• Japanese Grand Prix

Turning Japanese

Laurence Edmondson and Chris Medland
October 4, 2012
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The face of Formula One has changed pretty dramatically in the two weeks since the Singapore Grand Prix. Well, the future face of it has, with Lewis Hamilton confirming he will move to Mercedes next season and Sergio Perez taking his place at McLaren. Following that reshuffle it was also announced that the most successful driver in the history of the sport would retire at the end of the current campaign. But as the dust settles it's time to get back to one of the most exciting season in recent years, with six drivers still claiming they retain title aspirations. And next up is one of the best circuits on the calendar...

On form

Had Lewis Hamilton's gearbox held together at the Singapore Grand Prix it's pretty safe to say he would have won three of the last four races. Had he made the right wing choice in Spa-Francorchamps and qualified on the front row it could well have been four out of four ... and he might have signed another McLaren contract for 2013, but that's another story. As things stand he needs to win as many of the remaining six races as possible to have a chance of taking the No. 1 to Mercedes next year, but on his current form that's not impossible. McLaren have been tapping into a rich vein of performance ever since sorting out its major mid-season upgrade at the German Grand Prix. Hamilton desperately needs that continue over the next two months, although he will be less keen for it to roll over into 2013 when Sergio Perez takes his place.

Out of form

It would be a great shame if Michael Schumacher ducks out of Formula One without a 92nd victory, but it's looking increasingly likely. We now know he will not be racing in 2013 after he announced his second retirement to the world on Thursday and put an end to months of speculation. This weekend he is facing a ten-place grid penalty from wherever he qualifies after rear-ending Jean-Eric Vergne in Singapore so his chances of a good result are slimmer than usual. The only glimmer of hope for the remainder of 2012 is that Mercedes' Coanda exhaust comes good over the next few races, but the team has said it is working on the developments with a view to success 2013.

Kamui Kobayashi will be keen to get the better of his McLaren-bound team-mate in front of his home crowd © Sutton Images
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One to watch

As Sergio Perez heads for McLaren in 2013, his Sauber current team-mate Kamui Kobayashi could be facing the exit door. It would be tough justice as he has out-qualified Perez this year and has scored points at six races this season compared to Perez's seven top-ten finishes. The main difference, of course, is the Mexican's three podiums, but Kobayashi has also looked capable of finishing in the top three with a little more luck. The Sauber should be competitive in Japan and Kobayashi will be desperate to put in a barnstorming performance in front of his home crowd.

Talking points

Hamilton's new deal
We now know where Lewis Hamilton will be driving next year, but the decision has created as many questions as it has answered. The content of his press briefing in Tokyo on Wednesday dictated Thursday's headlines and both his current and future team will get a similar level of media attention over the weekend. It will be interesting to see how the news affects his mood and whether he will continue his fine run of form mentioned above.
Schumacher's retirement
In front of a packed hospitality unit Michael Schumacher announced his second retirement to the world. After news broke that Hamilton was replacing him at Mercedes in 2013, it wasn't a huge surprise but it's still a big story. He now has six races left in his F1 career, and much like Hamilton, it will be interesting to see how he performs without the burden of constant questions about his future.

The rest of the driver market
Although Schumacher has made way for Hamilton at Mercedes and Perez has slotted neatly in at McLaren, there are still several empty seats on the 2013 grid. Ferrari's second driver is the biggest unknown, with Felipe Massa apparently still in the fold but rumours gathering pace that Nico Hulkenberg will replace him on a one-year contract. Lotus should stick with its two drivers but Sauber, Force India and Williams could all change depending on who makes the next move. Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber seat looks under threat and Bruno Senna is also under pressure to prove his worth at Williams. Meanwhile, Caterham, Marussia and HRT look likely to have seats up for auction to the highest bidder.

Front wing flexing
A story on the Auto Motor und Sport website on Wednesday said Ferrari had alerted the FIA to new flexible front wing designs on the McLaren and Red Bull. The report claimed McLaren introduced the design, which apparently makes the wing rotate backwards at speed, at the Hungarian Grand Prix with Red Bull following suit in Singapore. But when questioned about the legality of his car and the chance of the FIA taking action, McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh said he was unaware of any issues. "I don't envisage any particular problems for McLaren in that regard in the near term and consequently I don't think it is anything that will harm us," he said. "Also I'm not aware of anything with Red Bull." New tests on all the teams wings are being carried out ahead of the weekend

Suzuka has been the scene of many a title decider, with Sebastian Vettel taking his second championship here last season © Sutton Images
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Trivia

  • 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 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

Fast facts

  • 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 413m-long pit lane should cost drivers 14.9 seconds, plus stationary time, to make a pit stop
  • Based on previous races there is a 50% chance of a safety car at Suzuka

Circuit

Suzuka 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 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.

FIA driver steward

Derek Warwick makes his second appearance as the driver steward this season, having sat on the panel at the German GP in July. Warwick raced in 146 grands prix, from 1981 to 1993, for Toleman, Renault, Brabham, Arrows and Lotus.

© ESPNF1
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Weather

While Japan can see some pretty torrential rain, it's a fairly simple weather forecast for this weekend. Typhoon Jelawat passed through last week, leaving a dry and warm weekend ahead. The only slight chance of rain comes on Saturday, but the team's can expect Sunday's race to be a dry one, leaving the focus on track temperature which could affect the Pirelli tyres.

Betting

Despite retiring from the last grand prix, his pace up until that point means Lewis Hamilton is favourite with the bookies this weekend at 2/1. Singapore winner Sebastian Vettel is close behind at 4/1, while Fernando Alonso is 9/2 - not the greatest odds with Ferrari unable to really challenge for victory since Germany. His five-place grid penalty makes Jenson Button a tempting 9/1 shout, while he's good odds to be the fastest qualifier at 6/1 having been just 0.007s off pole last year. If you want an outside bet, how about Kamui Kobayashi at 12/1 to finish on the podium in front of his home crowd?

ESPN prediction

Lewis Hamilton should really be arriving at Suzuka looking for his third consecutive victory after retiring from the lead of the Singapore Grand Prix, and while his performances have not suffered due to speculation about his future, it must surely be a weight off his mind as he looks to continue his fine form.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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