Japanese Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

Konnichiwa, this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix gets underway in Suzuka with the Red Bull’s once again topping the time sheets. The Suzuka Circuit is a drivers favourite, and it’s not hard to see why. The 5.087km track runs anti-clockwise, and is the only circuit on the F1 calendar that has a figure of eight where the track loops over itself. Being one of the oldest circuits on calendar, Suzuka has a true race-track feel to it. The circuit isn’t ridiculously modernised, nor is it particularly wide. There are few run off areas, translating into little room for error. One mistake here, and you’re off into the grass or gravel pits.

It was Mark Webber’s turn to out qualify his team mate, showing considerable strength through all three qualifying sessions to take provisional pole position. Webber is reported to be running a smaller rear wing compared to Vettel, and this seems to be working for him, setting an impressive lap time of 1:30.915. Vettel suffered momentarily from a KERS issue, though a quick stop in the garage saw the issue resolved. On his final flying lap he suffered a lock-up costing him a few tenths of a second, and pole position. It’s yet to be seen whether Webber will retain his pole position as the stewards investigate a possible grid penalty for impeding Perez on a slow lap. Leave the man alone, I say, he deserves this pole.

Hamilton qualified third ahead of team mate Nico Rosberg in sixth. Once again the Mercedes were quick and consistent in qualifying. The F1-W04 is undoubtedly quick, though still just lacks the race day pace against the RB-9s. The constant defeat seems to be getting the better of Hamilton, as he’s not been much of a happy chap in the paddock. Rosberg continues to drive consistently lapping at 1:31.397. However, the German has been handed a reprimand by the stewards for slow driving in free practice, it is his second one for the season.

Both Lotus cars are looking promising ahead of Sunday’s race. Grosjean was unlucky miss out on P3 on the grid by just over a tenth of a second, posting a time of 1:31.365. I’m not sure what happened to the Lotus driver during the summer break, but it appears he’s finally figured out how to race his E21 (without crashing it into anyone/anything). Despite an off road excursion during free practice, Kimi lapped well in qualifying. The Finn had considerable grip and pace in the car throughout most of the sessions. However, his time of 1:31.684 wasn’t quite enough in the end of Q3, so he will start from ninth.

Ferrari looked as if they’d found some pace in the car in Q2, as Alonso briefly held the quickest lap time. Unfortunately for the Scuderia, this didn’t translate into Q3. In a further move to stick it to the team, Massa once again managed to out-qualify Alonso, qualifying fifth to his team mate’s eighth. I doubt whether Alonso will spend much time in the middle of the pack tomorrow, realistically I see him running around fifth.

Hulkenburg had a good session, and is still currently quicker in a Ferrari engine than Alonso, qualifying ahead of the Spaniard in seventh. Team mate, Esteban Gutierrez was less lucky in today’s session. To begin with the Mexican was on fire*, though he failed to make it out of Q2, qualifying a respectable fourteenth.

Button will round off the top ten, while McLaren team mate will sit next to him on the grid in eleventh. Di Resta for once had better luck than his team mate, and (even more surprisingly) didn’t appear to slag off the team throughout qualifying. Sutil, unfortunately suffered from his crash in free practice, and failed to make it out of Q1. Williams drivers Bottas and Maldonado will start from thirteenth and fifteenth on the grid after an uneventful session for the team.

Toro Rosso had a disappointing qualifying session today, with Ricciardo starting from sixteenth tomorrow, and Vergne from eighteenth. Ricciardo just couldn’t seem to get the pace out of the car, perhaps he was fearful that his brakes would over heat like his team mate. Vergne in the final minutes of Q1 had the session briefly red flagged as the back of his STR8 caught fire.

For the first time this season, Chilton out qualified his team mate, and will be starting a career best nineteenth. Pic, Van der Garde, and Bianchi make up the final cars on the grid.

Tomorrow, Vettel has the opportunity to secure the Driver’s Championship if he comes home in P1, and Alonso fails to finish higher than P9. While it’s very possible that Vettel will indeed win tomorrow at Suzuka, the probability of Alonso finishing lower than he qualified is slim. It’s more likely that the battle for second and third will be between Webber, and the Lotus’. Hamilton, and Mercedes do still stand a chance, though I feel the Lotus is better suited to Suzuka. We’ll have to wait and see how tomorrow unfolds.

– Alex

* Arguably this was due to the fact that his car was literally on fire in the garage.

Korean Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

The Korean Grand Prix has been described as a track where you get two for the price of one. The 5.615km Korea International Circuit is one of the longest races in the calendar. Equipped with a second DRS zone this year, has the qualities of a twisty street circuit from turns four to seventeen, sandwiched in between long straights. The Korean Grand Prix is notorious for rain, it would be fantastic to finally get a wet race. This week there have been weather warnings of a typhoon, though the storm seems to have changed directions, and if the rest of the championship is anything to go by, Sunday will be bone dry. Shame.

Vettel was unsurprisingly fast at the Korea International Circuit taking pole position with 1:37.202. Webber qualified in P3, though his 10 place grid penalty from Singapore will see him out of position to start from thirteenth on the grid. Definitely not what the Australian veteran needs. I don’t think Webber will be spending too much time in the middle of the pack however. Despite having poor starts, Webber is strong in the race, with incredible control in the corners, I don’t think he’ll have issue overtaking.

Mercedes once again have qualified well with Hamilton in P2 and Rosberg in P5 (starting fourth). Hamilton was quick on the pace all through practice and qualifying. Rosberg is at times overlooked, though he is consistent on Sundays when it’s needed. From what we’ve seen today, Mercedes may finally be a serious threat to the Red Bulls on race day.

Sauber were impressive in qualifying making as both cars made it through to Q3. Gutierrez was blisteringly quick during practice*, which I was pleased to see transfer into qualifying. Gutierrez qualified ninth, but will start eighth. Talk among the paddock is that Nico Hulkenburg could be signed to Lotus next year as Kimi’s replacement, and I have to say, I wouldn’t hate that. It is hard to fault Hulkenburg at the moment, with P4 in Q2 and P8 in Q3.

Ferrari looked good in qualifying, despite not being able to get the pace out of the car. Alonso P6 qualified ahead of his team mate today in P7. I look forward to see Alonso at work tomorrow without Massa’s help in the team. The Brazilian has made it crystal clear that he will be racing for himself and no longer the team. It could be fun to see some of the mid 2000s Massa back on track.

Once again Grosjean impressed me with his pace through qualifying, replacing Webber for third on the grid tomorrow. His seat at Lotus next year was pretty much guaranteed with the departure of Raikkonen, but Grosjean is definitely proving his worth within the team. I’m praying he keeps his head in tomorrows race, there are so many corners, and so many opportunities for him to crash. Raikkonen seems to struggle during qualifying, with reported balance issues. Kimi qualified tenth, though will start from ninth.

Ricciardo for Toro Rosso made it through to Q2, to qualify P13, though he’ll be giving that spot to Webber and starting twelfth. Although Ricciardo is consistently out qualifying his team mate, I would still like to see more from the soon to be Red Bull driver on Sundays.

Both McLaren’s and Williams were knocked out in Q2. Button felt he was impeded by the Lotus of Raikkonen by 0.15 of a second, which could have found him a place. The back of the grid is made up of the usual suspects of Caterham and Marussia.

So tomorrow seems set to be a fight between Mercedes and Red Bull. Personally I’d like to see Lotus stay caught up in the action.

– Alex

* Possibly his thick neck/thin head combination is an aerodynamic dream

Italian Grand Prix: Hulkenburg proves to be the faster Ferrari

The fastest Ferrari powered car from yesterday’s qualifying wasn’t that of Fernando Alonso, or even Felipe Massa. No, the quickest Ferrari engine came from Sauber’s own Nico Hulkenburg. The German surprised himself and the team by qualifying third on the grid, just behind the two Red Bulls. Practice and qualifying were both dry, but word on the ground at Monza (curtesy of my own little racing spy) is that the chance of rain during the race is at about 55% now. What does this mean for Hulkenburg? He raced well in Malaysia this year under ‘damp’ conditions, finishing eighth, which has been his highest finish this season. A bit of rain may indeed be favourable conditions for Nico, it’s difficult to say whether he is good in the wet. The Mercedes this year look strong in the wet, as does the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo.

A Ferrari with a custom chassis has won at Monza in the rain before, Sebastian Vettel managed it in 2008 for Toro Rosso. Personally I don’t think a win is on the cards for the Sauber driver, but I’m thinking a finish in the points, maybe around seventh.

– Alex