Race pace a complete unknown
The atrocious weather on Friday made for a slow start to the Japan weekend - and a frantic hour of running in FP3. But it might also have a knock-on effect on the race: with so little data gathered, teams are still somewhat in the dark about their own long-run pace - and that of their rivals...
Its why, even after taking pole, Nico Rosberg was talking about race-distance uncertainties. “As with everybody else, we didn’t have the perfect preparation,” he explained, “so there might be a few surprises. But I’m confident the car will be good…
The inherent speed of Mercedes’ F1 W06 Hybrid justifies that optimism to some extent. But for those behind, battling with competitors just a few hundredths of a second slower or faster, it could have a massive impact upon how the race evolves. As Rosberg says, there may yet be some shocks…
Can Rosberg defeat Hamilton and reignite title bid?
Nico Rosberg took pole here last year. He led away from the line too - in fact he led, pit stops aside, for the first half of the race. But it still wasn’t enough, with Lewis Hamilton sweeping around the outside of him at Turn 1 to seal victory.
The German cannot afford a repeat performance this year. Already 41 points behind Hamilton, losing out to the Briton - if indeed it does become a two-horse fight for victory - would leave Rosberg facing an almost unassailable points deficit heading into the final five races. Win, however, and Rosberg would be firmly back in the title hunt.
There’s more at stake than just points. Last year, Rosberg famously never came from behind to beat Hamilton - a trick the Briton was able to pull off several times, including in Japan. Rosberg needs momentum in the championship, and in his fight with his team mate. And after prevailing in qualifying for only the second time this season, he has the perfect opportunity to achieve both in one fell swoop. It’s one you feel he must take.
Kvayt looking to make amends for qualifying shunt
Daniil Kvyat was in sparkling form amid the torrential conditions of Friday, recording the fastest time in FP2 for the second successive race. But on a dry track on Saturday he suddenly looked all out of sorts, falling off the road several times in FP3 as he struggled with his Red Bull’s set-up before spectacularly crashing out of Q3 after what he later referred to as a ‘rookie mistake’.
Kvyat’s error of judgement resulted in so much damage that Red Bull had no other choice than to build up a new car from scratch, ensuring that not only will the Russian start the race from the pit lane, but that his mechanics had to work long into the Suzuka night to get it prepared.
Coming off the back of a particularly gruelling event in Singapore, Kvyat felt highly apologetic about the latter point, and as a result will be desperate to reward ‘his guys’ with a solid haul of points.
That might seem like a tall order starting from so far back, but even with handling difficulties the Russian looked faster than most around Suzuka’s high-speed sweeps. Expect a charge.
Friday rain to put strategy choices in focus
The fans in the grandstands may have loathed the wet weather on Friday, but ironically it could lead to more excitement in the race. The reason? Well, as noted above, the teams are in the unusual position of going into the 53-lap Grand Prix with very little long-run data, and as a result optimising strategy is even more tricky than usual.
“The hard and medium Pirelli tyres are quite comparable on performance so we could see a variety of strategies through the field,” said Alan Permane, Lotus’s Trackside Operations Director. If Permane is right, that would be something of a surprise, for historically Suzuka is almost always a two-stop race.
For their part, Pirelli have predicted that two stops will once again be the favoured strategy this year, though what’s more unclear than usual is when the teams might choose to stop.
The fastest strategy looks like being to start on the medium compound, stop for more mediums between lap 16 and 18, then switch to hards between lap 33 and 35. However, just how accurate this proves to be remains to be seen, and it’s worth remembering that rain is not out of the question on Sunday, in which case the teams will have to be even more reactive in their thinking…
Verstappen primed to provide more fireworks
Max Verstappen has routinely expressed his love for overtaking - and that’s lucky because for the second race in a row he’s going to have to come through the field if he wants to score points.
Compared to Singapore, where he was forced to fight back from a lap down after stalling at the start, the Dutch teenager will begin his assault from the relatively lofty position of 17th after a combination of technical issues in qualifying and a subsequent three-place grid penalty for dangerous driving.
However, after his storming drive at Marina Bay - a track on which overtaking is notoriously difficult - it would take a brave man to write off Verstappen’s chances at the circuit where he made his Grand Prix weekend debut just a year ago.
"We might be on the back foot again before the race, but we never give up,” he said with typical optimism after qualifying. “Hopefully tomorrow we have a bit more luck and can enjoy a good race - it would be good if some rain spices it all up! Our objective will be to finish within the top ten… We have to do some overtaking again, but I’m ready for it!”
Excitement is guaranteed.
McLaren aiming for points at Honda’s home race
McLaren and Honda fans turned up in their thousands on Saturday at Suzuka, desperate to support the Japanese giant’s two world champion drivers. The only issue was there wasn’t much to cheer.
Fernando Alonso perhaps summed it up best, saying that his lap for 14th had been arguably the best of his career at Suzuka. For a driver many regard as one of the greatest of his era that is no small statement - and it is a testament to just how far McLaren and Honda still have to go to trouble the frontrunners.
The lower fringe of the points, therefore, is likely to be the pinnacle of McLaren’s hopes on Sunday. After a double retirement in Singapore, doing so will be more important than ever. More than that, though, Alonso, Jenson Button and the entire team at McLaren and Honda need something to cheer. A points finish at the circuit Honda themselves own could be the perfect tonic.