Japanese Grand PrixView

By on Thursday, October 2, 2014
Lotus F1 Team

Lotus F1 Team

The final stint of a frenetic Formula 1 campaign begins in the land of the rising sun this weekend, with title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg separated by just three points. Japan’s famous Suzuka Circuit is one of the highlights on the calendar and neither Hamilton nor Rosberg have triumphed at the iconic figure-of-eight layout – a statistic they will be keen to amend on Sunday afternoon.

But should either of them come to grief, rivals will be pouncing to pick up the pieces. Red Bull has a strong record at the track, having triumphed on four of the last five occasions courtesy of Sebastian Vettel, while Williams will be keen to extend its advantage over Ferrari, which showed signs of resurgence in Singapore. McLaren, too, will be eager for a strong showing as it continues its battle with Force India at Honda’s home ground.

Suzuka is one of the most demanding circuits on the Formula 1 calendar, with fast corners accentuated by a narrow track lined by grass and gravel while the barriers are not too far away. That it’s not too different from the original layout shows just why drivers love it. A high-downforce set-up is required in order to cope with the rapid direction changes presented by the first half of the lap, although there's a balancing act with two long straights making up the last part of the lap. Several corners, including the Degner flicks, demand a good stiff suspension set-up. There’s only a couple of heavy braking zones around the 5.8km track, meaning that there will be a greater emphasis on keeping temperatures up, rather than cooling them as in Singapore.

History

Japan joined the Formula 1 circus in 1976 and its first race has gone down as a classic, with a monsoon-affected race won by Mario Andretti while James Hunt claimed the title after fighting back to third as Niki Lauda withdrew on safety grounds. Japan returned at Suzuka in 1987 and the title was decided when Nigel Mansell sustained injuries following a heavy crash in practice. It became famous as the iconic venue where tensions between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna reached a high point in 1989 and 1990. The pair collided while fighting for the title as McLaren team-mates in 1989, with Senna going on to win before being controversially disqualified for cutting the Casio Triangle. A year later pole man Senna, dissatisfied by the placement of his grid slot, vowed that Ferrari driver Prost would not emerge ahead at the first corner. Prost made the better start and the pair collided at the first corner, with both retiring after heavy impacts with the barrier. The collision ensured the title was decided in Senna's favour.

Senna was involved in more controversy in 1993 when newcomer Eddie Irvine unlapped himself while battling with rivals. Senna was infuriated by Irvine's actions and sought him out in the paddock afterwards. A year later, the win was fought between Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher in an unusual situation. The race was halted following an accident which had injured a marshal and the remainder of the race was run at an aggregated time. Schumacher held a 6.8 second lead when the race was stopped but Hill fought back to finish 10.1s ahead - and claim overall victory by 3.3s.

In 1996 it was Hill's turn to taste title success at the track when Jacques Villeneuve's bid was scuppered by a loose wheel, while in 1998 and 1999 it was Mika Hakkinen's turn to triumph, firstly at the expense of Schumacher and latterly when he beat Irvine.

Hakkinen and Schumacher were embroiled in several classic encounters across their three years as rivals but few were more epic than their 2000 encounter. The duo were on another level all weekend, with Schumacher edging Hakkinen by 0.009s in qualifying. Hakkinen took the lead at the start but Schumacher re-claimed the advantage following a rapid in-lap and pit-stop and eventually beat Hakkinen by almost two seconds to give Ferrari its first Drivers' title in two decades.

The 2005 edition of the race has gone down as one of the best in history as Kimi Raikkonen won the race despite qualifying in 17th place, as he passed Giancarlo Fisichella on the very last lap. The race moved back to Fuji briefly, with Lewis Hamilton triumphing in appalling conditions in 2007, before Fernando Alonso took victory in 2008 after a chaotic opening lap. Suzuka returned in 2009 and will remain on the calendar until at least 2018.

Two other Formula 1 races have been held in Japan at the unpopular Aida circuit - in 1994 and 1995 - under the moniker of the Pacific Grand Prix.

The circuit

“It's downhill on the way into Turn 1, which is incredibly fast and taken flat out,” says title leader Hamilton. “You've then got to brake briefly into Turn 2 - shifting down to third gear, or maybe fourth in these new cars, using the entire track on exit. Next it's the legendary 'S' Curves. It's really important to hit every apex just right through here to carry the momentum. You actually run quite wide out of Turn 5 and then really hug the apex through Turn 6 - bringing you out to the right-hand side of the track for a good line through Turn 7. You have to get the car hooked up through here to hit full throttle as early as possible for the flat-out run up the hill.

Lotus F1 Team

Lotus F1 Team

“Next, you're into the Degner curves, which always seem to catch people out. You don't want to brake too late into the first part or you'll find yourself straight into gravel. Then, for the second part, the car can get really out of shape at the apex and it's so easy to make a mistake. There's no room for error through this section as there's very little run-off area.

“After a short, slightly curved straight it's into the hairpin, which is really difficult to attack. There's so little grip through here - partly because the circuit is so dependent on high-speed performance that your setup is not as optimised for low-speed corners as you'd like. It's important to get a good exit here, as you're flat-out all the way through to Spoon Curve – [which] is really tricky to get right. It's very fast on the way in and, once you're there, it's all about keeping the minimum speed up all the way through the corner. You really do have to use all of the circuit on exit and get on the throttle as early as you can for the back straight.

“[The] spectacular 130R is so fast. Today, we easily take it flat-out but it must have been so tough years ago. After a short run down to the final chicane, Casio Triangle, you're braking hard for the crucial finale to the lap. You use all of the kerbs through here and, once again, hitting full throttle early is key as the following start/finish straight provides one of the best overtaking opportunities around the lap.”

Pirelli has brought its two hardest tyre compounds, the white Medium and orange Hard tyres, in order to cope with the high loading on the sidewalls through the first sector, as well as several long-radius corners later on in the lap. Expect drivers to qualify on the Medium tyres and run a short first stint, followed by a couple of stints on the Hard tyres. A three stop strategy may also be workable, although around Suzuka it would be difficult should a driver fall into traffic, as overtaking is at a premium. Abrasive asphalt is a feature of Suzuka, with a high track evolution, and graining can also be possible, especially during the initial stages of the weekend.

Unlike at most of the 2014 circuits there will be just the solitary DRS zone for this weekend’s event, with the detection point located at the entry to the Casio Triangle and the activation point at the start of the main straight. Mika Salo, who started over 100 races between 1994 and 2002, will act as the driver steward.

Facts

This year's event will be the 30th edition of the Japanese Grand Prix, with Fuji Speedway hosting a race in 1976 and 1977, before a decade-long hiatus. Suzuka has hosted the majority of events since then, only briefly dropping off the calendar when Fuji returned for a two-year stint in 2007 and 2008.

Michael Schumacher is the most successful driver at Suzuka, having claimed six wins, with his 2004 win the last time Ferrari triumphed at the track. Vettel has been the recent man to beat, having claimed victory in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013. Ferrari and McLaren are tied as the most successful Constructor at Suzuka, with seven apiece, although McLaren's two victories at Fuji tip them ahead of their rivals in the overall Japanese scheme.

12 Formula 1 races at Suzuka have been won from pole position, with a further nine coming from the front row of the grid - a feat Vettel achieved in 2013 after playing second fiddle to Mark Webber in qualifying.

One aspect to keep an eye on is the developing Typhoon Phanfone – it remains difficult to pinpoint exactly where and when the typhoon will hit but there is a strong chance that Sunday’s race will be affected by rain and strong winds.

Red Bull/Getty Images

Red Bull/Getty Images

Timetable (GMT+9)

Friday 3 October

  • First practice: 10:00 – 11:30
  • Second practice: 14:00 – 15:30

Saturday 4 October

  • Third practice: 11:00 – 12:00
  • Qualifying: 14:00 (60 minutes)

Sunday 5 October

  • Race: 15:00 (53 laps or two hours)

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