Preview 10: Japanese Grand Prix
Date published: October 1 2014
The driver’s title might be closer than ever, but all eyes will be on Max Verstappen who takes to the track on Friday…
Suzuka is an old-school narrow F1 circuit with corners that bite. The famous 130R may have been emasculated with a tarmac run-off and is no longer the threat it was when Three-Times-Le-mans-Winner Allan McNish bent his Toyota round it, but there is still the very tricky ‘Spoon’ and the two corners that can end free practice early for unwary drivers, Degner 1 and Degner 2.
The big headline coming into the GP weekend is the arrival in F1 of (just) 17-year-old Max Verstappen to take part in FP1 on Friday for Toro Rosso: “I have actually been to Suzuka before, to take part in a go-kart race on the track that is located next to the main circuit’s back straight. My dad has raced at Suzuka many times and he told me it’s not an easy track to start on. For me it will be a very valuable experience, spending some time in the car and also getting used to working with everyone in the team, to prepare myself for next year. I am not going there to break any records, I just want to gain experience.”
Given that neither Daniil Kvyat or Max Verstappen have driven at Suzuka before and are both relying on their simulator experience, it will be very interesting to see how they perform against each other. Ahead of their 2015 season together.
The weather on Friday could be warm and wet making Max’s debut even harder than expected. Nearby Nagoya is forecast to get rain on Friday, for it to stay dry on Saturday, but Sunday the area is due to have showers all day. That should make the race interesting.
Pirelli’s Paul Hembery says that the track is a real work-out for the tyres, especially through the fast Esses early in the lap. “Suzuka is a real drivers’ circuit, and because of that it is a considerable challenge for the tyres, with some of the biggest lateral energy loads of the year. As a result, it would probably be realistic to look at between two to three pit-stops. It’s a track where several forces are often acting on the tyre at once, and the increased torque but decreased downforce of this year’s cars will only place more demands on mechanical grip.”
Like so many of the drivers; Jenson Button, Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo love Suzuka. Dan: “It’s all good, but for me the first sector is just a delight. It’s a dream. You have those fast changes of directions through the Esses, hard around the Dunlop Curve and then, arguably the best bit, turns Eight and Nine: Degner. Through Eight you’re hanging on, it’s so narrow and there’s no room for error but you want to push as hard as you can. Then just as you straighten up the car, you’re on the brakes, throwing it into this cambered right-hander and hoping you’ve got it right because if you haven’t then it’s all over. Getting to do that 53 times in a row is a pretty good way to earn a living.”
Williams are bringing an updated aerodynamic package for this weekend’s Japanese GP at Suzuka, and trackside engineering chief Rob Smedley reckons this, coupled with his team’s improving ability to sort out set-up problems, means they can stay ahead of close rivals Ferrari. “We’re really, really getting on top of tyre management now. And we’re going to tracks that have a much bigger power effect (than Singapore), much bigger drag sensitivity, so we’re really, really optimistic.”
Lewis Hamilton is another big Suzuka fan: “It’s one of the races on the calendar that drivers love the most – and arguably one of the greatest tracks in the world. There’s so much history and there have been so many defining moments there – like those unforgettable battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. I’ve never won at this circuit and have only made the podium once, on my first visit way back in 2009. I’ve had a couple of chances and last season was probably the best of those. This year, though, we have an exceptional car and I’m really hoping I’ll finally have my shot at the top step. All the greats of Formula One have won at Suzuka since the sport first came.”
With a high-profile Japanese girlfriend, Jenson Button gets a lot of support in Japan. He won in 2011, but is worried about the performance of his car at the Honda-owned track: “I think circuits that have a high-speed nature but not a big change of direction will be fine, like Brazil – but Suzuka could be tricky for us. In gradual high-speed corners we are reasonably good, but on corners with a sharp turn-in we are nowhere.” So, one person not particularly looking forward to the Esses.
But the biggest question of all is: Will Kamui Kobayashi get to drive at his home Grand Prix? Caterham had still not announced their plans at the time of writing. The team are introducing a new front wing that Marcus Ericsson will be running, but who will be in the second car?