This weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix will – barring disaster – see the sport crown another double World Champion in the form of Sebastian Vettel, who needs just a single championship point to sew up what has been an utterly dominant 2011 championship campaign.
The F1 circus heads to the ultra-challenging Suzuka circuit – one of the favourites among drivers past and present – to do battle over 53 intense laps on Sunday.
Let’s take a detailed look at the action that lays ahead of us this weekend at the Japanese Grand Prix…
|Date:||9 October 2011||No. Laps||53|
|Lap Length:||5.807km||Race Distance:||307.471km|
|Lap Record:||1:31.540, Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren) – 2005|
|Last Year’s Winner:||Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing)|
With the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit now enjoying sole hosting duties for the Japanese Grand Prix after the (Toyota-owned) Fuji International Circuit brief return to the fold, 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.
Memorable Suzuka Moments
With its late-season slot often meaning that it plays host to championship deciders, Suzuka is often synonymous with action, and certainly a bit of controversy since it made its debut on the F1 calendar in 1987.
Picking our five most memorable Suzuka moments has been a tough ask. Here they are:
1989: The feud between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna came to a flashpoint during the championship-deciding Japanese Grand Prix. The McLaren team-mates were the only ones in the title hunt: Prost simply needed to finish ahead of Senna to claim the title, while Senna needed to win to keep the battle alive to the season-ending Australian Grand Prix. With the pair running 1-2, Senna attempted a pass on Prost at the Casio Chicane, but Prost closed the door and the pair collided. Prost climbed out, while Senna was disqualified for receiving assistance from the marshals to rejoin the race.
1990: After their contretemps at the previous year’s race, the battle between Prost and Senna was on again. This time Senna got revenge by deliberately ramming the Frenchman (now driving for Ferrari) off at Turn 1 on the opening lap to win his second Drivers’ Championship. Nelson Piquet came through to claim Benetton’s first 1-2, while Aguri Suzuki delighted home fans with third place in his Larrousse.
1994: Another crucial championship round, which saw Damon Hill keep his championship battle with Michael Schumacher alive until the following Australian Grand Prix. The Williams driver mastered some of the worst conditions ever seen to win a two-part race from Schumacher, narrowing the points’ gap between the pair to just a single point.
2000: With Mika Häkkinen having secured successive championship crowns with wins in his McLaren in 1998 and 1999 to see off the challenge of the Ferraris, Michael Schumacher finally got his revenge with a win to claim Ferrari’s first World Championship since 1979 and deny the Finn an historic threepeat.
2005: Suzuka has never enjoyed a reputation for overtaking, but the 2005 race was a magnificent exception. A rain-hit qualifying session completely shuffled the grid, and Kimi Raikkonen charged through from 17th on the grid to claim victory on the last lap of the race. Phew!
Suzuka Talking Points
What are the three big talking points of the Japanese Grand Prix?
What records can Sebastian Vettel still claim? With nine wins to-date, Sebastian Vettel can break Michael Schumacher’s 2004 record of 13 wins in a season, although he will need to win each of the remaining races this year to do so. If he finishes on the podium at each of the remaining races, he will break Schumacher’s 2002 record of 17 podiums. If he claims four more pole positions before the end of the year, he will break Nigel Mansell’s 1992 record of fourteen poles. At least one thing is almost certain: he will become the sport’s youngest-ever double World Champion.
Who will win the battle for runners-up honours? Sebastian Vettel’s utterly dominant run to the championship is practically signed, sealed and delivered, but it’s the battle for second place that will grab everyone’s attention. Just three points cover Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, while Lewis Hamilton just 14 points off Webber and could still feature, despite what has clearly been an up-and-down season for him.
How will F1 support the local fans? The Japanese Grand Prix will be among the biggest international sporting events to hit the country since the tragic earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s east coast earlier this year. Despite minor concerns that the event wouldn’t go ahead, the F1 circus will be out in force to give back to a country that has been pivotal to F1’s success. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has donated thousands of tickets, while the likes of Jenson Button, Kazuki Nakajima and Vitantonio Liuzzi have already indicated that they will be making their own contributions to support the relief effort.
The Form Guide
Suzuka’s aero-dependent nature will undoubtedly favour the two Red Bulls – as was the case last year – and the form guide would surely lend the Milton Keynes squad to be unbackable favourites to claim victory this weekend.
Vettel is going to want to defend his title in the ultimate fashion, and despite just needing a single point to sew it all up, one gets the feeling that anything less than another win won’t do.
McLaren would be best placed to pick up the spoils, particularly given its versatility on all of Pirelli’s tyre compounds. This is a circuit where both Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton have performed well in the past, and Hamilton in particular will be looking to have a strong – and more importantly, error-free – weekend to take some of the mounting pressure off him.
Mercedes GP is comfortably stretching a margin over Renault in the battle for fourth place, and the team’s improved form could see it in a position to claim a few scalps this weekend. Both Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher (in particular) had competitive showings here last year.
By contrast, Renault’s fortunes are continuing to slide, as its gamble on a forward-facing exhaust configuration has well and truly backfired. The team its least-competitive showing of the season at the last round at Singapore, and while Suzuka is a completely different beast, it would also seem that the team’s latest upgrades are yet to deliver the gains it had hoped for.
Meanwhile, Force India is rapidly moving to within striking distance of threatening Renault in the Constructors’ Championship, with the VJM03 improving in leaps and bounds in recent weeks. The team now lies comfortably ahead of seventh-placed Sauber, with the Swiss team relying on a heavily updated C30 to bring it closer to the upper-midfield and to challenge for points.
Certainly Kamui Kobayashi will be looking to replicate some of his banzai heroics from his home race last year, and he’ll be out to get himself back in the spotlight after a largely anonymous second half of 2011.
And keep an eye out for Toro Rosso this weekend, who have generally managed to unlock a bit of extra speed when they hit Suzuka. If the team can just sort out its qualifying pace, then it could really be something to watch.