Japanese GP Preview: Jenson’s big weekend?

Suzuka, venue for this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, will be hosting a Formula 1 race for the first time since 2006. The circuit closed for a year so that it could be upgraded to meet the current standards required to host F1. After Fuji Speedway announced that they would no longer be hosting F1, Suzuka signed a deal to host the race for the next 3 years.

Suzuka is unique in that it is one of the few circuits in the world to have a figure 8 layout, where one part of the track crosses another. Another iconic image of the circuit is the dramatic roller coaster in the backdrop. Ironically a roller coaster is probably the best way to describe this classic circuit.

The track is very fast flowing characterised by a variety of demanding fast corners including the esses, the Dunlop curve and Spoon amongst others.

The most high profile corner however is 130R, a tight left hander taken flat out. Many fans will remember the legendary 2005 race when Fernando Alonso somehow managed to go around the outside of Michael Schumacher here, one of the best overtaking moves in F1 history.
Suzuka has held some of F1’s most memorable races, including some fierce championship deciders.

Not all the drivers on the grid have driven around Suzuka, so some will have a huge challenge to try and learn the track on Friday. Most notably both McLaren drivers will be trying out Suzuka for the first time.

Everyone in the paddock is very excited that the Japanese GP is returning to Suzuka.
“There are a lot of high-speed corners and quick changes of direction so it is a bit like Spa in that sense and it is one of my favourite circuits,” says Jarno Trulli.

The fans are also amongst the most passionate in the world, even if there might not be many Japanese drivers and teams on the grid at the moment. You can guarantee all the grandstands will be filled, and the atmosphere will be electric.

For Brawn GP to win the constructors they need to ensure that Red Bull don’t outscore them by more than 6 points. For Jenson Button to win the drivers title he needs to score 5 more points than Rubens Barrichello.

Button did himself many favours in Singapore by extending his lead over Rubens. Barrichello’s task to win the championship is more much more difficult now. He needs to outscore Button by at least 16 points in the last 3 races with only 30 left to play for, which is just over 5 points per race.

Key question: Should Button push to ensure he wins the title at this race?
“My aim is to win the world championship and I’m not going to take any unusual risks. I’m just going to drive like I have been and hopefully that will be enough.”

Hamilton showed in China in 2007 how being too keen to grab the championship early can end in complete disaster. Button’s approach is the right one.

Barrichello’s best hope now is to pray that Button makes a mistake and has a DNF. Button managed to jump over the hurdle of the barriers in Singapore. Suzuka is another potentially treacherous hurdle for him. Suzuka is a track where mistakes can be made with a loss of concentration, and if it rains it could be really difficult.

All Barrichello can do is push hard and hope results go his way. Suzuka is one of his strongest tracks so he will be confident of a good result. His task is very simple. Beat Button! Nothing less will do.

In terms of the Red Bull/Brawn GP battle Vettel and Webber ought to come out on top this weekend. The RB5 has been incredibly quick on tracks with high speed corners all season. It should be extremely fast again in Suzuka’s range of high-speed corners.

The main hurdle for Red Bull is to ensure that they get to the front in qualifying so that they can make the most of their pace, unlike in Spa where they qualified too far back to fully utilise it.

The Brawn GPs should be reasonably strong but it will be difficult for them to win as high speed corners isn’t the car biggest strength. It works much better in slow to medium corners.

Therefore Red Bull could delay the Brawn GP party until Brazil. If the Red Bull drivers can fill the big points positions then in turn that will reduce Button’s chances of being able to take 5 points off Rubens.

Of course in 2009 each race seems to have had some surprise frontrunners. Suzuka is practically the opposite in style to Singapore so we can expect more fluctuation in the pecking order as we seen at most races recently.

Red Bull will be hoping that a couple of teams can finish between themselves and Brawn GP to keep their faint title chances alive.

It’s never over till it’s mathematically impossible. We have seen big turnarounds in the last few races in the past. The most recent is Kimi Raikkonen making up a 17 point gap to Lewis Hamilton in 2007 with just 2 races remaining. Rubens will be taking comfort from that too.

In Toyota’s home race don’t be surprised if they are close to the front. You can be sure that Toyota have been focusing heavily on their home race in the past couple of months. They will want to impress the people in the boardroom in the hope the F1 operation doesn’t receive the axe.

Ferrari looked off the pace in Singapore due to the fact that whilst others brought big upgrades they didn’t. In Suzuka which is more demanding on the car aero wise Ferrari are probably going to really struggle even more. “You need a lot of downforce and honestly, we do not have enough to fight for the top places” admits Kimi Raikkonen.

McLaren have shown great form on slower circuits, as proved again in Singapore, but their weaknesses have still been exploited on the fast tracks. However McLaren’s recent upgrade is designed to make the car work more effectively in fast corners. It will be interesting to see whether this will be enough to make McLaren enough of a force to compete for the win on a fast circuit.

BMW Sauber brought a huge upgrade in Singapore but as it was a slow circuit where aero isn’t as important we won’t have seen what it was really worth. At Suzuka where aero-dynamic grip is more important we may see BMW being quite competitive. Force India will also be hoping they Suzuka can bring more out of their car than Singapore did.

Renault had a morale lifting weekend in Singapore with a podium that was won on pure merit. They will be trying to do the same thing this weekend.

Williams were very quick in Singapore. They will be hoping to pick up points but challenging at the sharp end may be beyond them as the car isn’t as strong on quicker circuits, as we saw in Spa.

Overall it’s going to be a great weekend at Suzuka. However the big question is will either championship be won?

I don’t think we will see either title being decided this weekend. Red Bull should be too strong for everyone around Suzuka providing they extract the most from their package, and have a faultless weekend.

Along with Brawn GP there will be another couple of teams at the front making life difficult. Who those teams will be is hard to say such has been the unpredictability of this season.

Barrichello should be very strong. He was very strong in Singapore but his gearbox change left him in the clutches of Button who was on a better strategy. Without the change Barrichello could have got a much stronger result. He will feature very highly this weekend and will do everything it takes to keep the fight alive.

Button may have to wait till Brazil to win the title. The constructors could be won if one of the Red Bull drivers has a troubled race but if they have a clean weekend, they should make the fight last till Brazil.

My top eight prediction is:

1. Sebastien Vettel

2. Jarno Trulli

3. Mark Webber

4. Rubens Barrichello

5. Robert Kubica

6. Lewis Hamilton

7. Jenson Button

8. Heikki Kovalainen