On the greatest driver’s track, Nico Rosberg drove a Japanese Grand Prix befitting a world champion, a title with which he looks increasingly likely to end the year.
And yet somehow the Suzuka weekend was all about the German’s Mercedes team-mate, who provided drama both on and off the circuit.
As Rosberg dominated the competitive action, Lewis Hamilton made headlines for the wrong reasons. On track, he looked out of sorts for much of practice. And although he came oh so close to beating Rosberg to pole position, another bad start led to a difficult race and a third place that takes the title race out of his control.
Rosberg will not approach it this way, but all the German needs to do now is finish second to Briton Hamilton in the four remaining races and a first world title will be his.
Did it really have to be this way?
The controversy started on Thursday when Hamilton Snapchatted his way through the drivers’ news conference
They say that an elite sportsman should clear his mind of unnecessary distractions – Sir Jackie Stewart calls it mind-management. Hamilton, though, was not taking that approach in Japan.
There have been questions about how Hamilton handled the Singapore weekend where he was dominated by Rosberg two races ago, with it leaking out that he was “not really on it” there.
But according to insiders at Mercedes, there was no questioning his commitment to the task in terms of his work in private with the team in these past two races in Malaysia and Japan.
Read more: Hamilton – I’ll give F1 title race everything
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In public, though, things did not go so well at Suzuka.
Hamilton was, to put it politely, disengaged from his primary responsibilities in the official pre-race news conference on Thursday.
Rather than answer questions about his remarks following his retirement with engine failure in Malaysia, he referred questioners to his social media outlets, where he had posted messages in support of his Mercedes team.
While other drivers answered questions, Hamilton spent considerable time on his smartphone. It soon emerged he was posting on the social network Snapchat pictures of himself and fellow driver Carlos Sainz with bunny ears and rabbit faces.
Carlos Sainz tweet to Lewis Hamilton
Carlos Sainz responded to Lewis Hamilton over the Snapchat images the Briton created during the drivers’ news conference
Hamilton said he found this “quite funny”. Some will agree; others won’t. Such is the way of humour.
In terms of his general detachment during the news conference, some journalists felt it inappropriate and wrong; others were not bothered. Again, such is the way of things.
Afterwards, though, a respected journalist went down to the Mercedes area to tell Hamilton he thought he should not have behaved in such a manner.
Later, Hamilton posted two messages on Twitter. “Today was meant to be fun,” he said, “not at all disrespectful. Some people take themselves too seriously. I had a blast, highlight of my day!
“Re press conference, it’s been the same for 10 years. It’s not the media or mediator, it’s the format. Fans should be asking the questions!”
Inevitably, Hamilton’s behaviour was highlighted more on some media outlets than others. None of the reports went particularly hard on him, in the way they sometimes can. But he seemed to take offence at some of them and on Saturday he made his feelings clear.
At his post-qualifying news conference in the Mercedes motorhome, he sat down, tapping his fingers on the small table in front of him. He was smiling. The journalists were smiling back. So was the Mercedes communications boss. Hamilton turned to his colleague: “You’re not going to be smiling in a minute.
Then he addressed the media: “I’m not here to answer your questions, I’ve decided.
In a BBC Sport poll, 46% thought Hamilton was cracking under the pressure of the title race
“With the utmost respect, there are many of you here who are super-supportive of me and they hopefully know I know who they are. There are others, unfortunately, that often take advantage of certain things.
“The other day was a super light-hearted thing, and if I was disrespectful to any of you guys, or if you felt I was disrespectful, it was honestly not the intention. It was just a little bit of fun. But what was more disrespectful was what was then written worldwide.
“Unfortunately, there are some people here who it is not them who has done it. And unfortunately the decision I will take affects those who have been super-supportive, so that is why I am saying with the utmost respect.
“But I don’t really plan on sitting here many more times for these kind of things so my apologies and I hope you guys enjoy the rest of your weekend.”
And with that, he walked out.
What did Mercedes think of Hamilton’s behaviour?
On race morning, I went down to Mercedes to ask team boss Toto Wolff what he made of the events of the weekend.
“Let him do his talking on the track,” Wolff said. “His performance in the car justifies some collateral damage.”
Rosberg and Hamilton
While the media attention swirled round Hamilton, Rosberg cruised to his ninth win of the season
Wolff is an approachable and likeable man with an easy manner and a strong sense of humour, and he was genuinely relaxed about the situation.
Read more: Mercedes accept ‘damage’ over Hamilton’s behaviour
Listen: Hamilton makes disastrous start
After the race, he sat down in his own news conference as a couple of journalists were sharing a joke about an unrelated matter.
“You are laughing now,” Wolff joked, in obvious reference to Hamilton’s remarks the previous day, “but you won’t be laughing later.”
Be in no doubt, though, that Wolff’s charm is allied to a streak of steel. In the nicest possible way, he made it clear that he would be sitting down with Hamilton before the next race in Austin, USA.
It is unlikely their chat will be confined to building Hamilton back up again after the disappointments of an engine failure in Malaysia and a defeat by Rosberg in Japan left him 33 points adrift in the championship and needing some kind of major problem to befall the German to get back into the fight.
Why did Hamilton do it and what next?
Hamilton took full responsibility for his poor start at Suzuka
Later, Wolff made a particularly perceptive observation: “Lewis is very strong. He needs the enemy. Sometimes more than one. That’s how he functions.”
Hamilton is not the first F1 driver to do so, but why he needs to make his enemy the media is not clear. The same can be said for his apparent lack of understanding – after 10 years in F1 – of the fact that it is not the media’s job to support him. They are there to report what happens objectively and fairly.
The suggestion from some who should know is that Hamilton’s actions on Saturday were a reaction to the pressure of the weekend – the combination of his irritation at some of the coverage with the fact he had been out-qualified by Rosberg at a race at which Hamilton badly needed to beat his team-mate.
There is no doubt that his behaviour has put Mercedes in an uncomfortable situation. They cannot afford to have their major star at loggerheads with the media, especially over what is essentially a storm in a teacup, and it is hard to imagine they will let the tension linger for too long.
For all his wealth and star status, Hamilton needs his team and has an obligation to them.
As a result, it would be a surprise if the situation was not resolved sooner rather than later. How exactly that will happen, though, is another matter.
Hulkenberg headed for Renault
Nico Hulkenberg has driven for Force India in four of his six seasons in F1
Now F1 is getting to the business end of this season, the shape of the new one is falling into place. The line-ups of most of the major teams have been resolved, but there are still question marks over, particularly, Renault.
While there is no official word, several sources said in Japan that Nico Hulkenberg would next year join the French team from Force India.
Renault is keen to have an established and proven quantity to lead their team as they enter what will effectively be the first real season of their new venture, this one being very much a transition year after their late takeover of Lotus last winter.
Listen: ‘For pity’s sake make him go’ – Vettel
Hulkenberg has a contract for 2017 with Force India, who are far more competitive at the moment than his likely destination. But he has been tempted by a multi-year contract on serious money with a factory team and is expected to make the move, and the word from inside Force India is they will not stand in his way.
Meanwhile, it is looking increasingly as if Jenson Button’s announcement last month that he would not be racing next year is in fact retirement by another name.
That impression was already building as a result of an inconsistency of the message coming from Button, the odd slip in some of his answers making him sound less likely to be involved on any significant level next season. In Malaysia, he said it was “quite possible” he would never race in F1 again.
McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne was out on track in Alain Prost’s 1989 championship-winning car
In Japan, two sources told BBC Sport over the weekend that it was indeed the case he was effectively retiring.
It is a fact that McLaren have a contractual option for Button to race in 2018, but the chances of them taking that up seem at this stage to be almost zero.
Of course, it’s possible that Button’s replacement Stoffel Vandoorne will struggle – although it would be a major surprise given how impressive he was on his debut in Bahrain this year.
And even if Fernando Alonso decides to call it a day at the end of next year, Sebastian Vettel will be on the market. The German’s honeymoon at Ferrari is well and truly over and even though a new contract is on the table, it is far from clear it will be signed.
The best evidence is that Button is heading into the final four races of an illustrious career. For his sake, one has to hope they go better than the dire performance the entire McLaren team showed at engine supplier Honda’s home race.
Vettel was heavily criticised in the Italian media following his involvement in a first-corner crash at the Malaysian Grand Prix