Finding the winning strategy: Japanese Grand Prix preview analysis
Posted By: James Allen  |  04 Oct 2011   |  1:35 pm GMT  |  23 comments

Pre-event strategy content
Suzuka Circuit October 7-9 2011

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

Track characteristics

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)

Form Guide

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.

Weather Forecast

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.

Likely tyre performance and other considerations

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.

Chance of a Safety Car

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 #
+15 Glock
+14 Liuzzi
+10 Alonso***
+9 Kobayashi**, Trulli
+8 Ricciardo
+6 Heidfeld ******,
+5 Massa, Di Resta, Kovalainen,
+4 D’Ambrosio

Held position

Lost places
-2, Chandhok
-4 Vettel
-7 Alguersuari####
-8 Hamilton
-9 Button, Sutil ##
-10 Rosberg*****, Maldonado
-11 Senna
-13 Perez ###
-16 Petrov,****

-19 Barrichello
– 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

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Sorry that something went wrong, repeat again!

On the league table of starts, it would be interesting to see the table with some sort of Standard Deviation or Variance adjustment to nullify the effects of the disastrous starts to give a better idea of drivers overall performance off the line (espcially since the really big losses are often not the drivers fault).


Mercedes – give Schumi a fast car in 2012 would you please? It’s about time this “old dog” shows everyone what he can do.

Just try and tell me you didn’t have a smile on your face when Schumi was looking on track for a podium in Canada.

I can see the first Schumi post-race podium interview already, it will go something like this:

“First, I’d like to say I like what you’ve done with the place in my absence” as he looks around the room. “I must say obviously and honestly that I am a little excited to be here to tell you about my race. While I’m here may I tell you that I have extended my contract with Mercedes for one more year into 2013.”



James, would you know who the driver steward for Korea will be since AJ cannot make it?


I read elsewhere it would be Alan Jones…



Excellent read as ever James.

Expecting a good one and hoping that we’ll be reflecting on excellent racing, rather than another event masked in contreversy. We’ve had to may recently!


I’ve done some playing with the numbers and I reckon that two stops is the way to go if the options go 20 laps. If they start to degrade (Phase 2) after 15, then it’s 3 stops. Even a 1.5s difference between options and primes results in 2 stops being just quicker according to my model. However, 20 laps is a big ask – I don’t think we’ve seen this very often…

If you want to see the graphs and explanation of how I get to this conclusion it’s at (I think you should be able to click on my name).

James, I have a smaller race fuel load than you suggest – but I think that 2.73kg*53laps is less than 148kg anyway. Admittedly it makes 0.01s per lap difference, but I can just about resolve this with my model over a stint, so I should be able to tell after the first race stints which numbers are more accurate.


Thanks, interesting site. I’ll take a closer look when I have more time.


Wow, +8 positions for Ricciardo is pretty awesome effort considering the level of car performance and his relative few race starts this season compared to the rest of the field….


His pace is even more impressive. He was way quicker than Tonio in the race in Singapore.

The start stats need some care. He got +2 because his team mate took out Rosberg/Petrov at Monza, for example, just by holding position. I think there must be a better way of assessing the start gains/losses. Ideas?


Hi James,

Do you think a DNF for Vettel and a win for Jenson(I can dream) could cause Vettel to have a little bit of a wobble?

Would rival teams give way to Jenson a win if he was in a particular position to?

Love the site.



Prediction: Hamilton qualifies front row between Vettel and Webber, then tries to get ahead in first corner (like Monza) and takes Vettel out. Webber 1st and Button 2nd Alonso 3rd.

One thing for sure is Hamilton will cause drama.


That would be the most unsporting thing the world has witnessed. 11 teams sucking on sour grapes and conspiring to destroy someone’s well deserved WDC chances? All those people should be fired.


Maybe if Vettel has DNFs in the next 3 races and Button wins all 3 then he will start to worry 🙂


No. His confidence is bullet proof now


I am looking for to this race and to see Vettel crowned world champion. I hope he wins the race; the best way to win the title.

I like Suzuka. It is a fantastic race. Kobayashi lightened up last year with his fantastic overtaking at the hairpin over and over again. This year with DRS it would make things easier for him. He is a great on track entertainer. I don’t expect to see the Ferraris on podium unless there is problem for the Red Bulls or McLarens.

This track suits most of the top teams and the fast starting Ferraris and Mercedes will add to the first corner confusion. Safety cars are a pain here mainly because it takes a long time to clear an accident scene at Suzuka. This can ruin Vettel’s championship drive if he gets caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. Let’s hope Hamilton won’t be the cause of any safety cars this time in Japan.

Vettel will win the championship in Suzuka and it will be party time. I wish I was there!


Excellent once again James. I’d love to see a Schumacher podium at Suzuka, but the W02 just isn’t up to par this year. I think he has a good chance at a top 5 finish, especially if the Ferraris struggle. We all know Webber will bog at the start.


Truly brilliant read, thank you. Suzuka is a real gem and I can’t wait! Best wishes to the Japanese nation in its recovery from the still recent tragedy.


I guess most drivers prefer Spa because of it’s up and down nature but me personally, I think Suzuka is the better of the two tracks since it punishes mistakes whereas Spa is just another Abu-Dhabi runway.

Anyway it’s about time Vettel clinched his title for some of us have been waiting for this season to end ASAP so we can wipe it out our minds & history.

But you know what, this time another Vettel/Red Bull win doesn’t look on the cards for strangely this year, Red Bull hasn’t performed well on the circuits that favour them (Hungary, Silverstone, Barcelona) & yet have done well on tracks that don’t favour their car (Canada, Monaco, Spa, Monza)

So at least the only consolidation is Vettel won’t wrap up the title in the way he wants i.e. By winning the race.

Meanwhile am now really worried Red Bull may on pole the entire season, Singapore was our last chance to beat them – Only a miracle can save us now.


To all soldiers in the Hammy Army – Good news! Last night I had another Lewis-F1 dream so you know what that means.

Yes our hero is going to smash the Sebi party. Happy days


That’s “consolation” Mr. Goferet.


What Vettel is doing is something special and the fact you want see it as consolidation that he won’t win the title through a victory is just sad.

He is writing F1 history and any true F1 fan would respect and appreciate that.

And the only thing “your Hammy” is smashing is other cars and his own races.


I’m gonna support goferet on this one. What’s the matter F1…its not good enough that Vettel has the fastest car and a team giving him 100% backing, now fans can’t say they are sick of this prolonged ‘title race’? Should we all kneel at his feet? Sorry, don’t think he is that special, the only thing he is doing with the fastest car, is his job. Ýou are the world champion, team leader, and in the fastest car by a mile, your job is to wrap up the title. Put Alonso in that car and he’d probably have wrapped it up in Singapore.


I’m assuming you both meant consolation rather than consolidation? 🙂



I gotta give a +10 to F1 for this one 😀

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