Now that is how to celebrate your 20th birthday. For the first time since Spain in 2016, Max Verstappen stormed to victory in a rampaging Red Bull while Lewis Hamilton extended his World Championship lead.
We quickly head off to Japan for Round 16 and are rubbing our hands in anticipation of our first genuine fight between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Check out the expert opinions of Planet F1.
Guess who’s back?
Welcome back Red Bull; you have been missed. With Verstappen on the top step and Daniel Ricciardo finishing third, Red Bull secured their first double podium since Malaysia last year. Sandwiched in between was second-placed Hamilton, able to extend his World Championship lead to 34 points after Sebastian Vettel drove to a valiant P4 from the back of the grid.
After a double DNF in Singapore, Ferrari’s woes continued in Sepang as engine issues prevented Vettel from taking part in qualifying and ensured Kimi Raikkonen was unable to start in the race.
It left an empty slot in P2 on the grid and allowed pole-sitter Hamilton to start with a smooth getaway from the two resurgent Red Bulls in behind. As Valtteri Bottas propelled himself from P5 to P3, it looked like Mercedes were continuing their recovery from what was an awful start to the race weekend on Friday. But Red Bull had other ideas.
Verstappen quickly got into the groove, overtaking Hamilton on lap four and flying all the way to a 12.7-second victory. Given the Dutchman’s ultra-attacking style, Hamilton had no interest in getting tangled up in any unnecessary battles with the World Championship on the line.
Red Bull’s re-birth did not finish there, though, as Ricciardo got the better of Bottas in a ding-dong battle for P3 and had the pace to fend off a strong-finishing Vettel, who carved his way through the field, looking to limit the damage of a disastrous qualifying.
It was seemingly job done for the German, but a bizarre collision with Lance Stroll after the race has left him with the very strong possibility of needing a new gearbox in Japan, which will result in a five-place grid penalty.
Elsewhere, there was a very commendable P6 finish for Sergio Perez in the Force India. The Mexican had been ill all week and was on an IV drip just 24 hours before the race. To then come through the most physically-demanding race of the season and still be competitive is an incredible feat.
McLaren-Honda’s Stoffel Vandoorne showed he is getting used to this Formula 1 lark with a second consecutive P7 finish, overshadowing a certain Fernando Alonso who finished outside of the points in P11.
The Williams duo of Stroll and Felipe Massa came home in P8 and P9 respectively, while Esteban Ocon overcame a number of scrapes to take the final point on offer.
Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were P12 and P13 respectively for Haas, with Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly finishing P14 on his Formula 1 debut.
Jolyon Palmer spun twice on his way to a P15 finish; team-mate Nico Hulkenberg also had a race to forget in P16.
Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson were their usual last of the finishers as Carlos Sainz joined Raikkonen on the sidelines through retirement.
What to expect in Japan
You would expect Mercedes to be pretty happy as Ferrari lost more ground in both World Championships with just five races to go. However, their lack of race pace in Malaysia showed that the Silver Arrows are still vulnerable despite their superiority in the standings.
That being said, the Suzuka circuit should play to all their strengths and, with Vettel seemingly out of the picture to win as a grid penalty looms, Hamilton looks primed to take an eighth win of the season – especially with Bottas admitting that he is lacking confidence after another unspectacular drive since signing a new Mercedes deal.
However, taking into account Red Bull’s sudden dominance in Malaysia, they cannot be overlooked between now and the end of the season. Looking to oppose Hamilton this weekend? Red Bull is the place to go.
One complaint that cannot be levelled at the Suzuka circuit is that it looks like a regular F1 track. This unique figure of eight layout has been a cherished favourite for many drivers over the years and it is not difficult to see why. From the aerial map alone, it just looks like incredible fun.
The 5.8km circuit, which is also home to the iconic Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race, first hosted an F1 Grand Prix in 1987 and has continued to do so ever since bar a couple of years when Fuji was chosen as a rather controversial alternative in 2007 and 2008.
Even though there are 18 corners for the drivers to weave through, this circuit is deceptively fast and one that provides the ultimate thrill ride.
The cars will make their way downhill and throw themselves into the first corner at full speed, only then dropping down a couple of gears to take the second part of the right-handed curve. The ‘S’ curves quickly come into view, with drivers positioning themselves to the right to attack the left-right-left-right combinations where rhythm and momentum mean everything.
After that wild and wonderful sequence, it is up and over the hill at the long, sweeping Dunlop Curve (Turn 7). Only a dash of the brake pedal is needed to take the right-handed Turn 8, with the next right-hander Turn 9 needing a little more caution.
An overtaking opportunity presents itself up to the Turn 11 hairpin, but you have to be quick and decisive on this narrow track to make it work.
The track then heads off uphill again, feeding to the right and making way for the Spoon Curve (Turns 13 and 14). It is essential not to get out of position here as drivers will be vulnerable to attack down the back straight. 130R (Turn 15) will be able to be taken at full speed this year, before the throttle gets a much-needed breather at the Casino Triangle. Turn 16 and 17 is a tight right-left combo, and a gradual turn back to the right will spit the cars back out onto the pit lane straight.
Previous winners and track suitability
Hamilton and Vettel have both enjoyed great success at Suzuka, with the World Championship leader winning twice here – and once at Fuji – while Ferrari’s main man is a four-time winner with his last victory back in his Red Bull days in 2013.
The grandmaster of them all, though, is of course…Michael Schumacher. The German had two wins by 1997 but it was at the start of the millennium that he applied a vice-like grip on the race. From 2000 onward, Schumacher would win four of the next five years as the Ferrari domination really took hold.
The Prancing Horse, though, have not won here in 13 years, while rivals Mercedes have won the last three editions of this iconic race.
Alonso and Raikkonen are the other current drivers on the grid who have winning form here.
About Mark Scott
Mark Scott is a contributor for PlanetF1, the definitive site for Formula One news, features, galleries and live coverage.