Preview of the Japanese Grand Prix
With the driver market having seen its first major shift for some time in the past week, Formula One gets back down to the nitty gritty of racing at Japan’s spectacular Suzuka circuit. Last year, Sebastian Vettel clinched the World Championship at the iconic track but this time around he finds himself as the nearest challenger to Fernando Alonso, 29 points behind with six races remaining. However, the scene of so many memorable races could yet add a twist to this year’s title race.
So what should you look out for this weekend?
Track and Conditions
Suzuka is a truly technical circuit with a lot of character and features some wonderfully rewarding corners. Even the first two corners, which look tame enough at first glance, have an awkward camber. From this lowest part of the circuit the track climbs through five switchback corners where a driver needs rhythm and faultless stability, before arriving at Dunlop Curve. After safely negotiating the tricky Degner curves, the figure-eight circuit crosses under itself and heads down to the hairpin, which may offer overtaking possibilities.
Spoon Curve is a never-ending left-hander, before the cars are spat
out onto a long straight and up to the legendary 130R – a 300km/h left-hand corner through which Fernando Alonso pulled off one of the best manoeuvres of his career, around the outside of Michael Schumacher in 2005. The lap ends with a chicane, known as Casio Triangle, where cars regularly trip over each other.
Suzuka’s microclimate tends to be unpredictable, although there are usually more sunny sessions than wet. The long range forecast promises a dry week ahead.
Suzuka tests all parts of the car quite like no other circuit on the calendar. Chassis, engine, tyres and driver – all have to be just right to get the best out of this flowing circuit. Engine power comes to the fore down the back straight and through 130R, the quickest part of the trac. However, handling and driver rhythm are how time is gained through the rapid changes of direction through the Esses. A strong change of direction through the Esses is essential, dictating a stiff suspension and high downforce. Smooth application of the power is also rewarded through the sector and therefore it strongly influences the gear ratio selection.
The one area of minor concern is braking, in fact with only the hairpin and lap-ending chicane the only significant braking zones, keeping the brakes warm is more of a worry. It also has a knock-on effect on KERS, with limited opportunity for harvesting braking energy.
The abrasive layout of Suzuka, particularly in the long and fast corners, places heavy demands on the tyres and last year, three-stop strategies were the norm for the majority of the grid, although Sergio Perez in particular was able to climb up the order by stopping just twice. However, in 2011, Pirelli’s prime tyre was the medium compound while this year they have allocated their hard tyre. Therefore, we are likely to see more splitting the race in to three stints although it will depend on the relative pace of the hard tyres compared with the soft, option-compound.
Over the past five years, Suzuka has seen the fourth lowest rate of retirement on the calendar with 16.4% of starters failing to make it to the finish. However, those failures have been concentrated as first-lap accidents with only Melbourne having seen more drivers fail to make it to the second lap. That means the potential for an early safety car with the circuit averaging one safety car deployment per race.
Suzuka has produced many memorable races but the 1994 race saw one of Damon Hill’s finest drives. The penultimate race of the season saw Hill needing to win to stay in touch with Michael Schumacher for the title. However, the race started in atrocious rain and several aquaplaned off the track. Schumacher was leading from Hill but when Martin Brundle spun-off and hit a marshal attending another incident the red-flag was shown. On resumption, Hill’s Williams took the lead when Schumacher pitted. However, simply finishing ahead of his rival wouldn’t be enough as the race would be decided on aggregate corrected time meaning Hill had to wipe out a 6.8 second deficit too. Hill kept up the pace and finished just far enough ahead of the Benetton driver to take the victory.
Ones To Watch
Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have excelled on Suzuka’s sweeping turns in recent years and will be hoping for more of the same in their pursuit of Fernando Alonso in the World Championship.
The fanatical local support will once again turn to Kamui Kobayashi who makes a habit of having an eventful time whenever in his home country. His team mate, meanwhile, will be out to show his next employers that Sergio Perez was the right man to replace Lewis Hamilton.
Food for Thought
Who do you think will win in Japan? Is it now a two-horse race between Vettel and Alonso or will someone else re-enter the picture? How will McLaren and Hamilton’s remaining time together unfold?
Circuit Profile – Suzuka Circuit
The Ascent of Suzuka – The Evolution of John Hugenholtz’s Design
2011 Japanese Grand Prix – Button Wins but Vettel Sweeps to Title
Photos: Red Bull Racing/Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Red Bull Racing/Clive Mason/Getty Images, Sauber Motorsport AG, Lotus F1 Team/Steven Tee/LAT Photographic