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Japan: Sweet spot for Vettel?

2013-10-10 07:57

ONE AWAY: Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel could become the youngest driver to win four consecutive World championship titles if he wins the 2013 Japanese GP on Sunday. Image: AFP


SUZUKA, Japan - The burning question as Formula 1 packed cars and kit in the Korean dusk on Sunday evening in preparation for the 500km haul across to Suzuka for the Japanese round of what has lately become the Red Bull Racing Benefit World championship was whether Sebastian Vettel would score a record-setting fourth consecutive title - becoming the youngest driver to do so by almost 10 years - this week or in a fortnight.

To do so here in the land of fanatical F1 enthusiasts – in stark contrast to last weekend’s sparsely populated event - the German, on 272 points with 125 still to play for, would need to win a fifth consecutive race (his eighth of the season) with the 26-year-old’s only remaining challenger Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso (195) finishing no higher than ninth.


Could that happen? Who’d have thought that in Korea Alonso, who generally finishes four places higher than his grid position, would start fifth and end sixth? That said, asked the chances of Vettel taking the title in Japan, Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner responded with a rhetorical question: “When does Fernando finish ninth?”

He had, though, obviously overlooked the 2012 result, when this race delivered a watershed moment, one which arguably cost Alonso the 2012 title while bringing Vettel one step closer to the championship which deprived Alonso of a possible “youngest triple champion” tag: in his desperation to remain in the fight, Alonso clipped the rear of Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus in the opening run to Turn 1, retiring on the spot.

But mistakes by Alonso are rarer than Pastor Maldonado race finishes and the 2005/6 champion is nothing if not utterly relentless when the flag drops. He is a man on a mission as long as there remains even the slenderest chance, so Red Bull and Vettel know they need to concentrate on the job in hand to make it four-in-a-row even if they only require two points over the remaining five races (of 19 in the 2013 championship).

Vettel, 26, comes to the circuit with an excellent record: from the four races he has contested here (last week he referred to Suzuka as “the world’s greatest circuit”, early Japanese forays were at Fuji ) he has taken four poles and won three times, including 2012’s full-house of pole, win and fastest lap.

He lost out on the flag in 2011 with third – but that was still enough to take the crown.


However, Alonso also has Suzuka form: in 2006 he won here en route to his second title and has regularly finished on the podium, in 2005 finishing third to claim his first championship. So, the gloves are off.

The two contenders could hardly have chosen a better arena: the five-kilometre Honda-owned circuit is ranked alongside Spa-Francorchamps by drivers, with its sinuous “Snake” sequence being arguably as challenging as the Belgian’s circuit’s Eau Rouge or Blanchimont corners. Get any of the Snake’s five ultra-swift left-right-left-right-left corners wrong and you are horribly out of line for the next, and next, and…

One of Suzuka’s delightful quirks is its figure-eight layout. The current F1 calendar has 13 clockwise circuits and five anti-clockwise; then there is Suzuka, which is both, depending on the sector. Drivers maintain it is a surreal to know a car is crossing at high speed on the bridge above, with all its fury being transmitted straight down.

Then there is the infamous 150° 130R right-hander, taken flat in seventh. Drivers admit to dry mouths every time they negotiate what is probably F1’s ballsiest corner and come Sunday they will do it 53 times at full-chat, at times side-by-side.

That’s an awful lot of saliva to make up...
Indeed, all Suzuka’s 18 turns (8L/10R) vary in character, unlike some of those disgracing the sport’s superstadiums - which are largely homogenous – and, as though those challenges are not enough, drivers face eyeball-wrenching g-forces as they shed almost 200km/h in 85 metres for the Esses. Two of Suzuka’s corners are sub-100km/h and four taken above 250km/h to deliver a qualifying average of 230km/h (2012), with cars being on full-throttle for 70% of each lap, one of the fastest on the trail.


This race breaks with 2013 convention by having just one DRS zone, with detection just before the final turn and the zone itself operating down the long main straight. However, the nature of the circuit provides numerous overtaking points - Alonso once famously overtook Michael Schumacher(!) around the outside of 130R - which largely explains the FIA’s decision.

However, victory here remains largely pole-dependent, with the winner having come from the front row in 20 of the 24 races held at this circuit – with the pole-starter winning six times in the eight races held in the last 10 years.

By contrast, in 2005 Raikkonen won from 17th on the grid after a typhoon interrupted qualifying and threw proceedings into chaos, while in 2010 qualifying was postponed to Sunday due to a thunderstorm. Although similar weather narrowly missed last Sunday’s Korean GP, there is no threat of a repeat: 26C temperatures are predicted throughout race weekend, with clear skies.

According to Pirelli, F1’s sole tyre supplier, Suzuka has the lowest traction demands of any circuit on the current trail but also the highest forces in terms of lateral energy due to the sinuous first sector which heats the tyres but offers few significant straights to cool them. Couple that with the expected weather and an abrasive surface and it is clear Suzuka is tough on tyres. 

Accordingly Pirelli has specified a mix of Medium (white sidewalls) and Hard (orange) tyres – the hardest compounds in its arsenal – with two stops being on the cards, as per 2012. However, the short (345m) pits lane results in one of the lowest pit-stop time penalties, providing an element of strategic flexibility, while a 63% pace-car incidence will also affect strategies.

Sunday’s 53-lap race will start at 3pm Japan time (8am in South Africa) with Saturday qualifying at 7am SA time.

Stay with Wheels24 for the 2013 Japanese GP weekend.

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