A goal without a plan is a wish….every team and driver has a goal is to win races and win the title but over the course of the last five years no team or driver has been able to execute any plan with any reasonable consistency to beat Sebastian Vettel. Throughout Vettel’s four year reign of title dominance the goal of winning a title has become an ever greater wish for the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.
Both drivers are at the top of their game yet, whether through their own mistakes or machinery issues, they have consistently not been able to match Vettel. This season was no different. While many will point to the change in Pirelli tyres mid-season as the turning point of the 2013 campaign it must be recognised that Red Bull have had the most balanced race car throughout the season.
The honour of the fastest outright car has once again fallen elsewhere but with overtaking much easier in contemporary Formula 1 and races requiring multiple pit-stops having the fastest car over a single lap has been less of a benefit than would traditionally be the case. Whereas Red Bull have consistently been able to maximise their package in recent months, usually with race wins, the rest of the field has found a way to trip over themselves and squander points.
Whether it is through reliability issues, driver mistakes or bad strategy we have consistently seen Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes drivers fall off the pace during a Grand Prix while Red Bull and Vettel have continued imperiously towards victory. Those victories have left Vettel on the verge of winning a fourth consecutive world title which has now become inevitable.
The Suzuka Circuit
The Honda owned Suzuka circuit is a favourite for many of the drivers. Its blend of fast and flowing corners provides a unique technical challenge to the field and one that requires a balanced setup that is difficult to find. You need a car that can quickly change direction but you also need one that is stable. You need good acceleration to drive the car out of the hairpin and chicane…but you also need a high top speed for the long straights.
Nico Rosberg, winner of this year’s Monaco and British Grand Prix, is looking forward to this weekend’s race in front of the passionate Japanese fans:
“Suzuka is one of the most exciting circuits of the year and I love racing there,” said Rosberg. ” The Japanese fans are always very enthusiastic which is fantastic and I look forward to seeing them again. I would love to get the deserved good result that has eluded us for the last few races and I know that everyone has been working really hard to achieve that.”
The track surface cambers throughout the lap to provide extra grip for the drivers but the instant that a driver goes offline they are heavily punished. With the opening half of the lap seeing one corner lead into another if you are offline at one corner it can have a negative impact for the next number of corners.
Being consistent at Suzuka is as much about being patient as it is about being aggressive. A driver needs to be smooth through the snaking opening half of the lap through the Suzuka Snake whereas in the second half of the lap, with the likes of Spoon Curve and 130R, a driver needs to be brave and more aggressive in pitching the car into the corner.
Lewis Hamilton won his first Japanese Grand Prix, the 2007 edition at Fuji, but the Englishman is yet to win at Suzuka. He has finished fifth for the last three years but it has done little to dampen his enthusiasm about the race track:
“Suzuka is one of the few circuits we have left in Formula One with the authenticity of a real old-school circuit,” said the 2008 world champion. “I drove there for the first time in 2009 and it takes a while to pick up pace each year because of how fast-flowing it is. If you touch the grass at any point, it’s going to spin you off into the wall, so it’s a much more demanding circuit in terms of precision, positioning and turning points for each corner. It’s a real race track where you have to think ahead as a driver and it just needs crazy levels of downforce from the car. From my point of view, the car felt fantastic to drive in Korea when everything was hooked up, so I am excited to get to Japan and see what we can do there.”
“Suzuka is one of the favourite tracks for drivers, and it’s easy to see why,” said the Frenchman. “We see every type of corner there: high speed sections and radial turns, esses, hairpins and gradient changes. Engines therefore need to deliver across the entire power spectrum without sacrificing driveability and responsiveness. The high speed corners such as the Esses also subject the internals of the engine and lubricant systems to high lateral G-forces – it’s a very thorough workout for the RS27 so we will use fresh engines here.
Formula 1’s title town
Since 1987 Formula 1 has been racing at Suzuka and it has played host to numerous title deciders. Gerhard Berger was the first victor but the 87 race also decided the world champion with Williams’ teammates Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet fighting for the crown. A heavy practice crash for Mansell forced to miss the race through injury and the title was decided in Nelson Piquet’s favour before the green light on Sunday.
The historical standing of the Japanese Grand Prix as an end of season race has meant that it has played host to some of the most famous title deciders of the last 25 years. Following Piquet’s coronation in 1987 the title was decided at Suzuka for the following four years with Ayrton Senna winning his first title in 1988.
The most famous title deciders in F1 history occurred at Suzuka for the following two years with Senna and Alain Prost providing the fireworks. In 1989 the clash between Senna and Alain Prost has long passed into racing folklore. The McLaren teammate’s had been locked in a fight throughout the 53 lap race with Prost in front and Senna giving chase. In the closing stages Senna’s pace was such that he was able to close the gap to the race leader but catching Prost would be far easier than actually overtaking him. Having raced tooth and nail all season, generally with Prost yielding to avoid a crash, the Frenchman had decided that should they be in close company in Japan he would not yield.
This approach meant that the clash with seven laps remaining was almost inevitable. Senna dived down the inside into the chicane from and Prost, as was his right, took the racing line and with Senna barrelling down the inside a collision was inevitable. Prost retired on the spot but Senna was push started by the marshals’ and continued. The McLaren had broken his front wing however and a pit-stop would relegate him to third at the flag but still in the championship race….for a couple of hours.
The FIA penalised Senna for taking a short cut when he resumed the race and he was disqualified. Prost had won his third world title but his toxic relationship with Senna was not perfectly clear to everyone and the following season he moved to Ferrari. The move to the Italian squad came with success and in 1990 he went to Suzuka still in title contention but with his archrival in front of the title chase.
Having qualified on pole position Senna’s grid slot was inexplicably moved from the racing line to the other side of the grid. The penalty was such that Senna knew that he would lose the lead at the start of the race, offline has always been very dusty at Suzuka, and with his persecution complex on overdrive the Brazilian had pre-emptively decided that he would win his second title that day at Suzuka.
At the first corner, having lost the lead at the start, Senna went for “a gap” at the first corner and attempted to pass Prost. In reality there was no gap and there was never any opportunity for the move to end in anything but a double retirement for the sport’s superstars. Of course for Senna the retirements brought with them the title but the famous commentary from Murray Walker said it all, “It’s happened already!”
Japan and Suzuka was a microcosm of Senna’s career. It was where he had his greatest triumphs but also his greatest controversies. The passion that he elicited in Japan is still readily seen today and the fans took him as their hero almost to the same degree as Brazilians…although in a much more understated Japanese style of worship! The Brazilian won all three of his world titles at Suzuka and having raced with Honda power for much of his career he always showed a kinship to the country.
The next title decided at Suzuka was Damon Hill’s 96 crown before Mika Hakkinen, like Senna, claimed his world titles for McLaren at Suzuka. The Finn won the 1998 and 1999 to defeat Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine to the crown. The strain of trying to win back to back titles had been clear for much of the season on Hakkinen but his ability to come through in the close to claim the title had to be applauded.
While Schumacher had been beaten by Hakkinen to the 98 crown he would finally end the title drought in Maranello in 2000 by winning at Suzuka and defeating Hakkinen in the title fight. The victory brought an end to 21 years without a Ferrari title but also was the culmination five years of hard work by Schumacher, Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne. The quartet had come together and having been woefully off the pace in 1996 had made huge strides in the intervening years and seen Ferrari contend for the title from 1997 onwards. Schumacher’s relief at finally winning the title was clear but with the start of his five year title run Formula 1 was set to well and truly enter the “Schumacher Era” which also included another Suzuka title clincher in 2003.
Sebastian Vettel won his second title at Suzuka after finishing a close third to Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. The German can claim his fourth title this weekend but it would take some fortune on his part to clinch the title on Sunday. Even so with such a comfortable title lead he can now ease his way towards the title.
Rookies looking forward to racing at Suzuka
Whereas in the past drivers-Eddie Irvine, Mika Salo, Heinz-Harold Frentzen and Pedro de la Rosa-came through the proving grounds of Formula Nippon the Japanese championship has long lost its lustre. No longer a series filled with international drivers it has become a national championship that cannot compete with GP2. This has meant that drivers turn up at Suzuka faced with the unenviable task of having to learn the challenging circuit on Friday.
Even so it is a task that each of the drivers will relish this weekend and listening to Bottas and van der Garde’s comments about their experiences last year it is clear that Friday will be an eye opener for the newcomers!
“I drove in FP1 last year and Suzuka immediately became my favourite track because of the high speed and the special corner combinations,” commented Bottas. “Sector 1 is especially fun to drive because it is a bit like a rollercoaster with its quick changes in elevation.
The fans also make this a special race; they are very supportive and there are a lot of fans who support Finnish drivers. It can be difficult to overtake on this track so doing well in qualifying will be important, but the weather can be quite variable so that can open up opportunities to play with the strategy.”
For van der Garde it was a similar experience last year but the Dutchman is also looking forward to sampling Japan, something he admitted to not being able to do last year:
“This will be my first full Grand Prix in Japan but not my first time on track at Suzuka after I did 22 laps in FP1 last year. I have to say I’m pretty excited about getting back to Suzuka, and Japan in general as it was a place I really enjoyed in 2012. On track it’s clearly one of the best challenges we have all year.
“It’s a proper drivers’ circuit with more medium and high speed corners than most modern tracks, and you need to be a bit brave to really attack around the whole lap.
“Last year I didn’t have a chance to go to Tokyo and I promised myself I’d see the capital city this year so my physio Carlos and I are heading there straight from Korea for a couple of days before we take the Bullet Train down to Suzuka.”
At Korea Esteban Gutierrez made it through to Q3 for the second race in a row and the Mexican looks much more confident on low fuel now compared to earlier in the season. Maximising the car in race conditions though is still a problem but some of his inability to convert eighth position on the grid in Korea into a points finish can be attributed to being caught up in Felipe Massa’s opening lap spin.
The Sauber driver dropped to 14th position at the end of the opening lap as a result and therefore faced a difficult day to move back into points contention. Finishing 11th was a solid performance but he needs to build on that in the final races of the season.
Speaking about racing at Suzuka for the first time the rookie is clearly excited to finally drive a circuit that he knows only from video footage:
“Suzuka is a circuit I always wanted to drive,” said Gutierrez. “I know it very well from all the onboard footage that I’ve watched, and I know the track from last year when I went with the team to the GP. It’s an interesting track with a lot of fast corners and it’s quite technical too. I can already say it will be one of my most favourites. I’m looking forward to going to Japan again. The fans are amazing, they know a lot about Formula One, and they even knew me last year when I was the reserve and test driver. It’s a great atmosphere, there is a good energy, and seeing the fans so passionate about the sport motivates me too.”
At Marussia both drivers are faced with the task of learning the track but both are looking forward to the challenge. Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton will both race this weekend with their futures secure, both remaining with Marussia, and it should allow them to relax and drive freely.
In Korea both drivers were penalised for different infractions and it was in many ways a sloppy weekend for the team. An FP1 crash for reserve driver, Rudolfo Gonzalez, put Bianchi somewhat behind the eight ball but his needless qualifying penalty, for holding up di Resta, was a major blot on his copy book. The Frenchman has had a strong debut season and Korea was one of the few black marks against him.
“I am very much looking forward to my first experience of racing here at Suzuka,” said Bianchi.” It is a track that is associated with some of the greatest moments in Formula 1 history and racing here will be one of the highlights of my debut season, regardless of the outcome.
“It is also a real test of car and driver with some fantastic corners, which I have only ever been able to sample on the simulator until now. I think that rain is possible early in the weekend, which should make life interesting – much like some of the big moments I saw here when I was growing up – but I think it may be dry later on, which will enable us to keep pushing for our season objective. I love Japan and have spent the past few days training and relaxing in Tokyo, which has been good fun. I can’t wait to be driving in front of the incredible fans here on Sunday.”
On the other side of the garage Chilton was solid in Korea but a penalty behind the safety car was careless although his pace in the race was generally quite respectable. Ahead of this weekend the Englishman will be looking to emulate some of his childhood memories this weekend:
“It’s great to be back in Japan and to finally get the opportunity to race at the Suzuka Circuit. I came straight here from Korea so I would have the opportunity to explore a little more because there are so many fantastic things to experience here,” said Chilton. “This will be another new challenge and one that I have been looking forward to because it is such a technical circuit and because of all the history attached to it. I have been inspired by some of the great battles I have watched here over the years. The fans are also pretty special, both in and out of the circuit. Seeing them camped outside the drivers’ hotel is quite something, never mind the reception we get when we’re out on track. I hope we can race to a strong two-car finish again – and hopefully with less attrition up ahead.”
Compromise needed at Suzuka
The challenge at Suzuka is to find the balance between the different corner types. The circuit is made up of fast, flowing sections that lead into one another punctuated by a slow corner, the hairpin and the chicane, so you need a car that is stable braking from high speed but also one that allows a driver to stand on the throttle and accelerate out of the corner.
Xevi Pujolar, Williams chief engineer, talked about the track layout and the effect that it has on car setup:
“Suzuka is a unique old-style circuit featuring a trademark figure-of-eight layout, with the back straight passing over the front section via an overpass,” said Pujolar. “It’s a challenging circuit for the cars and drivers with an above average level of overtaking, predominantly due to drivers making mistakes. Sector 1 is dominated by the level of downforce and fuel loads, whilst Sector 3 is dominated by drag. The layout leads to high average corner speeds, second only to Silverstone, as well as high average overall speed and power sensitivity.
“This also leads to high energy input into the tyres, which along with the circuit roughness can lead to tyre wear problems. Last year new storm water drainage systems were installed around the newly surfaced part of the track, and this may come in handy this year as, although the chance of rain is low, Tropical Storm DANAS is currently heading towards Japan and is expected to skirt the coastline over the next few days. It should pass through the area prior to qualifying and the race, but there is a chance that its direction and speed may not be as forecast.”
Sauber’s Tom McCullough spoke about finding a compromise in the setup to balance the very different requirements of the sectors of the lap. By its nature this compromise means that the car is perfect for neither section of the track but providing a driver with confidence to push is the most critical aspect:
“Suzuka is one of the most technically challenging circuits for both drivers and engineers. Knowing the best places to compromise is very important, and this is the case particularly in the first sector, as one corner leads straight into the next with multiple changes of direction. It is important to give the driver confidence in the car so that he can get into a good rhythm. The majority of the corners are medium to high speed, with only two slow speed corners per lap. The fantastic circuit and enthusiasm of the local fans makes it one of the most enjoyable races of the season. The nature of the track makes it hard on the tyres so Pirelli is bringing its most durable compounds – the medium and hard. Overtaking is not easy, so again we will focus on a strong qualifying to give ourselves the best chance of scoring points.”
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyre
Pirelli once again came under fire in Korea with numerous drivers suffering severe tyre problems and Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso hitting out the Italian manufacturer over the course of the weekend.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport manager, will be hoping that this weekend the focus will be on track rather than on his product. Pirelli will take their hardest compounds to the race in a hope to offset the abrasive nature of the high-load Suzuka circuit:
“Suzuka is one of the circuits where we experience the highest rates of wear and degradation all year: because of the relatively abrasive surface and most of all because of the high-energy loadings that are going through the tyres. That’s why we’ve nominated the two hardest compounds in our range to take to Suzuka this year. It’s not all about the fast corners though as there are also some heavy braking areas and tighter corners.
“So it’s a high-demand circuit when it comes to lateral energy but relatively low-demand in terms of traction, because the layout is very flowing with one corner sequencing into another. Strategy is set to play an important role once more – this was a two-stop race last year, when we nominated the soft and the hard compounds – and Suzuka is a circuit that all the drivers enjoy because of the high speeds. Japan is all about raw speed: and the tyres we have selected for this weekend should enable the drivers to showcase that in front of the amazing Japanese fans.”