The drivers will no doubt have a spring in their step this week, knowing that one of their favourite tracks on the calendar - Suzuka - awaits them. The high-speed circuit remains one of the ultimate driving challenges, and with the season hotting up, this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix has all the ingredients to cook up yet another memorable race…
And Hamilton will have an opportunity to extend his lead this weekend, at a track that pushes the drivers to their limits. So let’s dig into the data and see who’s got the wind in their sails heading into the weekend…
The form book
Ferrari have had a tough time of late, and things got worse last weekend when Mercedes triumphed in Sochi, retaining their 100% record at that venue in the process. The latest setback dropped them further behind the Silver Arrows in both championship battles, and with their arch rivals winning the last four editions in Japan, it could well be another tricky Grand Prix for the Italian squad.
That’s not to say the Prancing Horse don’t know how to win at Suzuka. They have won seven times there to Mercedes’ four, though their last triumph came back in 2004 when a certain Michael Schumacher took the chequered flag. But since then, Mercedes have shared Japan success with McLaren, Renault and Red Bull.
Those four Red Bull triumphs were achieved by Vettel, who is currently spearheading Ferrari’s charge for world championship glory. But the German hasn’t mastered the Suzuka track since 2013, and with Hamilton winning three of the last four Japanese Grands Prix, it’s perhaps the Brit who heads into this race with a slight advantage.
What about Red Bull’s chances of success this weekend? Their RB14 doesn’t have the power to match either Mercedes or Ferrari, but they still boast one of, if not the best chassis on the grid – and in Max Verstappen, they have a driver who will be boosted by his Sochi exploits.
Whether the Dutchman can challenge for victory in Japan remains to be seen – but Christian Horner recently suggested that the more powerful ‘Spec C’ Renault engine could go back in the car in Japan, giving Verstappen and Renault-bound team mate Daniel Ricciardo a much-needed horsepower boost.
The stats that matter
Mercedes have won the Japanese Grand Prix every year since the beginning of the hybrid era in 2014, and will be looking to match Ferrari’s record of the highest number of consecutive wins in Suzuka. The Prancing Horse achieved five between 2000 and 2004.
A win for the Silver Arrows or Red Bull this weekend would make them the third most successful team in Japan after Ferrari and McLaren, who have the most wins - nine.
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are tied on four wins each in Japan. A win for either would see them go to second on the all-time list for total wins in Japan behind Michael Schumacher (7).
Should Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas finish in the top three this weekend, it will be the 175th time a Mercedes driver has finished on the Formula 1 podium.
A win from pole this weekend would see Ferrari take their 100th win from pole position.
If Kimi Raikkonen wins this weekend he will surpass Mika Hakkinen as the most successful Finnish driver in terms of wins (20).
A top-three finish for Daniel Ricciardo would mean his 30th visit to the Formula 1 podium.
If Max Verstappen wins without earning a pole position this weekend, he will break the record for the highest number of wins for a driver who has never had a pole position. He is currently tied with Eddie Irvine and Bruce McLaren (4).
Lance Stroll needs four more points to earn his 50th world championship point.
If Sauber score six points or more this weekend it’ll take their points total in F1 to 850, including the BMW era.
Suzuka has wasted no time cementing its place as an all-time favourite among teams, drivers and fans - but the Japanese track was a relative latecomer to the F1 calendar, making its first appearance in 1987.
Nigel Mansell would remember that weekend well, after he suffered a crash in qualifying that ruled him out of the race, gifting that year’s championship to his bitter rival Nelson Piquet.
The high-speed circuit remains one of the ultimate driving challenges, with the snaking ‘S’ Curves, the two commitment-rewarding Degners and the white-knuckle ride of 130R all highlights in a series of highlights at what is one of F1’s seminal tracks.
A track that has witnessed an unfair share of legendary F1 moments (not least between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna), plus has a unique set of fans with an unabashed commitment to playing Formula 1 dress-up, a Ferris wheel, and great food – the Japanese GP is always a weekend to remember!
After the last two races in Singapore and Russia used the same tyre allocation - soft, ultrasoft and hypersoft – we’ll have different rubber on show in Japan, with suppliers Pirelli opting for a familiar trio of tyres this weekend.
They’ve gone for a combination that has been selected four times already this season – the medium, soft and supersoft rubber – in preparation for the notoriously taxing demands of Suzuka, with long and sweeping corners such as 130R and Spoon.
“Suzuka features some of the highest energy loadings of the season and this can lead to greater levels of wear and degradation than we normally see,” explained Pirelli’s Head of Car Racing Mario Isola. “It’s also the only circuit in a figure of eight on the calendar, which means that the tyre wear between the left and the right side is about even.
“A one-stop strategy triumphed at Suzuka in 2017, but prior to that the trend was mainly towards a two-stopper. It’s going to be interesting to see if this year’s softer tyres – and even faster cars – produces a different set of tactics.
“The teams will always look to do a one-stopper if possible, but this of course has to be balanced against how much tyre management is needed to achieve this. Depending also on the time lost for a pit stop, it could be that a two-stopper is quicker.”
Suzuka is famous for its changeable conditions and this weekend should be no exception. Friday and Saturday are expected to be sunny and dry – with highs of 26 and 29 degrees Celsius respectively. But then the rain could arrive on Sunday, with showers a distinct possibility during the 53-lap Grand Prix. That should make it exciting…
When does the Japanese Grand Prix start?
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