Brought to you by TheJudge13 ‘Track Profile Specialist’ Alistair Hunter
This week we go from one of Asia’s most spectacular F1 circuits to the oldest one on the calendar this year in the region – Suzuka, home of the Japanese Grand Prix for what will be the 24th edition of the Formula One World Championship race there.
The circuit has a history of hosting championship deciders, but this year is likely to be different. Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg could both easily come away from here with the championship lead, after only being split in the championship by three points.
The Suzuka Circuit was designed for Honda to test their cars and motorcycles to the limit in 1961, with the original plan being a circuit based around several long straights, with a curved section based around a lake. However, the lay of the land meant that the design was altered to ensure that as little of the rice fields would have to be dug up as possible, including a staggering three crossover sections.
Needless to say more alterations to the design were undertaken, and by the time the circuit was completed in January 1962 it resembled almost the exact circuit layout that is raced on by Formula One cars today. The first Japanese Grand Prix was held there the next year – for sportscars – and was won by Peter Warr in his Lotus.
Following that, the race moved to Fuji Speedway – owned by the rival Toyota company – which held the first Formula One Japanese Grand Prix in 1976, where it remained for another year before Honda spent lots of money to get the race back many years later in 1987.
Since then, the race has stayed on the calendar ever since, meaning that the race this year will be the 30th edition of the race, as well as the 32n race in Japan. The latter includes the two Pacific Grands Prix, which briefly made the country one of seven to have hosted two races in one season.
Firstly, the lap starts by going through a long, fast-flowing high speed twisty section, before the tricky Degner curve before going under the bridge and ending the first sector. A major braking zone follows into the Turn 11 hairpin, which serves as one of the major overtaking spots on the circuit.
Following on from there, the track continues up to the Spoon corner, before the end of the second sector comes as the drivers speed down the secondary pit straight at the crossover point, and brake for the chicane at the end of the mighty 130R left hand corner.
Continuing out of the chicane, the drivers go on to the start/finish straight and the single DRS zone – making the Suzuka circuit one of only two on the calendar this year to only have one. The drivers reach top speeds of up to 320 km/h, while the lap record is held by Kimi Raikkonen at a 1:31.540.
Due to the high speed nature of the track, drivers are on full throttle for 71% of the lap, in comparison to spending 10% of the lap under braking; although the brakes are not seriously tested until they hit the entry to the final chicane, as mentioned below by one of the brake suppliers to Formula One teams, Brembo. Additionally, an estimated 48 gear changes are required per lap, while this is one of the many tracks on the calendar that favours a heavy downforce setup.
Only three people have won races this season, and if that continues it will be the first time since 1988 that this has happened. Barring any miracles, it should either be Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg or Daniel Ricciardo to be victorious this weekend, although the only people on the grid to have won this race multiple times are Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel (the latter winning four of the last five Japanese Grands Prix).
None of the leading trio have won here, with Lewis Hamilton’s Japanese victory coming at Fuji Speedway. Red Bull have obviously won here on four occasions previously, but Mercedes have never done so. The most successful team is McLaren.
Pirelli and Suzuka International Race Circuit
Formula One’s late-season long-haul run of events now takes the teams to the epic Suzuka circuit in Japan, where the two hardest tyres in the range will be in action: the P Zero Orange hard and P Zero White medium, the same combination as was last seen in Monza.
While the two circuits are very different in character, Suzuka does have some elements in common with Spa: another well-known driver’s circuit with flowing corners but even higher lateral energy demands. As a result, the nomination for Suzuka is one step harder than Spa: hard and medium rather than medium and soft.
This does not make life easier for the tyres however, as there is a non-stop series of demands to cope with. Coupled with a track surface that is relatively abrasive, this means that wear and degradation is high. Initial forecasts suggest cool weather, which is not unusual for Japan at this time of year. Heavy rain showers have been a feature of Suzuka in the past, making a wet race a distinct possibility.
The fans are absolutely brilliant, with huge enthusiasm and knowledge of the sport, which is almost unparalleled anywhere in the world. Suzuka is a real drivers’ circuit, and because of that it is a considerable challenge for the tyres, with some of the biggest lateral energy loads of the year.
As a result, it would probably be realistic to look at between two to three pit stops, with tyre management forming a key part of the race. However, we’ll obviously know more about that after free practice. It’s a track where several forces are often acting on the tyre at once, and the increased torque but decreased downforce of this year’s cars will only place more demands on mechanical grip.
If a tyre can perform well in Suzuka, it can perform well almost everywhere.”
I would say that 130R is one of the most demanding corners of the entire year, which requires the right set-up and a car that is absolutely planted to the ground. The esses are also extremely demanding: if you make just one mistake here that will disrupt the whole sequence and you lose a lot of time.
We’ve raced many times at Suzuka in the rain: in those situations, visibility is extremely low. We also tend to see a lot of track evolution over the course of the weekend. So we start off with a surface that is very abrasive and ‘green’ but the driver has to pay a lot of attention to how the situation changes over the weekend and how in turn that affects the tyres.”
A lap with Pirelli
The circuit from a tyre point of view
Japan is characterised by high lateral energy loads, combined with some of the lowest longitudinal demands seen all year. Turn 15, known as 130R, is taken entirely flat at speeds in excess of 300kph. This puts a sustained load onto the tyres, subjecting them (and the driver) to massive g-forces. The front-left tyre is worked hardest at Suzuka.
The medium tyre is a low working range compound, capable of achieving optimal performance even at a wide range of low temperatures. The hard tyre by contrast is a high working range compound, suitable for higher temperatures. Cool temperatures are expected for this year’s Japanese Grand Prix, with a threat of rain.
The asphalt in Suzuka is quite abrasive, but there is a high degree of track evolution. Getting the right set-up is essential, to be able to stick to the optimal racing line. There can be a risk of graining: especially during the early stages of the weekend when the track is at its most green.
The winning strategy last year was a two-stopper, with Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel stopping on laps 14 and 37. The German started on the medium and completed his final two stints on the hard tyre.
Brembo and Suzuka International Race Circuit
As with all the very “driven” tracks, at Suzuka the long, fast turns also determine not-so-demanding braking. In fact, the single-seaters do not face any particularly sudden braking sections except for the 130R turn where they go from more than 300 kph to about 120 kph in less than 100 metres.
1976 – Back at the Fuji Speedway, the title decider between Niki Lauda and James Hunt saw Lauda pull out of the race in protest at the horrendous weather conditions they had to race in, while Hunt fought back from a bad pit stop to finish third, meaning that he clinched the championship over the German by one point.
1989 – Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost qualified on the front row of the grid, with Prost getting the upper hand into the first portion of the race. However, on lap 46, the two collided going into the final chicane, taking Prost out of the race and forcing Senna to use the escape road, complete another lap, and then pit to fix the car. Despite Senna retaking the lead, he was disqualified from the race for cutting the chicane, handing the race victory to Alessandro Nannini and the championship to Prost.
1994 – Due to rain at Suzuka, Michael Schumacher pulled away to get a 6.8 second lead before the race was stopped due to Gianni Morbidelli and Martin Brundle losing control of their cars at around the same time. As the rain slowed down, the race was restarted on the basis of aggregate collected time, where Damon Hill pushed hard to open up a 10.1 second gap over the rest of the field, therefore making him the winner by 3.3 seconds.
2000 – Michael Schumacher started from pole position but ended up behind Mika Hakkinen for the majority of the race, but a better pace in the rain and a fast in lap and pit stop from the German allowed him to finish on the top step of the podium and win his third drivers championship title (and the first for Ferrari since 1979).
2005 – Rain in the final part of qualifying saw many of the theoretically faster drivers at the back end of the grid, leading to an entertaining race. Ralf Schumacher led the race before his first pitstop, while Raikkonen and Alonso gained positions; the latter doing so controversially in the eyes of the stewards, and the Spaniard was forced to give a place back to Christian Klien. Fisichella led the race, but in the end he was overtaken by Raikkonen on the last lap, finishing his comeback from qualifying 17th to winning the race.
Like last year, the support races for this year’s event are the Porsche Carrera Cup Japan and the Super FJ series. According to Google translate, this is the climax of the season, with Ryo Ogawa and Yamano Naoya tied for first place with 138 points. Since I know how unreliable translation services, I’ll stop now (I really hope that’s their actual names).
Super FJ is the fourth tier of the formula racing ladder in Japan, which means it also doesn’t have too much English language information about it. For reference though, it is three levels below Super Formula, where you will find former F1 superstars Andre Lotterer, Kazuki Nakajima, Narain Karthikeyan and Vitantonio Liuzzi. Absolutely nothing else I can add to that, embarrassingly.
|2013||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|
|2012||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|
|2010||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|
|2009||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|