McLaren drivers' hopes hanging by a thread
"It's not been our greatest weekend," McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh admitted even before the Japanese Grand Prix started. Two hours later, it did not even look that good for Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. Hamilton's pre-race assessment of it being one of his "worst weekends" was pretty much spot on.
After the race, Whitmarsh put a brave face on things, saying it was not the "bigger disaster" he had feared at some points over the weekend. But the reality is that Suzuka dealt a heavy blow to the championship hopes of both McLaren drivers.
Button finished fourth, a place ahead of Hamilton, but their three title rivals - Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber of Red Bull and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso - annexed the podium, and for the first time all season both Englishmen are more than a win off the championship lead.
That watershed moment - as it may well turn out to be - has come at the worst possible time, with just three races to go and with both the Red Bull and the Ferrari expected, on current form, to be quicker cars than the McLaren at those tracks.
Given the expected dominance of the Red Bulls at Suzuka, Japan was always going to be an exercise in damage-limitation for McLaren. Instead, the damage was to some extent self-inflicted.
Hamilton started things rolling with his crash in first practice on Friday morning, which was exactly what he did not need after accidents had put him out of the last two races.
That meant Hamilton managed only six flying laps on Friday and put him on the back foot for the rest of the weekend. And things got worse when it emerged that McLaren had to change his gearbox, earning him a five-place grid penalty.
This, it emerged, was as a result of damage it incurred in Hamilton's race-ending collision with Webber in the previous race in Singapore. McLaren hoped that it would survive, but it became clear through Saturday that it would not, and they had to take the hit.
After the wash-out on Saturday, Hamilton qualified third on Sunday morning, a quite superb performance given his lack of track time. But that became eighth following his penalty, and from there he was never going to beat the Red Bulls or Alonso.
Bringing back memories of his stunning drive to third in a poor car in Suzuka last year, though, Hamilton gave it a go. He was fantastic both before and after another gearbox problem intervened and he lost third gear, and subsequently fourth place to his team-mate.
That second gearbox problem meant Hamilton, despite his Friday crash, ultimately got as many points as he was ever going to get at Suzuka. But, as he put it himself, the last three races have made winning the championship "very difficult".
For his part, Button's gamble on taking the harder tyre for qualifying failed to pay off.
Whitmarsh believed it cost Button a place on the grid and if that is true it could have been the difference between finishing third and fourth in the race.
Alonso made a poor start from his fourth place so, had Button been ahead of him on the grid, it is inconceivable to think the world champion would not have beaten the Ferrari into the first corner.
That would have given him critical track position. Alonso was faster than Button in the race but had the Englishman been ahead Button would probably have beaten the Ferrari anyway.
For Button, that would have meant being 28 points off the championship lead rather than 31 as he is now. In such a tight season, that could make a huge difference.
Trying to emphasise the positives, as all the best managers do, Whitmarsh pointed out both that there are still 75 points available and that McLaren have more developments to come in the final three races.
But the team's promises of performance have not always delivered what they expected on the track this season and the fact remains that McLaren have had the third fastest car at the vast majority of the races this season.
Only at Spain, Turkey and Canada has it been demonstrably faster than the Ferrari, and only in Turkey, Canada and Italy than the Red Bull. McLaren and Hamilton had got into the championship lead by maximising their potential better than either of their rivals. That ability seems to have escaped them for now.
What made it worse was that Suzuka, actually, was one of McLaren's better races in terms of performance - and it was always going to be Ferrari's weakest of the final four.
Had the weekend gone smoothly for McLaren they might well have beaten Alonso with both cars - they certainly had the qualifying pace for that. To miss that opportunity could prove very costly indeed.
"Anything can happen," Whitmarsh said. "The leading guys could fall off at the next race, Lewis could win, and all of a sudden you'd be right back in it."
That's what the Japanese GP did for McLaren - realistically, they know the championship is now out of their hands, and they are relying on something going wrong for the top three.
Webber, meanwhile, has extended his lead in the championship, from 11 points over Alonso going into the race to 14 after it. But the Australian will be feeling anything but comfortable.
Vettel is now tied on points with Alonso - although classified only third because he has won one less race - and the result means that, were Red Bull to finish one-two in all the remaining races, Webber can not finish second to his team-mate in all three and still win the championship.
On pure performance, that is what Red Bull should do. But, as Alonso pointed out, that must be considered unlikely on the evidence of the season so far.
"Of the 16 races of the championship," he said, twisting the knife a little, "15 of them were Red Bull circuits and they won only seven. So in the remaining three races, I think it will be difficult for Red Bull to be one and two every race because always something seems to happen.
"If something does happen, we need to take the opportunity. If not, it will be hard because we know in 2010 the Red Bull has been the dominant car."
Alonso may, though, be playing down his chances.
The changes to the rules on bodywork flexibility seem to have brought Red Bull back towards their rivals - their advantage in Japan was nowhere near as big as it was in Hungary, a similarly favourable track.
On top of that, none of the remaining circuits are likely to be as good for Red Bull as Japan.
South Korea, on 24 October, is an unknown quantity, but while there are a lot of corners at Yeongam that will favour the Red Bull so, too, are there long straights which will tip the balance back to the Ferrari and the McLaren. That may leave things dead level between all three. It will be fascinating to see.
The bumps and long straights at Interlagos in Brazil may also give Ferrari the chance to take on Red Bull on a level playing field. Only at Abu Dhabi may Red Bull reasonably expect a significant advantage.
There are doubtless many twists to come in the best F1 championship in years, decades even - but for Hamilton and Button, at least for now, it looks a long shot.