The Formula 1 circus gears itself up for another run of back-to-back races over the next two weekends. The series heads to Japan’s Suzuka circuit this weekend, ahead of its first visit to Russian soil.
After an enthralling Singapore Grand Prix, this weekend’s hit-out promises to deliver another exciting chapter in a tense battle for World Championship honours.
|2014 FORMULA 1 JAPANESE GRAND PRIX
|Date||3-5 October 2014|
|Free Practice Session 1||Fri 10:00-11:30|
|Free Practice Session 2||Fri 14:00-15:30|
|Free Practice Session 3||Sat 11:00-12:00|
|Race (53 laps)||Sun 15:00-17:00|
|Lap Record||1:31.540 (2005)|
|2013 Winner||Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing)|
* All session times are quoted in Japan Standard Time (UTC +09:00 hrs)
The Honda-owned Suzuka circuit has enjoyed hosting the Japanese Grand Prix ever since 1987 (bar a brief excursion to the Fuji International circuit in the late 2000s), and every driver looks forward to the challenges that this unique venue 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.
Penned by Zandvoort designer John Hugenholtz, the narrow, undulating circuit features virtually every 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 swinging left into the Spoon Curve that feeds 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 the drivers stand on the anchors for the Casio Triangle, a fiddly right-left chicane that marks one of the few true overtaking points on the circuit.
The History Bit
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 Renault 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 before the infamous finale in Adelaide…
- 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 great 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!
Rewind to 2013
Sebastian Vettel was comfortably romping to a fourth successive World Chapionship title last year and looked to have it all done and dusted when the traveling circus hit Suzuka. The Red Bull Racing driver needed to win the race with his sole championship rival, Fernando Alonso, finishing ninth or lower.
Victory would once again go the German’s way, but unlike most of the cruises to victory that he enjoyed in the back half of 2013, he was made to work for this win by – of all people – Romain Grosjean.
The young Lotus driver made a demon start and took the lead from pole-sitter Mark Webber and Vettel off the line. Another fast starter was Lewis Hamilton, but he tagged Vettel on the sprint to Turn 1 and copped a race-ending puncture. With luck on his side as ever, Vettel suffered no such misfortune and was the star player in a three-way strategic battle for victory.
He opted for a two-stop race, while teammate Webber – on a lower-downforce set-up – ran with three and was yet again outfoxed by his teammate, who swept by Grosjean in the final stages to claim victory. Webber’s fresher tyres also got him ahead of Grosjean to claim second on the final lap, but Alonso managed to claim fourth and keep his folorn Drivers’ Championship title challenge alive until the next Grand Prix in India.
The Form Guide
Suzuka has been something of a happy hunting ground for the Renault brand, with five of the last ten outings here delivering victory for one of the cars it powered – four of the last five have been claimed by the Red Bull Racing Renault of Sebastian Vettel (2009-10, 2012-13), along with works Renault driver Fernando Alonso claiming an all-important win here in 2006 en route to a successful defence of his World Championship title.
Rewinding the clock back into the 1990s, the French engine maker has also enjoyed victory here on three more occasions, with Riccardo Patrese (Williams Renault, 1992) and Damon Hill (1994 and 1996, Williams Renault) managing to taste the victory champagne.
Whether the Red Bull / Renault combination manages to make it three wins in a row remains to be seen. The team had high hopes of challenging the Mercedes-powered cars on the streets of Singapore a fortnight ago and ultimately came up short, but Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo still walked away with a double-podium effort behind the victorious Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton’s victory and a DNF for teammate Nico Rosberg returned the Englishman to the top of the Drivers’ Championship standings with a 3-point lead. With five races to run, it’s a straight fight between the teammates.
Daniel Ricciardo remains in with a shot as the head of the ‘best of the rest’, but will need to outscore both Silver Arrows this weekend to keep his slim title hopes alive. Interestingly, none of this year’s championship contenders have celebrated victory here before.
Suzuka is a circuit that rewards outstanding aerodynamics rather than outright power – although its two straights still call for a bit of top-end grunt – and this may be something that plays into the Red Bull pair’s hands, particularly through the twisting ‘Esses’ section that opens the lap. Few cars can corner quite as well as the RB10s, and this might give them an advantage when the track opens for business.
After Ricciardo’s back-to-back wins in Hungary and Belgium, Mercedes seems to have restored order at the top. Reliability, however, will be the thorn in everyone’s side, particularly as the scarcity of spare engines starts to rear its head. A ten-place grid penalty for exceeding the engine allocation could be a championship killer.
Beyond the reigning and aspiring champion teams, keep an eye out in the midfield for Scuderia Toro Rosso. The Faenza team’s Renault-powered STR9s looked mighty quick at Singapore, and propelled a motivated Jean-Éric Vergne to a brilliant sixth-placed finish. The out-of-contract Frenchman will be keen to repeat the dose at a circuit he describes as one of his favourites.
The team will also debut the sport’s youngest ever driver in Friday practice, with 17-year-old Dutch racer Max Verstappen having his maiden FP1 outing ahead of a full-time debut next year. The son of former F1 racer Jos Verstappen, young Max has been a sensation in his first year of single-seater racing in the European F3 Championship and immediately drawn comparisons to Ayrton Senna. His progress this weekend will certainly be interesting.
Images via AutoLimite and Sutton Images