The Formula 1 field heads to the challenging Suzuka circuit this weekend, a true favourite among many drivers, for the Japanese Grand Prix.
|2015 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix|
|Date||25-27 September 2015||Lap Length||5.807km|
|Free Practice Session 1||Fri 10:00-11:30||Free Practice Session 2||Fri 14:00-15:30|
|Free Practice Session 3||Sat 12:00-13:00||Qualifying||Sat 15:00-16:00|
|Race (53 laps)||Sun 14:00-16:00||2014 Winner||Lewis Hamilton|
Session times quoted in Japan Standard Time (GMT + 09:00)
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.
Rewind to 2014
After taking advantage of mechanical dramas for teammate Nico Rosberg last time out at Singapore to reclaim the championship lead, Lewis Hamilton rubbed salt into the wounds by beating the German in a terrific straight fight at Suzuka.
Any sense of celebration was soured, however, after the race was stopped 44 laps in when Marussia driver Jules Bianchi was involved in a sickening – and eventually fatal – collision with a trackside recovery vehicle.
With heavy arrival hitting the circuit in the hours before the race, the Grand Prix began behind the Safety Car but was halted after just two slow laps as a number of runners complained that the conditions and visibility were too poor.
Fortunately, the conditions eased quite quickly and the field could return to the track for another run behind the Safety Car before hopefully being released into some high-speed racing.
Incredibly, Fernando Alonso only managed to see his Ferrari last a few corners before it conked out in the Esses with flooded electrics. He would be – amazingly, given the conditions – the race’s only true non-classified driver in the final standings.
The race ultimately went green on Lap 10 – about five laps too late, in the eyes of many – and the Mercedes duo of Rosberg and Hamilton quickly skipped off into the distance, while the two Williams’ of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa played a blocking role against the chasing pack.
Hamilton had looked the quicker of the Mercedes pairing, but lost out on snatching the lead at the first round of pit stops with a mistake on his in-lap. He emerged just behind Rosberg, but the German was unhappy in the changeable conditions was was soon overtaken by Hamilton on Lap 29.
Further behind, the Red Bulls of Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo were revelling in the less-soaked conditions, with both managing to dispose of the Williams’ with bold overtaking moves. Vettel made his moves stick at the Hairpin, while Ricciardo took the more flamboyant route, passing Massa and then Bottas with sensational moves through the Esses!
Hamilton quickly built up an ultimately unchallenged lead before the second round of pit stops, while the balance of the race saw an entertaining scrap for the final podium position featuring the two Red Bulls and McLaren’s Jenson Button, which had benefited from a very early switch to Intermediate tyres. Vettel and Ricciardo would eventually prevail over the Englishman to round out the top four positions.
The heavens began to open in earnest at the 40-lap mark, and a lap later Sutil lost control of his Sauber at the exit of the Dunlop corner. slamming at some speed into the trackside barriers. Barely a lap later and the Safety Car was called: there were initially fears that either Sutil or one of the marshals had been hurt, until word crept through that it was Bianchi…
The Form Guide
Ferrari and Red Bull Racing had both earmarked last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix as perhaps the final opportunity of the season to seriously challenge the dominant Mercedes’, but even they would not have anticipated just how competitive they were to be around the Marina Bay street circuit. Conversely, even fewer would have predicted just how much the Silver Arrows were going to struggle…
It has been suggested that the FIA and Pirelli’s newly mandated minimum starting tyre pressure rules might have messed with the Mercedes F1W06 Hybrid’s finely-tuned set-up, and perhaps this is the case to an extent. But there were other factors at play as well.
Singapore is one of the hottest events on the calendar, and as was the case in Malaysia and Hungary, these were conditions that played more into the hands of Ferrari, with the SF15-T seemingly relishing the warmer conditions. For Red Bull Racing, a track layout with a multitude of slow corners coupled with the lack of any significant straights offset the horsepower disadvantage it has with its Renault power units.
The question will be whether either team can carry that momentum into Japan, a vastly different track that typically presents much cooler weather conditions. If last year’s form was anything to go by, the Mercedes’ were the class of the field in wet and dry conditions, and there’s little reason to doubt why a repeat won’t be on the cards.
That being said, Suzuka’s neverending succession of corners could suit the Red Bull RB11, while four-time Suzuka winner Sebastian Vettel has never finished off the podium here in six attempts. Could he add a fifth Japanese Grand Prix victory to his name this weekend?
If Lewis Hamilton was going to drop points anywhere in the season, then Singapore was probably the place to do it, such was Mercedes’ struggles there this weekend. The Englishman retired early on with an apparent throttle problem that spread into the turbo, but his teammate and chief title rival Nico Rosberg could only finish a distant fourth to trim the points’ gap to Hamilton to 41 points.
Image via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team