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Japan preview - will Mercedes rise to Suzuka challenge?

02 Oct 2014

Should Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg - or Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton - finish 1-2 in Suzuka this weekend, with Red Bull scoring two or fewer points, Mercedes could clinch their very first world championship for constructors.

But after the brutal experience Rosberg had in Singapore it’s more likely the Brackley team will be on tenterhooks worrying about reliability issues than sewing up the title with four races to run.

How could anyone have expected that an “unspecified foreign substance that is used during pre-event servicing procedures” could have humbled the German’s F1 W05 Hybrid by leaving him with just gearshifting functions and readout on his steering wheel, but no clutch nor ERS?

The presence of the substance went undetected throughout the Singapore weekend and there had been no hint of any problems prior to Rosberg sitting in the car shortly before the start of the race. What made the situation even worse was that Mercedes have used the same steering column electronics and servicing procedures since 2008 and have never experienced a problem with either.

Both cars will run with brand new components this weekend, just to be sure, as head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Toto Wolff has pledged that the team will get on top of the reliability issues that have upset their drivers’ campaigns this season.

“Singapore was a bittersweet event for the team, with both of our drivers producing strong performances throughout the weekend but only one leaving with the result he deserved on Sunday,” Wolff says. “Whilst it was good to see the pace of our car used to full effect by Lewis in the race, Nico's problems left us under no illusions that our reliability must improve. With five races to go and three points separating Lewis and Nico, it is now a straight fight between the two of them and each will be looking to gain the first advantage in Suzuka, one of the best driver's circuits in the sport.

“We are also now entering arguably the most intense phase of the racing season: the final quarter. Inside the team, motivation is stronger now than at any point so far this year. Every single one of us wants to finish 2014 in style.”

Hamilton, of course, comes to Japan freshly imbued with confidence after his two recent wins have finally put him back into the three-point lead he last had in May.

“Singapore was a good weekend for me,” he said. “It's the first time in quite a few races that I've not had to fight through the pack to get a result, which made life a lot easier. In the final stint, I had to clear Sebastian (Vettel) quickly after making the extra stop. But the car just felt fantastic and I could push whenever I needed to throughout the race.

“Of course, it was disappointing for the team to have another retirement but I know they have made this a priority moving forwards. It's levelled things up in the drivers' championship, so hopefully we'll now have a straight battle right to the flag in Abu Dhabi.

“Suzuka is 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 there in the 1980s and I'm determined to add my name to that list this weekend.”

For Rosberg, it will be crucial to bounce back quickly.

“I said at the time that Sunday in Singapore was probably the toughest moment of my year so far and, looking back on it, I still think that is true. To have the chance for a top result basically taken away before you even reach the grid is hard to swallow and, of course, it was a lot of points lost in the championship battle. I can't fault the effort of the team, though. I go to the factory and I see how hard everyone is working, so it's clear that they want the results just as much as us drivers do. I have faith in my colleagues to improve our reliability and I know they will get it right.

“The Japanese Grand Prix really is one of the special races in motorsport. There's so much history at this race, especially at Suzuka. It's definitely one of the best tracks in the world. The fans, too, are just unbelievable. They go absolutely crazy for Formula One and it's so nice to see their enthusiasm for the sport. They show us so much support - the teams and all of us drivers individually - so we all really enjoy going there and seeing them all. I'm looking forward to this weekend - particularly with the car we have at the moment which should give us a good chance to get a great result.”

Realistically, Red Bull’s true chance lies in the Mercedes striking trouble. Things were close between both teams, and Ferrari, in Singapore, but that was because Red Bull and Ferrari both got their cars really in the tyre temperature zone in practice and qualifying. In the race the Mercedes were still very quick, however, and Suzuka will again suit them perfectly. But Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel will both be looking to build on their podium finishes in the last race, and Fernando Alonso will be pushing as hard as ever to take the podium he thinks he deserved in Singapore. Don’t write off Kimi Raikkonen, either; he was going much better there before minor technical problems intervened.

Williams should also be very strong here, especially with their straight-line speed advantage past the pits and on the run from the Spoon Curve down to 130R and the final chicane.

Behind the top four, look out also for the continuing fight over fifth place between Force India and McLaren, while Toro Rosso will be garnering plenty of attention, at least on Friday, when their 2015 signing Max Verstappen will participate in FP1 - in place of Jean-Eric Vergne - just three days after his 17th birthday, making him the youngest driver to ever compete in an official Grand Prix session. Meanwhile, Roberto Merhi will make his second practice appearance of the year at Caterham, standing in for Kamui Kobayashi.

To a man the drivers love Suzuka, with its unique figure-of-eight layout and series of demanding corners which generate high lateral energy loads and some of the lowest longitudinal demands seen all year. In recent years the notorious 130R left-hander has been flat at more than 300 km/h, which puts a huge sustained load into the tyres and subjects them to very high g-forces. It’ll be interesting to see if 130R is still flat in the 2014 cars with their reduced downforce.

The road surface is quite abrasive, but there is a high degree of track evolution during the course of the weekend. Getting the right set-up is essential to avoid the risk of graining, especially in the esses early in the lap, and it’s no surprise that the front-left tyre is worked hardest here.

The track is essentially unchanged since last year, with the only major change being some resurfacing between 130R and the chicane. There remains just a single DRS zone, situated on the pit straight with the detection point 50 metres before Turn 16 (the chicane) and the activation point just after the final corner (Turn 18).

As in Monza, Pirelli are bringing their two hardest tyre compounds, the orange-marked hard and white-marked medium.

“Japan is one of the highlights of the year, not just for ourselves but for the whole of Formula One,” says motorsport director Paul Hembery. “The fans are absolutely brilliant, with huge enthusiasm and knowledge of the sport, which is almost unparalleled anywhere in the world. 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, with tyre management forming a key part of the race. However, we’ll obviously know more about that after free practice. 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. If a tyre can perform well in Suzuka, it can perform well almost everywhere.”

The winning strategy last year was a two-stopper, with Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel stopping on laps 14 and 37. The German started on the medium and completed his final two stints on the hard tyre.

The weather forecast for the weekend suggests ambient temperature highs of 27 degrees Celsius, with predominantly partial cloud and sunshine, but with showers likely on Friday and Sunday afternoon.

The race will run over 53 laps of the 5.807-kilometre (3.608 mile) circuit, or 307.471 kilometres (191.062 miles). It starts at 1500 hours local time, which is nine hours ahead of GMT.