This year’s Japanese Grand Prix could be the title decider, as it was in 2011. If Sebastian Vettel wins the race with Fernando Alonso ninth or lower then Vettel is champion. Vettel needs only 49 points from the remaining five races to guarantee the title; that is assuming Alonso wins all the remaining races but the Ferrari does not have the pace to do that.
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 has been the decisive factor at Suzuka on many occasions. This year it will be interesting to see whether Lotus, which was the second fastest car in Korea last weekend, can favour the softer and faster of the two tyre compounds in the race and get them to last long enough to make a competitive strategy out of it. Most runners will be forced to run the majority of the race on the hard tyre to make a two stop work.
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.
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 2013 FIA F1 World Championship.
Last year Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was chasing Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and had clawed back the gap to 29 points before Suzuka.
This year he needs to win the race with Alonso finishing ninth or lower in order to clinch his fourth consecutive world title.
Vettel’s record at Suzuka is excellent; in the last four seasons he has been on pole four times and has won the race three times.
As far as other drivers’ form at Suzuka is concerned; Fernando Alonso won once (he also won at Fuji), while Jenson Button won in 2011. Kimi Raikkonen won a classic race in 2005, overtaking for the lead on the last lap. Lewis Hamilton won the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji in 2007.
Being coastal, Suzuka is always likely to get sudden rain showers, sometimes heavy. Last year’s race, in contrast, was held in very hot conditions. The forecast for this weekend however is thunderstorms and rain on Friday, giving way to warm sunny weather for Saturday and Sunday, with forecasts of up to 27 degrees. If it stays warm the tyre degradation will be more severe.
Likely tyre performance and other considerations
Pirelli tyre choice for Suzuka: Medium (white markings) and hard (orange markings).
Pirelli is taking no chances on a circuit similar to Silverstone in terms of loadings, bringing the hardest tyres in the range.
Last year Pirelli brought the soft and hard tyres to Suzuka and they comfortably managed two stops, helped by a safety car period at the start of the race. The 2013 hard tyre is the same as last year’s and the medium is very similar to last year’s soft, so a similar pattern is expected this year.
The main interest will revolve around whether some teams can race with two stints on the mediums and one on the hard tyres to take advantage of the better pace of the mediums. If they can make the mediums last, this will be a competitive strategy.
The performance gap between the soft and hard tyres is likely to be around a 0.6 seconds to 0.8 seconds per lap.
Suzuka presents a great challenge for the tyres, with loadings in excess of 800 kilos on the tyre through some of the corners.
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 with hard and soft tyres, simulations showed that two stops would be faster than three stops by 10 seconds. Most people did two stops, thanks to a safety car on the opening lap after an accident at the start.
Worth noting is that last year with the same hard tyres, Webber was able to make it to the finish on a set of tyres he took on lap 26.
A classic two stop is to pit for the first time around lap 16/17 and then a second time around lap 36/37.
Meanwhile teams will remember what happened with Ferrari’s strategy for Felipe Massa last year. The Brazilian finished second having started 10th on the grid. Massa had a set of new soft tyres to start the race with and two new sets of hards available and his strategy was based on making maximum use of these. Thanks to his strong start he found himself racing Button and Kobayashi for second place and his new soft tyres gave him a tactical advantage in the opening stint, as he could run a couple of laps longer than Button and Kobayashi.
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 and Korea, a safety car can make the difference for teams that are marginal on the tyres.
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.
Chance of a Safety Car
The chance of a Safety Car at Suzuka is quite high: 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 five of the last six races at Suzuka and we have seen one in each of the last four 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.
As far as 2013 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.
+25 Van der Garde*****
+19 Di Resta
+15 Massa ********
+11 Sutil*** /*********
-3 Raikkonen *******
-17 Vergne ****
*Webber dropped from second to seventh after a clutch problem in Australia ** Hulkenberg did not start in Australia *** Sutil suffered puncture from contact with Massa in Bahrain ****Vergne retired following collision. *****Van der Garde and Maldonado made contact in Monaco. ******Bianchi started from pit lane in Monaco after stalling *******Raikkonen crashed into Perez at the first corner at Monza ********Massa spun at hairpin in Korea *********Sutil had collision in Korea
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 Korean Grand Prix.
1. Ferrari 22.208s
2. Mercedes 22.251s
3. Lotus 22.519s
4. Red Bull 22.587s
5. McLaren 22.901s
6. Sauber 23.096s
7. Marussia 22.097s
8. Toro Rosso 23.194s
9. Williams 23.470s
10. Force India 23.814s
11. Caterham 23.987s
The UBS Race Strategy Briefing is written by James Allen with input and data from several of the leading teams’ strategists, from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan and from Pirelli