Japanese GP 2017: A spark plug failure put Sebastian out of the title race!

Those dark clouds, which had built up over Ferrari in Malaysia, seemed to have followed the team to the land of the rising sun. Kimi had crashed out in the last free practice session, causing a lot of extra work for the mechanics. The team managed to fix the car in time for the qualifying, but they had had to change the gearbox due to the damage; this meant an inevitable 5-place grid penalty for the Iceman. 

Q2 saw different tyre strategies. The Finns, both facing a 5-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change, opted for the yellow-marked soft tyres, whereas the rest opted for the supersoft compound. Hamilton’s storming pace proved, that Mercedes was back on top form in Suzuka. The Briton’s pace was so mind-blowing, that after the first runs in Q3 I knew, that pole was out of anyone else’s reach. Hamilton took his first-ever Suzuka pole by over four tenths to Sebastian! Bottas’ second run made the Finn jump second, so P3 was the maximum result for Sebastian. This time Ricciardo was the faster one of the Red Bull drivers, qualifying fourth ahead of teammate Verstappen. Kimi didn’t make it higher than P6. Due to Bottas’ grid penalty, Sebastian was to start the race on the front row alongside Hamilton. Due to various other penalties, Bottas was dropped down to P6 and Kimi down to P10. I knew Sebastian had to deliver in the race to keep his title hopes alive. 

But what a pitch-black Sunday it turned out to be! Ferrari’s nightmare began already before the start. Sebastian reported a spark plug issue already on the installation lap. The Ferrari mechanics did everything they could to fix the issue before the start. It was so hectic with the car in the garage that Sebastian missed attending the Japanese national anthem ceremony, which drivers are obliged to attend. But the team managed to get Sebastian’s Gina on the second grid slot, which gave me hope that the spark plug issue had been successfully fixed. 

The lights went out, and the race was on. Hamilton maintained his lead, and Sebastian held on to his second place. The Red Bull ace Verstappen had made his way past teammate Ricciardo, and the flying Dutchman was lurking aggressively right at Sebastian’s tail. Soon the hungry Dutchman made his move and attacked Sebastian, jumping second. Kimi had a battle of his own further back in the pack. Renault’s Hulkenberg was challenging the Iceman on the opening lap, and Kimi ended up going wide, leading him off track. Kimi lost many positions and dropped down to P14. What a setback-filled start for the Ferrari duo! 

Sebastian was in serious trouble on the main straight, as he was utterly toothless against his rivals. Poor German was lacking power badly, and both Red Bulls and Force India’s Ocon had it easy to pass Sebastian. In a heartbeat, Sebastian had dropped down to P6. Meanwhile, Sainz had lost control of his Toro Rosso, ending up in the tyre wall. Safety car was deployed, so for a moment Sebastian stopped losing positions. However, the race was back on after a couple of laps. Mercedes’ Bottas had it easy to move past Sebastian, whose race had turned into the worst nightmare. On lap 4 the German was called in to retire the car. I was absolutely shocked! I refused to believe that a reliability issue was going to make Sebastian lose the world championship! It felt absolutely unacceptable that once again a reliability issue had ruined Sebastian’s race. 

Kimi’s staggering overtaking show brought a little comfort. Systematically, the Iceman attacked his rivals, one by one. Overtaking first Renault’s Hulkenberg and then Force India’s Perez made the Iceman jump already 7th in the race. In the end, the Finns’ differing tyre choice didn’t bring any huge advantage in terms of the race result. After the pit stops there was only a 2.5-second gap between race-leader Hamilton and Red Bull’s Verstappen, but otherwise the gaps between the top five were quite big. 

Stroll’s sudden puncture and off on lap 47 deployed the virtual safety car. With four laps to go, the battle for victory and other podium places intensified. Verstappen had made it within DRS distance from Hamilton, and Bottas had closed the gap to Ricciardo. However, hitting the traffic on the closing lap, prevented Verstappen to attack Hamilton. The Briton took his 61st career win, extending his lead into massive 59 points in the drivers’ championship standings. Verstappen continued his impressive podium streak by finishing the runner-up. Teammate Ricciardo completed the podium, which was already the 9th podium for the Australian this season. The Finns finished fourth and fifth, Bottas having the upper hand on his fellow countryman. 

The cruel fact is, that Hamilton will secure the world championship in Austin, Texas, if he scores 16 points more than Sebastian. This means, that the world championship is no longer in Sebastian’s own hands! This must be a truly bitter and crushing moment for Sebastian to realise, that without a pure miracle, he won’t win the world title this year - the title that he has worked so passionately for during the whole year! I can definitely feel his disappointment and pain. I was so sad to see him put out of the title race! (I went to the shower to cry after the race! Although it isn’t the kind of behaviour you’re expecting from a woman in her 40s!) 

However, this is not the time to point fingers at anybody or look for who is guilty. Ferrari has built an outstanding and competitive car, which has performed fantastically. Although reliability has been the Achilles heel for the red team especially after the summer break, the team has worked extremely hard. Sebastian has also made mistakes of his own, which have cost him an awful lot of valuable points. Now, if ever, is the time to show passionate support for the red team and their drivers. Now is the time for the team (Sebastian included) to put their heads down, wrap up their sleeves and continue the hard work. Ferrari will overcome these difficulties, sooner or later. Now is the time to believe in them! 

Forza Ferrari!

With passion for racing red, 
Iina Huhmarniemi

Oct 12, 2017