Mercedes set a new standard in Formula 1 at the Japanese Grand Prix as they secured a record-breaking sixth world championship double – and yet there was their team boss Toto Wolff after the race talking about not being able to appreciate it yet because they had been beaten by Ferrari in qualifying earlier in the day.
In mid-summer, Red Bull went on a bit of a run, Max Verstappen winning two out of three races and nearly three out of four, only losing out to an inspired Hamilton/Mercedes performance in Hungary in the last race before the summer break.
And since the season resumed at the end of August, Ferrari have had the fastest car over one lap, taking five pole positions in a row, and they have won three of those five races. It could have been five consecutive victories, too.
A badly timed virtual safety car cost Leclerc victory in Russia last time out, and in Japan mistakes by both drivers at the start cost them track position. As Mercedes acknowledged, had Vettel and Leclerc run one-two from the start of the race, even with the Mercedes being a faster race car, they would have struggled to win the race.
But Ferrari keep making mistakes. In Japan on Sunday it was the drivers at fault, as in Baku where Leclerc crashed in qualifying, and Canada where Vettel went off the track under pressure from Hamilton and was given the controversial penalty that stripped him of the win.
Vettel dropped his clutch too soon, before the lights went out. He stopped again, before restarting, but still many were mystified as to why he did not get a penalty for it. Either way it lost him the race, because Valtteri Bottas was past him in a flash.
Alongside Vettel, Leclerc was distracted by his team-mate’s movements, and reacted slowly to the lights. That allowed a fast-starting Max Verstappen to get alongside him and they collided at Turn Two.
Leclerc admitted his error – which earned him a five-second penalty and damaged his front wing. He said he understeered into the Red Bull in the dirty air behind Vettel but should have expected it – but did not admit to the fact that it may have been influenced by a desire not to cede ground to Verstappen, in the rapidly developing battle for supremacy between the two as the leading lights of the new generation of drivers.
How do Mercedes do it?
And so with four races still to go, Mercedes suddenly found themselves in a position to seal the championship double that has been expected since they dominated the first part of the season.
What makes them such a great team?
Wolff said: “It would not do it justice to come up with a 30-second answer but if I were to sum it up, it’s the people, the group of people working on the project, each giving it their all, playing the best game in their respective position and the strengths of the pack has made us win these championships.
“It is about marginal gains. It’s about putting everything together and not leaving one stone unturned. It’s about having a no-blame culture, empowering even when it’s difficult sometimes when you’d rather control things.
“But the strength goes very deep into the organisation. It’s values that are ingrained in the team that you can’t just put on a Powerpoint and say: ‘Now we are empowering everybody’. You need to live it in the difficult moments and that has made the strengths of the team.
“We have had many hiccups over the years and we have been always able to collect ourselves and understand why we haven’t performed well and then come back even stronger.
“We could spend a whole day trying to analyse what I believe are the strengths of the group but there are so many factors and so many faces come into my mind that I see through the year tired, happy, tired, happy and just pushing through.”
As for the reinvention, the new motivation, what will they target next year? Well, that looks a given – if they do it again, Hamilton will equal Schumacher’s all-time record of seven drivers’ titles, and quite probably surpass the German’s win record, too.
Just the drivers’ title to be decided now
The result at Suzuka means that Hamilton can no longer be caught this year by any driver other than Bottas, but even that is a long shot. The Finn is 64 points behind with only 104 available and needs two clear wins and a third place and Hamilton not to score in those three races.
Hamilton will surely win the title at one of the next two races in Mexico and the USA, more likely now Austin, Texas.
He expects a difficult weekend for Mercedes in Mexico City, saying Ferrari’s straight-line speed advantage will make them very hard to beat, and where in any case it will be difficult, in normal circumstances, for Hamilton to make up the 14 points on his team-mate he needs to seal it there.
“For me,” Hamilton said, “it has never been a case of wanting to rush things. Valtteri has driven well all year long. We still have a battle.”
After a race in which Hamilton had argued with the team over the radio about strategy, which was carefully controlled to guarantee Bottas victory once he had the lead at the start, Wolff said: “We have to stay true to the values we have defined in the past and always played the most-fair game. You can see how difficult it is sometimes today.
“We are certainly keen on seeing them racing. Valtteri is very much an outsider with the points – two and a half wins out of four races – so we will give them equal opportunity and it is for them to race it out on track.”