The Suzuka circuit requires on a good overall balance of downforce, high speed efficiency and power, as well as being a serious test of driver skill. That makes it a genuine favourite of teams, drivers and fans.
The forecast of rain this weekend may spice up the action and serve to level the playing field, putting even more emphasis on the drivers abilities to master the iconic circuit.
Lewis Hamilton will certainly feel he is owed a victory after his Malaysia disappointment.
The engine failure hasn’t fatally wounded his championship chances – he could overturn his 23-point deficit on Sunday – but a further setback could make things very difficult. For instance, if Nico Rosberg wins on Sunday it would put him in a position where he only needs to finish second to Hamilton in the remaining races to be sure of the title.
Hamilton will take comfort that he won here last year after an aggressive first corner battle with Rosberg, who had to take to the grass on the exit of turn two and dropped back into the pack.
The team’s technical head Paddy Lowe has pointed out that both drivers now have the same stock of power units available with similar wear and may run their older units in practice sessions to prevent adding excessive mileage.
The team missed out on sealing the constructors title in front of title sponsor Petronas in Malaysia, but are very likely to do so this weekend. They hold a 194 point lead over Red Bull and will take the championship unless Red Bull out-score them by 23 points.
Both drivers will need to tread carefully over the remaining races to avoid further attention from the stewards. Rosberg’s Sepang penalty moved him on to six penalty points – six more will earn an automatic race ban. And Hamilton remains one reprimand away from a ten-place grid penalty, which has been hanging over him since the early stages of the season.
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Red Bull’s one-two in Malaysia has almost certainly killed off Ferrari’s hopes of beating them in the constructors’ championship: they are now 46 points behind.
Making their job even more difficult, Sebastian Vettel has a three place grid penalty for his first corner collision with Nico Rosberg.
Kimi Raikkonen usually performs well here and given his recent resurgence might be the man to take on the Red Bulls this weekend. He has finished on the Suzuka podium five times including one victory in 2005.
Williams lost more ground to Force India in Malaysia, but a strong drive to fifth by Valtteri Bottas limited the damage done by Felipe Massa’s formation lap technical problem. A bold tyre strategy helped Bottas gain ground and indicated their recent hiring of Ferrari’s tyre expert is paying off.
Bottas showed good pace here last year, battling with Raikkonen and Rosberg to finish in an excellent fifth. Massa’s race was spoiled by early contract with Daniel Ricciardo – something he needs to avoid if he’s to bounce back from a slump which has seen him score just five points in the last eleven races.
Back-to-back races do not allow much time for celebration, but Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull were ecstatic to score their first one-two in the turbo hybrid era, the only other team other than Mercedes to have done so.
The team are confident that their package is strong enough around the high downforce Suzuka circuit to provide a real threat to Mercedes once again. And they will certainly welcome the forecast of rain.
Last year neither driver had a good weekend here, as Ricciardo picked up a puncture from first lap contact, while Max Verstappen had to make up for an electrical failure in qualifying (and subsequent penalty for dangerously parking the car on the racing line).
Force India have moved three points ahead of Williams after a strong haul in Sepang. The team have finished with at least one car in the points in Japan since 2014, but are expecting a strong challenge from Williams once again.
Behind the scenes negotiations have finally come to an end and Sergio Perez has announced he will stay alongside Nico Hulkenberg for a fourth year in 2017, quashing rumours of a move to Renault. This stability should benefit them with the major rule changes for next year.
Jolyon Palmer scored his first point in F1 in Malaysia and comes to Japan on a high. His seat at Renault for 2017 is highly sought after and needs to score more points to secure it. He has never driven around Suzuka before and has to find a rhythm quickly in order to challenge again.
The increased resources available to the team are starting to pay dividends as they can replace worn parts more quickly, which will reduce the drop off in performance that other less well funded teams will be feeling towards the end of a long season.
Daniil Kvyat still needs to impress the Red Bull hierarchy to avoid being replaced by Pierre Gasly next year, who was seen prominently in the paddock with Helmut Marko in Malaysia.
Kvyat will do well to avoid a repeat of the mistake last year in qualifying that pitched his car into a spectacular roll coming out of turn ten.
Despite some minor updates scheduled to be introduced for this weekend, the Sauber team are likely to languish near the tail of the field on the technically demanding Suzuka circuit.
Felipe Nasr has said that the team cannot rely on their pace to get their first points of the season, but need external factors such as a safety car to gain an advantage.
The McLaren team arrive in Japan with a much better package than last year, when Fernando Alonso famously vented his frustration on the radio to the embarrassment of the team, describing the Honda power unit as a “GP2 engine”.
They will instead hope to repeat the double points finish in Malaysia in front of the devoted Japanese crowd, who hold a particular affection for Jenson Button.
Esteban Ocon showed promise in Sepang, rising as high as seventh on the first lap. He slipped down the order through the race and gained two pit lane speeding infringement penalties along the way, blaming a fault with electronic limiter.
A momentary battle between the drivers as they crossed paths, albeit on different strategies, shows how serious the competition between the two Mercedes junior drivers is.
There has been very little time to analyse the technical failures that marred the team’s efforts in Sepang, with questions hanging over the brake discs in particular.
Romain Grosjean will look to pick himself up as he has good memories of the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix where he took a fantastic third place, chasing the tails of the dominant Red Bulls ahead.
2016 driver form
|Driver||Grid average||Race average||Race best||Race worst||Classified|
|Carlos Sainz Jnr||11.44||10.08||6||15||13/16|
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2016 Japanese Grand Prix
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