Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Catman
The Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka remains one of the greatest tests of a sportsman in the world. It is well loved by the fans and by the drivers as it is one of the last traditional circuits that has not been neutered by modern pressures. Traditionally the Japanese Grand Prix is held towards the end of the season and as a result thirteen World Champions have been crowned in Japan with many thrilling races. The race is a little earlier this time around (it was round 15 last year) and as a result we are likely to see warmer conditions, less chance of rain and no chance of crowning our champion just yet.
The paddock returns to Japan this year with a heavy heart. Last year saw F1’s blackest weekend since Imola in 1994. The torrential rain saw the race start behind the safety car, with Nico Rosberg heading the pack, before realising that the standing water was too deep for the cars to run safely. The race was postponed for 20 minutes and at the restart Lewis Hamilton tucked in close behind his team-mate but was unable to jump him. He didn’t have to rely on pitstops to pass as he managed to find a way around the outside into turn one. Daniel Ricciardo pulled off some fantastic moves around the outside through the Esses on both Massa and Bottas’s Williams in quick succession as Red Bull demonstrated their superior grip.
The weather conditions were worsening and on lap 43 Adrian Sutil aquaplaned off the circuit into the tyre barriers. One lap later, under double waved yellow flags, Jules Bianchi lost control in the same spot and very unfortunately crashed heavily into the tractor that was in the process of recovering the Sauber. The race was immediately abandoned and the look on Sutil’s distraught face confirmed the severity of the incident. Everybody’s worst nightmare was realised nine months later on 17th July 2015 when Jules passed away, having never recovered from the accident.
The first two championship Japanese Grand Prix were held at the Fuji Speedway in 1976 and 1977 before losing the opportunity to the hold the race due to financial issues, safety concerns and the difficulty in traveling to the area at the time. The thrilling 1976 World Championship was decided in dramatic style as Niki Lauda, returning from his devastating crash at the Nurburgring earlier in the season in similarly atrocious weather conditions, withdrew from the race saying “my life is worth more than a title”. James Hunt seemed to be cruising to victory but a tyre problem meant he had to pit. He managed to fight back through the field and take the podium place needed to become world champion by a single point.
The Suzuka circuit was designed and built by the Honda corporation to test their new cars and motorcycles. The original plan was to build a much longer circuit on flat ground around a lake, but when the idea was presented to Mr Honda he became angry at the thought of “destroying the rice fields to build a racing track” and said that “food must always be the respected priority”.
A new designer was employed, a Dutchman called John Hugenholtz who was also known for the layout of the Zandvoort and Zolder circuits as well as the Hockenheim stadium section. A new location was chosen in the mountains where the land could not be used for farming. The layout created by Mr Hugenholtz was so good that the circuit used today is almost identical over fifty years on.
The circuit was completed in 1962 but the first F1 race here was held in 1987 and has held a race there every year except in 2007 and 2008 when the Fuji speedway, redesigned and renovated by Herman Tilke took the contract from Suzuka. This was a short lived affair and the coffers of Honda prevailed to take the race back for 2009 through to the present day.
Suzuka is regarded as one of the most challenging circuits in the world. Its fast flowing corners, high g-forces and significant elevation changes provide a fascinating test of a drivers skill. The bumpy narrow track is ready to punish mistakes and demands respect.
The start of the race is likely to be tricky this year with the new regulations. The grid is positioned on a downward incline, meaning that the drivers will have to hold the car on the brakes until they can release the clutch. Expect there to be some position changes as some bog down off the start. Let’s hope Max Verstappen gets it right this time so we can see what he can really do around one of F1’s most legendary circuits.
The first two corners form a downhill, double apex right hand curve that is satisfying if taken correctly, but it is easy to carry too much speed and slide wide. This leads on to the famous Esses complex, a fast sequence of challenging corners weave their way back up the hill. The drivers arrive at 150mph and have to develop a neat rhythm to flow through these corners smoothly to maintain as much speed as possible, barely dropping below 130mph in the middle of the complex. One small mistake can cost a lot of time through this section. It finishes in spectacular fashion with a very fast left hand corner over a blind crest.
There is no time to breathe as the next double right-hander of the Degner curves are equally demanding. The first part requires a small lift on the throttle, then a sharp braking zone into the tight second corner. Many drivers including Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have ended up in the wall here as they locked up and failed to make the second turn. The corner is named out of respect after Suzuki’s first 50cc motorcycle racing champion rider Ernst Degner who had a horrific fiery accident there in 1963, requiring extensive skin grafting. At the exit of the Degner curve the cars pass underneath the bridge that gives the circuit a very unique figure of eight layout, those above are hurtling past at nearly 190mph.
The following hairpin is tricky to master as once again the braking zone is slightly curved, but if set up correctly can present as a good overtaking opportunity. Kamui Kobayashi certainly was the master of this particular corner, finding his way past many drivers no matter what line they took.
Coming up next (after what has now turned into a curved acceleration zone rather than an actual corner) is the Spoon curve, another double apex set of corners that dips away at the end. It is so easy to understeer wide and lose grip and ruin the lap here, but if done correctly sets up for the long straight ahead.
Approaching 190mph down the straight, the legendary 130R corner looms ahead. In ideal conditions it is taken flat out and subjects the driver to massive loads and is one of the most exhilarating experiences that can be had in a car. Fernando Alonso famously overtook Michael Schumacher around the outside here in 2005 in a phenomenal show of bravery (and trust!).
The final chicane comes up almost straight away, with the cars braking from 200mph down to just 90 for the right left flick. The kerbs are there to be used and abused with the reward of a good exit speed back on to the start-finish straight.
BRAKING WITH BREMBO
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 148 kph in less than 100 metres.
TYRES WITH PIRELLI – MEDIUM and HARD COMPOUNDS
Following the street circuit at Singapore, where the two softest tyres in the range were nominated, Formula One heads directly to Japan this weekend with the two hardest tyres selected for Suzuka: P Zero Orange hard and P Zero White medium. This is because Suzuka contains some of the fastest and most demanding corners in Formula One, such as the legendary 130R, which forms part of Formula One history. As a result, some extremely high-energy loads pass through the tyre, leading to heat build-up on the tread. This requires the most durable compounds in the range to maintain consistent grip. Owing to Suzuka’s notoriously variable weather, the Cinturato full wet and intermediate tyres may be seen as well over the course of the weekend, although this year the Japanese Grand Prix takes place a week earlier. The teams have to basically be ready for anything, at a venue that has frequently crowned champions in the past.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli motorsport director: “Suzuka is one of the most aggressive circuits we face on the Formula One calendar from a tyre perspective: it’s right up there with Silverstone and Spa. There’s been some resurfacing in recent years that has taken away a bit of the asphalt roughness that it used to have, but this does not diminish the overall challenge of Suzuka in any shape or form. It’s not unusual to face extremes of weather in Japan: either very wet, or dramatically hot. We’ve seen both over the years – and quite a few conditions in between – so it’s a very tough circuit all round. The drivers absolutely love the experience of driving here, and over the course of the weekend we are always privileged to meet some of the most passionate and dedicated fans we see anywhere all year. They are a vital part of what makes coming to Suzuka so special. Of course, like everybody else, Jules Bianchi will be in our thoughts more than ever over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend.”
The biggest challenges for the tyres: Suzuka is a fast and flowing circuit: to the extent that it has very high lateral energy loads (through the fast corners) but one of the lowest longitudinal demands of the year, underlining the fact that there is relatively little acceleration and braking. Instead, the drivers maintain a high speed throughout the lap, with the very long corners such as 130R (named after its radius) and Spoon putting sustained loads through the tyres. 130R is taken flat-out in top gear at speeds in excess of 300kph, generating the highest continuous g loading of the year.
While Suzuka has been re-asphalted recently, the surface remains quite abrasive. There is a relatively high degree of track evolution over the weekend: during Friday in particular the circuit is usually quite ‘green’, leading to a risk of graining if the track does not provide optimal grip.
Suzuka is traditionally high when it comes to wear and degradation, making tyre management even more important than usual. With the risk of rain and safety cars, plus several overtaking opportunities, this is one of the circuits where strategy options are extremely open, depending on circumstances.
Last year’s strategy and how the race was won: The race was started behind the safety car and ran in wet conditions from start to finish. Lewis Hamilton won for Mercedes from second on the grid, starting on the Cinturato Blue wet tyres and then stopping on laps 14 and 35 for intermediates.
Expected performance gap between the two compounds: 0.6 – 0.8 seconds per lap.
1989 – Team mates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were locked in a fierce battle for the title as they dominated the field. Prost gained the upper hand by grabbing pole position and the lead in the first part of the race, but on lap 46 Senna made an ambitious move for the lead into the chicane. The two came together, taking Prost out on the spot. Senna continued and won the race in spectacular fashion, only to be disqualified for rejoining the circuit using the escape road rather than the track, handing the title to Prost. Senna would get his payback in 1989, taking Prost out in a collision at the first corner to clinch the title for himself.
1994 – The race, as is so often the case, was held in torrential rain, with Michael Schumacher leading Damon Hill until the conditions became so bad that the race had to be stopped, but not until after Martin Brundle had aquaplaned off the circuit, crashing into and injuring a marshal that was recovering another car (in a very similar situation to last year’s fatal accident). The race was restarted half an hour later and the winner would be decided by the aggregate time of the two halves of the race. Schumacher was 6.8 seconds ahead when the red flag came out, but when they crossed the line at the end Damon Hill had driven out of his skin and was 3.3 seconds ahead on aggregate and won the race.
2000 – Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen were fighting for the world title. Schumacher started from pole position but a fantastic start from the flying Finn jumped him in to the lead at the first corner. Schumacher had to beat him to win the title. blistering pace in the wet conditions and a very quick pitstop meant he regained the lead and took his third championship, the first drivers title for Ferrari since 1979.
2005 – Rain towards the end of the (somewhat flawed) one shot system of qualifying meant that the championship contenders started at the back of the grid. Kimi Raikkonen drove a fantastically aggressive race and overtook Giancarlo Fisichella on the last lap to win after starting in 17th place.
The main talking point of the weekend will be whether Mercedes can shake off the disappointing pace shown at Singapore and return to winning ways around Suzuka. The circuit should suit the downforce generation and power that the car can produce, it remains to be seen whether the tyre pressure debacle has had a profound effect on their overall pace, or whether Singapore was just a one-off relating the the unique characteristics of that track.
Sebastian Vettel is flying high in his new cockpit and will likely be the greatest challenge to Mercedes. He will be particularly fired up after hauling himself back in to the championship battle by dominating the field and thoroughly beating his team-mate. He was followed home by arch-rival Daniel Ricciardo, expect Red Bull to make good use of their excellent aerodynamic package to be podium contenders again this weekend.
Suzuka is a circuit that rewards experience and only the most talented drivers succeed. Sebastian Vettel has won here four times, only beaten by Michael Schumacher who triumphed an incredible six times. The last winner of the race who did not go on to be a world champion was Rubens Barrichello back in 2003 and before that was Riccardo Patrese in 1992, everyone else since then has become champion during their career.
Alexander Rossi showed well in his first race for Manor (aside from his crash in FP1) by beating his more established team mate Will Stevens. He will be looking to impress further this weekend to try to lure the attention of the other teams in the paddock, even if a dream drive at Haas F1 in 2016 appears to be not on the cards.
SUPPORT RACES AND OTHER ENTERTAINMENT
Super FJ is an entry level series that hopes to showcase young Japanese talent. The cars are equipped with a 1.5 litre Honda engine coupled to a five speed gearbox, thirteen inch tyres and sports both front and rear wings. The championship is the fourth tier of Japanese single seater racing below Japanese F4, F3 and the Super Formula series (formerly known as Formula Nippon), none of which are running this weekend at Suzuka.
The Porsche Carrera Cup is in it’s fifteenth year in Japan and is a very well liked local series. The last round was also held at the Suzuka circuit last month and was won by Kubo RinTaro who sits third in the championship but lies only eight points behind the leader MotoShima YuWataru who had won the last eight races in a row.
The circuit has the Motopia theme park attached to it, with the famous Ferris wheel that dominates the skyline around the final chicane and provides an excellent viewpoint to watch the action (as long as you bring your binoculars). If that doesn’t take your fancy then there is still plenty to see around the circuit with the beautiful Kur garden hot springs, golf course, tennis courts and leisure center all within the self-contained facility.
|2013||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|
|2012||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|
|2010||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|
|2009||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|