With only five races left of the 2017 campaign, battles in the drivers’ and constructors’ championships are hotting up throughout the grid. With these in mind, and with one eye on the remaining available seats for 2018, RealSport looks at five drivers who need a good race in Japan.
1 Sebastian Vettel
There is no longer any margin for error for Sebastian Vettel, at least if he wants to keep the title in his own hands. He is currently looking at a 34 point deficit to Lewis Hamilton out front, and with five races left, and seven more points available for first place compared to second, he must win every race to be certain of winning the title regardless of what Hamilton does.
Fortunately for him, Mercedes looked vulnerable in Malaysia, with their race pace proving inferior to both the Ferraris and Red Bulls. If their struggles continue this opens the door for Hamilton to lose points not only to his main rival Vettel, but to the likes of Max Verstappen who beat the Brit to victory in Sepang. This has to give cause for Vettel and Ferrari to be optimistic that this world championship is far from over.
I don’t think Vettel will necessarily be any more aggressive than he usually is this weekend, but he really needs a trouble free weekend from the team so that he doesn’t lose any more ground in the championship. Things are looking up on this front as Ferrari said yesterday that they believe Vettel will avoid a penalty for a gearbox change after his cooldown lap collision with Lance Stroll in Malaysia. Initial inspections carried out in Italy appear to show the gearbox is ok, but it will be tested in Friday practice to evaluate whether it can be used for qualifying and beyond.
Even if he ends up facing a gearbox penalty, at least this won’t be as big of a challenge as coming from the back in Sepang, Either way, Vettels needs to start winning, and what better place than at a circuit he has already won at four times?
2 Kimi Raikkonen
Kimi Raikkonen must be wondering what he has to do to win a race this year. He was on pole in Monaco, only to be denied the win by a questionable split strategy from his team, and he lined up second last week with a clear shot at Lewis Hamilton’s struggling Mercedes, only for his car to fail on the grid leading to a heartbreaking DNS.
The good news for Kimi is that the Ferrari appears to be hitting its stride in the last few races, as Sebastian Vettel demonstrated last weekend with his charge through the field. The bad news is that in any situation where he might be in a position to win for the rest of the year, he is likely to be ordered to help his teammate instead, by either holding cars up or letting Vettel through. That’s why last weekend must have hurt so much; Kimi had a great chance to win, and with Vettel starting from the back he would have been left alone by the team to take as many points off Hamilton as possible.
Unfortunately then, it looks like under normal circumstances Kimi won’t be allowed to win again this year. You have to hope then that he can avoid any reliability issues, push his teammate all the way, and play the team game in the interests of the title. That is, after all, why Ferrari retained him for 2018.
3 Felipe Massa
The Brazilian has performed well this season, but has recently been overhauled by his rookie teammate Lance Stroll in terms of results, if not overall points. With further news earlier in the week that Robert Kubica and Paul di Resta will test for Williams before the end of the season, the pressure is on Felipe to save his F1 career.
As I mentioned yesterday, Williams are on a data gathering mission with the tests for Kubica and di Resta, and it’s this data that will be stacked up against all the data they have gathered from Massa over the past few years. In this respect there may not be much that Felipe can do, as the testing results may show the team that one, or both, of Kubica or di Resta are fundamentally faster than him at this stage in his career.
That said, he will not hurt his cause by claiming a strong result in Suzuka this weekend, especially against his teammate.
4 Nico Hulkenberg
Hulkenberg claimed one of F1’s most unwanted records at the Singapore Grand Prix, becoming the driver to start the most races without standing on the podium after a bitterly disappointing retirement. This retirement is symptomatic of the poor run the German is on at the moment, having not scored a point since the Belgian Grand Prix in August. Last time in Malaysia he qualified eighth, but went backwards in the race and ended up finishing behind his teammate Jolyon Palmer, who had a few spins on his way to the chequered flag.
The German is confirmed at the team for next season, so there is no real pressure coming at him from that angle, but there is still the constructors’ championship to consider. Renault sit ten points adrift of Toro Rosso, and only five ahead of Haas, so Hulkenberg will no doubt be pushing hard to deliver a good result for the team.
5 Fernando Alonso
We are still waiting for Fernando Alonso to confirm his 2018 plans. After the McLaren-Renault deal was confirmed, it might have been reasonable to assume that an announcement would have been forthcoming, especially since September was always the time when Alonso himself said he would decide where his future lay, but we are now into October and with no better idea of the Spaniard's intentions.
The last few years have been difficult for Alonso, and he now finds himself behind his rookie teammate in the championship table. Admittedly, things could have been very different had he not been taken out at the start in Singapore, but the fact still remains that he trails Vandoorne at this late stage in the season, albeit by a paltry three points.
Even though they are in inferior machinery and fighting for 14th in the championship, you can bet Alonso will fight tooth and nail to regain the upper hand for the rest of the year, starting in Suzuka this weekend. I’m not sure how his ego would cope with losing out over a season to a rookie (again).
Who do you think needs a good weekend in Japan? Let us know in the comments below!
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