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Japan - What to Watch for…

05 Oct 2014

From the threat posed by Typhoon Phanfone to the prospect of rain making strategy an open book, and from constructors' championship battles heating up to Sauber's quest to finally end their barren run, we break down the key themes ahead of the 2014 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka…

Typhoon Phanfone could cause havoc

The teams have spent almost as long watching the weather radar this weekend as they have watching the action on the track. The reason? Typhoon Phanfone, the huge weather system that has been travelling towards the Japanese coast for the past few days and, according to various forecasts, looks set to arrive in the Suzuka area on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.

It's unclear at the moment as to when and how hard the storms might hit, but most of the teams are expecting rain on race day and, if it does arrive, it's likely to be torrential and accompanied by high winds. That could lead to delays, safety cars, red flags and - in the worst case scenario - a shortened, half-points race.

On the weekend's evidence so far, it seems only rain could prevent Mercedes from running away from the rest of the field, so it was unsurprising to hear several teams alluding to wet-weather set-ups after qualifying on Saturday.

"On face value, sixth (for Daniel Ricciardo) and ninth (for four-time Suzuka winner Sebastian Vettel) aren't exactly stellar grid positions," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, "but, with the decision on set-up that we made for tomorrow's race due to the inevitability of rain at some point, hopefully that will pay dividends tomorrow."

One team that is not set up for the rain is Mercedes, whose two drivers were too busy going hammer and tongs for pole position to compromise on set up.

Of course, if heavy rain does fall on race day, it wouldn't be the first Japanese Grand Prix to be affected by bad weather; in fact some of the event's most memorable races have taken place in torrid conditions. Exactly 20 years ago Damon Hill defeated Michael Schumacher in a thrilling two-part aggregate race. Let's hope that if the rain does arrive the drivers serve up something just as exciting.

With the weather uncertain, strategy is an open book

"There's no such thing as a standard wet race," explained Lotus' trackside operations director Alan Permane after qualifying. "It's either raining - where the track is getting wetter and the grip levels are decreasing - or if there's no rain or very little rain, where a racing line can emerge and the grip levels improve."

"What is certain is that we have run numerous simulations and we will be closely monitoring the skies and the satellite information. Pirelli give us two wet tyres, the intermediate and the full wet so the timing of when to use either of these tyres is crucial to make up places and achieve a good result."

For what it's worth, if it stays dry Pirelli say that a two-stop strategy is the best way to go for the 53-lap race, starting on the medium tyre, stopping for more mediums around lap 22 and then changing to the hards around lap 42. However, the Italian tyre firm admits that strategy goes out of the window if it rains. It then becomes a question of anticipating and reacting to changing conditions as well as possible.

McLaren drivers racing for their futures at the team

While the shockwave of Sebastian Vettel's decision to leave Red Bull threw the spotlight on the reigning world champion team and Ferrari - with whom Vettel has been strongly linked - it also has potentially massive consequences for the futures of McLaren duo Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button, should speculation linking Fernando Alonso to the Woking team prove correct.

Suzuka, and the last four Grands Prix of the year, are therefore the final occasions for Magnussen and Button - neither of whom has a contract in place for 2015 - to state their respective cases for a 2015 race seat. The Dane has generally held the upper hand in Japan this weekend, out-pacing his more experienced team mate in two of the three practice sessions and repeating the trick in qualifying, securing seventh on the grid to Button's eighth.

A glance at the statistics shows just how little there is to choose between the pair: both have nine points finishes to their credit this year, and while Button has outscored Magnussen, the latter leads the qualifying head-to-head 9-6. In equal machinery, an already fierce fight for intra-team honours might just have a new level of significance at Suzuka.

Tough race in store for home hero Kobayashi

Kamui Kobayashi has had a pretty rough home Grand Prix weekend so far. The Japanese ace, who finished third at Suzuka in 2012 whilst driving for Sauber, surrendered his car to Spanish youngster Roberto Merhi in FP1 and then crashed it on his return to the cockpit in FP2. To add insult to injury, he was then out-qualified by rookie team mate Marcus Ericsson for just the third time this season.

Kobayashi therefore starts the race on the back foot having vowed before the weekend to "do my best to reward my fans with a strong performance in order to thank them for their enormous support." However, if anyone knows how to overtake around Suzuka, it's the combative Caterham racer.

Suzuka will always punish mistakes

Suzuka has earned its place as one of Formula One racing's most celebrated and challenging circuits, marrying some of the toughest corners with a narrow track and limited run-off areas - which means mistakes are quickly punished, as several drivers found out across Friday and Saturday.

Home favourite Kamui Kobayashi was the first to be caught out when he lost the rear of his Caterham and speared into the barriers at the Esses, but the errors were by no means restricted to the back of the field as Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton both ended sessions in the barriers as a result of driver errors.

Unforgiving by nature, Suzuka will continue to punish the smallest mistakes during the 53-lap Grand Prix - and that's before the prospect of rain, which elevates the intimidation factor to a whole new level.

Constructors' championship battles will underscore the action

With the season moving ever closer to its conclusion, there is even more at stake in terms of constructors' championship positions. The battle between Williams and Ferrari for P3 in the constructors' stakes is perhaps the most compelling on the grid, with the Grove-based team holding a nine-point advantage over their Italian rivals heading into the race.

Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa out-qualified Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen on Saturday, but Sir Frank's team's slender advantage could be washed away if the expected rain arrives.

Elsewhere, Force India and McLaren are locked in a hard-fought fight for P5 in the table. Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button handed the Woking-based squad the advantage in qualifying, but Force India hold a six-point advantage in the title race and in Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg they have two drivers with an uncanny knack for climbing the order and picking up points.

It couldn't be more perfectly poised.

Sauber desperate to end barren run

Sauber haven't got a car home in the points since Nico Hulkenberg came home eighth at the season finale in Brazil last season, and 14 races represents the longest barren spell in their proud history.

Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez will start Sunday's race from 14th and 15th on the grid and while that may not seem too promising, the prospect of rain raises the Swiss team's chances of finally getting into the top ten.

"Everything is possible tomorrow," said team principal Monisha Kalternborn after qualifying. "It will be important to concentrate on the race and grab every opportunity that might come up."