NASCAR Race Weekend Central

F1 Slipstream Sunday: Hamilton Closing In on His Fourth Title & Japanese Grand Prix

Sunny skies set the scene to start the Japanese Grand Prix, which felt much needed after FP2 was washed out and cloudy skies hovered over FP3 and qualifying.  Lewis Hamilton made a clean getaway at lights out and had his way with the field as he enjoyed another race victory, his fourth in the past five races.  

Max Verstappen finished second, continuing a late season surge, with his teammate Daniel Ricciardo following, his fourth podium in the past five races.  The results showcase how Red Bull has steadily tinkered with what has been considered a ‘slow’ car and turned it into, at the very least, a capable ride.  This trend pushes for a positive start to 2018.  

Much of the early focus of the JGP centered on the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, and not for the best reasons.  Verstappen made a brilliant move on Vettel on the first lap, one that made it look like Verstappen was again getting something special out of his Red Bull but there was more at play.  The move intimated that Vettel’s car was enduring a technical issue, either one regarding a spark plug issue or that it was down a cylinder (later confirmed to be a spark plug).  The team called in his Ferrari on lap five, saddling him with a DNF, no points, and an indication that Ferrari has seemingly lost their focus since returning from the summer break.  

Whichever the case, it’s no matter as Vettel’s poor finish serves to establish that Vettel will no longer be challenging Hamilton for the driver’s title; more importantly, because the team payouts come from the constructor’s standings, Ferrari is all but out of the running for taking first in that championship, and is likely shifting focus to the resurgent Red Bulls.  

Raikkonen, in the other Ferrari, suffered through the first few turns, losing a battle with Nico Hulkenberg, and then falling back to fourteenth, though he recovered to finish fifth.  That result hardly changes the perception, and reality, that Ferrari is struggling and that all of the early season performance, one that rivaled Mercedes, has now gone for naught.  

With Hamilton’s race win, his fourth at Suzuka, the gap between he and Vettel now stands at 59, while Valtteri Bottas’ fourth-place finish means he is only 13 points behind Vettel.  The final tally from the JGP means that Mercedes now holds a 145 point edge in the constructor’s race.  

All indications point toward Hamilton celebrating his fourth driver’s title in four races.  

Odds & Sods

Carlos Sainz brought out the Safety Car by nailing the outside barrier on the first turn on the first lap.  The incident signals an unfortunate departure from Toro Rosso for the Spanish driver.  His tenure with the junior Red Bull program has been a success, meting out respectable results in what many know is not the best on the grid.  It allowed his talents to shine enough that Renault made Sainz part of the deal in the engine swap with Toro Rosso and McLaren.  

This race was the last for Sainz in a Toro Rosso as he’ll be taking over Jolyon Palmer’s spot with Renault at the USGP in two weeks.  Palmer had long been rumored not to see out the season for the French company but the move still came as a bit of a surprise.  

For Toro Rosso, the company is likely to put Daniil Kvyat back in the car and pair him with Pierre Gasly.  Gasly suffered through a disappointing JGP when something on his front right suspension and/or wheel area broke, taking away any handling and ending his day.  Otherwise, the young French talent has acquitted himself well thus far.  

Marcus Ericssson also found his way into the barriers on lap 9, an incident that brought out the virtual safety car.  Such a result can be read in two ways.  One way to see it is that Ericsson perhaps should not enjoy the backing he does from Longbow Finance.  From a different perspective, the incident gives support to the notion that Ericsson deserves to be in a better ride.  There’s still question as to whether or not Ericsson will be returning to Sauber next year.  

Takuma Sato made an appearance at the Japanese GP.  The 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner  was seen dispensing saké at the track in a promotional capacity, but also seemed to be enjoying an environment that he was once accustomed to.  Sato’s F1 career may have been one to be forgotten, but as a personality he still brings attention, and to see the Japanese driver at the track was certainly a sight.  

One funny caveat is that Sato mentioned to Leigh Diffey that since he won the 500, that most times when he is out dining, people send over a glass a milk.  No comment as to whether or not Sato is lactose intolerant – one would hope not.

– As mentioned this past week in Happiness Is, one of the big stories surrounding F1 in the US was that ESPN will be taking over the sport’s broadcasts beginning in 2018.  The move comes as a bit of a surprise as there had been little in the way of discussion in any forthcoming switch.  The move, however, may have much to do with Liberty Media’s takeover of the sport during this past year.  

Liberty is an American company looking to increase interest in F1 in the states and that makes ESPN the best fit just for its reach.  While the current pairing with NBC has worked well, the broadcast company just doesn’t register with sports fans like ESPN (for better or for worse).  That ESPN can more aggressively market the sport may be what Liberty is looking for and certainly the pairing with the ‘Worldwide Leader’ helps in this regard.

For fans, there may be an element of disappointment as the NBCSN broadcast team of Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs, and Steve Matchett, will not be making the move to ESPN.  The trio has become as much a part of the broadcast as the races themselves, but ESPN will be switching to the world feed.  There are four races left to enjoy the the current crew.  

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