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Comment: Hagibis may wreak havoc in Suzuka but nothing can stop Mercedes

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Giles Richards
a car driving on a road: Lewis Hamilton winning the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi. © Getty Images Lewis Hamilton winning the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.

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The spectre of super Typhoon Hagibis lurks over this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix. Whether the storm hits Suzuka is subject to the vagaries of an “explosive” weather system. It may yet affect the timetable and even threaten the race itself but regardless of its impact, what Hagibis cannot do is prevent Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes’ inexorable march into the record books.

The scale of the super typhoon and its growth was illustrated colourfully by meteorologist Robert Speta in the Japan Times on Wednesday. He described its intensification as if: “You had a fire and instead of throwing gasoline on it to make it bigger you also grabbed some lighter fluid, a bit of oil and a couple of aerosol cans for good measure.”

Suzuka sits on the coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. In fine weather its beaches are beautiful and tranquil homes to small fishing villages. Hagibis is set to arrive in the area on Saturday, bringing with it winds of 100-140mph and exceptionally heavy rain. Qualifying would be threatened and as in 2004 and 2010 when typhoons struck, the race for pole could be moved to Sunday morning. If it arrives 24 hours later, however, and race day itself would be under threat.

Ironically the typhoon’s name is apt for Formula One. Hagibis means rapidity or swiftness. If its velocity holds off this weekend, Mercedes have every chance of closing out the title to prove just how superior they have been as the dominant force in modern F1.

With a 162-point lead over Ferrari and 220 to play for, if Mercedes outscore the Scuderia by 14 points at Suzuka they will have claimed their sixth consecutive constructors’ title. This is a milestone greater perhaps than anyone – including the team – might have imagined. It will equal the six scored by Ferrari between 1999 and 2004, when Michael Schumacher won five championships, a run not expected to be repeated.

Yet Mercedes have done so and with unprecedented mastery. Since 2014, when they began with a complete dominance of the turbo-hybrid era that lasted for three years, they have taken 85 victories from 116 races, enjoying an extraordinary win ratio of just over 73%. The numbers are blunt statements, first of being untouchable and then, when challenged, still almost unbeatable. In 2014, 16 wins came from 19 races; 2015: 16 from 19; 2016: 19 from 21. Then when Ferrari came back with an arguably superior car they held the line, in 2017: 12 from 20 and in 2018: 11 from 21. They already have 11 from 16 this year.

Single-team dominance is nothing new in F1. In the modern era alongside Ferrari’s spell, McLaren enjoyed a majestic run between 1988 and 1991 when they took four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ doubles, with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost sharing 15 of 16 race victories in 1988. Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel enjoyed less complete control but similarly took four doubles between 2010 and 2013.

Much as everyone would rather see more open and closely fought championships, that is not in the hands of Mercedes and comparatively their performance stands as remarkable by any standard. Red Bull’s win ratio when they were roaring was only 53%. Perhaps most striking, however, is that Mercedes have outscored McLaren and Ferrari’s two dominant runs in every major field. In percentage terms Mercedes are now ahead of both in wins, poles and one-two finishes.

Nonetheless there is yet another milestone still to fall. Hamilton cannot win the title in Suzuka but he can all but finish the job. After Japan there will be 104 points available. Just to stay in the mathematical hunt (and that is all it is) this weekend Charles Leclerc needs to outscore the world champion by four points and Max Verstappen by seven. But the only points that really matter are those separating Hamilton from his teammate Valtteri Bottas. He leads the Finn by 73. If he is just 78 ahead after the next round at Mexico Hamilton’s sixth title will be secure.

When he clinches it Mercedes will have completed a record sixth drivers’ and constructors’ double. A feat beyond even Schumacher and Ferrari that must be admired, especially given that for two years they had to see off a powerful threat from Ferrari. They have enjoyed an advantage but equally have executed with a remarkable level of skill that has made them the benchmark in the sport. Had the Scuderia enjoyed similar in 2017 and 2018 they could have spoiled the party.

Ferrari have been invigoratingly resurgent in the last four races, a more than welcome unlocking of the potential in their car, if one that has materialised all too late but at least bodes well for next season. At Suzuka, one of the classic circuits, the challenge of both aero-efficiency and flat-out pace should make for a tight fight between the two teams.

If Hagibis does not intervene Ferrari have a real chance of finally ending Mercedes’ winning run here since 2014 but if they prevent the Silver Arrows from making taking their sixth title, Ferrari will at best have only weathered one storm that is absolutely inevitable.

Pictures: F1 driver then and now

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