Tuesday 22 September 2015

Suzuka Preview: Turning Japanese

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

Such a claim isn't always true, but it sometimes is. And you might argue that it applies with particular regularity to the F1 circuit. It certainly applies to Suzuka, the welcome stop-off for this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.

The Suzuka circuit is very special
Photo: Octane Photography
Of course some of the sport's newer venues are better than others, but one way or another none have got even close to quickening the pulse among drivers and aficionados alike as when cars circulate this Japanese venue. In fairness, not that many of the older tracks have either.

This is mainly because the Suzuka 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 too there aren't vast car parks of run-off areas for drivers to veer into and to use as a benign get-out if they get it wrong. That modern curse of policing 'track limits' scarcely gets mentioned here. It doesn't have to be. The circuit also is narrow with the ideal racing line like walking an ever-veering tightrope. Precision at Suzuka therefore is vital and even a slight error can end your chances definitively.

Indeed such is Suzuka's classic nature it feels rather like Messrs Nuvolari, Fangio and Clark should have pounded around the track in their respective heydays; that F1's first visit here was as late as 1987 strikes as a bit wrong somehow. Especially as that the track opened a full quarter century earlier in 1962, F1 for some reason being absurdly slow on the uptake.

You can combine all this with the track's uncanny knack of being the stage of drama and acrimony. And add too that the Japanese crowd never fails to be numerous, nor defers to any other when it comes to passion. You have a near-perfect mix.

The track is a drivers' favourite
Photo: Octane Photography
This time we add yet more to our fun as, most unexpectedly, for the first in Lord knows how long we actually have some doubts in advance of a Grand Prix weekend over the preponderance of Mercedes. Out of nowhere the Mercs were nowhere in Singapore, and worst of all for the Brackley squad there wasn't an obvious explanation for it all. As far as the drivers were concerned the cars were handling well, they just were slow...

"To be so far off the pace all of a sudden and to not understand it, it's really bad" said Nico Rosberg after the Marina Bay race.

"We just hope at the next track it will come towards us again...But today is very worrying, because we don't know why it's like that and so who knows if it will continue at the next race."

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff indeed even wondered out loud if his cars had the same tyre compounds as everyone else...

But there are at least a couple of reasons for Merc to be optimistic about an immediate bounce back in Japan. One is that the Singapore track in many ways is peculiar. And that circuit plus that the softest of all compounds were brought there could have been designed to scupper the silver cars. While this time on flowing and mighty Suzuka with the two hardest compounds available we have something like the polar opposite; a scenario that could have been designed to help them. Also here there aren't many big braking zones which means - again unlike Singapore - Merc's efficient energy recovery comes to the fore.

Even after Singapore, will this be the view
the rest get of the Mercs?
Photo: Octane Photography
We can think back to the similar challenges of Spain, Britain and Belgium (and in the first two cases like Suzuka the medium and hard tyres were brought) earlier this year and that in each Merc pretty much had the place to themselves, their poor starts at Silverstone notwithstanding. We can think back also that, while it was forgotten on race day, last season Mercedes looked by a distance its most vulnerable on pure laptime in Singapore's practice and qualifying also. It didn't stop normal service resuming in subsequent events.

Plus it's not F1's way that a car simply has become slow overnight. The smart money remains on the silver cars being firmly back on top this time.

But sight should not be lost that at least part of Singapore's complicated brew was that Ferrari has improved. Certainly as seen at Monza it's found something with its engine while chat in Singapore had the team being delighted with chassis upgrades introduced there too. There there is that its driver Sebastian Vettel has a stunning record at Suzuka with four wins from the last six visits.

But for the reasons given Suzuka will be something else entirely compared with Singapore for the Scuderia - this season they've tended to be at their furthest away from the front on these sort of tracks with long and fast corners and with harder tyre compounds. Malaysia was very much an outlier, related to extreme temperatures which we we won't get in Japan.

Red Bull historically has been strong at Suzuka
Photo: Octane Photography
There was a time until relatively recently that Suzuka meant Red Bull about as much as it meant Vettel (though in that time disentangling the two was never the work of a moment). Of course, the high downforce and aero efficiency requirements of this circuit is just the Milton Keynes thing, and the RB11 after a tricky early part of the season has since mid-summer looked back on point. It's also perhaps easy amid the Italian glory to forget that in Singapore the Bulls leapt clean over the Mercs just as the Ferraris did.

As we know these days with Red Bull though at least something will depend on the extent that its Renault power unit can push its cars along. At Suzuka there are a couple of lengthy full throttle stretches as well as a few uphill acceleration zones, which could be bad news for the Bulls. At the very least its grunt (or lack of) will be more of a factor than it was last weekend.

With this it is perhaps instructive that the swift-in-a-straight-line Williams qualified firmly on the second row behind the Mercedes here last year, and indeed Valtteri Bottas was only around half a second off the pole time. The Merc customers should have a happier time here than in Singapore.

There is another reason for Mercedes anxiety though. After an unblemished record in 2015 suddenly in the last two rounds the two Brackley pilots have had a mechanical retirement each. Suzuka also is a track that strains the cars and in particular the engines given the high average speeds and ever-varying gradients and loads around the track. And for Lewis Hamilton, while even after his misfortune last time out he still looks near-untouchable in the drivers' table, another failure combined with Rosberg or Vettel taking full advantage might bring on at least a pang of discomfort. Suzuka also historically has had an incredible knack of being the place where significant things happen, particularly in regard to the eventual destination of the drivers' title.

Vettel is another with a strong record at this venue
Photo: Octane Photography
Grands Prix here often are a strategy battle. Overtaking isn't easy here; qualifying will be of greater importance than usual. Furthermore the successive long corners and direction changes put a lot of loadings into the tyres, particularly the fronts leading possibly to dreaded thermal degradation, and the relatively abrasive surface strains the rubber too. Multi-stop races can be expected therefore, with two usually preferred to three.

This difficulty in overtaking could represent yet another cause for Merc bother if someone else leads into turn one and disrupts its day from there. We saw something like this from Romain Grosjean with the then-haughty Red Bulls in the 2013 race, forcing the Bulls' into a fruity split strategy (which led to just the latest Webber-Vettel contretemps) to get back ahead. Remember too that the Mercedes starts haven't always been brilliant in recent rounds.

And as was seen to Vettel's benefit in that same 2013 visit (the last dry race from which we can get a steer) being gentle with the rubber can be crucial in terms of your strategy options in a Suzuka race. Strategies may be hard to set in advance with much certainty, as approaches are likely to evolve during the race depending on the degradation experienced.

Rain often features in Japan, as seen last year
Photo: Octane Photography
We can 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, while again thanks to the elements last year's race looked for a time that it might not happen at all. This time forecasts have a tropical storm indeed passing the area, with rain most likely for Friday and Saturday. This at the very least could scupper set-up time as well as jumble the grid, at a place as mentioned where track position is more important than most.

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

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