Suzuka - and its all wide open!

2012-10-04 10:05

SUZUKA, Japan - Despite it being early October, this weekend’s Japanese F1 GP, Round 15 of 20 in the 2012 World championship, means the season is only two-thirds through – but it’s been by far one of the most unpredictable on record.

The event is also the first race of a run of three sets of back-to-back grands prix across Asia, the Middle East and the Americas to the finale in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 25.

Honda-owned Suzuka was designed by Dutch circuit architect John Hugenholz (of Zandvoort fame) and opened in 1962 as a test facility for its mother company. It hosted Japan’s first F1 GP in 1987 and has since staged all Japan’s F1 races save for 2007/8, when the race temporarily migrated to Toyota’s Fuji complex as part of an aborted timeshare deal.


Japanese fans are some of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic of all; little wonder, they grew up on diets of Honda power with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost jostling at the wheel of those gorgeous red/white McLarens – more often than not acting like sworn enemies instead of team mates.

Despite the aftermath of 2011’s tsunami, the economic situation – it’s hit Japan harder than most - and recent withdrawals of Honda, Toyota and Bridgestone, the stands at the sinuous 5.807km circuit are expected to be full, even late at night when mechanics fettle the cars.

Arrive early in the morning and sleeping bags are visible on the stands. When times were good, such was the demand for tickets that were sold by ballot, which were more often than not oversubscribed by a factor of 10 to one.

The circuit is unique - the only figure-eight layout on the trail - and has every type of challenge from its downhill grid through the Snake (Turns 2-7, each taken at close to 200km/h, with fourth or fifth gear being held for more than 15 seconds) and Hairpin (Turn 11) to the dauntingly fast, 320km/h Turn 15, immediately after the crossover.  Suzuka is arguably the most demanding of all circuits: on a scale of 0-10, every driver rates it at close to the maximum.


The track has a strange mix of characteristics, having 18 turns (8L/10R), with lap averages of 215km/h expected despite the Hairpin being taken at 70km/h. Bumpiness, ride-height settings, brake wear and track abrasion are all on the low side but lateral tyre energy, aero efficiency, engine severity and track evolution during the race are rated ‘extremely high’. The DRS zone has been shortened by 20 metres since 2011 with detection occurring 50 metres before T16, and activation after T18.

Weather in the region can be complex; recent events have seen qualifying postponed to race morning due to typhoons and unpredictable wind patterns play havoc with gear ratio selection and aero settings. However, this week’s long-term forecast predicts dry but cloudy 25-degree skies throughout. Still, Pirelli’s wets and intermediates are sure to be on standby…

Talking of which, the Italian company has specified Soft (yellow sidewall markings) and Hard (silver) compounds, a change from 2011, when Softs and Mediums were supplied. However, compounds have this year become marginally softer across the board, so little change in overall performance is expected, while the Soft may actually deliver slightly better lap speeds, with heavier wear.

A pit-lane length of more than 400m and a historic pace car incidence of 50% make race strategies particularly tough to call. The smart money is on two stops; that said, in 2011 McLaren’s Jenson Button stopped three times on his way to victory. In the last 10 years the winner has five times come from pole but, on the flip side, Kimi Raikkonen won here from 17th on the grid in 2005, in the process setting the lap record which prevails to this day – which proves anything can happen at Suzuka.


After 14 rounds the championship remains equally unpredictable, with Fernando Alonso on 194 points to the 165 of Red Bull’s reigning double champion Sebastian Vettel, who finished third here in 2011 on his way to his second (consecutive) title. 2005/6 champion Alonso (and runner-up to Button in 2011) is, of course, driving a Ferrari patently not up to the best Red Bull and McLaren have thrown this season, so it is to the Spaniard’s credit that he continues to lead the title hunt.

Whatever happens on Sunday, Fernando will head for the following week’s race in Mokpo, Korea leading the championship, but Vettel is slowly closing the gap - as he did in 2010 when he took the title in a showdown. He won two weeks earlier in Singapore but was immeasurably aided by the demise of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren, which digested a gear while the Briton, thus stuck on 142 points, was way out front.

This not only dropped Hamilton to fourth on the log behind Raikkonen (149), who continues to impress in the black/gold Lotus after his return to F1 after two wasted seasons in World rallying, but severely dented Lewis’s title chances.

Insiders suggest that the disappointment was the final straw in Hamilton’s increasingly tetchy relationship with McLaren, triggering his subsequent decision to defect to Mercedes for the next three years in place of the increasingly clumsy Michael Schumacher who (again) crashed his Mercedes in Singapore – earning a 10 grid places penalty in Suzuka for his misdemeanour.


Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber (132) is now effectively out of the title running, as are Button (119), who takes over leadership of the silver team in 2013, and Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes.

However, as this topsy-turvy season has proven, the winner could come from anywhere, so don’t discount Romain Grosjean (Lotus), Williams race winner Pastor Maldonado, Sergio Perez (Sauber) – who will replace Hamilton at McLaren for 2013 – or even the Brazilian’s team mate, local hero Kamui Kobayashi…

Sunday’s 53-lap race will start at 8am SA time, Saturday qualifying at 7am.