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Six key questions ahead of the race in Japan

09 Oct 2016

What can Sebastian Vettel do from seventh on the grid? Can Jolyon Palmer add more points to his tally? Who will hold sway at Mercedes? We consider the key talking points ahead of the 2016 Formula 1 Emirates Japanese Grand Prix…

Rosberg vs Hamilton - whose race will it be?

How weird is it that Lewis Hamilton has never sat on pole at Suzuka?

He’s won here twice but, 2015 apart, he admits that he’s always found it hard to find the perfect rhythm on Honda’s track.

“This has been a circuit that I can honestly say where I’ve struggled through all the years that I’ve come here but one that I’ve loved driving, and I think that goes for all the drivers,” he said in victory in 2015. “But you really want to come here and dominate at a track like this. I was able to get the balance in the right place, my engineers did an amazing job to get the car, with the short amount of time we had, in a beautiful window. It was better today than it was even in qualifying. I was really able to work on my lines and improve and at the front there it was just a beautiful… it’s like sailing. When you go through the corners here, it’s flowing. Honestly, I wish I could share the feeling with you.”

On Saturday, that was how Rosberg felt, but it was close.

The German had been fastest in every session (though Hamilton was faster by a chunk on mediums in FP2), but Hamilton went ahead at the start of Q3, 1m 30.758s to 1m 30.953s. On the second runs, however, Rosberg was perfect for 1m 30.647s, and Hamilton’s 1m 30.660s came thirteen- thousandths short. Or 82 centimetres, according to Mercedes…

Of that second run Rosberg said: “It was just a good lap, I just got it all done properly, that’s it. I knew I could do it, I knew I could do a good lap and just the first one in Q3 wasn’t perfect so I just had to get my head down and nail it.”

After some big changes switched the set-up direction he had been taking and aligned it more with Rosberg’s ahead of qualifying, Hamilton said: “I did as well as I could, I think. I guess you could always find more time but yeah, I’m generally very happy with that. And history has shown that you don’t have to be on pole to get the win.”

So, assuming Mercedes dominate - which may not be the case if their engines remain fragile after Sepang’s big-end bearing failure, or slower because of the reliability precautions they have taken - which of them will win?

The momentum is with Rosberg at the moment, and he’s not making any mistakes, but Hamilton too was great in Malaysia and a win here would really help. Most likely, the start will decide things, or else the first lap as it did last year.

But if either a Ferrari or a Red Bull can get up with them, it might be a different story…

Can Ferrari capitalise on Mercedes’ caution?

Ferrari have looked pretty good here, both on qualifying speed as they proved when they got back ahead of the Red Bulls, and on race pace which has appeared very competitive. If either of the Mercedes has a problem at the start it’s not impossible that a feisty Raikkonen could make a real race of it.

“Overall the car has been behaving quite good,” the 2007 world champion reported after qualifying. “We had suffered from some understeer, but we have been slowly getting better with the set-up and the speed and I'm positively surprised how competitive and close to the Mercedes we were.

“The third position is not too bad, but obviously we want to be higher up. We sure have some speed and it's not going to suddenly disappear tomorrow. Usually we are a bit better in the race, but we have to wait and see: it will depend on conditions and other stuff, but we'll do our best.”

In Kimi-speak, that means they aren’t really in bad shape - and if Mercedes’ revised engine settings take the edge off their power unit’s punch, the Finn could just be there to strike a knock-out blow…

Is Verstappen the dark horse again?

Red Bull were undoubtedly disappointed to fall back behind the Ferraris after Ricciardo headed them in FP3, and both drivers said they had expected more than fifth and sixth fastest times and fourth and fifth on the grid after Vettel’s penalty. Having Raikkonen ahead could seriously compromise their plan to take the fight to Mercedes.

“We wanted to be in front of the Ferraris, we were very close but the balance of our car wasn’t quite right,” Verstappen disclosed. “In the low-speed corners where we are usually very strong it didn’t quite work for us today. This could have been because of the changing conditions but I’m not entirely sure. Starting fourth on the grid gives us a chance of a good result, so we can still be positive. Our race pace looks okay but everyone looks quite strong at the moment, so it is quite unknown how tomorrow will play out. It’ll be hard to overtake here and like you can see from qualifying it’s very close. I expect the same during the race.”

Verstappen will be keen to remind team bosses that he too is a race winner, having watched Ricciardo take the spoils after Mercedes faltered in Malaysia. For his part, Ricciardo will be keen to maintain his advantage over the young pretender, having been out-qualified by less than a tenth. The Australian was frustrated to be losing time down the straights, for reasons which are currently being investigated.

“I’m happy with our long-run race pace and we should be similar to Ferrari,” said Ricciardo of Red Bull’s race prospects. “We expect them to be our real rivals in the race. We also expect Mercedes to be conservative and turn down their power in the race, so we’ll see what happens. Hopefully we have a good battle on our hands.”

What can Vettel do from seventh on the grid?

Suzuka is never any easy track on which to overtake, and Vettel could struggle to do much better than fifth, given that the Red Bulls will be quick in race guise. Neither Riccardo nor Verstappen are going to be in the mood to let a Ferrari overtake.

Thus for the second race in succession, the four-time champion’s mistake in the first corner at Sepang could haunt him as he starts seventh following application of the three grid-place penalty he incurred for that indiscretion.

“It’s been a great result for us as a team,” he said, referring to Raikkonen’s third place on the grid and his own fourth fastest time. “As for myself, obviously I messed up a bit in Q3 with the last sector, and lost a bit too much time. But, all in all, it’s been a very good qualifying, our car has been handling well all through the sessions, due to a combination of many things, and it's satisfying to be with both cars ahead of the Red Bulls.

“For sure, tomorrow I'll have to start a bit further back because of the grid penalty, but this is what it is, we take it. Even so, I think the speed will help us to come back and then we'll see what we can do. I think it will be a close fight. Much will depend on how people handle their tyres, because in the first stint everybody starts on the same compound, then we see how the strategies develop.”

Why are Haas so quick?

Neither of the Haas drivers looked overly likely to make Q3 in the first two practice sessions on Friday, but Esteban Gutierrez was only a tenth off a top 10 place in FP3. Come qualifying, however, they were afire.

Running the soft Pirellis all through, Romain Grosjean was seventh in Q1 on 1m 32.458s, Gutierrez 11th on 1m 32.620s. As both made Q2 for the 12th straight time, Gutierrez was seventh on 1m 32.155s, Grosjean eighth on 1m 32.176s. With both in Q3 for the first time, Grosjean led the way with 1m 31.961s for eighth and Gutierrez took 10th with 1m 32.547s.

“I feel pretty good after that and I’m very pleased for the whole team,” Grosjean said, admitting that the key was to get a new front wing working properly. “We brought all the updates we had, and the whole session went very smoothly apart from when I didn’t get my DRS on the last stretch of the final corner.”

Will they be as competitive this afternoon?

“We’re going to try to do a good race and, for sure, it’s possible now to get into the points,” was team principal Guenther Steiner’s summary.

Now it’s about tyre degradation and tyre preservation, and if the balance is good in the race they could well add to their current score. Don’t bet against it. If they do, there could be no better way in which to prepare for their first race on home ground in Texas in a fortnight.

More points for Palmer?

Jolyon Palmer came here on a high after finally scoring his first world championship point in Sepang, and made it clear he intended to get more. His experience of the track was confined to one installation lap here for Lotus last year before gremlins struck, and he said he would spend FP1 learning the place. But his first flying lap took 1m 39.149s, which seemed respectable compared to more experienced team mate Kevin Magnussen’s 1m 38.221s, and he looked quite at home until a wiring loom problem cost him a chunk of time.

FP2 saw him on 1m 34.760s as Magnussen recorded 1m 34.339s, and by FP3 they were matched in eighth and ninth places - Palmer ahead - on 1m 33.639s…

Q1 saw Magnussen improve to 1m 33.023s at the end, but where that left him only 18th, Palmer improved hugely to jump up to 12th on 1m 32.796s. In the end he got pushed down a place by Carlos Sainz, but it was a sterling effort that got him safely through to Q2.

Palmer was happy to get through to that second session for the fourth time this year, but also annoyed that he could have done better than 16th overall.

“On the one hand I’m quite pleased; I think we did well to get into Q2. Unfortunately, I had a yellow flag on my final lap in the session and that probably cost a couple of tenths, which would have put me 12th or 13th so that’s a little bit disappointing. We started 19th and scored a point last weekend in Malaysia, so there is definitely a chance to do the same tomorrow. We’re looking similarly competitive, the race will be long and tyre strategy will play a hand… There are a lot of similarities to the last time out, so we’ll keep pushing and see what happens.”