2017 Japanese GP Review – By Bob Constanduros

What an extraordinary collapse in form from Ferrari! Lewis Hamilton must surely privately feel that he has one hand on the championship; he’s never going to admit it publicly because all drivers say that if there’s still a mathematical chance of losing it, then they haven’t won it.

For whatever reason, a driver might suddenly be sidelined and maybe not score another point this season, in which case he can be beaten. When you’re living your life on the edge, then anything can happen. Nigel Mansell used to say that all the time; he should know, it usually happened to him!

But Lewis’s battle with Sebastian Vettel has been extraordinary. They were equal first on the same points after Monaco(R6). Three races later, Vettel was twenty ahead after Austria(R9), but that disappeared in the next four races and the lead changed in Hamilton’s favour after Italy(R13) and since then it’s just risen and risen to its current level, 59 point lead for Hamilton after R16.

You could say Ferrari has shot itself in the foot with its technical problems, and the extraordinary double retirement in Singapore, but Hamilton and Mercedes have been pretty on the ball to scoop up the points on offer. There have been times when Mercedes have been in a hole but then emerged to grab what they could. And frankly, when Vettel has been hobbled, Kimi Raikkonen has scarcely been right behind to salvage max points; they’ve gone to Red Bull’s pair, to the extent that Daniel Ricciardo is now 42 points behind Bottas who is 13 behind Vettel, and Red Bull are 92 pts behind Ferrari – OK, not that close but there are 43 on offer at each of the remaining four races and the way Ferrari are going….

I could almost hear Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne’s fist hitting something when Vettel pitted at the end of lap five in Suzuka. He’s not a placid man and he would have been livid that the same thing had happened in Japan as in Malaysia. I remember Andrew Shovlin, now a Mercedes engineer but he’s been with the team for many years, saying that when Ross Brawn was in charge of his eponymous team, he would never blame anyone for a failure, just ask how it wasn’t going to happen again. The fact that the same thing sidelined a Ferrari for two races running will have infuriated Marchionne.

The danger is that he will want to change team management – and all that does is set the team back another season while the new people get used to the job. Look at Renault – well, actually don’t, they’ve been saying they’ve been building up the team for about three years now and you can’t say that they’ve actually hit the front yet. So the thought of Ferrari having yet another team principal is pretty drastic and would be a retrograde step in the short term.

Ferrari’s only way out is to throw all the blame onto spark plug manufacturer NGK, which is actually a pretty fair thing to do, given that it’s been their failure. There used to be a chap in Formula One called Simon Arkless who was Champion’s representative. He used to come to all the races and occasionally gave a team some different spark plugs to try. We were all envious of Simon, his seemed to be the easiest job in F1. Where are you Simon, now that you’re needed? (OK, by another manufacturer, but you get my point..)

So even if Vettel wins all of the next four races and Hamilton comes fourth in them all, Lewis will still scoop his fourth World title. Some pundits are still saying that Vettel and Ferrari are in with a chance and as I mentioned, anything can happen but Hamilton’s got to have a lot of bad luck to lose it. I might have said that of Vettel a few races ago…

There was quite a lot going on off the track at Suzuka. Carlos Sainz was announced as leaving Toro Rosso; wasn’t that rumoured back in Austria? He’ll replace Jolyon Palmer at Renault; that was rumoured back in Singapore. And Toro Rosso, just 14 points behind fifth placed Williams, have 1) lost their number one driver and now 2) won’t have their chosen number two, Pierre Gasly to score points for them in Austin as Honda want him to win SuperFormula in Japan that weekend. It’s all down to Daniil Kvyat who returns after a two race absence.

There looks as though there might be some interesting changes in the world of TV too. Indeed, FOM could well be producing the kind of output Bernie Ecclestone envisaged years ago: individual programmes covering different aspects of a race, but streamed on-line by someone like Netflix. NBC have already thrown in the towel in the wake of this threat to be replaced by ESPN next year who will take the Sky feed – which in turn puts pressure on Sky to up their game. There is the very real prospect of a big battle between FOM and Sky to provide the best pay-per-view service. For UK viewers and listeners, both Channel 4 and BBC Five Live contracts end after next season. Five Live are already covering races from the UK and might cover the whole championship from there next year with just a pit reporter at the circuit.

Meanwhile, probably in front of a couple of sleepy Spaniards and a donkey or two, the Formula Two and GP3 championships were both settled in Jerez last weekend in what must have seemed a considerable anti-climax. Worthy F2 champion Charles Leclerc might well move up to Formula One and not even contest the final races in Abu Dhabi, while talented George Russell is the new GP3 champion and could replace him.

Formula One isn’t going to be much more exciting if all goes according to plan. The championship is all but over, unless there is some late drama. That won’t please Liberty who are really looking for an outstanding home Grand Prix next up in Austin. They’re pulling out all the stops to make their event the big one but it could be a damp squib on the track. Of course, we all hope not but that’s the way it could go. Even so, it’s going to be quite an event; more next week.