- Japanese Grand Prix preview
Suzuka celebrations?Chris Medland October 10, 2013
Haven't we been here before? The Formula One circus sets up in Japan this weekend with Sebastian Vettel able to wrap up the world championship at Suzuka, just as he did in 2011. The equation is simple, but also less likely than two years ago; Vettel has to win to have any chance of sealing the championship and Fernando Alonso can finish no higher than ninth. Lotus pushed him relatively close in Korea, but can anyone bring Red Bull's winning run to an end?
In FormIt's a ridiculous reflection of the sport at present that Nico Hulkenberg faces an uncertain future despite displaying his undoubted talent. Hulkenberg's drive in Korea was superb, overtaking Fernando Alonso on the opening lap and then withstanding pressure from the Ferrari before then jumping Lewis Hamilton after a safety car and then holding both world champions behind him to the line. Fourth place equalled the best result of his career, but that those results have come in a Force India and a Sauber highlights his potential. It seems clear that Hulkenberg tops the Lotus wishlist but the team needs to get its finances in order first, and it appears that with each passing race his stock continues to rise.
Out of FormMore out of luck than out of form, but Mark Webber has failed to score in the last two races through no fault of his own, and on both occasions his race has ended with his car alight. In Singapore a gearbox problem eventually stopped him on the final lap, while in Korea it was the spinning Adrian Sutil colliding with the side of his Red Bull which resulted in another fire. With just five races of his Formula One career remaining, Webber will be hoping for a reversal of fortunes at one of the sport's most iconic tracks.
One to watchThe pressure is starting to mount on Paul di Resta after another driver error ended his race in Korea. While earlier in the season it appeared that di Resta would have a seat at Force India for 2014 to fall back on if a move to a bigger team didn't materialise, now he's facing the possibility of dropping out of the sport altogether. Korea was his fourth consecutive retirement and the last three have all been down to driver error causing him to crash out of the race, so he'll be determined to bounce back with a strong result at a track where he is yet to score in his Formula One career.
It's a fairly simple equation for Sebastian Vettel this weekend: he must win the race. Fail to pick up 25 points and the champagne will have to remain on ice until at least India, but if he does win and Fernando Alonso finishes lower than eighth place then the championship is Vettel's once again. If Alonso is ninth and Vettel wins then they could still theoretically finish on the same number of points but Vettel will be guaranteed the title by virtue of having more wins.
Suzuka gets a lot of love from the drivers and the drivers get even more from the Japanese fans. The whole experience is pretty well summed up by Romain Grosjean, who said: "You can't help but mention the Japanese fans as well; they really are in a league of their own! Everywhere you look there are people with shirts, flags, crazy hats, and so many other things they have made at home just to show their support for the drivers on one weekend of the year. I don't think any of us will forget the noise last year when [Kamui] Kobayashi got his first Formula 1 podium in front of his home crowd… my ears were ringing all the way to Korea; it was unbelievable!"
Many seats remain undecided for 2014, and interesting comments from various team members in Korea have only added to speculation. Martin Whitmarsh said he doesn't feel Fernando Alonso is available for next year, but did not rule out anything beyond that, with McLaren also looking to find Kevin Magnussen and Stofel Vandoorne drives next year, increasing the pressure on Sergio Perez. Nico Hulkenberg has emerged as the Lotus favourite but has set the team an ultimatum of the end of the month to make a decision, Force India now looks set to wait until the end of the season before making a call on its drivers - leaving both Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta sitting uncomfortably - and Sauber has ruled out signing Rubens Barrichello, but that isn't stopping him from pursuing a return.
After a bit of a lull in the criticism of Pirelli, the complaints reared their head again in Korea, most notably from Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso. Webber was angry after getting a puncture from tyre debris after Sergio Perez's tyre delaminated (following a heavy lock-up) and claimed: "The drivers aren't super important - it is what other people want." Alonso had questioned the quality of the Pirelli tyres, prompting Paul Hembery to retort: "I can only suggest he goes to ask the soon-to-be four time champion how to get the best from the same tyres." Any issues at Suzuka will just set them all off again…
- The circuit was designed by John Hugenholtz for Soichiro Honda in the early 1960s to develop the company's cars and motorbikes for competition
- The very first design proposal had three crossovers, with a very tight section of track after the first corner that doubled back on itself twice. It was later simplified to include the now-famous sweeping bends at the start of the lap
- As the only circuit with a figure of eight layout, the first half of the lap is clockwise and the second half is anti-clockwise
- The Suzuka circuit is next to an amusement park called Motopia. A ride called "Putti Grand Prix" has proved popular in recent years and gives children aged seven years and older a chance to drive on a mini version of the full circuit
- Drivers spend 70% of the lap at full throttle and keep the pedal to the metal for 16 seconds from Turn 14, through 130R to the chicane
- There are four corners on the circuit with an apex speed above 250kph
- With relatively short run-off areas, the safety car has been deployed in five of the last eight races at Suzuka
- The official lap record is 1:31.540, held by Kimi Raikkonen and set during his stunning victory at the circuit in 2005
CircuitSuzuka is one of the classic circuits on the F1 calendar, made up of high-speed corners in a unique figure-of-eight layout. The Degners are among the most challenging corners for a modern Formula One car and have been the scene of several heavy accidents in recent years due to the close barriers. Overtaking opportunities are limited but the DRS zone along the pit straight - which this year has been extended by 100m - is designed to help this. Heavy braking into the final chicane also offers a good opportunity to pass, providing the following car can stay close through the 190mph 130R left-hander. In 2005 Fernando Alonso overtook Michael Schumacher around the outside 130R, but such heroics are unlikely to be repeated.
Driver StewardEmanuele Pirro remains as the driver steward this weekend having carried out the duties in Korea. He is most famous for his five Le Mans 24 Hours victories but also drove during three seasons in Formula One between 1989 and 1991. His debut as an FIA Steward came at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and he has returned regularly since.
WeatherHeavy rain has hit Suzuka earlier this week, with the teams setting up in torrential downpours on Wednesday. There is a threat of thunderstorms on Friday afternoon which could affect the practice running - especially in FP2 - but the rest of the weekend looks to be dry, warm and sunny.
BettingSebastian Vettel remains heavy favourite after his fourth consecutive victory, although odds of 1/2 aren't going to tempt those looking for a small flutter. Lewis Hamilton is 7/1 but struggled to fifth place here last season, while Kimi Raikkonen is the better bet at 10/1 along with Fernando Alonso. Romain Grosjean qualified well in Japan last year and on recent form is definitely worth a look at 11/4 for the podium, and with Turn 1 often seeing incidents at the start of the race Nico Hulkenberg is a good outsider for a podium at 20/1. Sauber has been strong lately, so perhaps have a good look at Esteban Gutierrez at 15/8 to pick up his first point too.
ESPN predictionWe went for the boring option of tipping the obvious favourite to win last weekend, and we're going to have to do the same this time with Sebastian Vettel on the cusp of another world championship. However, we'll also back Fernando Alonso to ensure the title race continues to India at least.
Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1