Saturday, 8 October 2011

Suzuka Preview: Don't let the headlines fool you

Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
'Button tops both practice session while Vettel crashes'. I've seen several versions of headlines to that effect since Friday practice at Suzuka finished. You'd therefore be forgiven for thinking that Seb and the Red Bulls are on the back foot on the basis of today's running, while Jenson Button is dominating, and bravely seeking to make Vettel's inevitable championship clinching as hard as possible.

Well, that's not exactly the case. As is usually the case in F1 things are not always what they seem on the surface.

Vettel again looks to be the man to beat
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
It again looks like Suzuka will be Red Bull country. Not really a surprise: the Bulls have been  fastest by a distance here in the last two visits, the long, rapid sequences of corners could have been designed for an Adrian Newey-penned car, and in any case the Bulls have been quickest just about everywhere this year.

And once again, Vettel is positively beaming this weekend and shows every intention even on the brink of the title of driving as he has all season, on the attack and going for the win, thus wrapping up the title in typical, lavish style. He won imperiously from pole here in both of the past two seasons, and I seriously wouldn't advise betting against a hat-trick.

Jenson Button topped both practice sessions
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
And, after scratching the surface, today's evidence backs this up. While Jenson Button did top the times in both sessions, and Fernando Alonso also pipped the Bulls on the timing screens in the second session as well, the Bulls race runs on heavier fuel loads sent a shiver down the pit lane looking for a spine to run up. Both Vettel and Webber consistently ran in the 1m 37s in this phase, while Button and Alonso couldn't break the 1m 39s. Their rivals are clinging to the hope that fuel loads explain some of this difference, but that could be a forlorn hope.

But perhaps more tellingly, the Bulls consistently ran with their DRS open through 130R, and were still nailed to the road it seemed. None of their rivals can claim this, and of them the best anyone could claim is that they opened it on occasion when feeling especially brave (and there's been the odd hairy moment, Kobayashi for one averting a big smash only narrowly).

As an aside, it's ironic that it's taken DRS, a device that many consider to not be in keeping with F1 traditions, to return the 130R corner to its former majestic challenge. For practice and qualifying anyway.

Alonso may be playing catch-up
Credit: formulasantander.com / CC
Vettel did damage his car at the end of first practice session, afflicting minor damage to his nose having scraped it against the barriers at Degner. But Seb's shown himself to be perfectly capable of recovering from such things this year: see Turkey and Canada.

Of the chasing pack, the McLarens may be a nose ahead of the Ferraris. Ferrari's pace at Silverstone, a track with similar characteristics to Suzuka, seems a very long time ago (indeed, at the time Ferrari insiders said that if the Suzuka race were to take place the next day that Ferrari would walk it), though Alonso did sound reasonably chipper after today's running.

The battle for second in the table will likely remain close after this weekend, though if anything it could represent a big opportunity for Mark Webber to steal a march. There's been little to tell between his pace and Seb's so far, and with Seb possibly slightly more circumspect than usual (though I wouldn't bet on that) it may open the door for Webber to claim his first win of the season, or at least a good result in Vettel's wake. But there is of course the elephant in the room: Webber's starts, which have been legendarily bad this season. Losing places off the line could well be the difference between as good result and bad on Sunday. Still, if he gets off the line well Webber may be Vettel's only threat come the race.

And Lewis Hamilton needs a good result if he's to stay in contention for the second place in the table. He didn't show his hand in the second practice session, due to yellow flags, and he'll have to put some slightly absurd distractions to the back of his mind, such as incessant questions on the Singapore tag with Massa. Fortunately for everyone, it looks like rumours of a drivers' meeting 'to discuss his driving' won't turn into reality.

Highlights of Free Practice One (UK users only) 
Highlights of Free Practice Two (UK users only)

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