Hamilton cruises to Japanese GP victory at Suzuka

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Lewis Hamilton took a big step towards winning a third Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2015 by dominating proceedings en route to victory in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.

After seizing the advantage from pole-sitting Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at the start, Hamilton never looked back as he led all 53 laps of the race to claim his eighth win of the season.

Rosberg was forced to focus on damage limitation after dropping to fourth at the start, but eventually battled his way up to second place to only lose seven points on Hamilton in the title race. Sebastian Vettel completed the podium as Ferrari failed to replicate its race-winning Singapore pace at Suzuka.

The start saw Hamilton dive down the inside of Rosberg at the first corner, causing the two drivers to run side by side through the first complex of corners. Remarkably, the Mercedes duo made no contact, but Rosberg was forced wide and subsequently dropped down to fourth behind Vettel and Valtteri Bottas.

Further back, contact between Daniel Ricciardo and Felipe Massa left both drivers with a puncture, forcing them to crawl back to the pits for repairs off the line. Fernando Alonso made a great start to jump up to ninth on the first lap, but the Honda power unit’s issues became clear yet again as he quickly began to drop back, prompting the Spaniard to tell McLaren that it was “embarrassing” how he was getting passed.

As Rosberg struggled to keep with Bottas for third place, Hamilton was told to open up his lead at the front of the field to ten seconds across the course of his first stint. Second-placed Vettel was unable to stay with the Briton, leaving him to cover the trailing cars during the first round of pit stops.

Rosberg’s decision to go longer than Bottas during his first stint did not pay off at first as he emerged from the pit lane behind the Williams driver. However, as the German driver pushed on his fresh tires, he pulled off a brave move at the chicane to gain the position, leaving him third with Vettel the next target up the road.

Hamilton had duly delivered the pace that Mercedes had asked for in his first stint, with his lead standing at over eight seconds once he had made his stop.

With Bottas now falling back into the clutches of Kimi Raikkonen, Rosberg set his sights on Vettel in second place through the second stint of the race. Ferrari informed Vettel that the German was coming, and told him to try to maintain a gap of two seconds to protect himself from the undercut.

When Rosberg blinked first and made his final pit stop on lap 29, Ferrari moved quickly to bring Vettel in and try to see off the threat from the Mercedes driver. However, a rapid in-lap allowed Rosberg to get the jump on his compatriot, moving himself up to second place.

Hamilton made his final stop of the race on lap 31, and once again returned to the track with a comfortable lead. With Rosberg almost ten seconds down the road, the Briton had the race in the palm of his hand with 20 laps remaining.

Williams’ hopes of getting ahead of Ferrari at Suzuka were dashed when Raikkonen managed to get the jump on Bottas through the second round of stops. The first lap puncture had left Massa at the very back of the field, turning his race into a glorified test session.

Hamilton was able to monitor the gap to Rosberg in the closing stages of the race with relative ease, eking out more and more time before crossing the line to clinch his second Suzuka victory by 18.9 seconds.

Despite coming under pressure from Vettel in the final few laps as he contended with traffic, Rosberg held on for second place to complete a Mercedes one-two and ensure that he left Japan only 48 points behind Hamilton with five races remaining.

In third, Vettel maintained his 100% podium record at Suzuka dating back to 2009, and remains just 11 points shy of Rosberg in the championship standings. Kimi Raikkonen rounded out a good day for Ferrari by finishing fourth ahead of Bottas.

Nico Hulkenberg had a quietly impressive race en route to sixth as he led home the Lotus duo of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado in P7 and P8. Max Verstappen bounced back from his qualifying stoppage to end the day ninth, leaving Toro Rosso teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. to round out the points in tenth.

Alonso led McLaren’s charge in Japan by finishing 11th, albeit after complaining about his “GP2 engine” as he was easily passed by Verstappen earlier in the race. Teammate Jenson Button had even bigger issues, though, as he ended the day down in P16 ahead of Felipe Massa.

Sergio Perez trailed Alonso home in 12th after making a three-stop strategy work well, edging out Daniil Kvyat, Marcus Ericsson and Daniel Ricciardo in a breathless late battle.

Alexander Rossi won Manor’s intra-team battle once again after teammate Will Stevens suffered a high-speed spin in the closing stages of the race. The American driver will next get behind the wheel of an F1 car for his home grand prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas next month.

After Mercedes slipped up in Singapore, Hamilton led its fightback in style at Suzuka with a peerless display worthy of his two world titles. With 48 points in hand and just five races to go, the Briton will know that it is is championship to lose ahead of the Russian Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”