The last two races have provided exciting finishes, but they have also been highly strategic which has added layers to the interest. This weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka is set to follow suit.
Once again the teams will have the same three tyre compounds to choose from as in Malaysia, which means we are likely to see a lot of variation in the way the teams go about their preparation and execution of the race. And once again the hard must be used at some point in the race.
The soft tyre performed very well in Malaysia. This weekend is likely to be much cooler, but the corners at Suzuka put more load on the tyres and that contributes to the degradation. Mercedes and Ferrari weren’t happy with the medium tyre in Malaysia and avoided it, but the cooler conditions of Suzuka are likely to suit it much better and one would expect them to do quite a bit of work on Friday to establish if it is the race tyre of choice.
There may even be some strategy in the qualifying session, as we have seen in the last two races; saving new tyre sets or trying to get through Q2 on mediums in order to start the race on them.
Equally the hard is problematic for many teams when the track temperatures are low and only really Mercedes can get it working ideally – we saw that again last weekend when Red Bull and Mercedes went to the hard, Hamilton pulled away – so that could be in their favour if the circumstances come about.
After its unexpected 1-2 finish last weekend, Red Bull travels to Suzuka in a confident mood. The first and second sectors of the lap traditionally suit Red Bull, as its cars are all about aerodynamic efficiency, whereas the final sector is more power oriented. The team is more competitive than it was this time last year and the proof of that is that Daniel Ricciardo has beaten at least one Mercedes in four of the last five races.
Meanwhile Ferrari has slipped back into the position it was in for the latter years of Fernando Alonso’s career there; seemingly always qualifying fifth and not having the pace in the race. While Sebastian Vettel has had a messy time of it lately, with only one podium since Baku in June, Kimi Raikkonen has finished fourth in the last three races.
One area where the strategy battle is proving decisive every week is the McLaren/Force India/Williams battle. Although McLaren is well behind the other two in the championship standings, it is with them on pace and picking the right tyres in the right order is central to that. Alonso is making stunning starts – he’s picked up 29 places in the last five race starts.
Qualifying is critical; it’s rare for a car from outside the front row to win. Although pole position, which is on the outside, has a significant grip advantage compared to the inside line, nevertheless for the last two seasons Lewis Hamilton has won the race from second on the grid, despite losing out on pole to his team mate Nico Rosberg.
The other thing to keep the strategists busy is the Safety Car and Virtual Safety Car, which is appearing increasingly frequently, as we saw in Malaysia. This cuts the time needed for a pit stop and can be a game changer, for good or bad; it helped Alonso beat Hulkenberg last weekend, but it cost Button a shot at 5th place.
Suzuka is traditionally a race with quite a high chance of Safety Cars, so expect several interruptions in the race and tactical switches as a result.
Japanese Grand Prix in numbers:
This weekend’s event in Suzuka will be the 32nd world championship F1 race to take place at the famous 3.6mile track, where overtaking is tough and a high grid spot is crucial.
Since 1991, the Japanese race has only been won from lower than the front row on two occasions. Raikkonen won from 17th on the grid for McLaren in a memorable race in 2005, and a year later Alonso took the win for Renault after starting fifth.
Raikkonen has won more races from starting outside the top five on the grid than any other driver in F1 history, a feat he has achieved on six occasions.
The 2007 world champion’s win at Suzuka 11 years ago is arguably his most famous as he stormed through the field from his lowly grid position and passed Giancarlo Fisichella on the final lap to take the victory. No driver has won from that low on the grid since that race. This weekend, Raikkonen also passes his former teammate David Coulthard’s 246 F1 career starts, which will put the Finn seventh on the all-time list.
In the championship fight, Hamilton is still looking to take his 50th Grand Prix win and 100th F1 podium finish after he failed to finish last weekend in Malaysia from what looked to be a winning position.
That failure also meant Mercedes did not clinch its third successive constructors’ championship but it can do so this weekend as Red Bull needs its drivers to outscore Hamilton and Rosberg by 23 points to keep it in mathematical contention, while Ferrari lost its faint hopes of the constructors’ crown last time out in Malaysia.
Several drivers have streaks they will either be hoping to break or extended this weekend. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who failed to complete lap one for the third time this season after hitting Rosberg at the first corner in Sepang, is now on his longest-ever run without a front row start, a stretch that goes back 22 races to his pole at the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix.
Malaysia winner Ricciardo has a 12-race scoring streak heading to Suzuka, which is the longest active run of the current drivers, and he also has a 24-race finishing record that is the second longest behind the 25 registered by Force India’s Sergio Perez.
At Haas F1, Romain Grosjean has only completed seven laps in the last two races after brake problems stopped him starting in Singapore and caused him to retire in Malaysia. His teammate Esteban Gutierrez scored the only points of his F1 career at the 213 Japanese Grand Prix, when he finished seventh for Sauber, but he has finished in 11th place five times this season without scoring.
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