It’s all to play for in Suzuka. The Ultimate Japanese GP Weekend Guide

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Introduction:

Don’t believe that the title race is over after another weekend to forget for Ferrari in Malaysia. Lewis Hamilton may have opened up a 34 point advantage over Sebastian Vettel as we arrive at Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix, but Ferrari have shown genuine championship winning pace, if not race performances, of late, while Red Bull’s Malaysian resurgence will offer real hope that they can take points of Lewis and that the gap can be still closed, if Ferrari can stay ahead of them that is– it’s certainly all to play for as we arrive in Japan!

Michael Schumacher has more Japanese Grand Prix victories than any other driver, winning 6 times. Next up with 4 victories is Sebastian Vettel, though he has yet to win here for Ferrari, his wins all coming during his spell with Red Bull. Lewis Hamilton has 3 wins here, once for McLaren and two with Mercedes, with Fernando Alonso having won twice here, one win for each of his stints with Renault. Kimi Raikkonen took a single win here for McLaren. The track has also been the decider for numerous world championships due to it’s late position in the calendar, with Ayrton Senna sealing all 3 of his world championships here and Mika Hakkinen wrapping up his two championships here, but the expansion of the calendar has meant that the last driver to win the driver’s championship here was Sebastian Vettel after a particularly dominant season for Red Bull back in 2011.

Last years race the saw Mercedes the class of the field, leading the way from Ferrari and Red Bull in qualifying, with Nico Rosberg edging out Lewis Hamilton for pole. At the start, Rosberg converted pole while Hamilton had a terrible start, dropping back down to eight place. Rosberg would go on to control the race from the front to take the victory that ensured he would not need to win again to clinch the driver’s title, while Hamilton would only be able to recover to third place behind Max Verstappen, catching up to Max’s Red Bull, but not able to get by, his one chance coming to nothing as Max reacted to Lewis attempt to dive up the inside at the chicane, forcing Lewis to switch to the outside at the last second, the Mercedes running straight on and losing momentum and with it the chance to rescue second place. It was another disappointing day for Ferrari, who were unable to capitalize on Lewis poor start, with Hamilton able to get the jump on Vettel in the pits, with Vettel leading Raikkonen home in fourth and fifth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull in sixth .

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History:

The Suzuka circuit, home to the Japanese Grand Prix today, also held the first race designated as the Japanese Grand Prix, a non-championship sportscar event that was staged 1963 – the race was won by Peter Warr (who would go on to manage Lotus) – driving a Lotus 23. There would be a number of sportscar and Formula Two races held in Japan between first Suzuka and then the Fuji Circuit, but it was not until 1976 that Formula One would come to Japan. The first F1 World Championship Japanese Grand Prix would be staged in Fuji in 1976, the race won by Mario Andretti for Lotus but made famous for McLaren’s James Hunt sealing the world championship by coming third as championship leader Niki Lauda stopped his Ferrari early on, deeming the treacherous conditions too much risk to continue. The Grand Prix continued at Fuji in 1977, with James Hunt taking the win, but the race was marred by the death of a marshall and photographer. Gilles Vileneuve’s Ferrari went tangled with Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell on lap 6, the Ferrari running into the back of the Tyrrell and being launched into the air, the Ferrari being catapulted into a restricted area and claiming the lives of a marshal and photographer, with several spectators also injured. This led to the cancellation of the Japanese Grand Prix in 1978, and the race would stay off the calendar until it was revived in 1987, back at the Suzuka Circuit. Gerhard Berger would win that first F1 race at the Suzuka circuit in 1987 for Ferrari in a race that saw William’s Nelson Piquet crowned champion as his team-mate Nigel Mansell crashed out in qualifying, ruling him out of the remainder of the season. The Japanese Grand Prix would be staged at Suzuka from there on with the exception of 2007 and 2008 when it was held at Fuji.

The Japanese Grand Prix continued to crown champions and have controversial moments. After Piquet wrapped up the driver’s championship in Suzuka in 1987, Ayrton Senna would win his first title for McLaren in 1988 after storming drive, recovering from a bad start to pip team-mate Prost to victory and the championship. The title went Prost’s way in 1989, as the McLaren team-mates collided at the chicane as Senna looked to pass the Frenchman, Senna being famously disqualified after taking the chequered flag first after another storming drive to recover from the collision with Prost, who retired on the spot. The win was awarded to Benetton’s Alessandro Nannini (his only win in Formula One). McLaren would appeal Senna’s disqualification – and Senna’s mood was hardly improved when despite his feeling that Prost had turned into him at the chicane the FIA decided to hand Senna a 6 month ban – which would later be suspended. The events of 1989 boiled over in 1990, when Senna and Prost (now driving for Ferrari) arrived at Suzuka with the championship to be decided between them, only this time a double retirement would see Senna champion. Senna famously exacted his revenge, driving his McLaren into Prost’s Ferrari and forcing both cars off the track at the first corner, with Benetton again the beneficiaries, Nelson Piquet winning the race. Senna, already incensed at his treatment in 1989 had his anger multiplied by a sense of injustice as the pole position was placed on the dirty side of the track in 1990 (as it had been the previous seasons) favouring the car in second place (Prost), despite an agreement having being reached before qualifying that pole position would be moved to the racing line – Senna would later admit to intentionally driving Prost off the track.

The championship would be settled in Senna’s favour again in 1991, when Nigel Mansell’s Williams spun off, Senna slowing to hand McLaren team-mate Gerhard Berger the race victory on the last lap. 1996 saw another title decider, again between two Williams team-mates, this time Damon Hill took the championship with the Japanese Grand Prix victory, as Hill’s rookie team-mate, polesitter Jacques Villeneuve retired after losing a wheel! Mika Hakkinen would take his both his drivers titles with victories for McLaren here in 1998 and 1999, before Michael Schumacher started a run of five consecutive Ferrari victories from 2000-2004 (Rubens Barrichello would win for the Scuderia in 2003 in a race that saw Schumacher crowned champion, the rest were all victories for Schumacher) –despite that run of success Ferrari have not tasted victory in Japan since 2004.

The race moved to Fuji in 2007, with rookie Lewis Hamilton winning for McLaren, and after another Fuji race in 2008 (won by Fernando Alonso for Renault) the Japanese Grand Prix returned to Suzuka in 2009, with Sebastian Vettel taking the first of his four victories for Red Bull. Vettel would also seal his second driver’s championship here in 2011 after coming home third in a race won by McLaren’s Jenson Button. The rain soaked 2014 Japanese Grand Prix will be sadly always be remembered as the race which would cost the talented young driver Jules Bianchi his life following a collision with a crane that was attempting to remove Adrian Sutil’s Force India from the side of the track.

The Suzuka circuit was built by Honda. Having entered the Isle of Man TT in 1959, Honda decided that they needed a permanent track that would be used as a testing ground for the company’s motorbikes and cars. Early in 1960 Suzuka was selected as the site of the future circuit. The original plan was for a flat circuit that would be constructed through rice fields, but this was shelved and a revised plan was put in place by the end of 1960 that would see the track built in its current location, the hillside providing natural elevation change. Honda sent a team to Europe to analyse European racetracks construction and management, and brought in Dutchman John Hugenholtz to rework the design of the track. The proposed track at the new site originally saw the track have two additional crossover points inside the modern esseses section, but these were eliminated as the project proceeded (only the one crossover remained to give the track its figure of eight layout– still, this means the Suzuka circuit runs both clockwise and anti-clockwise, a unique challenge on the F1 calendar). The track was completed in late in 1962, and the track held the first Japan National Road Racing Championships based on the Isle of Mann TT rules in November 1962.

The circuit has not undergone too many changes over the years, with a number of changes from the original 1962 design being implemented prior to Formula One’s arrival in 1987. The chicane was introduce in 1983, with the layout of the Spoon Curve and the run down to 200R updated the following year. The first corner saw some re-profiling as well before the track saw a number of changes in 1987 in preparation of the first Formula One Grand Prix, with the main change being the Degner Curve being split into two corners as we have today. The position of the chicane was moved in 1991, allowing a slightly longer run from 130R , while the pit entry was inserted before the chicane. This was reversed in 2000 when the pit entry was brought back to the final corner. Further changes were made from 2001when the Dunlop corner and esses were re-alligned to provide greater run of, while 130R was altered in 2003 to provide a faster corner with earlier turn also providing for more run off, while the chicane was moved back closed to 130R and re-aligned.

 

Circuit Characteristics

Suzuka has 18 turns and 40.4 meter elevation change, and is a fast circuit in figure of 8 layout.

Off the grid there is a short burst down downhill into Turn 1, a fast right hander that feeds into a longer slower right handed curve Turn 2, with the track at it’s lowest point just before turn 2, the track starting to rise slightly into the Turn. The pit exit feeds into the first corner, and the start/finish straight is the only DRS activation zone on the track, so there is bound to be plenty of excitement at this turn as the race wears on. At the start watch for cars trying to take a wide line around the outside of turn 1 and carry it through Turn 2 – the start here provides opportunity for drivers to make or break their race here – Eddie Irvine using his local knowledge from his Japanese F3000 days to good effect on his Jordan debut in 1993, going by the all-powerful Williams of Damon Hill around the outside of Turn 1 and carrying on past the Benetton of one Michael Schumacher on the outside of Turn 2 – but it can also go horribly wrong, as we saw in 2012 when the wheels came off Fernando Alonso’s unlikely championship challenge as Kimi Raikkonen tried for a wide line into turn 1 and ran out of room, Kimi taking to dirt but puncturing Alonso’s rear tyre with his front wing.

Exiting turn 2 the cars will run wide on the kerbing and immediately switch back over to the right hand side of the track as the cars head into the esses. Turn 3 and 4 is a quick flowing left right sequence, with the threading a line through the curves and then blipping the throttle on the exit of Turn 4, the cars not having enough time to either run wide or come fully across the track in preparation for the entry to the left hander Turn 5. The cars try to hold the inside around turn 5 and exit with a short burst again into another right hander, Gyaku Bank, or Turn 6, with the track dipping back downhill here before climbing into another flick left through the Dunlop Corner Turn 7.

Exiting turn 7 the cars can finally open out, running wide over the kerb on exit and accelerating hard as the track curves gently around to the left and dips slightly down, the cars winding over to the outside on the left on the run into the Degner Curve. Degner 1, Turn 8, is a quick right hander with the track dipping on entry, the cars bounce into a short downhill burst into Degner 2, a longer slower right hander. Exiting Degner two is crucial as there is not much run off here should things go wrong, with the track opens out onto a straight that runs under the cross over of the track’s figure of 8 layout. The cars burst from the exit of the Degner curve down a short straight, the cars climbing steeply uphill as they take a quick right flick, Turn 10 (110 R ), that leads into the braking zone for the hairpin curve, Turn 11. This is a hard braking left hand hairpin that will test the balance of the cars and also provide a potential overtaking spot, although attempts here can go either way, as Sergio Perez showed us in 2012 when he managed to get his Sauber ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren by braking very late up the inside early in the race, only to botch the move when he attempted it again later in the race, as second time around Hamilton was more alert to the danger, the McLaren denying the inside, with Perez committing to the move and trying to go around the outside and locking up and sliding wide into the gravel and retiring!

Coming out of the hairpin its power down and full throttle as the cars have another short straight leading into a long winding flat out right hand curve right Turn 12 (200 R), which leads into the double left hander Spoon Curve (Turns 13 and 14). The first part of the spoon curve sees the cars having to brake hard, and then try to position themselves to get on the throttle early coming out of the second part of the left hander, running wide over the kerb to get as much speed on exit as possible onto the long straight that follows. This is the highest point on the circuit, and from the exit here the cars blast back down along the straight towards the most daunting corner on the circuit, an ultra fast left hander Turn 15, the famous 130R. The most famous move pulled here was surely Fernando Alonso’s pass of Michael Schumacher in the 2005 Grand Prix – but there is some run off area on the outside of 130R which may encourage drivers to have a go (Daniel Ricciardo pulled off a wonderful – if illegal – off track overtake of Adrian Sutil’s Force India here back in 2013!).

Exiting 130R the cars dart towards the chicane (Turns 16 and 17), braking hard into the right left flick. The chicane itself has been since moved and modified from the spot made infamous by the 1989 collision between McLaren team-mates Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna that would help decide the title in Prost’s favour, but as always the chicane encourages drivers to have a lunge if stuck behind someone, and although space is tight here it should have its share of moments during the race. The DRS detection point is positioned on the entry of the chicane. Exiting the chicane the cars accelerate around the curve to the right past the pit entry and into and the final corner, the right hand Turn 18, accelerating back down the start finish straight, the only DRS zone in the race, sure to provide plenty of attempts to overtake into the first corner during the race. The pit exit re-joins the track on the run in to the first corner, so as always, expect fun into Turn 1 around pit stop time as drivers attempt to undercut.

 

TYRES WITH PIRELLI:

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The epic, old-school Suzuka circuit is well-known for being one of the biggest challenges for tyres on the calendar, thanks to its high-energy loads, yet for the first time Pirelli isn’t bringing the hardest tyre: instead the nominated compounds are P Zero White medium, P Zero Yellow soft, and P Zero Red supersoft. These will have to cope with long and fast corners such as 130R – providing the longest continuous g-force loading of the year – and Spoon, which put the tyres under constant stress throughout the lap. With fastest race laps that have been up to five seconds faster than 2016 so far, another significant improvement is expected in Suzuka. A wide range of strategy options are available to find the best compromise between performance and durability.

THE THREE NOMINATED COMPOUNDS

1/ Red SUPERSOFT

2/ Yellow SOFT

3/ White MEDIUM

THE CIRCUIT FROM A TYRE POINT OF VIEW

  • Lateral forces through corners are the main feature, rather than traction and braking.
  • Weather, and therefore track temperatures,are quite unpredictable at this time of year.
  • Generally, there are high levels of wear and degradation: two stops was the winning strategy last year, with varied tactics.
  • Teams normally run high downforce: pushing down on the tyres to help cornering.
  • Track is quite narrow, making overtaking tricky, so strategy can make the difference.
  • Track evolution is often hard to predict and safety cars can provide another variable.

 

MARIO ISOLA – HEAD OF CAR RACING

“The Japanese Grand Prix continues the trend we’ve seen so far this year of bringing softer, and therefore faster, tyres to several grands prix compared to last season. In the case of Suzuka, this is particularly pertinent as it’s one of the most challenging tracks for tyres of the entire year, with a very big emphasis on lateral loads that can cause thermal degradation if the tyres are not properly managed. This is also one of the reasons why the drivers enjoy Suzuka so much; with the cars travelling a lot faster through the corners this year under the new regulations with wider tyres, it’s very possible that we will see another lap record fall and some truly impressive maximum g-force loadings”.

 

WHAT’S NEW?

  • There are no hard tyres in Japan for the first time.
  • The final of the Pirelli-equipped Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup took place in Barcelona last weekend, with GRT Grasser Racing Team winning the title for Lamborghini.
  • Former F1 driver Erik Comas recently claimed the European Historic Rally Championship with a Lancia Stratos, running on Pirelli P7 Corsa Classic tyres.
  • McLaren has made the most aggressive tyre selection at Honda’s home race,choosing more supersoft tyres than any other team.

 

SUZUKA INTERNATIONAL RACING COURSE MINIMUM STARTING PRESSURES (SLICKS)

22.5 psi (front) | 20.5 psi (rear)

 

EOS CAMBER LIMIT

-3.00° (front) | -1.75° (rear)

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Form Guide:

While the last two races have seen Lewis Hamilton open up a clear gap at the top of the driver’s championship, Mercedes will be concerned at the pace shown by both Ferrari and Red Bull. Red Bull’s strong showing in Malaysia will give some hope to Ferrari that Vettel can still claim the title after a disastrous couple of races – Ferrari after all, have looked much stronger than Mercedes, and only have themselves to blame for their recent trouble, while in Malaysia Red Bull looked like their old championship winning selves. So while Lewis Hamilton might look to have one hand on the driver’s title with a 34 point lead, things might not be so straightforward for the Mercedes star, and after he was held at bay here last year by Max Verstappen after a poor start, he will be all too aware of how quickly things can change in the title race. Sebastian Vettel has certainly shown that he likes Suzuka over the years, and if Ferrari can just get their act together on Sunday maybe just maybe the title race is not over yet, with Kimi Raikkonen looking like he can still summon the form to aid Vettels title charge – provided his Ferrari can make the start, and stay clear of Vettel! With Valtteri Bottas struggling to find answers to his slump in form Lewis Hamilton may not be able to enjoy having the the protection of Bottas behind him, and with both Red Bull’s looking eager to capitalize on their improved form to it could be another tough race in Suzuka for the Mercedes boys. Outside the front runners it will be interesting to see how McLaren-Honda perform at Honda’s home ground, especially in light of Stoffel Vandoorne’s excellent showing in outshining Fernando Alonso in Malaysia.

Memorable Moments

1988– Senna is world champion for the first time (read more)

1976– Andretti wins first Japanese Grand Prix as Hunt is champion (read more)

 

Support Races

The regular support of F2/GP3 and the Porsche Supercup stay at home, with the supporting action provided by the local Super FJ series and the Porsche Carrera Cup Japan.

 

Previous Results:

Year Winner Constructor
2016 Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2015 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2014 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2013 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault
2012 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault
2011 Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes
2010 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault
2009 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault
2008 Fernando Alonso Renault
2007 Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes
2006 Fernando Alonso Renault
2005 Kimi Raikkonen McLaren-Mercedes
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2 responses to “It’s all to play for in Suzuka. The Ultimate Japanese GP Weekend Guide

  1. Looking forward to it… Mercedes new Aero packaged introduced in Sepang did not really work, The germans seem a bit baffled why the indicated improvements in a wind tunnel are not transferring into lap times. This generally happens on very hot tarmac..50 deg track temperature air flow at the bottom of the car can be very unpredictable. In these hot temperatures the Mercedes upgrades (modified front wing and changes to the floor) actually seemed to lose time. Japan is a track suited to Aero. Red Bull’s front wing end plates and side bracket wings have done the job before, and likely to do it again in Japan… which could be an interesting ingredient in the Ferrari / Merc Mix Up. Red Bull could become Ferrari’s new best friends if they continue to get between them.

    Weather – Friday & Sat cool and rainy – Merc is not that good in the wet either, Sunday – Should be dry and warm…. but I think the biggest random factor affecting results for the potential championship will be Red Bull..cant wait

    • Funny, Ferrari went through many correlation issues when Costa and Allison ran the team…. just saying 🤣

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