The Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka is a race at which the Drivers’ World Championship has been clinched on many occasions in the past by greats like Senna, Prost, Schumacher and Hakkinen. And this weekend it is likely to see Sebastian Vettel clinch his second consecutive world title for Red Bull.
The Suzuka circuit has a special place in the drivers’ hearts, along with Spa Francorchamps, as it provides a great driving challenge with its high speed corners and the first sector of the lap in particular is special, with a series of fast, winding curves through which there is only one really fast line.
From a strategy point of view tyre performance is vital and it has always been a tricky track on which to overtake, even though there are places like the chicane after the famous 130R corner, where we do see passing. With the DRS this year overtaking should be easier and strategists can factor that in to their planning.
Contents – the Key Strategy considerations
• Track characteristics
• Form guide
• Weather forecast
• Likely tyre performance
• Number and likely timing of pit stops
• Chance of a safety car
• Recent start performance & Pit Stop League Table
Suzuka – 5.807 kilometres. Race distance – 53 laps = 307.471 kilometres. 18 corners in total. High speed, figure of 8 a real drivers’ favourite
Aerodynamic setup – High downforce. Top speed 324km/h (with Drag Reduction System active on rear wing) – 312km/h without.
Full throttle – 70% of the lap time (ave/high). Total fuel needed for race distance – 148 kilos (ave/ high). Fuel consumption – 2.73 kg per lap (ave/high)
Time spent braking: 10% of lap (low). Number of brake zones – 9. Brake wear- Light. Not a tough race on brakes.
Loss time for a Pit stop = 16.8 seconds (ave)
Total time needed for pit stop: 20.8 seconds (ave)
Fuel effect (cost in lap time per 10kg of fuel carried): 0.385 seconds (high)
The Japanese Grand Prix is the 15th round of the 2011 FIA F1 World Championship. With Sebastian Vettel claiming a hatrick of wins in Spa, Monza and Singapore he is likely to be crowned world champion for the second consecutive season.
With nine wins from 14 starts this year Vettel is the form man and he is also a master around Suzuka, having won the race for the last two years. It’s a real Red Bull circuit, the car generates huge downforce for the high speed curves. The race had a spell at Fuji Speedway for two years 2007 and 2008 and returned to Suzuka in 2009.
Amazingly, Red Bull’s 100% record in qualifying this season remains, with only five rounds to go, could they possibly go a whole season owning pole position?
As far as drivers’ and teams’ form at Suzuka is concerned; Michael Schumacher has won there six times, Fernando Alonso once (he also won at Fuji) and Rubens Barrichello won there in 2003.
After the stifling humidity of Singapore the drivers and engineers will be pleased to get back to more normal temperatures. Being coastal, Suzuka is always likely to get sudden rain showers, sometimes heavy. The forecast for this weekend however is good with Friday to Sunday set for 24 degrees and sunshine, with very low chances of rain.
Pirelli tyre choice for Suzuka: Soft (yellow markings) and medium (white markings). This combination was seen in Valencia, Germany, Belgium and Italy.
Suzuka presents quite a challenge for the tyres, with loadings in excess of 800 kilos on the tyre through some of the corners. For a sense of how the tyres might perform this weekend we can look back to Spa, a similar type of circuit with high speed corners, although the temperatures are likely to be higher in Suzuka this weekend. Although there were some problems with blistering due to camber angles, these can be discounted for this weekend and the performance gap between the tyres is likely to be around a second to 1.5 seconds per lap.
In Germany team strategists tried to run on the soft tyre for as much of the race as possible, taking the medium tyre briefly at the end – with the extreme solution by Vettel and Massa of pitting on the last lap for the mediums.
Some teams have found it difficult to get heat into the medium tyre to get it to work, but with the first sector of the lap featuring a series of high energy corners putting lateral load into the tyres, this is expected to be less of a problem this weekend.
The soft is still likely to be the main race tyre as well as qualifying tyre and saving a set of new soft tyres for the race is estimated to be worth about five seconds over the race distance. For teams like Mercedes, Renault or Force India, which might qualify in positions 7-10 on the grid, there is likely to be a move to not run in Q3 – to sacrifice a place or two on the grid and save tyres.
Number and likely timing of pit stops
All the indications from recent races where we have seen this combination of tyres is that we will see the front runners making a three stop race. Red Bull never bother trying to save tyres, they prefer to qualify at the front and lead from the front, while McLaren and Ferrari might feel tempted to try something different with one of their cars. To stop twice requires a longer first stint, as once you’ve made an early first stop you cannot switch, as Rosberg found in Singapore. But a Safety Car will always help drivers who are making one less stop. With the likelihood of a Safety Car reasonably high, there is always the argument for building in flexibility to the strategy to have the chance of making two stops work.
For the midfield teams, especially those with good tyre wear like Sauber, Toro Rosso and even Force India, this could be another race to make two stops work out and score points.
The chance of a Safety Car at Suzuka is 60% with 0.6 Safety Cars per race. As accidents at Suzuka tend to be at high speed there is often wreckage to be cleared away. There has been at least one Safety Car in three of the last four races at Suzuka and we have seen one in both the last two years.
Recent start performance
Starts are a critical part of the race and strategy can be badly compromised by a poor start, while good starts can make strategists change their plans in the hope of a good result.
Michael Schumacher is having a great year off the start line, with another great start in Monza gaining four places. In total he has gained 35 places on the first lap this season, but he has also lost 14 giving him an aggregate gain of 21 places.
As far as 2011 start performance is concerned drivers have gained (+) or lost (-) places off the start line this season on aggregate as follows:
+22 Schumacher *
+18 Buemi #
+9 Kobayashi**, Trulli
+6 Heidfeld ******,
+5 Massa, Di Resta, Kovalainen,
-9 Button, Sutil ##
-10 Rosberg*****, Maldonado
-13 Perez ###
- 24 Webber
* Schumacher had one bad start in Australia, losing 8 places but since then has been the season’s outstanding starter. He gained 9 places in Spa and four in Monza.
** Kobayashi lost 10 places in Spain, prior to that he had gained 8 in 4 starts.
*** After losing places in the first three races, Alonso has reversed that trend. His starts in Barcelona and Monza were outstanding.
**** Petrov had a good record until he lost 4 places at the start in Valencia. He was on a +2 balance before Monza where he was taken out at the start.
***** Rosberg lost four places at the start in Silverstone and was on a +6 balance before Monza where he was taken out in the first corner
****** Heidfeld had gained 20 places but lost 12 at the start in Germany
******* Di Resta had consistent start form and gained 7 places in the first nine races, but lost 12 at the start in Germany.
# Buemi made up nine places at the start in Hungary having started 23rd on the grid
## Sutil had a positive start balance until Hungary where he lost 12 places at the start
### Perez lost nine places off the start in Hungary.
#### Alguersuari was doing well with a +6 record prior to Spa, where he was hit by another car and lost 18 places. In Monza he gained 7 places at the start.
Bonus Feature – Pit Stop League Table
Of course good strategy planning also requires good pit stop execution by the mechanics and there have been some amazing performances; we have seen tyre stops carried out in less than two and a half seconds this year.
The table below shows the fastest single stop by teams in the recent Singapore Grand Prix. Allow 24 seconds for “loss time” ie the time it takes the car to travel down the pit lane. The difference between that and the time below is the stop time, plus the time in and out of the pit box and the driver’s reaction time when released. This reflects the teamwork aspect of pit stops, as a fast wheelchange is nothing if a driver bogs down when leaving the box.
1. Mercedes – 29.417
2. Force India – 29.764
3. McLaren – 29.876
4. Ferrari – 29.972
5. Red Bull – 30.023
6. Williams – 30.187
7. Sauber – 30.464
8. Renault – 30.485
9. Toro Rosso – 30.968
10. Lotus – 31.048
11. Virgin – 31.592
12. HRT – 31.687