Japanese Grand Prix: Track Analysis

Konnichiwa, Nihon e yōkoso! With much excitement, the Championship remains in the Far East for the Japanese Grand Prix The Suzuka Circuit is one of Formula 1 legend. Home to iconic corners; Degner, 130R, and Spoon, the 5.807km circuit is a highlight in the Formula 1 calendar for drivers and fans alike. Suzuka is a true racing circuit, it’s old school; high-speed, 70% of a lap at full throttle, only one corner taken at less than 100km/h, and a figure of eight loop. The long and fast corners put an incredible load on the cars, making it a rather technically demanding race. Suzuka’s coastal location means that the track is prone to sudden rain, in this year’s case, a super-typhoon.

Suzuka is comprised of challenging double apex corners, and varying radii*. The track narrows in several places translating into little room for error. One lap, well, every lap, requires commitment and complete concentration. Even with the DRS zone, overtaking can be a challenge, but possible (and awesome) at the chicane on the exit of 130R. There is a delicate balance between high downforce and stability at Suzuka, while not compromising on speed. Adding to the setup consideration, super-typhoons call for a little more grip than the average shower. The chance of a safety car is officially around 60%, but again given the super-typhoon this is set to change. The circuit isn’t particularly modernised, the asphalt is abrasive, and tyre wear is an issue. To accommodate the high-speed corners and wear, tyre allocation for the weekend is the hard prime and medium option compound tyre, the two hardest compounds Pirelli offer.

Sector 1 is technically very challenging, a lot of complex maneuvers and double apex corners. Turn 1 and 2 just happens to be a perfect example of a double apex corner. At 300km/h on the entry into turn 1, as soon as drivers have past the first apex, it’s a quick downshift to fourth gear, slowing the car down to 160km/h. Leading into the ‘S’ Curves, this complex requires continuous momentum and downforce, taken in fifth gear for some mechanical grip. The Esses (turns 3-6) test drivers’ neck strength, good news for Esteban here.

Sector 2 begins with turn 8, Degner Curve. To get the apex, a little clip of the kerb is needed on the entry, but too much and its straight into the gravel trap. The run down into turn 10 is an opportunity for drivers to sneak up to full throttle, but barely as the Hairpin at turn 11 will sneak up pretty damn quick. The Hairpin is a mere 70km/h and has caused a few lock ups over the weekend so far. Turn 12 opens to a smooth right-hander into another Suzuka classic, Spoon Curve.

Then its time 130R**; the fastest corner on the Formula 1 calendar at 310km/h. The final complex of corners, turns 16-17-18 make up the Casino Triangle. The braking point for Casino is crucial for a good entry for the chicane to power towards the start/finish straight. Already there have been two incidents coming out of Casino, Ricciardo met with the barriers in the second free practice on Friday, and Hamilton copied the move on Saturday morning for practice.

– Alex

* Good word

** Squee!

Japanese Grand Prix: All Renault Podium

Today’s race could have been a very effective advertisement for Renault powered engines, as Red Bull and Lotus took out the podium. Sebastian Vettel didn’t manage to secure his fourth Word Championship title at today’s Japanese Grand Prix, despite taking home his ninth victory for the season. Team mate, Mark Webber came home an unlucky second after qualifying on pole, while Lotus’ Romain Grosjean had the drive of his career to finish third.

The first two laps of the circuit saw more incident than the rest of the race. Neither Red Bull driver had a particularly quick get away off line line, which immediately put both Vettel and Webber on the defensive. Grosjean executed a well thought out move into turn 1, going around the outside of Vettel, as the Red Bull marked Hamilton. Webber didn’t have the initial pace, and conceded the lead to Grosjean. Vettel and Hamilton made contact coming down the pit straight, resulting in an immediate right rear puncture for the Mercedes, sending him to the back of the grid and forcing him to limp back to the pits. Behind the rest of the field Bianchi and Van der Garde made a mess of each other, both retiring from the race. Hamilton’s damage to the under tray proved to be too much to recover from, and the team retired him on lap 7.

Most of the race was led by Romain Grosjean, who, on a track where tyre degradation plays a key role in strategy, managed his tyres and his pace extremely well. Particularly of note was the Frenchman holding off an attacking Webber during the final stint of the race. Grosjean is a completely different driver compared to this point in the season last year, and I now enjoy watching him race for very different reasons. Team mate, Kimi Raikkonen had a fairly standard race, despite being out of position in the middle of the pack. The Finn had a good battle between Button in the final laps, and finishing well in the points in fifth.

It was refreshing to see a race where not only did Vettel not have his usual head start from pole, but also have to manage his tyre strategy to ensure he had enough fight from third. The championship leader had quite a scruffy race, locking his brakes on several occasions. Webber had a much more controlled race, despite finishing second. The Australian was forced to run a three stop strategy, after using more of his tyres up in the opening laps of the race. Tyre strategy was always going to be the podium decider today, and Webber was unfortunate, but wouldn’t have been able to keep a competitive pace on two stops due to the increased downforce from his rear wing set up.

Massa had a disappointing finish to what had been a good race. The one-man-team kept Alonso at bay for most of the race, despite at times lapping slower than the other Ferrari. Admittedly, Alonso only managed to get close enough to Massa while being stuck in the train of cars following Ricciardo. Later in the race, Massa was handed a drive through penalty for speeding in the pit lane, the Formula 1 equivalent of running in the school corridors. The order for the drive through took Kimi by surprise, misinterpreting his team’s message, thinking that he’d been given the penalty.

Sauber had their best points finish of the season, as Hulkenberg  took advantage over the squabbling Ferrari’s and pitted early. Gutierrez delivered the race of his career today, starting from fourteenth, to finish well in the points in seventh. The rookie driver demonstrated some quite controlled battles for position against the Ferrari’s, and Kimi, and finally Rosberg as they approached the checkered flag. Not a bad 70th birthday present for Peter Sauber.

Both Force India’s finally managed to make it to the checkered flag today. Neither Sutil nor di Resta made contact with another driver, or any part of the circuit they weren’t meant to. Quite an achievement for the team, as both drivers were in a constant battle for position with Pastor Maldonado.

McLaren made a mess of their pit stops today, costing first Button, and then Perez valuable time. Button spent most of his race battling for position in the middle of the pack against the Ferrari’s and Kimi Raikkonen. Button made the most of a less than ideal race for the team, and finished just inside the points in ninth. Perez had a less than fortunate race, irritating several drivers, and making contact with Rosberg. The Mexican might have been the recipient today a rather dodgy sounding radio message from Vettel to his pit wall. “Keep him away from me, even if he’s on fresher tyres”, went out over the radio as Vettel approached to lap him. There are some thoughts that this may have been directed at Webber, who at the time was fast gaining on the leader. On the one hand, Perez was on fresh tyres, and particularly reckless earlier in the race, having already made contact with Rosberg (suffering from a puncture and sending himself to the back of the grid in the first place). If I were Vettel I’d want to make sure Perez well and truly obeyed the blue flags. On the other hand, Vettel could have been feeling the pressure knowing that Mark too was on fresher tyres, and putting in faster lap times.

Further getting caught up in the Perez debacle was Toro Rosso’s, Daniel Ricciardo. Although this time it was Ricciardo who fared second best. Ricciardo overtook Perez on the outside leading into 130R, but failed to keep traction and ran off track. The Toro Rosso managed to get back on track, and still ahead of Perez. The stewards, however, viewed this as gaining an advantage by leaving the track, and awarded him a drive through penalty. An interesting decision by the stewards, as this time the punishment outweighed the offence, and cost Ricciardo his race.

So, at Suzuka we were once again treated to the never-ending German National Anthem, as Vettel took the top step. Had Webber been able to overtake Grosjean sooner, maybe we would have heard the Australian National Anthem*, alas, Formula 1 is not a sport of “ifs”. I’d like to see Webber take at least one victory in his retiring season, possibly when Formula 1 moves across to the subcontinent.

– Alex

* Ours is much shorter, I think you’d enjoy it.

Qualifying Pole Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing-Renault)
Podium Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing-Renault)
Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing-Renault)
Romain Grosjean (Lotus-Renault)
Fastest Lap 1:34.587 Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing-Renault)


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.