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: 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.