🇯🇵 F1'23: R16 - Formula Short-Handed

Japan showed that between the teams, there are plenty of similarities in how the drivers are behaving (or not) at their teams.

The call came in early on in the race. While in seventh, George Russell asked his pitwall what he needed to do to secure a proper result. The exact quote he used was "Give me the pace I need to achieve to fight with the guys ahead. To fight for a proper result.”

George Russell finished seventh. 

In some ways, this is a bounce back for the Brit after his last lap encounter with the barrier in Singapore. He showed that he was still happy to mix it, this time with his team-mate, as he fought Lewis Hamilton, and was ultimately forced wide. Russell remembered this towards the end, mentioning the team game as he was instructed to invert the cars.

Russell was happy to give way, but on his terms, meaning the last lap, because he had the stalking prancing horse of Carlos Sainz behind. Last week, Sainz showed that having another driver between and backing off enough to give them the DRS can work and Russell wanted to do that. Once he let Hamilton through, Sainz and his fresher tyres caught him for an eventual sixth place.

Mercedes has always been a buddy cop movie. It gets serious, but it works. Well, now it’s just as serious, and it’s not always working. It feels like a major falling out is due between a cross Russell and an exasperated Hamilton. The frustration is real. Russell isn’t joining Mercedes at their most dominant and wants to make an impression while Hamilton, the author of so much of that domination, knows how good the team can be, and now they’re not first - or even second - he wants to do everything he can to get there again.

George Russell’s story had some interesting parallels with other teams, and it made think how short-handed some teams were in Suzuka and how the various teams mixed things up. 

The Alpha Tauri pairing - which is not the two the team will field next year - of Liam Lawson and Yuki Tsunoda came through the first two-thirds of the opening lap before the safety car was deployed, and Tsunoda’s 12th-place was his first finish (and the first time he’d gone past lap one) for a couple of races, meaning the team could benchmark Liam Lawson, and how he would match up.. Lawson finished one place ahead of Tsunoda, beating him at his home race in equal machinery.

Both drivers were superb on that opening lap, negotiating their way through the debris, and it gives them something to build on in Qatar, but with both Alfa Romeos, both Haas and even both Williams drivers failing to score points, this was a key race for them to try and gain ground on their rivals as they attempt to avoid a first 10th place since Toro Rosso in 2009.

Looking further up the standings and Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri secured a 2-3 finish for McLaren. Adding 33 points to their tally and a first podium for F3 and F2 champion Piastri is their best result of the season. It’s Norris’ fourth runners-up prize of the season too, and despite his protestations over the radio, McLaren really did play the team game well.

Thinking back to Singapore, and Norris’ consecutive second places. He’s outscored George Russell 46-16 since the summer break and has now drawn level with the Mercedes driver. I think the embarrassment the commentators talk about when a works team is beaten by a customer is somewhat overrated, but it will still cause some eyebrows to be raised. 

The wider question here is whether there is a win in this team before the end of the season. There are six races left, and McLaren are getting closer and closer to the Red Bulls. Norris even has nose in front into turn 1, but said he suffered understeer into turns 2 and 3, and Verstappen gained a lead he was never in danger of losing again.

When McLaren got their last win through Daniel Ricciardo’s redemption race in Monza 2021, he was helped by Hamilton and Verstappen crunching into each other. A win is still a win, and Ricciardo has proved before he can do it, but Norris has been the nearly man on a couple of occasions - Russia in the rain, his radio message on that day in Monza on whether to hold station.

Maybe it’s the wrong McLaren driver I’m focusing on. Hello, and welcome to the podium, Oscar Piastri. Disappointed despite getting his first F1 podium, he knows there is more to come, but again, getting those valuable points for the team is helping them catch an Aston Martin that is starting to feel dangerously close to anarchy.

Lance Stroll had a bad smash in Singapore that ruled him out of the race, and he was unable to make an impact here in a car that should be capable of scoring points. His team-mate, who is starting to become bad boy Fernando again, finished eighth. Those four points, compared to McLaren’s haul, means the difference is now 49 points, and we know there is a significant difference - but we don’t quite know how much - the difference is between fourth and fifth in the teams’ standings. 

Lance Stroll has not scored a point since before the summer break, with a couple of points in Belgium. The Alpine pair are one point and nine points behind respectively, and if ever the Canadian driver needed a time to step up, it’s now. Yes, he is the son of the team owner, but he also showed he’s much more than that, toughing out the Bahrain race after his cycling accident to finish sixth at the season opener.

His place for next season is confirmed, and I’ve previously written about how 2024 will be the true silly season.

If Alonso leaves Aston Martin (and why not a romantic finale with Ferrari), then Stroll Sr. has several choices to make. The question is simple: If Aston Martin want to compete for podiums, wins and championships, is Lance Stroll really the answer to that? And if he isn’t, who is, and how can you convince them to join what is a genuinely exciting project?

To further hammer home this point, take a look at the above. This is the points split between all the drivers and no team (excluding Williams who have one scoring driver) has more of a split towards one driver.

Max Verstappen now has the chance to win his third Drivers’ Championship in Qatar in the Saturday sprint race.

Last time in Qatar, Pirelli’s tyres did not hold themselves up in the greatest light. With 400 points, the Dutch driver’s dominance has long been routine - Singapore was a surprise when he didn’t win. His points total on its own would be enough for a lead in the Constructors’ Championship. 

But there are two questions for F1 to answer. One: How does the rest of the field (including Perez) catch Verstappen? And the other, what happens when Verstappen and the Red Bull get even better?

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