Three heroes from Suzuka, Brands Hatch and Road Atlanta
Mercedes-Benz equalled Ferrari’s Formula 1 constructors’ record of scoring six titles on the bounce at Suzuka, on a weekend when the Silver Arrows once again emerged with a victory despite being outpaced by the Prancing Horses.
Closer to home, there was high drama – predictably – at the finale of the British Touring Car Championship at Brands Hatch, while the US sports car season concluded at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta with a familiar name from F1’s past securing another major title to add to his glittering and varied career tally.
It’s been a tough year for Valtteri Bottas. From genuine title challenger early in the season, he’s found himself pounded into submission by the relentless brilliance of team-mate Lewis Hamilton. But at Suzuka on Sunday, the best version of Bottas turned up once again and delivered a performance even Lewis couldn’t live with. The Finn is mathematically still in with a title shot, but he’d be a lot closer if he drove like this at every grand prix.
His sixth career victory and third of the season, while deserved, was undoubtedly aided by fallibility at Ferrari – yet again. This time it was driver error, from not only Sebastian Vettel on this occasion but also Charles Leclerc.
Vettel had taken a brilliant pole position in bright sunshine on Sunday morning in a qualifying session delayed by Typhoon Hagibis, marking Ferrari’s fifth in a row and, for the four-time world champion, a particularly sweet one given Leclerc’s recent superiority. But the storm blew out of Ferrari’s sails right at the start.
Vettel slipped his clutch too early, braked, then made his getaway as the red lights went out. It was judged legal – just – but the damage was done, and Bottas swept around the Ferrari from his third place on the grid. Leclerc, starting second, seemed distracted by Vettel’s fault and also failed to make the best of his grid slot. At Turns 1 and 2, a determined Max Verstappen – racing on Honda’s home soil – made a bid for third place around the outside, only for Leclerc to understeer into him.
Verstappen recovered from the gravel trap, but later retired his Red Bull as Honda faced up to anticlimactic home race. As for Leclerc, at first it seemed he’d escape sanction. But once the stewards saw the replays, he was rightly penalised – and again, for Ferrari’s choice not to pit him straight away to replace a damaged front wing. Carbon fibre chunks flew from his car and into Hamilton’s following Mercedes, removing one of the alarmed Englishman’s wing mirrors. Dangerous stuff. Leclerc would recover to sixth on the road, which became seventh after the penalties.
As for Vettel, his race did at least improve. In the later stages, Hamilton loomed large on fresher tyres after an uncharacteristically indecisive race from Mercedes. On a track greener than usual after the typhoon had swept across Japan, higher tyre degradation than usual forced the team to switch Hamilton from a one-stop to a two-stop strategy that was far from optimal and left the five-time champion fuming. Bottas was now far out of reach, for the first time since Azerbaijan many months ago – and Hamilton didn’t like it.
Still, second place looked his for the taking as he closed in on Vettel. But the Ferrari driver kept his cool, used all his vast experience to defend – and crucially didn’t crack. That was satisfying, given the troubles he’s brought on himself in recent months.
Hamilton’s fastest lap gave him little solace, but did at least contribute to delivering Mercedes its historic sixth constructors’ crown. Ferrari’s consecutive team titles from 1999 to 2004 once seemed a mark out of reach for any other team. But within 15 years Mercedes has repeated it – and few would bet serious money against this incredible team beating it in 2020.
Turkington goes forth
At Brands Hatch, the BTCC served up another typically dramatic final day of its season as Colin Turkington soared, then appeared to be floored, only to rise again to successfully equal Andy Rouse’s record of four drivers’ crowns.
The Northern Irishman took pole position on Saturday in his WSR-run BMW. But in the first of three races on Sunday, Team Dynamics Honda rival Dan Cammish stunned in a rain-affected race by coming from 12th to win as Turkington struggled home in fifth. Then Cammish sensationally shot into the points lead in Race 2 as his team-mate Matt Neal – the most experienced BTCC driver on the grid – controversially punted Turkington off.
The reigning champion isn’t the sort of character to shout and scream in such circumstances, but he admitted he thought Neal’s questionable move had ended any hope of him defending his title.
But in a nail-biting Race 3, Turkington drove a blinder, rising from 25th on the grid to sixth – which proved to be enough to clinch the crown when Cammish suffered brake failure on the penultimate lap and crashed his Honda. Turkington ended up champion by just two points from team-mate Andrew Jordan and a numb Cammish.
Just to cap the epic drama, Jason Plato claimed his first victory since 2017 to take his record BTCC win tally to 97. Can he hit the ton in 2020?
Finally, Scotsman and second place finisher Rory Butcher claimed the Jack Sears Trophy and became the Independent Drivers’ Champion, whilst his Cobra Sport AmD AutoAid/RCIB Insurance team became the Independent Teams’ Champion.
Juan Pablo Montoya’s best days might be behind him, but this weekend proved once again that we should never rule out the Colombian when it comes to delivering when it counts.
The seven-time grand prix winner for Williams and McLaren walked away from F1 far too early in 2006 for a career in NASCAR that ultimately proved a disappointment. A return to IndyCar racing in which he’d made his name in the late 1990s also looked set to prove an anti-climax – until Montoya clawed his way to the second Indianapolis 500 win of his career in 2015.
But having stepped down from single-seater racing once again, the 44-year-old has now returned to US sports car racing in which he previously raced intermittently. And on Sunday he added an IMSA Sports Car title to his superb career tally by finishing fourth with Acura Team Penske partner Cameron Dane at Road Atlanta’s Petit Le Mans.
Cadillac and Action Express took the win, but Montoya and Dane’s fourth place – shared with Simon Pagenaud who joined them for the nine-hour enduro – was just enough for them to beat race winners Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr to the IMSA title by just five points.
Incredibly, for all the big race wins that have peppered Montoya’s colourful career, this was his first championship title for 20 years, since his breakthrough IndyCar crown with Chip Ganassi back in 1999. And who’s to say it will be his last? For a man who loves racing as the only way of life he knows, there could still be more in the tank.