Strategy likely to be the deciding factor in Japanese Grand Prix
Posted By: James Allen  |  02 Oct 2012   |  9:21 am GMT  |  92 comments

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.

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 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.

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 forecasts of up to 27 degrees and sunshine. If it stays warm the tyre degradation will be more severe.

Likely tyre performance and other considerations

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.

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 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 ***** *******
+24 Glock
+22 Kovalainen, Senna* *****
+21 Alonso
+20 Perez***
+14 Vergne
+13 Raikkonen
+12 Pic
+9 Karthikeyan
+5 Maldonado****, Kobayashi****, De la Rosa ****
+4 Hamilton, Schumacher* ******, Hulkenberg
+3 Di Resta *****, Button
+1 Petrov***** *******, Vettel

Held position:


-3 Grosjean** **** *****, Webber
-5 Rosberg
-13 Ricciardo*

* 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.

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.

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)

The UBS Race Strategy Briefing is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists and from Pirelli

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James, regarding some of the above comments, this might be useful for historical accuracy. I think you did once place Kimi at least on a level with Alonso, or even higher.

I was watching VHS recordings a mate has from 2004 and 2005. Spa 2004, Raikkonen won against a dominant Schumacher, and your discussion with Martin Brundle as MS and KR make their way to the podium ceremony goes as follows

JA – you’re watching the two best drivers in formula one today [your words]. Would you not agree Martin that Raikkonen is the best of the current drivers [my precis of your words]

MB – He is the most complete package [Martin’s words]

I guess you have recordings of all these, James, if you wish to refer to them for confirmation


Maybe right. You can pick any moment but it’s out of context.

2004 Alonso had only just started, remember. He won two titles in 2005 and 2006.


Pole position for RBR at Suzuka to break McLaren’s dominance of 4 consecutive poles?


James why not give Kimi his due and say that he overtook ON THE LAST CORNER of the last lap, not just the last lap. As you say the racing line through that turn is pretty tight and punishes any deviating, so he had to go way off-line to pass the Renault.


It was the first corner of the last lap (turn 1). Fisi was so defensive out of the chicane and kimi got a great tow. It was that race that summed up why Fisi wasn’t a top line driver.


He passes him into Turn 1 on the last lap.


First corner of the last lap as I recall it….

Didn’t he pass him into Turn 1?


Keeping my fingers crossed for The Device…

DanWilliams from Aust

+1, all this hype and Lotus seems to have dropped off in performance lately, hopefully ‘The Device’ gets them back towards the front!


Expecting an all or nothing race from Kobayashi on his home turf. Do you all Remember the stunning overtakes from him last year?


Whilst I would love to see Kimi repeat the magic of 2005 I think Lotus will still have some work to do though.Definitely Mclaren is the team beat and really hoping Lewis will just blitz everyone now his future is clear. I can see him fighting with Vettel and Alonso just as JA does. I can’t help but want Seb and Fernando to take each other out at the first corner just to make the title fight closer again. With Suzuka being so unpredictable I can see a Maldonado or Kobayashi really firing here and being strong contenders also. Bathurst celebrates 50th anniversary on this weekend I expect to have square eyes by Sunday evening. Bring it on!.



who in your opinion is out and out the fastest driver, and your reasons why? (expecting Vettel vs. Hamilton)


Over a single lap, very close between HAM and VET

Over a race distance, Alonso definitely


Kimi in the race is brilliant also.


I remember in the build up to 2005 you said that Alonso would probably struggle to match Fisichella over a single lap but would beat him soundly over a race difference, only thing you got wrong was that Fernando comfortably beat him in qualifying too!


@ James, I misremembered slightly, this is the passage I recalled:

“So Kimi and Fernando are the keys to the season in my view. If Michelin has done a better job on these new long-life tyres then either driver could string together a championship challenge.

Fernando had a mixed year in 2004. He lost confidence in his qualifying ability early in the year and never really got it back. That harmed his chances in the races, because he was generally starting lower down the grid than he should.

Trulli and Button took advantage of that for much of the year. This year he must get the qualifying aspect of his game back up to top level if he is to challenge. In races he is as fast as anyone in F1.

Fisichella is very fast over a single lap and he is also very consistent in races, so Alonso cannot afford to cede the upper hand to him. Fisi will score points and be competitive all year but I don’t think he’s got the ‘X factor’ you need to win the world title, especially not in this company.”

I suppose my point was you saw Alonso’s world championship quality early, while I admit I thought Fisi would push him harder than he did…


Yes. I spoke to Schumacher when Alonso was a test driver with Renault and he saw then that Alonso would be a greater threat to him than Montoya or Raikkonen. So it proved.


Did I? Doubt it maybe said occasionally struggle, but it was always clear ALO was is a different class


Your strategy calculator indicates a fairly fine balance between two and three stops.

Subject to track temperature, the teams who are on top of tyre setup ought to be able to manage two stops (and if they can save a new set of options, running these in the final stint looks to be a viable alternative to the prime).

With tyre strategy being so marginal, running at the front will be a big advantage again.


Yes, going to be very close a safety car will help 2 stoppers.

Tyres may be a little conservative for Lotus to take advantage


James, how significant is the number of engines left to the teams ?

As far as I’m aware, the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers still have two new engines in hand; McLaren’s only one.


Good question, don’t forget that everyone used a new one in Spa and the another new one in Monza, so plenty of leeway there. I’d be surprised if any of the leading teams run ino the 10 place drop for a 9th engine


And Hamilton and Alonso’s engines at Spa were of course hardly used. The amount of new engines left isn’t as important as to how much mileage has been put on the other engines still in rotation, or whether any engines have been destroyed.

How are RBR on that score, with their alternator failures? Renault said they couldn’t glean anything from the failures on the RB8, b/c the alternator had completely melted. They figured out the problem from the alternator on D’Ambrosio’s Lotus at Monza.


Alonso, kimi and vettel – 2 fresh engine left

Lewis, button and merc duo – 1 fresh engine left


Is Suzuka particularly hard on the engines? 70% full throttle plus lots of fast corners seems to suggest so…


Here’s a quick graphical sketch showing the grid/lap1 position changes by race:

And here’s a (needs updating) sketch showing reasons for non-finishes:


Just that much more instant viewing it as a graphic. Can see that Hamilton has only lost at most one position off the start, most times has remained in place, and only gained a lot of positions at Spain, which was understandable with him starting 24th there.

Great sites!


I agree


Alonso hasn’t lost a single place this year? That’s crazy good.


Very interesting, Thanks

Tornillo Amarillo

Hope a Hamilton win and not to good por Alonso so the Championship would be a little balanced right away.

James, next year I don’t think Button doing well in McLaren as a number 1 driver being Perez there, could it be his last year in F1?


The most difficult thing that Jenson ever did was agreeing to compete against Hamilton (and doing so more than respectably) so I cant imagine he is any more concerned about racing a still largely unproven Perez in a team built around himself. I would expect Button to beat him next season.


He’s signed thru 2015 … not sure what seasons are solid, and which are options.


Pressure is on Button for sure in 2013


James what is your podium prediction for this race please? I’m going with Hamilton, Raikkonen and Vettel. I think Lotus might perform particularly well here and spring a surprise. What do you think?


Lotus will be up there though.


Hamilton, Alonso, Button.


Button will do very well to make the podium taking his grid penalty into account.


He has the car to make up the ground.


Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso


I think we’re in for a cracker here. The form guide taken from this weekend will be a good indication of the pecking order for the last 6 races… especially the 2/3 that follow.

Alonso and Ferrari really need to find something if they want to keep that lead. The RBR and Mclaren we know are already fast so they have to make the most of their speed advantage.

As for Lotus/Kimi, he really needs a win if he wants to keep those slim WDC hopes alive. But I dont see that happening. Since Hungary and the long break, they seem to have dropped back. Also, their advantage of being lighter on tyres is no longer there… the other teams have caught up in this area.

A quick shout for Maldonado and the two Saubers. They should go well here so I wont be surprised if they mix it up with the top teams.


I’ve read an article by Autosports Mark Hughes saying that Suzuka has very similar circuit characteristics as Silverstone.

“It’s true that in terms of outright performance, the McLaren has been the form car since its Hockenheim upgrades, but the Ferrari has been far from overwhelmed by it. During those five races, the Ferrari has been comparably fast at Hockenheim and Monza, with Spa an unknown given Alonso’s first lap retirement there. It has struggled for pace only at Hungary and Singapore, the two circuits most punishing of the mechanical understeer balance the F2012 seems ultimately to have.

Add low-speed traction – another Ferrari weakness – into that list of demands, like at Singapore, and the reasons for Alonso’s struggles last weekend are clear. They were exacerbated by how the new circuit-specific high downforce rear wing did not work as in simulation, leaving the team relying on the standard wing – which works best at downforce levels less than those demanded by the Marina Bay track.”

Here’s hoping he’s right


Maldonado seems to be more of a street circuit type while Grosjean is more the flyer on a fast track. But Lotus seems to have lost pace with the top teams. I think Suzuka has more in common with Spa and Monza than Singapore so I think it will be McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull in that order here. At least a podium for Alonso with a Macca 1-2 if they both last. Sauber might be good here too not just in tyre wear but in outright speed. I hope Kobayashi does well in his home GP since his seat is under threat and might arrest declining Japanese interest in F1.


yes, remember Kamui passing cars like he had a power boost button a couple of years ago, hope he does well at home


Ah, the 2005 race was absolute classic and undoubtedly one of the best races of recent times. In terms of this year I’m hoping Fernando manages to finish ahead of vettel with lewis winning…I would love it if the championship went down to the wire between Ferrari and Mclaren.


2005 was a classic race, but it’s always been slightly disappointing from my point of view that the title was already wrapped up by then.


If 2005 Japan disappointed u mate I think ur watching the wrong sport. I can’t think of a better race than that one. No crap tyres kers or drs moves. Brilliant from kimi and Fernando from start to finish.


I still enjoyed the race, just that if it had been part of the title battle it would have been better still.


Title was only wrapped up in Shanghai, which come after Japan in 2005 when Alonso won the Chinese GP.


The drivers title was wrapped up in Brazil, the race before. The constructors title may have gone on longer, but I was hardly on the edge of my seat for that.


Great. These pre-race notes are the best in the business.


I don’t think Hamilton has won this race at Suzuka, his 2007 Japanese GP win was at Fuji.


It was confusing, it’s clearer now


Thanks, and good write up as usual. Really looking forward to the remaining few races (though admittedly Hamilton’s DNF in Singapore has taken a bit of excitement out of it…)


“With closely matched cars” being the key sentence. I think McLaren will run away with this one and no amount of strategy will allow Red Bull to compete. However should any of the two woking cars run into set up or reliability problems then the rest stand a chance. More interesting than the outright victory will be how the championship challengers slot in the results. Barring any retirements I expect the two McLarens and Vettel on the podium, with Alonso just behind. But then when has F1 performed to the script?


Not sure the second Maclaren will make it to the podium with the grid penalty so I would expect Alonso there as well, but just think how exciting the script would be if the podium was Webber, Hamilton, Raikkonen, with DNF’s for Alonso and Vettel. I know it won’t happen but it would sure tighten things up for the season finale 🙂


Good suggestion! Fingers crossed for Sunday..

Surely now is Double DRS time for Kimi.


Fernando would take that result if Vettel takes pole and Ferrari is not fast enough.


I am going to come out and say it early, this should be a great race! The starts are definitely important here and I would look for all the top guns to put in their best for qualifying. Perhaps Jenson and MSC opt for different strategies to make the most out of their penalties. A lot is riding on the line this weekend.


Kimi in Japan 2005 was a classic one. I think since there haven’t been so dramatic races on the field, and no one has won from rear P18. Thanks for that to Kimi, Mclaren and Suzuka’s weather that very moment, that created so fascinating event 🙂

DanWilliams from Aust

Yeah best race I’ve ever seen! As mentioned in my previous comment 🙂



It was a great year for non-Ferrari fans after the complete domination that preceded it.

Quite an anomoly with the one-lap quali and non-tyre changes.


Alonso overtaking Schumacher Suzuka 2005 130R, unforgettable!


It was an incredible move. If I am correct, Fernando came to Suzuka in 2005 as the newly crowned world champion.

Kimi was amazing too. Suzuka 2005 – one of the best races I have ever watched.

DanWilliams from Aust

Yeah, def the best race I’ve ever seen, and I will never forget it. I wish I could watch it again somehow…

RAI started in 17th with both SHU and ALO not far in front of him on the grid as Quali mixed up the feild due to rain and a penalty for RAI.

All 3 of them in quick cars fighting through the field with FIS starting 3rd I think. ALO passed SHU on track spectacuarly at 130R, RAI passed SHU at the first corner in a similar way he would then pass FIS on the last lap (around the outside).

What an amazing race, RAI wins starting behind everyone (well everyone worth mentioning anyway lol), finishes in front with great on track battles and ALO made it up to 3rd as well. I’m sure FIS wanted to go home and cry that day.


Indeed, one of the best I have ever seen!


Had it not been for that stupid “allowing the STR to repass”, he should have won that race. Kimi’s last lap pass on Fisi was incredible…..


I never understood that reasoning. I have seen many drivers overtake as Kimi did into the first corner at Suzuka. He was over taking a good number 2 anyway.

But I have never seen anyone over take another car around the OUTSIDE of 130R. And that was on the reigning 7 time World Champion.

Renault’s telemetry showed Alonso turned into 130R at 208mph. If they had touched, well God only knows.


I would agree, Kimi’s move was very good against a fast Fisi at the time but does not compare to the move of Alonso. Probably the 2nd best overtake I have witnessed, the 1st being Hakkinen on Schumacher at Spa around the back marker. Both on Schumacher though.


Possibly, but I remember watching it and thinking “that’s a bit dodgy…”, I’m not surprised he got told to let Klien back past. It was almost identical to the Hamilton/Raikkonen incident in Spa 2008 so it’s consistent with that.

In fact, I remember on the ITV coverage at the next race Alonso said that the 2008 Spa decision was the right one, citing his penalty in 2005 as evidence that it was the correct decision.


Not so sure about strategy deciding it:

I expect the top-5 qualifiers to do well, with mechanical problems and strategy decisions to filter this number down to two potential win candidates. The one with the better race pace will then take the trophy home.

Wilma the Great

My prediction is: The driver crossing the finish line first will win the grand prix, wih the second not being as fast but still faster than the third.

Mark my words!


If the pole sitter comes first, say just 0.1sec before the driver starting from P20, the winner will not be the fastest car.


Seriously? Good analysis though. Spot on.


Unless there are penalties handed down after the race.


When did Lewis win at Suzuka? I thought it was Fuji 2007.



Sorry that wasn’t clear, it is now


If I were a title contender my strategy for this race would be to stay away as far as possible from Hamilton, he has already indicated that he will enter into an ‘all or nothing’ mode now, so Alonso and especially Vettel should think twice before trying an overtake on him…


It will be interesting to see Lewis and Michael starting right behind Romain and Pastor on the grid.



These conservative tyre choices by Pirelli this year (eg bringing hard here), are they costing us some exciting racing?

With overtaking either being too easy (Spa with DRS) or too hard (Hungary) the excitment of the early part of the season was good to watch.


The 4 Pirelli tyre compounds are each one step softer than last year, so this year’s hard is the same as last year’s medium. This has occurred because Pirelli in 2012 developed the compounds and found ways to make them degrade slower for a given compound level. So I don’t think they are not too conservative. And if it gets really hot, then you need a tyre that will last the race.


Have to remember though that Pirelli made each compound – except for the supersoft – softer than its 2011 counterpart. So a 2012 Hard is closer to a 2011 Medium tire than one might think at first glance. The 2012 Soft is softer than the 2011 Soft, so we’ll see how that plays out.


Kimi’s concerns about Lotus loosing ground to main contenders will be confirmed, they have lost their way, Singapore was a disaster.


wrong. e20 doesnt like slow corners and colder temperatures. except them to be pretty damn quick around suzuka with sauber and mclaren.


with the ferrari being so heavly revised around the sauber .. i expect ferrari to be back up there as well… James – agree or disagree ?

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