With just four rounds left in a gripping 2010 Formula 1 season, we are facing one of the most open championships in close to 25 years, with five drivers still in serious contention for the Drivers’ Championship and eight drivers still mathematically in contention.
Heading into the pointy end of the season, every round is absolutely crucial, and the notion that any driver can ease off heading into the home stretch is very much a mistaken one.
For the famous five still in the serious hunt for the championship – Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button – the next four races are make-or-break, where one slip-up could see them jettisoned from the championship race altogether.
And what better place to stage the next round than one of the ultimate driving challenges in the form of the Suzuka International Circuit, home of this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Let’s have a look at the form guide and our predictions for the weekend’s action…
|Date:||10 October 2010||No. Laps||53|
|Lap Length:||5.807km||Race Distance:||307.471km|
|Lap Record:||1:31.540 – Kimi Räikkönen (2005, McLaren)|
With the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit now seemingly having regained sole hosting rights for the Japanese Grand Prix from the rival (Toyota-owned) Fuji International Circuit, every driver looks forward to the challenges that this unique circuit poses.
One of the few figure-of-eight circuits in the world, Suzuka is the only one of this configuration on the F1 calendar, and remains a supreme test of driver skill, right up there with the likes of Spa-Francorchamps.
Designed by John Hugenholtz, the narrow, undulating circuit features virtually ever type of corner imaginable.
It opens with a seemingly never-ending series of S-bends in the first sector, which are among the most demanding sequence of corners on the F1 calendar. Exiting the long Dunlop left-hander, the drivers have to hop the kerbs over the Degner right-handers before sweeping under the cross-over bridge and into the tight left-hand hairpin. Exiting this, drivers are then tested with a long right-hander before sweeping into the Spoon Curve and feeding onto the back straight. The final test of the lap comes with the 130R left-hander – much of its challenge has been nullified with ongoing safety modifications – before they stand on the anchors for the Casio chicane, a fiddly right-left that marks one of the few true overtaking points on the circuit.
The History Bit
With its undulating nature, narrow track surface and such a sequence of tricky corners, Suzuka hasn’t held a reputation as an overtaking paradise since its F1 debut in 1987, although there are always a few exceptions to the rule.
But the Suzuka circuit – with the event traditionally held late in the season – has often been the host of many a title-deciding race.
Indeed, the 1987 weekend saw Nigel Mansell’s championship hopes evaporate with a practice accident in his Williams that saw him suffer serious back injuries that handed the title to Nelson Piquet.
In 1988, Ayrton Senna won the title after fluffing his start and staging a charge through the field to steal the lead from McLaren team-mate Alain Prost. The following year would see a flashpoint in the ongoing clash between Prost and Senna, but this time the title was resolved in Prost’s failure after the two collided at the Casio chicane, with Senna disqualified after receiving assistance from the track marshals.
The following year saw Senna gain revenge from Prost – now driving for Ferrari – by deliberately ramming the Frenchman off at Turn 1 on the opening lap to win his second Drivers’ Championship.
The following year, Prost was well out of the title hunt, and Senna took his final championship after chief rival Mansell spun out trying to chase down the Brazilian early in the race.
The 1994 round also saw Damon Hill keep the championship open until the season-ending Australian Grand Prix with a brilliant drive in appallingly wet conditions to win, and narrow the points’ gap to Michael Schumacher to a single point.
The 1996 and 1998 title deciders at Suzuka were both resolved by wheel or tyre failure, with Jacques Villeneuve handing the crown to Williams team-mate Hill in the former, and Michael Schumacher suffering a tyre blow-out to give Mika Häkkinen his first championship the following year.
The year after that, Häkkinen took back-to-back titles when he held off Eddie Irvine to snatch the crown, but in 2000, Schumacher took Ferrari’s first Drivers’ Championship since 1979 when he beat the Finn and deny him an historic threepeat.
The 2003 race also saw Schumacher take his sixth championship crown, but he did it in the least champion-like manner with a scrappy run to take the single point he needed with an eighth-placed finish.
What to expect?
The nature of the Japanese circuit is seemingly going to suit the Red Bull squad, which has consistently proven that it has the chassis to cope with the sudden direction changes and high-speed sweeps that are the DNA of the Suzuka track.
At last year’s race, Sebastian Vettel proved virtually unstoppable in the Red Bull, and the young German will be hoping for back-to-back victories to keep him in the title hunt, lest he fall too far behind the others.
Team-mate and championship-leader Mark Webber has never enjoyed the most successful time at Suzuka – his best result is a fourth-placed finish in 2005 – and he certainly won’t be hoping for a repeat of his result here last year, when he destroyed his car in a qualifying smash and effectively ruled himself out of a good result. Webber will certainly have a few points to prove this weekend, and he’ll want to shake the bogey-track reputation that Suzuka seems threatening to smother him with.
Fernando Alonso has momentum on his side – back-to-back race wins in Italy and Singapore, plus scoring the most points of any driver in the last seven rounds – and he is a surprise championship contender after a stellar second-half of his season. That he will be able to take a hat-trick of wins on the circuit where he won in 2006 seems unlikely, but expect him to be a podium contender at least.
After three rounds where only one of its cars has scored, McLaren finds itself slipping further behind Red Bull in the Constructors’ Championship battle and starting to be threatened by third-placed Ferrari with each passing round.
Following back-to-back retirements courtesy of botched passing attempts, Lewis Hamilton is probably the man most under pressure at the moment, and will be desperate for a good result this weekend to keep his hopes alive.
Faced with the prospect of a very competitive – not necessarily on outright pace, but certainly better in level-headedness – team-mate in Jenson Button, Hamilton will be hoping his adoration for the Suzuka circuit can be matched in the form of a good result.
With the Japanese circuit rewarding a smooth driving style, this is a place where Jenson Button has typically driven at ten-tenths. Many will recall his impressive fifth on the grid during his debut season, out-qualifying team-mate Ralf Schumacher on a circuit that he’d never seen and that the German was very familiar with.
Renault and Mercedes GP might find themselves as prospects for minor points’ finishes this weekend, but anything higher than that will be a surprise, as it’s unlikely either squad will really feature unless the weather turns sour and helps to equalise the field somewhat.
After a rather wretched return season, Michael Schumacher will be hoping for a decent result on a circuit where he has won six times previously. Currently sitting on the wrong side of a 12-3 qualifying match-up and close to 80 points behind his team-mate Rosberg, here’s hoping he can turn the tables after a scruffy race in Singapore.
A team perhaps worth a punt on a points’ finish might be Toro Rosso, which is doing its now typical late surge to competitiveness after spending much of the season trying to figure out their car. On the back of their most competitive qualifying showing in Singapore – where Jaime Alguersuari posted a career-best 11th in qualifying – the team’s surge in speed could also be attributed to the ‘F-duct’ it has finally fitted to the STR5.
Last year, both Alguersuari and Buemi were incredibly quick at Suzuka, but threw away the prospect of a hefty points haul by having an almost magnetic affinity with the track’s closely-positioned Armco barriers. Assuming the car is again quick this year, and hoping they can assume a more disciplined approach, don’t bet against their best showing of the season.
Lastly, the Japanese crowd is stoically passionate about the achievements of any of their home drivers on the grid, and will be cheering on the combative Kamui Kobayashi and the improving Sakon Yamamoto – assuming he doesn’t get struck down by more mystery ailments – from the grandstands. Japanese drivers have been known to deliver heroic performances on home soil (Aguri Suzuki’s podium in 1990 and Takuma Sato’s points’ finishes with Jordan and BAR are cases in point), and the fans will certainly be hoping for more of the same.
In any respect, this will be a great race. As always, the team at Richard’s F1 will provide you with all of the latest news, gossip and analysis as it happens. Have a great Japanese Grand Prix!