Karun Chandhok on Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz and F1's Super Sunday
Sky F1's Karun Chandhok assesses how the balance shifted between Ferrari and Mercedes during the course of an intense Sunday in Japan - and how Valtteri Bottas ultimately won out
Last Updated: 17/10/19 1:09pm
The Japanese Grand Prix weekend was obviously a bit of a strange one.
Coming to Japan, we all knew that there was a real risk that Saturday could be a washout as the typhoon was blowing through. In the end, we seemed to escape the eye of the storm although other parts of Japan were not so lucky.
It made Sunday a very intense day of qualifying and the race which didn't really give people a lot of time to relax in between but, in the end, it all worked out ok and we had an exciting 'Super Sunday' which actually everyone enjoyed.
There are race weekends every so often when a driver just gets into a zone and delivers a performance which absolutely fulfils their talent and maximises their full potential. I felt that Valtteri Bottas had just one of those weekends at what is the ultimate driver's circuit on the 2019 F1 calendar.
Right from the first lap of free practice, the Finn hit the ground running and looked confident with the car around Suzuka. On every run, on every set of tyres, he looked like he was going to be a sniff quicker than his five-time world champion team-mate, which is no mean feat on a circuit where Lewis (Hamilton) has excelled previously.
Ferrari's pace in qualifying really underlined that they have unlocked some superb speed in that car. We saw a well-balanced and quick car in pre-season testing. However, between the opening race of the season in Melbourne and Budapest before the summer break, we only saw occasional flashes of that speed.
Since the August break however, they've been on pole position at every one of the five races, but the session here in Japan was the most impressive. In Spa, Monza and Sochi we expected them to be quick as they're power-sensitive tracks. Singapore was a bit of a surprise but it's also a street circuit which means that it's not always a true indicator of a car's ultimate potential.
But Suzuka is a proper, normal circuit and one that is right up there with Barcelona as the ultimate test of chassis balance and downforce.
Ferrari vs Mercedes - Qualifying vs Race
Looking at the best laps from (Sebastian) Vettel and Bottas, it's clear that the Ferrari is now just as fast as the Mercedes in the corners while retaining their straight-line speed advantage in qualifying, giving them a front-row lock out.
Sebastian's lap was pretty special and it was great to see him back at his best - confident to attack the corner entries and showing controlled aggression with the steering wheel. The updated package since Singapore has given him the rear-end stability that he's been seeking all season which he's using to good effect.
However, in the races - where the points are paid - the Mercedes still is the better car and that's why they've wrapped up an extraordinary sixth consecutive world championship. The Ferrari doesn't look after its tyres as well and therefore once the degradation starts to set in, the Mercedes cars are able to run at a faster pace for longer.
Sebastian obviously made a mistake by going too early and then stopping at the start which left him behind Valtteri but even if he didn't lose the start, I just think that Mercedes would have found a way with more pace and two cars in the fight to strategically beat Vettel. What would have happened had (Charles) Leclerc been second behind Vettel on the opening lap is a different question though, because then they would have been able to control the race a bit more.
Leclerc made a mistake at Turn Two by running wide into Max Verstappen. I don't think there was any doubt about that because I think he saw Max going around him and instead of accepting defeat and relinquishing the position, he decided to try and squeeze him out wide. It was too little, too late as Max was already committed and that ruined both of their races.
Lewis got stuck behind Vettel both in the first stint and at the end of the race, so perhaps I'm wrong in saying that Mercedes would have beaten Seb if he didn't mess up the start. The straight-line speed advantage from Spoon curve up the hill to the chicane was just about enough for the Ferrari to stay in front.
The championship leader didn't seem as happy as Valtteri all weekend and had to take a defeat on the chin.
Super Sainz catches the eye
I thought Carlos Sainz had a superb weekend - once again showing that he really is a top-quality driver. The fact that he was so far ahead of the rest of the midfield and only 10 seconds behind Alex Albon's Red Bull at the end shows just what a great drive that was.
I was listening to his team radio quite a bit during the race and it was impressive to see just how he would relay to his engineer that he could do a certain lap time and on the next lap, do that exact lap time. That made life a lot easier for McLaren to plan his strategy and he executed it beautifully in the cockpit.
🗣"It was a lot of fun!"— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) October 13, 2019
Daniel Ricciardo executed a brilliant recovery drive after a dissapointing qualifying at the #JapaneseGP.
Carlos Sainz finished an impressive P5, after running P4 for much of the race.
Johnny and Karun spoke to them both post race👇 pic.twitter.com/mD3zaNAMT6
Red Bull and Honda were left disappointed, however. The 'Suzuka special' engine and fuel combination didn't deliver what the team were hoping for in terms of lap time and being seven-tenths down on pole position was not what they were expecting.
But off to Mexico next where Red Bull and Max were utterly superb last year. It will be interesting to see which of the top-three teams are able to deliver best in the high-altitude conditions in Mexico City.
Ferrari will be desperate to capitalise on their speed and convert that into a few victories before the end of the season, while Lewis will be aiming to clinch his sixth world championship as well.