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Japan preview - will Mercedes bounce back at Suzuka?

24 Sep 2015

Friday morning in Suzuka may be the most important day of Lewis Hamilton’s campaign for a third world championship crown. He and Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg should find out then if their dramatic drop in form in Singapore was a one-off associated with the vagaries of Pirelli’s supersoft tyre nomination, chassis set-up, high track and ambient temperatures and circuit characteristics, or something more enduring created by significant improvements from Ferrari and Red Bull.

Hamilton admitted in the early hours of Monday morning that the team had not been able to provide him with concrete evidence of what went awry for a car that had hitherto been so dominant.

“I’m not confident, because my engineers have not yet been able to give me any information on why we were struggling,” said the points leader. “The car felt balanced, but it lacked grip and we don’t yet know why, and there’s not a lot of time left before we race again this coming weekend. Maybe it was that our car didn’t get slower but that others upgraded theirs.”

Emails have been flying back and forth ever since between driver and engineers after he went straight from Singapore to Japan on Monday, but he insists that he is staying upbeat.

“I was really happy with my race pace, and the gap to Kimi Raikkonen in front of me was only what it was because if you follow too close it’s easy to damage the tyres and generally overheat the car. I was able to push at the end of the stints and was confident of my pace on the soft Pirellis which matched the three leaders’ on the supersofts. I thought I was in a good position. Before my problem with power loss I was absolutely sure I would have undercut at least two of the cars ahead of me. In my mind I thought I might have the chance to win.

“Personally, I’m very chilled about last weekend. I was there to do a job, and I’m fully aware that you can’t win them all. Sh*t happens. I’m very fortunate with the success we’ve had, and pleased with the job I did. I out-qualified my team mate - and was ahead of him in the race before the car broke. That’s the first time that’s happened in a long time, and I didn’t lose a huge amount of points. I take the glass half full view. It could have been a lot worse.”

If Mercedes are still off the pace on Friday morning on a track which should suit them perfectly, however, the team will be on red alert.

“But I’m putting the good energy out there,” Hamilton, who won this race in 2014, says, “and saying that it’s not going to happen again.”

Can Ferrari really challenge Mercedes in the remaining six races?

“If we have more weekends like Singapore, yes,” says Sebastian Vettel, who is now only 49 points behind Hamilton and within eight of Rosberg with a maximum of 150 up for grabs. “But all we have to do is look after ourselves, maximum attack and then what they do is not in our hands. We still have a small chance, maybe we can make the impossible possible; we’ll definitely go for it.

“Singapore was a big surprise,” the four-time Suzuka winner continues, “and I guess they should be back in Suzuka. If they’re not, in all honesty we don’t mind!”

Daniel Ricciardo, the other star of Singapore for Red Bull, also thinks Mercedes will be strong again.

“Suzuka is normally a good track for us. I don’t think we can expect as strong a performance as Singapore but we can still look at the top five and maybe better. I think we were all surprised about Mercedes. It was definitely an off weekend for them. But I expect them to be back in Suzuka.”

Further down the order, Marussia are bracing themselves for an emotional weekend, almost a year after the late Jules Bianchi’s accident here.

“It’s going to be very difficult for everybody in the team,” says sporting director Graeme Lowdon, “but we will do the best we can to cope, and to get a strong result. Jules was a racer and he would want us to do that, and we want to do well to honour his memory.”

Suzuka’s fast and flowing nature puts a lot of high lateral loads into the tyres through high-speed corners such as the Spoon Curve and 130R, which is taken flat-out in eighth gear at in excess of 300 km/h while generating the highest continuous G-force loading of the season. That lateral energy creates heat build-up in the tread, so Pirelli are bringing their two hardest compounds this weekend, the orange-marked hard and the white-marked medium.

With rain expected on Friday and possibly the other two days too - combined with ambient temperatures of around 23 degrees Celsius - it’s likely that the official supplier’s wet and intermediate tyres will also get a work-out over the weekend.

“Suzuka is one of the most aggressive circuits we face on the Formula One calendar from a tyre perspective, right up there with Silverstone and Spa,” Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery says. “There’s been some resurfacing in recent years that has taken away a bit of the asphalt roughness that it used to have, but this does not diminish the overall challenge of Suzuka. It’s not unusual to face extremes of weather in Japan: either very wet, or dramatically hot. We’ve seen both over the years - and quite a few conditions in between - so it’s a very tough circuit all round.”

As in past years, just one DRS zone will be in operation at Suzuka and as usual it will be situated on the pit straight (with a detection point 50m before the Turn 16 chicane).

The 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, which is nine hours ahead of GMT.