Monday, 29 September 2014

Suzuka Preview: Big in Japan

They don't make 'em like they used to.

Such an claim isn't always true, but it sometimes is. And it seems to apply with particular regularity to the F1 circuit.

Suzuka is a popular venue - for many reasons
"Six F1 at Suzuka 2013" by Norimasa Hayashida - http://
set-72157636691519286/. Licensed under Creative
Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://
Of course, some of the new-fangled venues are better than others. But none has got even close to creating the quickening of the pulse that drivers and aficionados alike experience when cars circulate Suzuka, the scene of this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.

Why is this? Mainly it's that its layout is dominated by rapid, challenging, snaking turns, the sort that separate the great from the good, the sort that would most likely be laughed out of court were it proposed from the ground up these days.

Very much unlike the modern circuit type there aren't vast expanses of run-off areas for drivers to veer into and to use as a benign get-out if they get it wrong. The track is narrow also; the ideal line like a tightrope. Therefore precision at Suzuka is vital and even a slight error can end your chances.

Combine this with the track's uncanny knack of being the stage of drama and acrimony, as well as with the large and fervent yet unfailingly respectful Japanese support looking on, and you have a near-perfect mix. Indeed, such is Suzuka's classic nature it feels rather like Messrs Nuvolari, Fangio and Lauda should have pounded around the track in their heydays; that F1's first visit here was as late as 1987 seems a bit wrong somehow.

Suzuka has an inimitable well-worn and comfortable quality, almost like an old pair of slippers; refreshingly shorn of modern sterility. Perhaps the changing of the world around it has only served to make its charms more distinct.

Ask any driver, or any fan for that matter, about their favourite circuits and for most Suzuka will be ranked as among the very best of the very best. Little wonder.

In recent times Suzuka has meant Red Bull, and more to the point Sebastian Vettel. Since the sport returned to Suzuka in 2009 Seb has won four times from five, and he cruised to the world championship in the other visit. Of course, the high downforce and aero efficiency requirements of the circuit is just the Milton Keynes thing.

Seeing Red Bull in the lead has become a common
sight at Suzuka
"2009 Japanese GP opening lap" by Morio - photo
taken by Morio. Licensed under Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Yet as if to underline the extent that the 2014 season is a departure from what we'd got accustomed to a Red Bull cakewalk isn't expected this time. But still the RB10s may be able to give the imperious Mercs some bother.

All things being equal however the Mercedes should still be the ones setting the pace. The silver machines were miles ahead around the similar challenges of the long turns of Silverstone, and the probability is that they would have been around Spa too were it not for, you know, that. In an ironic role reversal of 12 months ago if a Bull is to prevail it'll likely need one way or another to lead into turn one and disrupt the Mercs' day from there, just as Romain Grosjean did vis-a-vis the haughty Red Bulls in 2013. One persistent pattern of 2014 is that the Mercs tend to be even further ahead of the rest in the races than they are in qualifying.

Daniel Ricciardo, who in recent weeks has been clinging to the title fight like a persistent Cocker Spaniel with teeth clamped to your ankle, you suspect will be up for the challenge though.

Suzuka also has had a knack of settling drivers' championships. This one won't be decided here, but it still could be important to that end. As ever it's hard to predict which Merc pilot is better-placed, and especially so this time as neither has a stellar record at Suzuka. But still drilling into this campaign in particular Lewis lately has established an unmistakable sense of momentum, that you feel Nico has to check pretty soon.

But still, for all that Lewis's tail is up there remains little between the two on pace in general. And to return to a lingering theme reliability could shift the title balance drastically and in either direction. Mercedes reliability has never been entirely sorted this year and Suzuka is another venue that strains the cars and in particular the engines given the high average speeds and ever-varying gradients and loads around the track. Both Brackley drivers know that there's something of the there but for the grace of God on this front right now, and will remain so for the rest of the season.

There also is the consideration of the new-found closeness of the order that was on show in Singapore, in qualifying at least. The balance of probability - one since opined by Rosberg indeed - is that it was a one-off, related to the Marina Bay track's many peculiarities. But still it'll be something a few anxious eyes will be on this weekend too. Someone getting between the Mercedes could go a long way to deciding the race and by extension the latest episode of the championship fight.

Grands Prix at Suzuka often turn out as a strategy battle. Overtaking isn't straightforward here; qualifying will be of greater importance than usual. Furthermore the successive long corners and direction changes here put a lot of loadings into the tyres, and the relatively abrasive surface strains them too.

And as was seen to Vettel's benefit here in last year's visit being gentle with the rubber can be crucial in terms of your strategy options in a Suzuka race. Just like then the medium and hard tyres are brought, and just like then two-stoppers will be employed by most, with whether you can achieve two stints on the medium or just one probably the biggest conundrum. Strategies may be hard to set in advance with much certainty, as approaches are likely to evolve during the race depending on degradation experienced. Mark Webber of course, infamously, was switched to a three-stop midstream last year. It contributed indeed to the three contenders for the win employing slightly different approaches which converged at the end.

We can possibly add another variable too. Japan is synonymous with rain; sometimes vast quantities of it. Suzuka particularly so, and indeed twice here qualifying has been held on Sunday morning due to Saturday's running falling victim to weather. Oddly though the elements' worst somehow have daintily danced around races here over an extended period of time, it being some 19 years since rain last fell on Suzuka during Sunday's business proceedings. Are we due a wet race?

So plenty to think about heading into our Suzuka weekend. Which is just the way it should be.

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