F1 Japanese Grand Prix: The Silliest Silly Season

f1-2015-japan-hamiltonThe weekend started with literal and figurative dark clouds hanging over Suzuka. The weekend started with rain as the teams returned to the site of Jules Bianchi’s fatal accident in similar weather conditions. The skies cleared over the weekend but it didn’t give way to a particularly exciting weekend. Lewis Hamilton won the race in a dominant effort but all the real interesting happenings in Formula One aren’t happening on-track.

The race started with Nico Rosberg scoring the pole ahead of his teammate. That didn’t last particularly long, though. A poor start by Rosberg allowed Hamilton to force the pair side-by-side through the double-right at Turns 1 and 2. Hamilton forced Rosberg wide on the exit of Turn 2 which gave him a lead he would never relinquish.

Rosberg fell back to fourth place behind Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas. He got by Bottas with a pass into the final chicane shortly after the first pitstop. He then used the undercut to get by Vettel on the exchange of second pitstops. Bottas couldn’t hold onto 4th either as Kimi Raikkonen used the undercut to get by the Williams during the second round of stops.

The only real excitement was a series of melees at the start of the race. Almost immediately off the line, Daniel Ricciardo and Felipe Massa came together which resulted in punctures for both cars before entering the first turn. Ricciardo finished one lap down and Massa two. Sergio Perez also missed out on the points after getting bounced into by Carlos Sainz in Turn One which sent the Mexican on a trip through the gravel trap.

f1-2015-japan-podiumWith the win, Hamilton scored his 41st career Grand Prix victory which brings him level with his hero, Ayrton Senna. In a weird coincidence, Senna’s career ended with 41 wins from 162 race entries and Hamilton gets his 41st win at his 162nd Grand Prix weekend. Senna scored his 41st win in his 159th appearance (158th start). Teammate Rosberg finished in 2nd but sees the World Drivers’ Championship gap grow to 48 points. Sebastian Vettel rounded out the podium for his 10th appearance on the podium this year.

Kimi Raikkonen finished in 4th with fellow Finn Valtteri Bottas following in 5th. Nico Hulkenberg had a relatively quiet race for a midpack runner as he came home 6th. The Lotus team couldn’t afford a hospitality unit or hot food catering this weekend but scored a double points finish with Romain Grosjean leading Pastor Maldonado home in 7th and 8th, respectively. And Toro Rosso had their own double points finish with Max Verstappen slicing through the field with some trademark highlight real overtaking maneuvers. It was Verstappen finishing in 9th and Sainz rounding out the points in 10th.

Somehow, someway, the future of Red Bull’s engine situation is still being weighed up between all three engine manufacturers. Yes, RBR could be going to Mercedes or Renault, though it’s not likely.

Toro Rosso co-owner Gerhard Berger was quoted as saying negotiations weren’t as dead as Toto Wolff made it out to seem. Niki Lauda was quoted as saying that the reason Red Bull didn’t get the Mercedes engine wasn’t a concern over the competitiveness of RBR with a good engine but because Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz didn’t follow-up on Christian Horner and Helmut Marko’s initiation of negotiations.

Meanwhile, Red Bull is still negotiating its split from Renault. Presumably a couple of dollars will have to be exchanged in order to end the deal. I would hazard that some consideration would have to be made about the Infiniti sponsorship of RBR in negotiating the split as well. However, until the deal is

f1-2015-japan-ferrariFerrari is still the only real viable option for Red Bull to go with but even that has a snag. There are rumours that Ferrari may not be willing or able to supply RBR with a 2016-spec engine and a factory-equivalent engine is part of Red Bull’s demands. They won’t sign on with Ferrari if they get a lower-spec engine. It’s possible that the best Red Bull could get is a 2015-spec engine which would not go over well with Mateschitz and likely end Red Bull’s involvement in the sport as a constructor.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Ferrari will have a spare 2016-spec engine supply available for RBR to use. Mercedes is very high on supplying Manor next season. It may be possible even if Lotus can’t redesign their 2016 chassis for the switch to Renault engines at this stage of the game. Manor going to Mercedes from Ferrari opens up an engine supply contract which Red Bull will want to take advantage of.

All this leave Toro Rosso out in the cold as well. What happens with them could be even more interesting. Like RBR, STR could end up with an older-spec Ferrari engine. It’s not ideal but it won’t be a downgrade from the current Renault engine either.

The other reported option for Toro Rosso would be a downgrade. This one comes out of left field but the latest speculation in the paddock is that if Ferrari can’t get a 2015 or 2016 engine for Toro Rosso, STR will go with Honda. While Honda hasn’t talked about adding teams to its stable beyond McLaren, the FIA is reportedly looking at Honda to supply more of the grid as their one-year exclusivity with McLaren was only allowed to get them back into the sport.

Considering the rumours, it looks as though Red Bull corporate’s focus is getting the best return on the investment in the Red Bull A-team. The results of the Toro Rosso Jr-team doesn’t seem to be as important. STR has always been the secondary team so if they have to settle for a second-string engine, as long as it’s not at the very tail of the field, I doubt Red Bull will mind too much.

f1-2015-japan-hornerAnd to make all this worse for Red Bull is that last week’s nearly signed deal with Volkswagen appears to be up in smoke. VW faces upwards of $18 billion in fines along with legal fees and a possible civil class-action lawsuit related to cheating on their EPA emissions tests. While they’ll likely settle for less, the other problem is that VW Group boss Martin Winterkorn is the biggest proponent of getting VW into Formula One. Without the project champion and $18 billion after fines, it seems unlikely that Red Bull will get bailed out by VW any time soon.

Above all this is the Sword of Damocles that Red Bull would withdraw from the sport if they can’t get a competitive engine. That would mean that RBR would withdraw straight away and it’s highly unlikely that Toro Rosso would be able to quickly scramble together the money to stay afloat without Red Bull backing so four cars would drop off the grid. With the addition of Haas in 2016, that’ll mean that the grid will be 18 cars.

With the possibility that Red Bull may withdraw, the introduction of three-car teams has been brought up again. This was mentioned last year as a way to fill out the grid if both Caterham and Marussia fell out of the sport. In that instance, Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes were mentioned as teams that would field a third car to fill out the grid. Presumably, if Red Bull drops out of the sport, Ferrari and Mercedes would field a third car. Whether other teams would be asked or forced to add a third car won’t officially be known until Bernie needs to activate that clause of the Concorde Agreement.

Just one week after rumours suggested that he would start the weekend by announcing his retirement and new contract as BBC F1 analyst and Top Gear host, Jenson Button looks to be coming back for the 2016 season.

f1-2015-japan-buttonIn an interview with Sky Sports F1, McLaren boss Ron Dennis confirmed that negotiations with Button have been successful and he would be coming back to the team next year. The car’s lack of competitiveness and the team forcing Button to take a pay cut for this season led to rumours that Button would retire from Formula One rather than get underpaid to drive a backmarker.

The other interesting rumour this weekend comes from Flavio Briatore. He says that Fernando Alonso would leave F1 and head elsewhere if McLaren and Honda couldn’t produce a competitive car in 2016. Alonso’s timeline could be much shorter than that as in a post-race interview, Alonso said he didn’t know if he would be back in F1 next season.

f1-2015-japan-mclaren-hondaOnce again, Ron Dennis jumped in to say that Alonso didn’t have any ways to exit his contract. Presumably, he could retire from F1 and go to sports cars or some other form of motorsport to make a living as a driver. Alonso also drew the ire of the McLaren boss by referring to the Honda engine as a GP2 engine on team radio twice during the race. Alonso couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time for the comparison than during Honda’s homecoming.

Also, Dennis told Sky that the team would be announcing a new sponsor in the next week. Considering how frighteningly blank that car has been for the last couple of years and how little prize money they will be earning, the sooner they start filling up the car, the better.

The next round of the 2015 Formula One World Championship is in two weeks’ time. It looks like Bernie smartened up this year. After running Japan and Russia back-to-back, we’ve got a week off to get ready for the trip to Sochi for the second Russian Grand Prix.

Not surprisingly, I’m expecting Mercedes to be at the head of the field again. After scoring his eighth win from 14 starts and scoring the win from behind his teammate’s pole position, you would have to think that Hamilton is favoured again in Russia. For a darkhorse, look for Williams to get back into contention for a podium. They were best of the rest last year so they should be able to give Ferrari a run for their money next time out.


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