Issue 34: Japanese Grand Prix Preview


2 October 2014

A driver’s challenge

There is no questioning Suzuka Circuit’s standing among the greatest race tracks in the world. Suzuka easily ranks alongside Monza, Monte Carlo, Spa and Silverstone as one of the highlights of the F1 season. It is sweeping, fast and demanding of man and machine. Why aren’t there more F1 tracks like Suzuka?

After the start, the field is funnelled into a tightening 180-degree right-hander. That is swiftly followed by the renowned Esses. A  glorious series of high-speed swoops. Left then right. Left then right. Then left again and straight into the fast Dunlop Curve. The Suzuka Esses are a real opportunity to pick up time or lose it. For a quick time, a good entry line is needed; the driver must keep the car on the racing line and not make errors as the time penalty will be carried all the way through until the braking point for the first Degner Curve. Cars that have good high-speed balance and a stable aerodynamic platform to enable sharp directional change will be at an advantage through the Esses.

The Degner Curves mark the beginning of Sector 2. It’s easy to get it wrong here and end up in the gravel and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a few drivers caught out here, especially in the early practice sessions when the track is slippery. Like the Esses, cars that produce high aerodynamic downforce will reap the rewards through the Degners and the remainder of Sector 2. The Hairpin (Turn 11) can sometimes offer a pursuing car a half-chance at an overtake on a slower car ahead, but this requires some courage. Drivers that fail to make an overtake here then have no choice other than to stick closely to the car ahead through the high-speed Turn 12 and the tightening Spoon Curve taken at 110mph on entry. The long, looping Spoon Curve demands good rear end downforce, which is sometimes a challenge to find at Suzuka because strong front grip is the priority in order to navigate the Esses in particular.

After Spoon Curve, the cars blast into the high-speed Sector 3, through Suzuka’s infamous 130R corner, taken at 190mph, before hard on the brakes for the big stop at the final chicane. This is the prime overtaking zone at Suzuka. The chicane is tight, slow and bumpy. A good exit off Spoon Curve is essential to make an overtake stick into the chicane. We’ll see plenty of moves made here as well as into Turn 1. Power, rather than downforce, is the prerequisite for Sector 3.

Suzuka’s abrasive track surface and the high lateral loads going through the tyres, especially through 130R, will mean high rates of degradation. Additionally, the cool temperatures and the strong likelihood of rain at some point in the weekend will  require teams to get heat into their tyres, but not at the expense of over-working them as that will likely push them towards a three-stop rather than a two-stop race. Teams unable to get sufficient heat into the Hard tyre (high working range) will be at greater risk of tyre graining.

The threat from Red Bull

What chance of a challenge from Red Bull to Mercedes at Suzuka? The Red Bull RB10 is undoubtedly the most planted car in the field. It has unmatched stability through the corners and is certainly ahead on downforce levels. Sectors 1 and 2 are made for the RB10. Red Bull are likely to give Mercedes a real run for their money through Suzuka’s fast, sweeping corners. However, Vettel and Ricciardo will come under pressure in Sector 3, assuming they are ahead on track, when the power advantage of the Mercedes really kicks in. Holding track position into the final chicane and/or into Turn 1 will be a big challenge for them. The Mercedes W05 Hybrid offers the best combination of power and downforce. Mercedes also seem to go better on Pirelli’s Medium and Hard compound tyres, which Pirelli is bringing to Suzuka, compared to the Supersoft. In short, I don’t see Red Bull winning a dry race, but they are likely to be  in a good position to disrupt the opening phase of the race for Mercedes.

Can Rosberg get back on terms with Hamilton?

Speaking of the title challengers, what will come to pass at Suzuka between Hamilton and Rosberg. The pressure of being in a close title fight can do funny things to drivers (and teams) in the latter stages of the competition. Hamilton currently has the momentum with two poles and two wins from the last two races, but momentum can swing quickly in this game. On the big assumption that reliability won’t be a factor, I still think that one of the deciding factors between Hamilton and Rosberg will be qualifying because the lower-placed driver will be forced to attack the leading driver but without having the benefit of the fastest race strategy, which the lead car enjoys. A big advantage. Yet, in all honesty, splitting Hamilton and Rosberg is hard given the multitude of wildcards that could influence who finishes in front of whom, not least reliability, the weather, speed of pit-stops etc.

Williams vs. Ferrari

Two venerable, but very different F1 teams, contest third place in the championship now. Williams are the rising power. But Ferrari are in transition. Some would say crisis. For Suzuka, Williams are reported to be bringing an aerodynamic upgrade. However, the FW36 is already well-suited to Suzuka; it has great high-speed balance (Bottas was extremely fast through the Maggots-Becketts-Chapel complex at Silverstone, which is comparable to the Suzuka Esses) and they have the powertrain required for a quick time in Sector 3. If they have a good weekend, perhaps Bottas and Massa will be in striking distance of the Red Bulls and Mercedes. In any case, my money is on Williams to beat Ferrari this weekend. Ferrari lack aerodynamic downforce for the high-speed stuff and I think that will show them up in Sectors 1 and 2 in particular, in spite of positive noises from Raikkonen about progress on setting up the front end of his F14-T.

As for McLaren, they are not likely to make it far into the top 10 places such is the MP4-29’s aerodynamic deficiencies in high-speed corners. Jenson Button gave a rather gloomy preview of what McLaren can expect at Suzuka. The Woking team will not be beating Mercedes, Red Bull, Williams or Ferrari in Japan.