With today’s victory in the Japanese GP, Max Verstappen has handed the Constructors’ title to Red Bull with six weekends still to go. A fate already sealed after the first races of the season. What surprised most today was witnessing a robust McLaren easily securing a double podium, backed by the strong performances of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, with the rookie achieving his first career top-three finish.
On Friday, the potential hierarchies on the field were already becoming apparent (read here). What we hadn’t anticipated was the complete absence of Perez, from whom a strong performance was expected after qualifying, aiming for a podium. However, a series of errors led him to an early retirement, including various penalties and incidents (a collision with Hamilton at the start and later with Magnussen).
There was also some disappointment with Ferrari’s performance. The two SF-23 cars should never have been under pressure from Mercedes, especially after Checo had withdrawn, leaving Charles Leclerc free for what should have been a comfortable P4 and P5. However, following a series of questionable decisions by both the Maranello and Stuttgart teams, the two teams ended up competing for P4. The Monegasque managed to maintain his position ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the W14. Before analyzing why the seven-time world champion finished ahead of Carlos Sainz, let’s briefly recap the strategies seen during the Japanese race.
Race strategy summary
Compared to what we anticipated yesterday, the Japanese GP offered few strategic surprises. The most significant, without a doubt, was Mercedes’ decision to put Russell on a one-stop Medium-Hard strategy. Thanks to the poor pace of Aston Martin this weekend, this decision allowed the Englishman to finish in P7, still gaining a position from his starting position.
The race was expected to involve two pit stops, and the high track temperatures (exceeding 45°C at the start) confirmed this scenario. Consequently, most drivers opted for the safer choice by using the hardest tire compounds available.
Max Verstappen (Red Bull) won with the strategy that was hypothesized beforehand, M-M-H. Ferrari was also obligated to follow this strategy as they only had one set of Hard C1 tires.
McLaren placed both cars on the podium, and Hamilton managed to recover two positions from his starting position, using the M-H-H strategy. The decision to keep two sets of Hard tires for the race proved to be a wise choice. The harder tire compound performed better on the challenging Suzuka circuit, as demonstrated in part by Alpine, which finished in the top-10 with both cars, using the M-H-H strategy. Ocon even switched to Hard tires immediately after the first lap, running a nearly one-stop Hard-Hard race. The only other driver to employ this strategy was Magnussen (Haas).
Among those who finished in the points with an alternative strategy was Fernando Alonso, who used the S-H-H strategy. The Spanish driver criticized his team several times over the radio for the decision to start on Soft tires, forcing him to pit earlier than his rivals. He described the tactic as “feeding him to the lions,” in his own words. He was also the only driver on the grid to attempt such a strategy.
Outside the top ten, there were some unusual strategies. The S-M-H strategy caused Lawson and Tsunoda to miss out on points. Zhou and Hulkenberg employed three-stop strategies, but they were also affected by unfortunate incidents during the race.
Five drivers retired from the race. Today, we witnessed a double retirement for Perez. After falling to the back due to repairs following contact with Hamilton and a 5-second penalty for not following the correct procedures during the Safety Car period, he tried to make up for lost ground but ended up in contact with Magnussen. The car sustained damage, prompting him to retire. Shortly after, the FIA announced that Perez would receive an additional 5-second penalty to be served during the race. If this penalty had not been served, the stewards would have taken further action ahead of the next Qatar GP. Red Bull decided to tackle the situation head-on, putting Perez back in the car, serving the penalty, and then ultimately retiring the car. This was an unusual move but demonstrated the team’s agility in rectifying errors and avoiding leaving anything to chance.
Ferrari and Mercedes Self-Sabotage
Focusing on the race of the two rivals in the battle for second place in the Constructors’ Championship, Ferrari was performing well until the first pit stops. Leclerc and Sainz were separated by about 1.5 seconds, with Charles consistently ahead and 1.5 seconds behind Oscar Piastri in third place. Just before the pit stops, the two Mercedes teams were competing for sixth place. Hamilton even forced Russell off the track to regain an advantage over his teammate (an action deemed legal by the stewards). It was at this point (personal opinion) that Mercedes decided to diversify their strategies. They pitted Lewis for a two-stop strategy but left George on a one-stop strategy. As Hamilton entered the pits, Ferrari made a defensive move with Charles first and Carlos later, maintaining the position in front of the seven-time champion. So far, so good.
With McLaren opting for the Hard tires and the Maranello team on Mediums, the performance gap between the teams began to widen, outlining the scenario partly predicted on Friday: Norris and Piastri had an edge. Perez’s retirement, however, suggested that the fourth and fifth positions were not in jeopardy. Nevertheless, by the 34th lap, the situation was as follows: Leclerc was in fourth place, with a 1.8-second lead over Sainz, who had a 3.5-second advantage over Hamilton. All three knew that if they pitted, they would fall behind Russell, who had gained ground thanks to fresher Hard tires mounted nine laps earlier. In the long run, with George on a one-stop strategy, overtaking him would not have been difficult for them.
So, on the 35th lap, Leclerc decided to pit, and Hamilton did the same behind him. The error made by Ferrari, considering the slim gap between the drivers, was in waiting and not pitting Carlos on the following lap, as it should have been, or the one after. The Spaniard only stopped on the 39th lap, four laps later than his rivals, with a 7-8-second deficit to recover against Hamilton. This is where Carlos Sainz lost fifth place. After missing the pit stop window, it might have been better to wait and try to switch to Soft tires 10 laps from the end, for example. Perhaps that way, waiting would have made more sense. Waiting for four laps and then putting Carlos in the same condition as Lewis is not very understandable.
The high tire degradation, combined with poor driver management by Mercedes (Hamilton was stuck behind Russell for several laps, jeopardizing his final 5th place – Lewis complained a lot about this), allowed the Spaniard to quickly catch up with the Stuttgart pair. However, it wasn’t enough to regain the position from car #44. Mercedes owes a significant part of this result to Lewis’s insistence in repeatedly asking the team to instruct Russell to give up his position without taking unnecessary risks. George was circulating an average of 2 seconds slower, and Carlos Sainz would have overtaken him eventually. Once Russell allowed his teammate to pass, Hamilton tried to slipstream to defend against the Ferrari driver, but George’s tires were worn out.
In conclusion, both Ferrari and Mercedes made errors that cost them positions. They sabotaged themselves. If the Scuderia had called the Spaniard immediately after the Monegasque, we would probably be talking about a P4 and P5. On the other hand, if Mercedes’ strategists had frozen the drivers’ positions from the beginning and tried to attack Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz together without hindering each other, maybe securing a P5 and P6 in front of Carlos would have been possible.