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Suzuka: F1's rollercoaster ride

ESPNF1 Staff
October 6, 2010
The Suzuka circuit is a drivers' favourite © Sutton Images
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In its 21 years as a Formula One venue, Suzuka has been the scene of nine title deciders. It's impossible for any of the top five drivers to secure the championship this weekend but the bottom three could all come close to writing off their chances with a DNF. The pressure is on all of them and a huge amount of pressure will weigh on every decision they make out on track. Add to that the likelihood of rain and the demands of the 3.6 mile circuit and we should be in for a thrilling weekend.

On Form

In the last five races Fernando Alonso has taken 19 points out of Mark Webber's lead over him in the championship. That's quite an impressive statistic on its own, but when you consider one of those races was a costly DNF for Alonso while Webber has come away from all five reasonably satisfied, you start to understand the momentum Alonso is carrying into the final four rounds. Belgium aside, when he's had the fastest car (Germany and Italy) he has won and when he hasn't had the fastest car he's finished ahead of at least one Red Bull (Hungary and Singapore). Put simply, if the trend continues Webber will have to up his game. "Solid results" are no longer good enough.

Out of Form

It was no surprise to see Nick Heidfeld struggle on his return to F1 at the Singapore Grand Prix. Although he had only been away from F1 for 14 races, returning to a brand new car - with a complicated F-duct, a balance-shifting blown diffuser and completely foreign tyres - on a circuit as difficult as Singapore was a huge ask. Suzuka should be an improvement, but his understanding of the car will still be in it preliminary stages while team-mate Kamui Kobayashi has a season's-worth of ups and downs to call upon. What's more the pressure is mounting on Heidfeld as the last four races are now his shop window to try and sell himself to another team for 2011. Sergio Perez will replace him at Sauber next year and with his Pirelli knowledge no longer a unique selling point, he will have to prove himself on the track.

Adrian Sutil was very fast on Friday in 2009 © Getty Images
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One to Watch

Adrian Sutil knows Suzuka well. He won the Japanese F3 title in 2006 before he made his step up to F1 and raced there four times during the year. On his return to the circuit last year he topped the second Friday practice session and found grip in the wet where others couldn't. Rain is forecast again this weekend and Suzuka's characteristics should see a return to form for Force India.

Talking Points

Suzuka safety
Tonio Liuzzi recently described Suzuka as "old-school" and "a real man's circuit" due to its super-fast corners and limited run-off areas. One mistake can be very costly, as Mark Webber found out when he binned his car during practice last year and had to sit out of qualifying. Tarmac run-off has been laid where possible but the layout of the circuit means the barriers are still very tight for a non-street circuit. Fortunately everybody loves Suzuka enough to look past the dangers, but it'll be no surprise if there are more big shunts this weekend.

The question mark over Korea
In a bizarre and rather farcical turn of events, the drivers and teams head to Suzuka not knowing whether they have four or three races remaining in the season. The final layer of the surface of the Korean International Circuit is being laid this week and should be ready in time for the FIA's inspection on Monday. However, 11 days is an awfully short amount of time for concrete to cure and, if the FIA decide the track is not safe, the race will have to be called off. Meanwhile, the drivers will take to the track this weekend with the possibility of moving goalposts, making risk analysis in the race all the more complicated.

Felipe Massa
Felipe Massa could become the key to the championship for Fernando Alonso over the next four races. Every point the Brazilian takes off his team-mate's competitors will be vital and could make all the difference. The only danger is if he gets ahead of Alonso and is faced with another Hockenheim-style dilemma. It could be a very frustrating end to the season for Massa.

Suzuka was the scene of some big accidents last year © Sutton Images
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Trivia

  • The circuit was designed by John Hugenholtz for Soichiro Honda in the early 1960s to develop the marques cars and motorbikes for competition
  • The very first design proposal had three cross overs, 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
  • The first race took place on the circuit in May 1963 and was won by Peter Warr in a Lotus 23 sportscar. The ex-Lotus team boss passed away earlier this week
  • The Suzuka circuit is next to an amusement park called Motopia. A new ride for 2010 called "Putti Grand Prix", gives children aged seven years and older a chance to drive on a mini recreation of the full circuit

Fast Facts

  • The lap record is 1:30.341, held by Sebastian Vettel and set at the 2009 race
  • The top speed reached on the circuit is 195mph (312km/h) at the end of the back straight and on entry to the 130R corner
  • The 400m long pit lane should cost drivers 18.7 seconds, plus stationary time, to make a pit stop
  • On average there have been 0.3 safety cars per race in Suzuka's history

Circuit

Suzuka is one of the classic circuits on the F1 calendar, compromising of high-speed corners in a unique figure-of-eight layout. In theory it will favour the Red Bulls but Ferrari shouldn't be far behind and the McLaren's superior F-duct should come into play. Overtaking is limited but still possible. Heavy braking into the final chicane offers the best opportunity to pass but a move into the first corner is also possible if a mistake is made by the lead car heading onto the pit straight. In 2005 Fernando Alonso overtook Michael Schumacher around the outside of the 190mph 130R, but such heroics are unlikely to be repeated.

© ESPNF1
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Weather

Rain is expected on all three days, meaning we could be set for an exciting weekend. There hasn't been a wet race since 1995, although there have been plenty of wet practice and qualifying sessions, and even a typhoon in 2004. Driving Suzuka in the wet is a bit of a dark art and better grip is often found off the racing line.

Betting

Sebastian Vettel is once again the favourite for this weekend at 15/8 ahead of Fernando Alonso at 11/4. Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton are tied at 7/2, while, considering a wet race is on the cards, Jenson Button has relatively long odds at 11/1. In the championship battle Alonso is now 15/8 while Hamilton's double retirement has extended his odds to 8/1.

Prediction

Sebastian Vettel was awesome here last year and needs to do the same this time around if he wants to keep his championship chances alive. Over one lap he is still quicker than Mark Webber and as long as he makes it through the first corner unscathed he should be in the best car to win the race.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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