Japan preview - time to get serious at Suzuka 03 Oct 2012
The fight for the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship is reaching critical mass with six races to go - and a maximum of 150 points up for grabs. Thus the aspirations of Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber and Jenson Button are not over, though now things are favouring Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, with Kimi Raikkonen still in the fight.
Red Bull made a crucial return to winning form in Singapore, and this weekends 2012 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix could be just the right time for Vettel to press his claim, when Ferrari are struggling to make their updates perform on track the way their wind tunnel tests suggest they should. The situation in Maranello has become so tense that they will shut the tunnel down in the winter to reassess its set-up.
Theres a lot of races left and its a bit difficult to predict whats going to happen, Vettel says. We have to make sure that we finish the races first of all. I think the pace is there, even if we are not quick enough to win then it is good enough to collect a lot of points. And we have to make sure we do that. Its a tough championship so far but were still in it. Were still looking forward to the next couple of races, and obviously the target at the moment is to beat Fernando.
I think we have to improve. I think there is still a little bit that we need to gain. I think that at the moment McLaren is the fastest car and the Ferrari is a little bit of an all-rounder. It's always quick and always there so we need to make sure that we see the chequered flag. Reliability will be important but it's a fun track so I'm looking forward to it. The Sauber will be quick, unlike in Singapore, and we will go from there.
Its a little bit difficult to predict, Alonso admits. I think all this year we've been up and down for all the teams and it's the same for us. For sure, we need to improve the performance we saw in Singapore. We struggled all weekend. Positions five and 13 for our cars is not what we were hoping for so we need to be in a better position in Suzuka. Maybe Silverstone is also quite similar to Suzuka and we were quite okay there so hopefully we can repeat that kind of performance.
How Hamiltons confirmation last week that he will quit McLaren for Mercedes for the next three years impacts on his situation within the team in the final six races remains to be seen. But McLaren are hell bent on winning both the drivers and constructors titles and he is their better-placed driver with 142 points to Buttons 119. Alonso has 194, Vettel 165 and Raikkonen 149.
The MP4-27 was still the class of the field in Singapore, with Hamilton taking pole position and leading Vettel prior to his gearbox failure, so both drivers are confident that they will go well on this spectacular track with its variety of slow-, medium- and high-speed corners and elevation changes.
A good car is vital, as aerodynamic efficiency and strong balance are rewarded in all three sectors of the lap. Sector one features the Esses, a sequence of five high-speed corners similar to Becketts at Silverstone; sector two includes the high-speed downhill left-hander called Spoon and sector 3 is made up of a long straight back towards the pits.
When I first raced here in 2009, I couldnt believe a place like this could still exist in Formula One, Hamilton says. It still feels like a proper old-school circuit. It doesnt have the polish or finesse of an ultra-modern track, but is all the better for it.
Its fantastically quick, too, and very difficult to master. Its an unforgiving place, and it also has that special atmosphere that you only get in Japan, for some reason.
I think thats due to the fans - theyre what make any visit to a racetrack in Japan feel so special. Theyre very passionate about Formula One, but also extremely polite and friendly. They make you feel very special every day when youre going in and out of the circuit.
In terms of the championship, theres nothing to really be gained by analysing the points tables. From now on, its simply gloves off. As in Singapore, Ill come out fighting - Ill just be hoping for a better result.
Button, last years winner, says of Suzuka: It's always very difficult to know because it's such a different circuit. But if you compare it to Spa, and it's reasonably similar to Spa - but without the run-off areas - it's a circuit that should suit us pretty well. I still think that the Red Bulls will be strong as they were in Spa. Qualifying was great for us and the race was as well, but in the race our pace was no better than the Red Bulls. It's going to be a competitive race, I think. We really don't know where the Ferrari will stand on that type of circuit. It's going to be a competitive race, and one I'm very much looking forward to. We go to Japan with a car that I feel convinced can fight for victory.
He will, however, start with a setback. Post-race investigation in Singapore revealed that his gearbox was suffering identical problems to Hamiltons, so a replacement will earn him a five-place grid penalty.
Meanwhile, Raikkonen says everything for Lotus will depend on how well some updates work. "We should get some new parts and setting up the car the way I like it to be depends on the weather and on the circuit. We know the speed is there in our car, we just have to find the right set-up to maximise it every time.
"We give it our best shot to be on the podium, but the races are going to get more and more difficult with other teams constantly pushing with new development parts.
"Obviously, we have to make a step forward from Singapore - where we were nowhere - to be fighting for top places. It's impossible to predict how our car will go. We have to wait until Friday practice to decide how to approach the race."
Further back, Mercedes are on their mettle not just to prove they deserve Hamilton in 2013, but to keep clear of Sauber who are only 36 points behind, while Force India and Williams fight to catch Sauber. Mercedes task will be made all the more challenging by Michael Schumachers ten-place grid penalty, his reward for taking out Toro Rossos Jean-Eric Vergne in Singapore.
Pirelli have brought their P Zero Silver hard and P Zero Yellow soft tyres to Suzuka, whereas in 2011 they had the medium and the soft. Along with Barcelona, its a circuit where the highest energy loadings are recorded all year, mainly due to the number of long and fast corners such as 130R and Spoon. 130R is the fastest corner of the year, taken at 310 km/h in seventh gear, where the tyres are subjected to three simultaneous forces: downforce, cornering, and acceleration. The lateral force alone is 3.1g, but as 130R is quite an open corner this is not where the tyres experience the most lateral force: that comes at Turn 7, the Dunlop Curve, where lateral energy peaks at 3.4g. Because of all these mechanical and thermal demands on the compound, it is not uncommon for the tread temperature to exceed 110 degrees Celsius.
Pirellis motorsport director Paul Hembery says: Suzuka is definitely one of the highlights of the Formula One calendar for us: its a classic drivers circuit, a bit like Spa or Monza, with some of the most awesome corners that we see all year and very little margin for error. While it might at first seem from the names of the compounds that we are bringing harder tyres to Japan this year, in fact they are softer. Despite the increased demands that this places on the compound and structure, they are still more than capable of withstanding the immense forces to which they are subjected lap after lap. With a full step between the compounds as well, we hope this will bring extra performance and excitement to what is already a classic race. This should also open up the opportunity for lots of different strategies.
Suzukas single DRS Zone is 20m shorter this year than in 2011. The detection point is 50m before Turn 16 and the activation zone starts at the start-finish line after Turn 18. In other circuit changes, the whole West Course (from Turn 7 until after the chicane) has been resurfaced, while new storm water drainage systems have been installed around the newly resurfaced section of track.
Driver changes for opening practice only will include Giedo van der Garde in for Heikki Kovalainen at Caterham, the Dutchman getting his first Friday outing since the Chinese round back in April, and Valtteri Bottas stepping into Bruno Senna's car at Williams.
The weather is expected to be settled, with a mixture of partial cloud and sunshine, and ambient temperatures of around 25 degrees throughout the weekend. Sundays race will run over 53 laps of the 5.807 kilometre (3.608 mile) circuit, or 307.471 kilometres (191.056 miles). It starts at 1500 hours local time, 0600 GMT.
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