This year’s Japanese Grand Prix will not be the title decider, as it was last year, but instead it will be a crucial race in the hunt for the title which is likely to go down to the last race in Brazil in November.
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.
Race strategy was the decisive factor in last year’s race as McLaren’s Jenson Button had the pace to stay with pole sitter Sebastian Vettel early on in the race and was able to manage his tyres better in the opening stint so that he could pit a lap later than the world champion and emerge in front of him. With closely matched cars, it is likely to be the decisive factor in Sunday’s Grand Prix too.
Despite DRS, Suzuka is still 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.
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 2012 FIA F1 World Championship. Last year Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was crowned world champion for the second time, at this race.
This year he is chasing Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and has clawed back the gap to 29 points with six races remaining. By this stage last year he had won nine races, while this season it is just two. Lewis Hamilton and Alonso are the only drivers to have won three races this year. After his retirement in Singapore, the title is a long shot for Hamilton who must win this race to stay in contention.
McLaren is the form team at the moment, having scored pole position at each of the last four races and won three of them. However Jenson Button will be forced to take a five place grid penalty in Japan due to a forced gearbox change. Red Bull took a step forward in Singapore with a raft of updates while Ferrari needs to find some extra speed to stay on terms.
As far as drivers’ and teams’ form at Suzuka is concerned; Michael Schumacher has won there six times, Sebastian Vettel twice, Fernando Alonso once (he also won at Fuji), Lewis Hamilton once at Fuji, while Jenson Button won last year. Kimi Raikkonen won a classic race in 2005, overtaking for the lead on the last lap.
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 forecasts of up to 27 degrees and sunshine. If it stays warm the tyre degradation will be more severe.
Pirelli tyre choice for Suzuka: Soft (yellow markings) and hard (silver markings). This combination was seen in Spain and Silverstone.
Teams are likely to be mindful of what happened with this combination of tyres at Silverstone, where the hard tyre was the better race tyre and Mark Webber won with an opening stint on soft and then two longer stints on hard.
Last year Pirelli brought the soft and medium tyres to Suzuka and they were on the limit with blistering. Partly this was due to the camber the teams were running on the front wheels, but also to temperature build up in the shoulder of the tyre,
This year Pirelli have worked on this and they are bringing the hard tyre instead of the medium, which should mean that the tyres are capable of covering a wide range of eventualities and conditions. It can be cool at Suzuka in October, wet even, but it can also be 30 degrees. Thermal degradation is likely if the temperatures are higher, so that will mean more stops.
Suzuka presents a great challenge for the tyres, with loadings in excess of 800 kilos on the tyre through some of the corners.
The performance gap between the soft and hard tyres is likely to be around a 0.6 seconds to 0.8 seconds per lap.
With the first sector of the lap featuring a series of high energy corners putting lateral load into the tyres, warm up is not much of a problem at Suzuka.
Number and likely timing of pit stops
Last year the top three finishers all did exactly the same strategy with three stints on used soft tyres and a final stint on new mediums. The difference was in the tyre degradation each of them suffered and the laps on which they chose to pit. Button was able to run a slightly longer opening stint than Vettel and took the victory that way.
This year we have tended to see races run with one less stop than in 2011, so the likely strategy for Suzuka this year is some drivers doing two stops and some drivers doing three.
With the temperatures looking like they will be quite high, thermal degradation will be the limiting factor, particularly on the front tyres and that will dictate strategy. Teams will react to degradation once it kicks in and make stops. As with Singapore, a safety car can make the difference between managing on two and having to make a third stop.
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 teams with good tyre wear like Sauber and Lotus this could be another race to make two stops work and to 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 four of the last five races at Suzuka and we have seen one in each of the last three years.
Recent start performance
The run from pole to the first corner is 545 metres at Suzuka.
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.
As far as 2012 starts are concerned here is a table with indications of drivers who have gained or lost places at the start.
Note- This table is intended as an indicator of trends. Where drivers have had first lap incidents which dropped them to the back of the field, they are not included above, but are detailed in the notes marked * below. This affects other drivers’ gains, but the sample still shows prevailing trends of places won and lost at the start. Belgian GP start is not included as it eliminated many cars, skewing the sample.
+26 Massa ***** *******
+22 Kovalainen, Senna* *****
+5 Maldonado****, Kobayashi****, De la Rosa ****
+4 Hamilton, Schumacher* ******, Hulkenberg
+3 Di Resta *****, Button
+1 Petrov***** *******, Vettel
-3 Grosjean** **** *****, Webber
* Senna, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg were all involved in accidents on 1st lap in Australia
** Schumacher and Grosjean collided on Lap 1 in Malaysia, Senna and Perez pitted for wet tyres on opening lap
***Perez punctured on lap 1 in Spain and went to back of field
**** Eliminated by or involved in first lap accident in Monaco
***** Di Resta eliminated lap 1 at Silverstone, Petrov did not start
***** Massa, Senna and Grosjean involved in first lap collisions dropping them to the back
****** Schumacher forced to pit lap 1 in Hungary (lost six places)
*******Massa (puncture) and Petrov (broken nose) pitted for repairs on lap 1 in Singapore after making contact.
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.
1. McLaren 2.94secs (1)
2. Red Bull 3.12secs (3)
3. Ferrari 3.19secs (2)
4. Lotus 3.37secs (5)
5. Mercedes 3.55secs (7)
6. Toro Rosso 3.79secs (4)
7. Force India 4.03secs (10)
8. Sauber 4.04secs (11)
9. Caterham 4.1secs (8)
10. Williams 4.23secs (6)
11. Marussia 4.65secs (9)
12. HRT 6.44secs (12)