Mercedes shows its title-winning pedigree as Ferrari stumbles again

SUZUKA, Japan -- Ferrari locked out the front row at the Japanese Grand Prix, but it was Mercedes who were the ones smiling at the end of the race with Valtteri Bottas winning and the Silver Arrows securing their sixth consecutive constructors' world championship.

The greatest team of all time?

There have been some great Formula One teams over the years. Ferrari in the late 1970s, Williams throughout the 1990s, Ferrari again at the turn of the century and, more recently, Red Bull in the early part of this decade.

But as impressive as they all were, none of them managed to achieve six consecutive driver and constructors' titles, a stunning feat that Mercedes accomplished at Suzuka.

The Silver Arrows headed to Japan needing to outscore Ferrari by 14 points in order to secure both championships, but after qualifying -- which took place on Sunday morning due to Typhoon Hagibis -- it was looking quite unlikely as the Scuderia locked out the front row and Mercedes were only third- and fourth-quickest. However, after a chaotic opening sequence of corners, everyone began reaching for their calculators and it quickly became clear Mercedes could indeed wrap it up with four races to spare.

Valtteri Bottas went on to win his first race since April's Azerbaijan Grand Prix while championship leader Lewis Hamilton was unable to pass Sebastian Vettel in the final stages, after an epic battle, and had to settle for third place. The one-three, plus the bonus point for Hamilton's fastest lap, netted the team 41 points, while Ferrari, through Vettel's second and teammate Charles Leclerc's seventh, tallied 24 points. They had done it. Mercedes had outscored Ferrari by 17 and guaranteed both championships ... again.

You only need to look at the last two races to see why Mercedes will go down as one of, if not the greatest, Formula One team in history. Ferrari had comfortably claimed pole position in both Sochi and Suzuka, but were unable to convert either into victories as Mercedes totally outclassed and outsmarted them from a tactical standpoint.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, who has been at the helm for all six titles, attempted to explain just how special the achievement is.

"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 that are working on the project each giving it all, playing the best game in their respective position and the strength of the pack has made us win these championships," Wolff said. "Each of the championships felt very special for different reasons; this one is so special because it's not always easy to reinvent yourself at the beginning of the year and set objectives that motivate everybody.

"I'm not able to get it yet, we had a difficult qualifying this morning, and we are eager to do well that this non-performance sits in our bones. Probably it's going to sink in overnight flying back to Europe."

Wolff also wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to dedicate the achievement to the late Niki Lauda, who was the non-executive chairman of the team from 2012 until he tragically lost his life earlier this year.

"We want to dedicate this to Niki because he's just been such an important part from the beginning of the journey and his sheer presence was always so important," Wolff said. "Niki is being missed, and therefore the sixth one, beating the record that was set by Ferrari 15 years ago, is extremely special."

A race full of rule quirks

In what could have been hugely controversial circumstances, the race ended one lap early after a system error resulted in the chequered flag being waved on an electronic board above the finish line too soon.

It meant that the official result of the 53 lap race was taken at the end of lap 52, when the flag was first shown to Bottas as he prepared to start his final lap.

With Vettel and Hamilton fighting for second, it could have been a massive talking point had the Mercedes driver found a way past only to be relegated back to third due to the glitch.

As it were, Sergio Perez's lap 53 crash essentially meant nothing as the finishing order was taken moments earlier and the Mexican was able to secure ninth place and two championship points, despite failing to finish ... sort of. It was all quite confusing, but Article 43.2 in the sporting regulations explains how such an instance is adjudicated:

"Should for any reason the end‐of‐race signal be given before the leading car completes the scheduled number of laps, or the prescribed time has been completed, the race will be deemed to have finished when the leading car last crossed the Line before the signal was given."

It's unclear at this stage whether the fault came through technological or human error, but the FIA confirmed they will be looking into the issue.

The 2018 Canadian Grand Prix was the last time a race ended a lap earlier than it should have after model Winnie Harlow prematurely waved the chequered flag in the finish-line gantry.

Vettel's unpunished jump start

On the subject of rule quirks, how can you jump the start and manage to escape a penalty?

When it flashed up on the timing screens that Vettel was being investigated for an alleged jump start, all signs pointed toward a penalty for the Ferrari driver. After all, why would the stewards be looking into it if he had enjoyed a legal getaway?

Replays appeared to show the German dropping the clutch before the five lights had gone out, with his car jumping forward in the grid slot. It also appeared he had not managed to bring his car back to a halt before the lights went out.

Despite that, he did not receive a penalty. How come, you ask? Well, the FIA did its best to explain after the race:

"The Stewards reviewed video evidence and the jump start report based on the information from the FIA approved and supplied transponder fitted to each car," a statement read. "Whilst the video shows some movement, that movement was within the acceptable tolerance of the F1 jump start system which formerly defines a jump start per Article 36.13(a) of the FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations."

After the grand prix, race director Michael Masi clarified the statement, saying drivers are offered a tolerance when it comes to getting off the line at the beginning of a race.

"There's bars [of tolerance] and it was within that tolerance and therefore it is not considered a false start under our regulations," Masi said. "That's the method that is used. The best analogy for everyone would be Valtteri a couple of years ago [he also was] within those bars of what the tolerances are that exist."

So, basically, you can jump start (to an extent) and get away with it. Drivers, do your homework and take note.

Leclerc's double slap on the wrist

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are going to be Formula One rivals for the next decade, we all know that by now. We saw the pair battling for a race win in Austria, an occasion when they made contact, and it happened again on the opening lap in Japan.

Leclerc, who had a tardy getaway from second on the grid, carried too much speed into Turn 1 and drifted into the side of Verstappen, sending the Dutchman's Red Bull into a spin. Unfortunately for Verstappen, he was relegated to 18th by the end of the first lap and eventually retired his damaged Red Bull on lap 15.

Leclerc carried on in third, albeit with a significantly damaged front wing which was dangerously flapping around for four laps. At one point, on the run into 130R, a chunk of the wing flew off and smashed into Hamilton's right-side mirror.

The Verstappen-Leclerc contact was initially deemed a racing incident before the stewards discovered additional evidence and decided to look into it after the race.

"I felt like I was in third and then suddenly at Turn 2, Charles just drove into the side of my car," Verstappen said. "I like hard racing, but I don't think this was hard racing, this was just irresponsible driving into Turn 2. I mean, what more should he do to get a penalty?"

The stewards must have been listening because Leclerc was handed a five-second time penalty for the contact as well as a 10-second penalty for driving a car in an unsafe condition. Ferrari was also fined €25,000.

It meant Leclerc dropped from sixth at the 52nd lap chequered flag to seventh in the official race classification.

Other points worthy of mention:

  • The 2019 Japanese Grand Prix was the fifth time in F1 history qualifying and the race had taken place on the same day. Three of the occasions were in Japan.

  • Daniel Ricciardo gained nine places from his P16 grid slot to finish the race seventh for Renault.

  • Robert Kubica crashed hard in qualifying, started from the pit lane and finished last, a staggering 87.8 seconds behind Williams teammate George Russell.