The Japanese Grand Prix Preview (25-27 September 2015)

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There is plenty of discussion this weekend in the build up to the Japanese Grand Prix as we all wonder whether Mercedes can bounce back from their worst weekend of the season, whether Ferrari can maintain their charge and whether Jenson Button will be bringing the curtain down on an illustrious career. In a season where there’s not been a great deal of unpredictability, Suzuka offers up the very real prospect of shock, disappointment, excitement and bad weather- so who will come out on top in 2015?

Image at the top shows the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix, shared by Michael Elleray via the Creative Commons License.

Headlines from Singapore

Vettel dominates the street circuit to take third win of the season. Vettel put in a display over the weekend that was reminiscent of his world conquering Red Bull days- leading all through qualifying, before eventually taking Ferrari’s first pole position since the 2012 German Grand Prix. Come race day, Vettel showed no signs of letting up, stretching out a three second lead on the very first lap to ex-team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in his Red Bull. Despite two safety cars backing up the pack behind him, the German stayed strong and led the entirety of the race to close the gap in the championships to his compatriot Nico Rosberg to eight points. The victory also took him to 42 race wins in total, displacing Senna in the all-time standings and putting himself in third behind only Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher.

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Sebastian Vettel celebrates winning for Ferrari by Morio, shared via the Creative Commons License.

Mercedes have worst weekend of the season to let Vettel back in. The Mercedes team had a weekend to forget in Singapore, having their worst qualifying of 2015 and then taking only the 12 points Nico Rosberg got for finishing fourth. The two Silver Arrows qualified fifth and sixth on the grid, a mighty second and a half behind the leader, ending their run of 23 consecutive pole positions. The pair made up no ground at the start and the dirty air and tight street circuit offered them little opportunity to make this a winning weekend. Lewis Hamilton had made it up to fourth before he suffered his first retirement of the season when his Mercedes lost power on Lap 27 and Rosberg never came close to the podium despite finishing fourth.

Daniel Ricciardo splits the Ferrari’s to bring home his second podium of the season. Daniel Ricciardo would have been overjoyed by his and his teams’ performance last weekend. The talented youngster unexpectedly won three races last year, yet has had a difficult season in 2015 with his Red Bull struggling with power output from the Renault engine. However, the Australian managed an exceptional second place in qualifying in Singapore, splitting the two Ferrari’s and managed to hold that position throughout the race. Although he claimed over the team radio that Sebastian Vettel was “lucky” at the timing of the first safety car, he did not realistically challenge his old team-mate for the lead. What was exceptional though, was how he managed to hold off the other Ferrari to hold on to a well-deserved second.

Raikkonen finds his form for first podium since Bahrain. Kimi Raikkonen was another to profit from Mercedes unusual lack of pace in Singapore and finally managed to find some luck, taking only his second podium of the year. Raikkonen was well and truly out-shone by his team-mate who was in blistering form, but take nothing away from the Finn, who managed a second row start and a long awaited podium. Raikkonen has had a very up-and-down year, with a lot of bad luck, but has been given the support of his team by confirming he will be driving for them next season. There is little to no expectancy of him winning a race, barely any of him beating his team-mate and no championship pressure for him to deal with so far back, so we might now see a string of good results for the veteran.

Suzuka brings back painful memories

“Perhaps in a few months, a few years, I can see again a grand prix, I don’t know, but for the moment, it is too difficult” – Philippe Bianchi talking to BBC Sport about the first anniversary of his son’s crash at Suzuka in 2014.

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Jules Bianchi died in July as a result of severe head injuries he sustained from spinning off and crashing into a removal vehicle at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. This weekend, the drivers revisit the track that caused the first driver fatality for 20 years.

There had been a general feeling that Formula 1 had become “safe” with bigger run-off areas, more advanced crash-test technology and slower cars, however, the freak accident round Suzuka Circuit last year that led to Bianchi’s death proved that was just a fallacy. In wet conditions, the safety car had been brought out to slow down the drivers after Adrian Sutil had spun off on Lap 42 in his Sauber. However, the very next lap, Bianchi lost control at the same corner, possibly because of a lack of heat in his tyres from running at reduced speeds, and hit a marshal’s crane that was removing the Sauber vehicle.

Since this tragic incident, the FIA have introduced a number of measures to help improve safety, including the virtual safety car, which sees the cars slow down and maintain their distances, plus a four-hour rule that doesn’t allow races to overlap with either sunset or dusk to help driver visibility (with the exception of the two night races).

One hot topic though is the introduction of closed cockpits. This has been proposed, but so far dismissed by the FIA. There is plenty of debate about whether Bianchi’s death would have been prevented should he have had the protection of a closed cockpit. His father does not seem to think it would have made much of a difference, however, he has said, “To close the cockpit, for me, is a very good thing.”

Max Chilton, Bianchi’s team-mate at Marussia at the time of the incident has said he thinks we will probably see closed cock-pits in the sport in the next five to ten years’ time. He has said: “That is the one weak area we have left in motorsport and that is the one bit we need to make a little bit more safe”.

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Justin Wilson died of his injuries after being struck on the head with debris during the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Shared via the Creative Commons License by Bryan Lipovetsky.

World Champion Lewis Hamilton also added to the debate after the death of current Indy Car driver Justin Wilson in August. Wilson had previously won the Formula 3000 championship back in 2001 and driven in Formula 1 in 2003, for both Minardi and Jaguar. Hamilton said, “I see closed cockpits as potentially the future. We’ve had too many fatalities.”

Whilst ex-World Champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson have been strongly in favour of the change, Nico Hulkenberg is not so sure. He says that there are plenty of pros and cons, but at the end of the day, the drivers know the risks when they get in the car and that closed cockpits will take away some of the attraction of the sport.

Whichever way you look at it, Suzuka will prove very difficult for all the driver’s involved this weekend. No one wants to see the sport hit with tragedy and it will be at the back of a lot of minds for the race. Let’s just hope that the painful memories it brings back are not repeated any time soon and the FIA continues to make the necessary improvements to safety.

The Japanese Grand Prix

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Suzuka Circuit as shown by P Man, shared via the Creative Commons License.

Suzuka was originally built as a test track for Honda in 1962 with an interconnecting theme park, the big wheel of which still dominates the skyline in today’s races. Formula 1 first came to Suzuka in 1987 and it has only missed two races since then when the Toyota-backed Fuji Raceway hosted the event in 2007 and 2008. Historically the Japanese Grand Prix has been one of the last races of the season, meaning it has been the venue for many title-deciding races, with a total of 13 World Champions being crowned there.

Lewis Hamilton won at Suzuka last year and then went on to win the 2014 World Championship, as did Sebastian Vettel in 2013, 2012 and 2010, so there is still some correlation between title winners and this historic track.

Strangely, the last 10 races in Japan have all been won by drivers still racing this weekend, with the spoils being split between Hamilton (2014, 2007*), Vettel (2013, 2012, 2010, 2009), Button (2011), Alonso (2008*, 2006) and Raikkonen (2005). Is that a sign of the skill and dominance of these five Wold Champions over the last decade, or the lack of new talent that has broken through in this time?

*The races in 2007 and 2008 won by Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso respectively were held at Fuji Speedway, not Suzuka.

Michael Schumacher is the undoubted king of Japan, winning a remarkable six times (1995, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004), all around the Suzuka Circuit. Vettel sits second on the all-time list with four wins and Hamilton and Alonso have the opportunity to go alone on three wins this weekend, elevating themselves above Gerhard Berger, Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill, Motoharu Kurosawa and Mika Häkkinen on two wins.

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Suzuka Circuit as shown by Will Pittenger via the Creative Commons License.

This looping, figure of eight circuit is part of the old-guard with some great turns, especially in sector 1 and very little run off like modern tracks have nowadays. This does, of course, mean that there is more of an element of danger involved.

Predictions

Based on the fact that only 12 of 26 races (46%) have been won by the pole sitter at Suzuka so far, it does suggest that Saturday’s qualifying result will not carry quite so much importance as other tracks like Monaco. Therefore, if Hamilton was to re-establish his dominance in quali, he would certainly know the job is not even half done. He will look back to last year where his team-mate sat on pole, but failed to convert.

Surprisingly, Ferrari have not managed a race win in Japan since Michael Schumacher in 2004, so if Vettel manages to get himself into the top four in qualifying, we could see that run come to an end this year. Kimi Raikkonen may even be in with an outside chance of his first win of the season as he’ll certainly be buoyed by his podium last weekend and the Ferrari has proven itself to be more than competitive recently.

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Friday in Suzuka was wet, which brings its own challenges. If the weekend is disrupted by bad weather then we may well see a lopsided qualifying, however, at the front, Lewis Hamilton knows that he is the fastest in the rain. Hamilton drives on the edge, and in the rain, his driving style gives him even more of an advantage, breaking later than others dare, accelerating out of the corner sooner than others and taking calculated risks and reading the track and conditions better than his competitors.

But it might not even rain.

Expect to see Valtteri Bottas, Daniil Kvyat and Sergio Perez to be fighting hard for some good points as they all enjoy the second half of this season. We will all also wait to see if there is any kick-back between team-mates Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr after the former decided to completely disregard team orders last weekend and let the Spaniard through. Expect fireworks if those two are near each other on track on Sunday.

 

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