Japanese Grand Prix – Mercedes can clinch the F1 Constructor’s Championship at Suzuka this weekend, assuming that Typhoon Hagibis doesn’t spoil proceedings…
Formula 1 enters the final sprint of races this season by heading off to Japan and to the exceptionally popular, and equally challenging, Suzuka circuit. The circuit is the only ‘figure-of-eight’ configuration on the calendar but, as Sebastian Vettel put it, there’s nothing ‘kid-like’ about Suzuka. The circuit is a relentless series of fast sweeps and rapid flicks of direction changes, leaving little respite for the drivers as they hustle around. It’s a rollercoaster of a lap, leading Lewis Hamilton to whoop with pleasure while driving around in practice last year.
For many modern F1 fans, Suzuka will forever be cast under a slight shadow – that being the fact that the circuit was the venue where rising star Jules Bianchi suffered the accident that would eventually claim his life. Crashing into a recovery truck towards the end of the 2014 race, Bianchi suffered critical injuries and never regained consciousness. He died in July 2015 while still in hospital. It was the first F1 driver fatality since Ayrton Senna at Imola and, just like the Italian circuit, Suzuka will now forever be associated with the events of that tragedy.
It’s five years since that fateful weekend and, just like in 2014, Formula 1 heads to Suzuka braced for a rough weekend in terms of the weather. Typhoon Phanfone was the culprit on that occasion while this year’s race is being threatened by a supertyphoon called Hagibis. It’s expected to bring destructive winds and heavy rain to most of Japan this weekend, with the majority of the fury forecast for Saturday. As a result, qualifying may yet be postponed until Sunday morning. This has happened before at Suzuka, most recently in 2004, but there’s no indication yet from the power-that-be that any schedule change is planned. However, the forecasts are unanimous in predicting a Saturday storm, meaning some disruption to the team’s meticulous run plans and, possibly, could make Mercedes’ task of clinching the Constructor’s Championship that little bit more tricky.
On the assumption that, as forecast, the weather clears up for Sunday and qualifying goes ahead somewhat normally on either Saturday or Sunday, attention will turn to the actual track action. The big question for this weekend is whether Ferrari’s recent updates will help them be competitive at this particular circuit type. The huge power demands of Spa and Monza are not essential at Suzuka, while the 90 degree, slow, high traction demands of Singapore are very different to the Japanese circuit. Russia’s Sochi Autodrom saw Ferrari continue to be the quickest car but that was thanks to the uber-fast first sector. The SF90H was no faster than Mercedes over the rest of the lap, meaning Suzuka should be a far more fighty affair for the Silver Arrows.
While Mercedes’ W10 appears to suffer from too much drag as the update package introduced in Germany didn’t seem to quite hit the spot, this weakness isn’t that important at Suzuka. Aside from a relatively short pit straight, the only power section demand is the back straight and through 130R. While Ferrari are likely to enjoy an advantage through this section, the high speed Esses in the first sector should see Mercedes romp away at the start of the lap. A 1-2 finish for Mercedes this weekend will see them clinch their sixth consecutive Formula 1 Constructor’s Championship although, if they can’t manage the 1-2, they only need to outscore Ferrari by 15 points to win that accolade yet again. With just five races remaining, it would take a catastrophic run of bad luck for Mercedes to let the Constructor’s Championship slip through their fingers. While Merc can wrap up that title this weekend, Lewis Hamilton can’t quite wrap up the Driver’s Championship just yet and will have to wait until Mexico at the earliest.
While Ferrari and Mercedes are the headline act, the question mark over Red Bull’s competitiveness makes them an unknown quantity for Suzuka. The team took intentional grid penalties last time out in Russia, in order to make sure they would have fresh, latest-spec power units for the home race of Honda at the Japanese Grand Prix. Red Bull are traditionally strong on downforce-dependent circuits like Suzuka, meaning Max Verstappen and Alex Albon are dark horses for this weekend and could force Mercedes to have to wait two weeks to celebrate another title.
Hagibis won’t be the only storm in the spotlight either this weekend at the Japanese Grand Prix. The growing tension in the Ferrari camp between the veteran Sebastian Vettel and the claimant to the Scuderia throne Charles Leclerc has been building in recent weeks as the team now are able to fight for wins. Leclerc’s unquestionable star quality seems to have re-igniting Vettel’s spark and the four time Champion is starting to look more like the fearsome shark of yesteryear. His refusal to obey team orders early in the Russian race will have shown Leclerc some of the single-minded, selfish attributes that made Vettel so formidable in his title years, an attitude that is the complete antithesis of Vettel’s disarmingly friendly and relaxed demeanour out of the car. Vettel knew that Leclerc had pitted well before him in Russia and didn’t protest the timing of his own pitstop much, meaning his refusal to pull over was likely more of him proving a point to Leclerc rather than outright ignoring of Ferrari orders. But Leclerc’s driving seems to have re-focused Vettel after a few years alongside a placid Kimi Raikkonen. It’s two cocks in the henhouse at Ferrari, the complete opposite of the situation at Mercedes, and the two different team dynamics are likely to lead to fireworks in 2020. These final races of 2019 are offering an extended preview trailer as Formula 1 gears up for the final year of the current regulations and, while the championships may be all but done, the individual races are proving spectacular at the moment. Long may it continue!