- 3|
|Italy||- 5||+ 1|
Fleet Street, predictably, has been savage in its response to Hamilton's latest setback, an inevitability once Lewis pitched himself into battle with the media corps by preferring to engage with his phone rather than their interrogation on Thursday and then refused to answer any of their questions on Saturday night.
Paradoxically, the more Rosberg wins off track, the more Hamilton will be the centre of attention and scrutiny off it. And at the moment, he is losing in both arenas.
How F1 interacts with the media and its fans
In no particular order, some points about 'Snapchatgate':
* More F1 fans probably watched the Thursday press conference on Hamilton's snapchat account than did so on television
* Using social media can be anti-social
* Call someone a 'snap prat' in public, or on a backpage, and you should expect an unfavourable response.
* While many fans consume their F1 news on social media, many millions also do so via newspapers, websites, and newspapers websites and media conferences therefore do serve a very important purpose.
* Although Hamilton's Sunday night press briefing at the Mercedes motorhome was cancelled, ostensibly because he was catching an early flight back to Europe, Hamilton did attend the post-race press conference. And when questions were invited in the non-televised segment the only journalists to ask Hamilton a question were Lennart Wermke of Bild and Michael Schmidt of Auto Motor und Sport.
It's the insight that Maurizio Arrivabene invited himself on to the Sky Italy chat show in which he gave Vettel a verbal but definite dressing down which makes his remarks so significant.
Vettel has had his wings clipped - two years to the weekend when he announced he would be leaving Red Bull. Hindsight is always blessed with 20-20 vision but anyone who now believes that was the right decision - or at least will prove the right decision when the impact of the 2017 rules refresh is felt next year - will now find themselves rather lonely in the paddock.
Teams struggling at their home races has become a theme of the year: if ever there was a circuit built to hurt a Red Bull car, it's the Red Bull Ring; Monza could be tailor-made for Mercedes power; and Suzuka - "our bogey track" in the words of Jenson Button - highlighted rather than disguised the weaknesses of the McLaren-Honda package as the team finished out of the points for only the second time since enduring another pointless afternoon at their their other home race, the British GP, in July.
Eleventh, again: Romain Grosjean's near miss on a weekend of tangible improvement for the team (seventh was as high as the team have qualified all year) was the seventh time a Haas car has finished one precious position out of the points this year. To put that statistic in context, Haas have actually only finished in the points four times and last did so in the first week of July.
Don't miss The F1 Report's review of the Japanese GP on Sky Sports F1 at 8.30pm on Wednesday evening.