Venue: Suzuka, Japan
Circuit Length: 5.807 kilometres
Lap Record: 1:31.540 = 228.372 km/h • Kimi Raïkkönen (McLaren Mercedes) • 2007
Suzuka is the world’s only Grand Prix circuit that describes a figure-of-eight. The track crosses over itself as the drivers head back on the inward leg towards the start-finish line. This year’s is the 25th Japanese Grand Prix to be staged there since 1987.
18 corners, 10 right, 8 left; key features include 130 R, not quite the fearsome challenge it once was, and the Degner Curves, although most drivers wax lyrical about the uphill Esses as the circuit starts to climb away from Turn 2. All eyes on Pirelli: Suzuka is one of the year’s most challenging tracks for tyres because of the directional changes and the energy being loaded on to them, so they are bringing their hardest two compounds: P Zero White (Medium) and Orange (Hard). “Suzuka is a track I look forward to every season,” says 2005 winner Kimi Raïkkönen. “It’s a proper circuit that’s been around for many years, and you can understand why as it’s a challenge for the drivers and usually makes for some good racing too. It’s fast, technical and there are some good places to overtake, which to me is what racing should be about.”
What does it all add up to?
After 14 races and 836 laps, the arithmetic for Suzuka is pretty simple. If Sebastian Vettel wins and Fernando Alonso is ninth or lower, then the 26-year-old German will retain his Drivers’ World Championship. He sits on 272 points, Alonso on 195. The 25 points would take Vettel to 297; there would be 100 still available in the four races remaining after Suzuka. If Alonso is only ninth, two points will take him to 197 – a gap of 100. Even if the Ferrari ace won all four remaining races and the Red Bull man failed to score in any of them, the title would still be Vettel’s on countback.
Still, there will be no let-up from the scarlet squad, especially Alonso, who won at Suzuka in 2006 and was on the podium in 2010 and 2011. He has a soft spot for both track and country: “I like the culture, where education and discipline feature very strongly and the people are so polite,” he says. “I am a fan of Samurai culture in particular and that is one of the things that inspires me and makes me happy when I come here. I think my driving style suits this rather old style track with all its fast corners.”
Senior F1 statesman Jenson Button is not concerned by the adding-up – he is 214 points behind Vettel! But he won at Suzuka soon after the 2011 natural disasters and loves the place for pure racing reasons as well. “The thing I really like about Suzuka is that it’s such an unforgiving track,” he says. “On most circuits, if you run wide or out-brake yourself, you invariably end up just running onto the tarmac run-off, so you can easily get back onto the track without any penalty. At Suzuka, if you run wide through the Esses, or go off the track at the exit of the Degners, you’re going to find yourself in the gravel. And I like that – I think it rewards those who don’t make mistakes, and it makes for better racing, because you have to stay honest and focused.” That’s what McLaren remain as they pursue that elusive first podium of 2013.
Realistically, the interest now is in the fight for third place. With Alonso 28 points clear of Raïkkönen, KImi is more likely to have to fight off Lewis Hamilton than he is to catch the Spaniard. Hamilton felt he deserved better than fifth for his Korea efforts and is another who loves Suzuka. “Suzuka is one of the few circuits we have left in Formula One with the authenticity of a real old-school circuit,” says the Mercedes man. “I drove there for the first time in 2009 and it takes a while to pick up pace each year because of how fast-flowing it is. If you touch the grass at any point, it’s going to spin you off into the wall, so it’s a much more demanding circuit in terms of precision, positioning and turning points for each corner. It’s a real race track where you have to think ahead as a driver and it just needs crazy levels of downforce from the car. From my point of view, the car felt fantastic to drive in Korea when everything was hooked up, so I am excited to get to Japan and see what we can do there.”
Behind them, the luckless Mark Webber is now just eight points ahead of Hamilton’s teammate Nico Rosberg in fifth place and the Aussie is running out of chances to claim a 10th World Championship race win before he leaves the category. Still, this is a track Mark loves and he has a decent record here: front-row starts in 2010 and 2012, fastest lap in 2009 and 2010, a podium finish in 2010 and a couple of other points-scoring finishes as well.
Perhaps the priority in most other drivers’ minds now is to achieve results that will persuade either their present teams or potential new employers that they should stay in the field for 2014. With Raïkkönen bound for Ferrari next year, Lotus – their financial troubles apart – are probably the most attractive target. Eric Boullier has dangled a carrot in front of Nico Hülkenberg by saying Sauber’s young German is in the frame for a Lotus seat despite his height and weight. Nico scored points in Japan last year and arrives with his stocks high after an eye-catching drive to fourth in Korea. “I really enjoy going to Suzuka, as it is always a cool weekend and special as both a Grand Prix and a circuit,” says the 26-year-old. “Drivers like challenges and this is certainly a very challenging track. It is a classic track – a bit like Spa – and one that just puts a big smile on everyone's face.”
Sauber edged ahead of Toro Rosso with their Korean result so Dan Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne have their work cut out for them in Japan. The Australian claimed the last World Championship point at Suzuka last season but he’s scored in just two of the last six races, while JEV hasn’t troubled the scorers since Canada!
Pole Position: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault) 1:30.839 = 230.134 km/h
1st: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault) 1:28.56.242 (av. speed 207.429 km/h)
2nd: Felipe Massa (Ferrari) gap 20.639s
3rd: Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber Ferrari) gap 24.538s
Fastest Lap: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault) 1:35.774 = 218.276 km/h on lap 52