Formula 1

Mika Häkkinen: Perfect start for Bottas made all the difference in Suzuka

October 16, 2019January 6th, 2022

VALTTERI Bottas’s win on Sunday underlined what a mature and capable driver he has become, taking his third victory of the year for Mercedes Benz and helping the team claim its 6th World Championship for Constructors. On a day when Lewis Hamilton was left to battle with Sebastian Vettel over second and third place, Valtteri’s success reminds us that Mercedes has really benefited from him being a team player, ready to deliver when needed.

Twenty years ago I won my second Formula One World Championship in Suzuka and, if there is one thing we know about this amazing Japanese track, it is that the weather can be unpredictable even at the best of times. When it rains it really pours down, and this time the arrival of Typhoon Hagibis meant that the FIA, Formula 1 and the race promoter had no alternative but to delay everything.  

This is not the first time Formula 1 has had to delay qualifying until Sunday, and in fact it has happened in Japan twice before – in 2004 and 2010. This put a lot of pressure on the teams and drivers to get things right on race day, and it also changed the track conditions because the heavy rain washed the track clean, causing higher tyre wear than expected. This ultimately drove the two-stop strategies in the race.

After Friday practice, it looked like Ferrari did not have the race-pace to beat Mercedes, but once again they delivered in qualifying and dominated the front row of the grid. This time pole position went to Vettel, and team mate Charles Leclerc was unable to challenge. I thought the race would be quite different due to the Mercedes cars being slightly easier on their tyres. 

It did not matter, because both Ferrari drivers made mistakes at the start. Sebastian allowed his car to creep forward before the lights went out, then stopped his car at exactly the times the red lights were turned off!  The timing could not have been worse, and I was amazed he managed to make some kind of recovery.

I have sympathy for Sebastian because the Suzuka start is on a downhill slope and, if you are not careful, the car can start to roll. Especially if you are distracted by making steering wheel adjustments or talking on the radio. You need to keep your foot touching the brake until the lights go out. 

It looked like Sebastian’s bad start distracted Charles because he was also slow off the line and then found himself being challenged around the outside of Turns 1 and 2 by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Honda. Charles ran wide and, when the two cars touched, we lost Max’s involvement in the race – he would later retire due to major damage to his floor. We also lost any chance of Charles battling for the win because he damaged his front wing and had to make that early pit stop.

There has been a lot of comment about Charles and Ferrari not making a pit stop straight away to repair the damage. In my view he should have made the pit stop immediately because there is no point racing with a badly damaged wing that is dragging on the ground. You will compromise your performance, damage the tyres and become a danger to yourself or others.

It is so important not to suffer wing failure at high speed. Remember, it was a damaged front wing which failed and caused Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal accident in San Marino in 1994. I think we were quite lucky that, when Charles’ front wing endplate finally came off, it only damaged Lewis Hamilton’s car – destroying his right hand wing mirror. This could have been a lot worse. Once again we were reminded why the Halo concept has been such an important safety initiative.  

Personally I do not blame Charles for trying to continue. He said the car did not feel that bad, and anyway he cannot see the front wing from inside the cockpit. However the Ferrari management could see it, and it is not surprising that the FIA imposed a penalty after the race.

It is a pity that this incident robbed us of Max Verstappen because Suzuka is Honda’s home circuit and a good performance here is always important for them. This was only his second retirement of the season, however, which says a lot about his growing maturity as a driver as well as Honda’s major improvement in quality and reliability.

The man who made the perfect start on Sunday was Valtteri. He judged everything correctly, overtook both the Ferraris and went into a lead which he soon extended. This was a really dominant performance and gave Mercedes the opportunity to support him with the right strategy. He controlled the race from the front, did what was required, and took a win that will feel really important to him. It was great to see how happy he was afterwards. This again shows how well the Lewis and Valtteri partnership works for Mercedes.

Sebastian worked hard to hold on to second place, coming under severe pressure from Lewis during the final 10 laps but using his experience and the horsepower of his Ferrari to stay in front. He also used the traffic really well, which is an indication of his huge experience, as he was able to get the DRS system to work in his favour at just the right time.

However Ferrari will again realise that this race offered them a potential victory because, even though the Mercedes cars were quicker in the race, track position is everything as Sebastian showed. If Sebastian had made a good start and Charles has not run wide at Turns 1 and 2 this could have been a very different story. When you make mistakes at this level you will be punished, and especially when a team like Mercedes Benz is ready to take advantage of them.

One of the results of the Japanese Grand Prix is that only a Mercedes driver can win the World Championship this year. They are separated by 64 points, so Valtteri would have to outscore Lewis by 17 points in each of the four remaining races in order to win the title. That seems unlikely, but a non-finish for Lewis in Mexico or the United States would create some excitement in Finland!

There is much to look forward to. The second half of this season has almost been like another World Championship with Ferrari dominating qualifying and taking race wins. I expect Ferrari to again fight hard for the win in Mexico next week, and if they can avoid making driver and operational errors they will put Mercedes under huge pressure.  

Considering that there are no major technical changes planned for 2020, these final races of the 2019 season are actually going to be really important in helping teams to prepare for next season. I predict that the battle at the front of Formula 1 is going to be intense next year, with Red Bull and Honda keen to join the fight for wins every weekend. Formula 1 is looking more competitive than ever.