Tuesday 26 September 2017

Vettel puts McLaren's 'dream team' in shade

Debris flies as Ferrari's Felipe Massa spins out on the first bend after colliding with Force India's Vitantonio Liuzzi at the Japanese F1 Grand Prix at Suzuka.
Debris flies as Ferrari's Felipe Massa spins out on the first bend after colliding with Force India's Vitantonio Liuzzi at the Japanese F1 Grand Prix at Suzuka.

Tom Cary in Suzuka

Lewis Hamilton has often said how much he enjoys Japan; the cuisine, the culture, the fans. Jenson Button was moved this week to call the country his "second home", in honour of his girlfriend Jessica Michibata. But both men could be forgiven if they wished to bid the Land of the Rising Sun sayonara for an extended period.

A wretched weekend for McLaren's 'dream team' ended with neither in control of his own championship destiny. Hamilton left with an ear infection and the sinking feeling that he had been "kicked around" all weekend, while Button admitted it would now be "virtually impossible" to claw back the deficit to the drivers ahead of them unless all three slip up. It was a sobering analysis following months of breathless hype about unprecedented, five-way title fights.

It is not completely over, of course. Not mathematically over. But Red Bull's emphatic one-two at Suzuka yesterday, their fourth of the season, enabled race winner Sebastian Vettel to leapfrog Hamilton in ominous fashion into joint-second place in the championship, alongside Ferrari's Fernando Alonso. It looks increasingly as if that pair will be battling Mark Webber for the drivers' title in a cosy little menage a trois.

The gritty Australian extended his lead over the field with a solid second place and is 14 points clear of Vettel and Alonso. Significantly, he is 28 points clear of Hamilton and 31 ahead of Button. That is more than one race win. With just three left, time is fast running out.

"If Red Bull finish every race as they have done this one then it is a walkover," Hamilton said forlornly. "I have had bad weekends but nothing like this. This is the worst of all of them. I've had an ear infection all week, which affected my balance a bit and left me deaf in my left ear. I am just happy to have finished a race."

There were pluses for McLaren. It looked as if their heavily modified car had the legs on Ferrari. And fourth and fifth respectively for Button and Hamilton was a decent result, especially given their starting positions of fifth and eighth. But decent is no longer what is required. McLaren needed to do something special here. They arrived with a raft of upgrades and high hopes of doing so. But from the moment Hamilton crashed in practice on Friday, the weekend fell apart at the seams.

Saturday was wiped out by torrential rain, meaning Hamilton lost further precious testing time and the 25-year-old was then handed a five-place grid penalty for a change of gearbox.

The problem was a hangover from his collision with Webber in Singapore but had gone unnoticed. Such mistakes are part of motor racing but at this stage of the year? So costly.

Even after Hamilton had put in a fighting qualifying performance to claim third on the grid before his penalty, McLaren's potent mixture of bad luck and bad judgment continued. Not only did they fuel Button too heavily for the third qualifying session, losing him valuable time, they also gambled by putting the world champion on a different tyre strategy to everyone else in the top 10. Button later admitted it had been a mistake.

Hamilton, meanwhile, suffered another gearbox problem during the race, which halted his march through the field just as he was closing in on third-placed Alonso. To rub salt into his wounds, he was then passed by Button.

"I didn't think I was even going to finish," Hamilton said. "I lost third gear and thought the whole box had gone. For the rest of the race I could use only fourth to seventh. I was lucky that Suzuka is a high-speed circuit. Unbelievable, just unbelievable. If we had not had that problem I reckon I would have been competing with Webber."

That is some claim considering the speed the Red Bulls exhibited. Once they had negotiated a typically chaotic start the result never really looked in doubt.

Virgin Racing's Lucas di Grassi did not even make the start line, going off at the 130R corner on the installation lap. But when the lights did finally go out, so did four cars, including Ferrari's Felipe Massa.

Webber lost his second spot to Renault's Robert Kubica off the line but the Pole lost his right rear wheel in bizarre fashion three laps later under safety car conditions. Once again this season, luck favoured Webber.

impossible

Thereafter it was just a question of seeing whether Button's strategy would pay off. It did not.

"If we don't turn up in Korea with some big improvements it will be almost impossible," Button said. "But we can't complain about luck. Look at Red Bull -- Vettel has thrown away 75 points or something this year. He should be miles in front."

You knew it was not going to be Hamilton's day from the moment he was plonked in a comedy three-wheel 1950s Messerschmitt KR175 during the drivers' parade lap. While his colleagues were being chauffeured around in Rolls Royces and Ferraris, Hamilton looked distinctly ill at ease in his funny little 'bubble' car. "I got seriously shafted on that one," he observed wryly. It was that kind of weekend. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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