F1 2013 rocks up in Suzuka this weekend, a mere five days after the flag fell on the Korean Grand Prix, with Sebastian Vettel on the verge of securing a fourth straight championship crown. All the German needs to do is make sure he is first across the line on Sunday, a result that looks very likely given his already-stellar record at the track.
Of course, Formula One is never that simple. Red Bull must also hope Fernando Alonso, that annoyingly persistent Ferrari star, finishes 9th or lower in order for Vettel’s dreams to become reality. Once again it is the Spaniard who stands between F1’s youngest ever title winner and another entry into the history books.
Suzuka has, since 2009, been a temple of Red Bull success. Victories in 2009, 2010 and 2012, all courtesy of Vettel, were interrupted only by Jenson Button in 2011 – although much of the spotlight remained on the German as he wrapped up his 2nd World Championship with 3rd place behind, you guessed it, Alonso.
Whether it’s the sweeping bends of the ‘Esses’ at the start of the lap, the flowing downhill run to ‘Spoon’ corner mid-circuit, or the hair-raisingly but sadly sanitised modern blast round ‘130R’ to end the course, Suzuka is pure Red Bull territory. The bumps, nuances and rise-and-fall of the track plays perfectly to the delicate touch of Adrian Newey and his design teams. In short, if Red Bull owned a custom-built test track of their own, this would be it. That’s not to say others are without a hope – McLaren proved that in 2011 – but getting on top of the Austrian ‘super-team’ in Japan will never be an easy task.
Red Bull – The pressure of living up to their reputation as the ‘unbeatables’ has never forced Red Bull into errors before, so why should it this weekend? That Vettel’s 4th title is within reach for the first time this year might add a hint of extra-adrenalin to the pit crews and strategists, but it’s nothing they haven’t dealt with before. Presuming Vettel is running out front again (as he almost inevitably will be), all eyes will be on what Alonso is doing to determine whether the corks remain firmly in the champagne bottles on Sunday evening.
Mercedes – It’s crunch time; all too often this year Mercedes have squandered real opportunities to take the fight to Red Bull, and must shoulder the blame for the inconsistent and confusing strategy calls in Korea that hampered both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Big points are always on offer, yet Mercedes manage to come away with considerably fewer than they should be getting. It’s too late to stop Vettel, but satisfaction and honour remain at stake.
Ferrari – Ferrari are somewhat of a spent force right now. It would be easy to argue Fernando Alonso has carried them on his backs ever since that faux-pas that was the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Yet here the Spaniard is again, for the third time in four years the only outside force standing between Vettel and title glory. The F138 performed averagely in Korea; if it does the same this weekend it should be more than enough for Alonso to ensure the fight at least goes to India. Massa in turn has promised his near-miss with Alonso in Korea won’t stop him racing hard, but it’s hard to imagine Maranello would thank him if he got in the double World Champion’s way this weekend.
Lotus – Suzuka ’12 wasn’t a particularly memorable weekend for Lotus. Romain Grosjean unceremoniously drove into the side of Mark Webber at the first corner, while a few yards away team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was busy running erstwhile-championship contender Alonso into the gravel. Yet they arrive here this time round seemingly on the rise as others have faltered. 3rd for Raikkonen in Singapore was followed by a double 2-3 finish in Korea after some great scrapping between the two men, and more of the same could be in the offing at Suzuka. Needless to say, the Lotus will be competitive on long runs that might shape Red Bull and Ferrari responses to their planning for Sunday.
McLaren – Jenson Button has finished all eleven races he has ever started at Suzuka, and stretching that record to twelve will probably be the best he can hope for this weekend. With the MP4/28 as off-the-pace as ever, there are just five chances remaining for the Brit or team-mate Sergio Perez to put an end to McLaren’s woeful 50th anniversary season in which a single podium has yet to be scored. Suzuka might be one of their best remaining chances, with a reliance on power that benefits the Mercedes V8 in the back of the McLaren. Oddly, despite its aerodynamic inefficiences, the MP4/28 has worked quite well on fast sweeping circuits this season – think Malaysia and Belgium – and a McLaren podium would be a long overdue and welcome sight.
Force India – Slipping into the abyss after upbeat comments from Vijay Mallya earlier last week. Three points in six races has seriously blunted their championship campaign, and a big result is needed if they are to put some distance between themselves and the rapidly closing Sauber. It’s as simple as that. Fortunately, Suzuka is a track that should suit their traditional strengths.
Sauber – On a high after Hulkenberg’s superb Korea performance, ego’s might be a little deflated on Sunday, if only considering the law of cruel averages that abounds in F1. Suzuka was kind to Sauber last year as Kamui Kobayashi secured his one and only F1 podium finish, so don’t put it past Nico Hulkenberg to emulate that achievement this year. A much-improved car has reaped dividends as the season enters its final phase, a fact that isn’t lost on their rivals.
Toro Rosso – Slipped a little from their recent successes with poor weekends in Singapore and Korea, and must get back on track this time to ensure they remain in touch with rapidly-disappearing Sauber in the title table. Daniel Ricciardo may well have a Red Bull contract in his pocket but has failed to impress recently, and Jean Eric Vergne has not scored since Canada. Points gentleman, please!
Williams – One point thus far makes 2013 the worst Williams season in history; a fact somewhat ignored in the frenzy to apportion blame at McLaren for their own spectacular fall from grace. Perhaps it is less-noticed given Williams’ consistently poor performances sine 2005 (Barcelona 2012 excepted). Both Maldonado and Bottas are more than capable, having recorded just four retirements between them all year. It’s hard to see how Suzuka can be any better, but updates tested in Yeongam might offer a glimmer of hope.
Caterham – It’s a pity rain didn’t fall in Korea, otherwise there’s a very real chance Giedo Van Der Garde could have got in on the action. As it is, they arrive at Japan 2013 with the same number of points they started the 2010 Bahrain Grand Prix with – zero. Pic was within reach of 13th place and thus 10th in the constructor’s title in Korea, but maybe Suzuka will yield that elusive result.
Marussia – Still on top in the Caterham-Marussia battle despite now being rather off the pace of their bigger rivals. Suzuka will be another weekend of hanging on to their coat-tails and hoping for the best.
What they say
“It is the most beautiful race track along with the Nordschleife and Macau, it is a dream to drive. Starting with corners one to five – you have to see the ‘S’ Curves as connected, you drive through them in a rhythm at around 240 km/h, always on the limit and you can feel the centrifugal forces in both directions. There are extreme bumps too that pull on your neck like hell. Spoon Curve: it is extremely fast and has two apexes. You have to be brave to get on the throttle early through here. Then there is a long straight, leading into the ultra-fast left kink which is 130R. You go flat out, but it doesn’t allow for any errors or technical issues since the run-off area here is not great. Finally, Casio chicane: you drive in second gear and the apex is very hard to see. Overtaking is harder than it looks here. It is possible to misjudge the braking and if the car in front does not cooperate, then there is a chance to have a collision.” Sebastian Vettel, DEU, Red Bull
“Our car has been fast in high-speed corners this season as we seem to have good downforce so I hope the fast layout of Suzuka will suit us this weekend. 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.” Nico Rosberg, DEU, Mercedes AMG
“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.” Lewis Hamilton, GBR, Mercedes AMG
“There are some corners where you are flat out – or very nearly flat out – but then there are others where you really have to balance the braking and throttle carefully to maintain the best speed. If you push too hard then you can easily be punished, as I found out in qualifying last year when I was on my best lap in the final session. Hopefully this time we’ll get everything right and be fighting at the front; that’s where you can have the most fun at a circuit like Suzuka.” Kimi Raikkonen, FIN, Lotus Renault
“Suzuka feels a bit like a second home circuit to me. My win there back in 2011 remains one of my most emotional victories, because it was the first Japanese Grand Prix after the terrible tsunami that devastated the north of Japan – it was such an important event for the whole country. The thing I really like about Suzuka is that it’s such an unforgiving track. On most circuits, if you run wide or out-brake yourself, you invariably end up just running onto the Tarmac run-off, so you can easily get back onto the track without any penalty. At Suzuka, if you run wide through the Esses, or go off the track at the exit of the Degners, you’re going to find yourself in the gravel. And I like that – I think it rewards those who don’t make mistakes, and it makes for better racing, because you have to stay honest and focused.” Jenson Button, GBR, McLaren Mercedes
“The track is one of the best tracks we race on. For me it’s up there with Silverstone because it demands so much from the car. Running on low fuel for a qualifying lap is a great feeling and something I look forward to. It’s also a big technical challenge in terms of optimising the set-up and it’s very tough on tyres because of the high-speed corners. All we can do is go there and concentrate on optimising the car balance. We’ve been focussing more on race performance recently and hopefully that will pay off.” Paul Di Resta, GBR, Force India Mercedes
“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.” Paul Hembery, GBR, Pirelli Motorsport
Friday – High 27c/Low 18c – Storms
Saturday – High 24c/Low 14c – Storms
Sunday – High 24c/Low 14c – Sunny