One point to glory for Vettel
In Singapore it was close for Sebastian Vettel, but still no cigar. Red Bull Racing’s 24-year-old reigning champion needed to leave the Asian city-state after its unique night race with a 125-point lead over his nearest challenger to add the title of youngest-ever double champion to his record-setting portfolio. The second place scored by McLaren’s Jenson Button, though, pegged the gap ahead of this weekend’s round in Japan.
There is little doubt SebVet will claim that record - at 24 years, three months and six days - come Sunday, for all he needs is a single digit for tenth place from the remaining five rounds while Button needs to win every one of those races. Given Seb has this year taken nine victories to JB’s two and not placed lower than fourth in the other five races, that’s an exceedingly long shot…
In Michael Schumacher’s heyday October showdowns and Suzuka were synonymous, but then the race at the Honda-owned circuit was the penultimate or even final round. Yet, here we are in October anticipating a title victory by a dominant German, yet four rounds remain after this one - such has been the expansion of Formula 1’s calendar, particularly at the back end of the season.
ALL OUT FOR GLORY
Having won here last year Vettel filled the Japan gap on his CV, but the Red Buller goes to every race utterly determined to win and has already given notice he will not be playing it safe simply to secure the title on Sunday.
The rest, headed by Button and Red Bull team mate Mark Webber will, of course, go all out to make Seb’s life difficult, while Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) has an instinctive rage to win. Then, Lewis Hamilton needs to make amends for his recent run of errors, but the question is whether the McLaren driver can temper his press-on style without jeopardising outright pace.
Having visited the stewards more often this year than the season has had races, his conduct is sure to be a hot topic during Friday’s drivers’ briefing; oh to be a fly on the wall during the Charlie Whiting-led session…
This unique 5.807-kilometre figure-of-eight circuit is a real drivers’ track, with three sectors – Degner, 130R and the switchback Snake after Turn 1 – rightly considered amongst the most technoically challenging corners of all. The track comes back on itself above Turn 15, which makes for another unique characteristic: unlike other circuits, Suzuka loads left and right tyres virtually equally.
“Suzuka is one of my favourite tracks; it really couldn’t have been built any better,” said Sebastian as he damped at the circuit whose skyline is dominated by an enormous Big Wheel. “The first sector up to Degner Curve is the most spectacular and challenging of the whole season. 130R is legendary; it’s great fun to drive straight through this left-hand bend. I’m not the only one who loves this track; our car normally loves it too.”
The country has gone through challenging times recently, and F1 is determined to deliver a good show for its millions of fans in a country where tickets were once sold by ballot so high was the demand.
“The fans in Japan are special. What they’ve been through recently is something I cannot begin to imagine, but they are impressive,” added the champion-elect, referring to the country’s recent earthquake/tsunami. “I hope we can put on a good show for them this weekend.”
Since Suzuka returned to the calendar in 2009 – the event was held at Toyota’s Fuji complex for two years – both races featured Safety Cars, while 11 of the circuit’s 18 corners (8L/10R) are taken at 200 km/h or higher (of which four at over 250 km/h), and just three at under 100 km/h. Contrast this with last weekend’s Singapore race, where a third of corners were taken below 100 km/h.
A measure of the challenge is that, despite its compact layout, Suzuka’s lap averages approach 240 km/h, while 71 percent of each lap is taken at full throttle, with the longest foot-flat blast lasting 16 seconds. Notwithstanding this, though, the overall lap record held by Kimi Räikkönen and McLaren harks back to 2005, proving beyond doubt that the current V8s lack outright grunt in comparison with the 3.0 litre V10s of yesteryear despite enormous aerodynamic and suspension developments.
Cloudy but dry 24°C skies are forecast throughout the weekend. However, due to Suzuka’s location close to Nagoya’s coastline, weather forecasts can be fairly flexible, so the question remains whether Pirelli’s wets (orange sidewalls) will be aired, and, if so, on which day(s).
The Italian tyre company, whose compounds have certainly spiced the show, has nominated medium (white) and soft (yellow) compounds – as per Monza, which race turned out to be a real cracker. It is worth noting the "soft" option has so far featured in every race this year.
In the last decade 75 percent of Suzuka’s races have been won from pole - a higher percentage than even Monaco (70 percent). Bear in mind Seb, has taken 11 poles this year and not once started off the front row – ideal circumstances for Red Bull’s driver to clinch his second title with a win.
Sunday’s 53-lap race, the 15th of 19 in the 2011 FIA Formula 1 World Championship, starts at 15h00 local (08h00 SAST), with Saturday’s qualifying hour commencing an hour earlier.