- Japanese Grand Prix preview
One point away from glory ...Laurence Edmondson October 6, 2011
Even if Sebastian Vettel decides to retire during Thursday's press conference, he will still be the overwhelming favourite to become the 2011 Formula One world champion. Just one point, either won by him or dropped by Jenson Button, will see him crowned a worthy champion in Japan this weekend - and Suzuka is a fitting venue for the occasion. But that doesn't mean we're in for a boring race, as the figure-of-eight layout often supplies plenty of thrills and spills and is one of the best circuits in the world at which to watch an F1 car in action. Naturally, McLaren, Ferrari and Mark Webber will be doing everything they can to scupper Vettel's dream result, so when the lights go out on Sunday we should be in for another cracker.
On FormFor what it's worth, Jenson Button is the only man still capable of denying Sebastian Vettel the 2011 world championship. His chances are close to zero but the fact that he's there at all is testimony to his impressive performances in the second half of this season. Since his back-to-back retirements at Silverstone and the Nurburgring - which weren't his fault - Button has been on the podium at every race. His determination over the last few laps in Singapore, when he hunted down Vettel at nearly a second a lap, proved he is still motivated to get results even when chasing a lost cause. News that he has signed a new multi-year contract with McLaren comes as no surprise and should only serve to boost his performances.
Out of formIn contrast Lewis Hamilton has failed to finish on the podium since his victory at the Nurburgring four races ago. More than anything it shows just how inconsistent McLaren has been this season - Button and Hamilton have only appeared on the podium together only once - and how much closer the championship battle could have been. Hamilton has undoubtedly been unlucky in recent races, but he has also made mistakes and at times looked unmotivated - his message to the McLaren pit wall asking what he was racing for in Singapore sounded desperate rather than determined. Although his championship challenge is over for another year it will be important to finish the final five races with a flourish in order to go into the off-season in a positive state of mind.
One to watchThe year before he arrived in Formula One, Adrian Sutil was crowned Japanese F3 champion after racing at Suzuka four times in one season. His local knowledge shone through in 2009 when he topped a wet Friday practice session and in 2007 when he scored his first F1 point there with Spyker. He wasn't so lucky last year, but Force India has been on the ascendency in recent races and Suzuka has all the hallmarks of another happy hunting ground for VJM04.
Talking pointsVettel's championship
Just one point stands between Sebastian Vettel and his second world championship. Even if he crashes out on the first lap he will still be crowned champion if Jenson Button fails to win the race, meaning the title is now a foregone conclusion. But despite the overwhelming inevitability, you can guarantee that Vettel won't be willing to jinx his chances by admitting he is champion until the deal is signed and sealed.
Button's future at McLaren
Jenson Button has renewed his McLaren contract but the big questions of 'for how long?' and 'for how much?' still remain unanswered. It has been speculated that his management team was stalling talks earlier this year because it wanted Button to be on a similar pay package to team-mate Lewis Hamilton (believed to be somewhere in the region of £14 million a year), so that's a good place to start, although several UK papers have put Button's deal at closer to £10 million a year. McLaren called it a "multi-year" deal in its press release, but earlier this season Button said he did not want to be tied in for five years in the same way Fernando Alonso is at Ferrari and on Wednesday technical director Paddy Lowe said Button's contract means he will play a part in developing the car for 2014. It is therefore fairly safe to assume that Button is locked into at least a three-year contract, possibly with an option for a fourth year under the same conditions.
Hamilton v Massa v the media
The last dregs of fuel were thrown over the smouldering remains of the Lewis Hamilton / Felipe Massa bust up earlier this week, when it emerged that Ferrari race engineer Rob Smedley had instructed his driver to "destroy" Hamilton's race in Singapore. There are probably several ways of reading that message, but to suggest that it led to the subsequent accident between the two drivers requires some creative licence. There is no doubt that both drivers will play down the story if the media attempts to breathe new life into it this weekend, and their true feelings will only be laid bare if they find themselves sharing the same piece of tarmac on Sunday.
The Japanese Grand Prix is consistently one of the best attended races on the calendar, especially when it is held at its spiritual home at Suzuka. Japanese F1 fans are like no others and go to extremes to support their favourite drivers - whether it by dressing as a can of Red Bull or by sitting it out in the grandstands in all conditions. This year there will be an added poignancy to proceedings as the country continues to recover from March's devastating earthquake, and several teams and drivers have organised charity fundraisers to help those hit hardest.
- 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 Suzuka circuit is next to an amusement park called Motopia. A new ride called "Putti Grand Prix" proved popular last year and gives children aged seven years and older a chance to drive on a mini version of the full circuit
- The official lap record is 1:31.540, held by Kimi Raikkonen and set during his stunning victory at the circuit in 2005
- The top speed reached on the circuit (without DRS) is 330km/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 0.4 safety cars per race at Suzuka since 2001
CircuitSuzuka is one of the classic circuits on the F1 calendar, made up of 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 there should be more this year with the DRS zone along the pit straight into turn one. 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 stewardThe FIA driver steward at this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix will be Alan Jones, 1980 Formula One world champion and winner of 12 grands prix. He last appeared on the panel at the Korean Grand Prix.
WeatherNo rain is expected over the three days of the Japanese Grand Prix, meaning a repeat of last year's qualifying delay is unlikely. Sunday should see clear skies, while some cloud cover is forecast on Friday and Saturday. Temperatures should be relatively cool, which won't suit the teams that struggle on the medium compound tyres such as Ferrari.
BettingSebastian Vettel is the favourite for victory by some way at 4/7, with Lewis Hamilton next up at 11/2. Fernando Alonso follows close behind at 6/1 while Jenson Button and Mark Webber, who are both in good form, are at 13/2. Home hero Kamui Kobayahsi could also be a good punt at 13/2 to finish in the top six in the updated Sauber.
ESPN predictionSebastian Vettel has been absolutely faultless this season so it's hard to imagine him wrapping up the title with anything less than a win. He's certainly in the car to do it as the Red Bull RB7 only seems to be getting stronger and has already proved its prowess at high-speed circuits such as Spa-Francorchamps.
Laurence Edmondson is an assistant editor on ESPNF1