Man, I want to go to Suzuka one day. It is right at the tippity top of my GP bucket list. The drivers revere the place, the enthusiasm of the fans is off the scale and it oozes history from every twist and turn. Lewis Hamilton sounded positively giddy with joy on team radio during FP2 on Saturday at just how mind-blowing Suzuka is. ‘This track is awesome. I’m having the best day.’ Lucky boy. Sadly, I had to watch from my sofa – but it was well worth the 5am alarm call. Last year’s outing was a slightly dull affair (I may have called it Snooze-uka) but Japan 2018 was anything but. Overtaking meant to be difficult? Someone forgot to send the memo. Sure, there was a decent amount of assistance from our beloved DRS, but there was passing-a-plenty to keep us early risers entertained. Lewis may be within sniffing distance of the championship crown, but who is my top teriyaki terrier? This one gave me some paws for thought, but my Suzuka selection is…
Yep, just like sushi, the boy wonder is on a roll. It was nip and tuck between Max and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo for Top Dog honours this week. Our honey badger had a stonking drive after his nightmare qualifying of the previous day. His recovery from P15 to 4th was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the race. Dan won the official fan vote and I can totally see why. He is my Deputy Dog, no question. But on reflection (and boosted by several cups of strong coffee), Max just edged it for me. And here’s why.
Yep, just like sushi, the boy wonder is on a roll
Verstappen didn’t expect much from Japan. He said as much in an interview where he reckoned their lack of engine grunt would be a handicap on a traditional power circuit like Suzuka. Qualifying P3 in the damp Saturday conditions was a big help, but staying there would be tricky. Max was in typically feisty mood from the off. He got pretty close to Bottas in the run downhill to turn 1, but thought better of a pass. Besides, he had Kimi for close company behind and an out of position Vettel was on a charge from P7. Both Ferraris would be giving Max a headache before long so he needed to have his wits about him.
Turn In Japan Squeeze
Things almost went haywire on Lap 2. Kimi was poised to pounce causing Max to veer off at the chicane. As Verstappen attempted to rejoin the track around the second part of the chicane, he squeezed Kimi over the edge of the track in a bid to stay ahead. The Finn lost a place to his team-mate in all the commotion. Some might say Max’ move was on the absolute limit of acceptable, but the stewards’ computer said no. He was smacked with a 5 second time penalty for his misdemeanour. Of course, he vented on the radio (cos that always works!) and knew he would need to pull a gap to Raikkonen if he wanted to keep his nose in front after the pit stops. The stewards were busy boys in Japan and, dare I say, a tad inconsistent in doling out punishments. Drivers are getting pretty savvy (not to mention pissed off) at quoting similar incidents from other races to highlight the erratic application of penalties. It’s a familiar gripe for which I have enormous sympathy. Perhaps Max did deserve a smack on the nose, but as he pointed out afterwards, at least he tried to get back on track and make the corner. Yes, it got a little scrappy, but isn’t that what racing is meant to be about? Penalties are stifling the racing and getting on my wick!
As it turned out, it made no odds as Max managed to make it out in front of Kimi after their respective pit stops, penalty and all. The Dutchman’s later stop and superior tyre strategy had kept him ahead. Not bad for an underpowered car and with floor damage too.
And how did he get that? I’m glad you asked. As if you need reminding, Max is no slouch when it comes to defending his position. Something Seb Vettel really ought to know by now. After a brief safety car spell, Sebastian was right behind Max at the restart. He had a look on the approach to turn 1, but was not close enough. He stayed in close contention until they reached Spoon corner. In a wildly optimistic move, Seb threw his car around the outside of the Red Bull, but Max had the line, the savvy and just enough speed to keep his nose in front. Sebastian’s optimism was short-lived. He collided with the Dutchman and spun off into the gravel as Max sped away. Vettel later complained that Max left him no room. This time the stewards deemed it fair. It was a costly misjudgement by Seb and he did well to recover (again) to P5. But it very much looks like Vettel’s championship wish ran away at the Spoon!
Max Slick Hat Trick
Meanwhile, back with Max, he quickly dispensed with Grosjean after his pitstop and did a fabulous job of managing his tyres and car damage to remain in a comfortable third place. Better than he hoped for no doubt, but Max is not one to settle. I edged closer to the TV screen as I the gap to second placed Bottas starting to come down. It was 3 seconds on Lap 38, only 1.4 seconds one lap later. Things were getting interesting.
I love it when Max has the bit between his teeth and hunts down his rivals. You know he will never give up until the flag falls and has the skill to pull off blistering overtakes at the last possible moment. The Virtual Safety Car stopped his charge temporarily but he was soon within 1 second of the Finn. But several lapped cars later, it looked like the fight was off. Verstappen was dropping back thanks to the annoying dirty air from the Mercedes ahead. Not for the first time, Max voiced his frustration at the lack of power from the Renault engine. Hang in there Max, Honda is a-coming!
Verstappen was determined to keep the pressure on in the closing stages. Bottas had an off at the chicane a couple of laps from the finish but Max wasn’t close enough to pounce. I was all set for a trademark last lap showdown. Max almost pulled it off as he piled the pressure on Bottas around the last few corners. But he pushed a bit too hard and had a little lock-up. The opportunity was lost but it was fun watching him try. You always know he will – and that’s why he is still the driver experts predict will be the next new world champion. I’m not going to argue with that.
And so, Max has managed to clinch a hat trick of Top Dog wins from the last three races. Greedy little tyke! If I were smarter, I’d write him a haiku for being poetry in motion. Hopefully he’ll be chuffed with a celebratory sake and another Top Dog award. Arigato Max. Onto the next one!
Next we’re off to Austin Texas. Will Lewis be crowned world champion next time out? It’s possible so don’t you dare miss it. All the action can be watched live at Badger’s GP Screenings Event in Leeds. Join them if you can to see if Lewis can be the first to five!