Long, fast, sweeping turns characterise the Suzuka track and contribute to it being the most demanding track on tyres - in respect of the amount of lateral energy transmitted through them – of the entire season. At times more than 800kg of load is heaped on the outside tyre as the cars go roaring through corners like 130R, a flat-out left-hander leading towards the last chicane. Cars tend to be easier on the brakes here as there aren’t a huge number of intense braking zones, more the requirement is to just scrub off enough speed to make the apex of the corner before nailing the throttle again.
Suzuka is a very smooth track and as such the cars are able to run particularly low here, enabling the engineers to maximise downforce generated from the underside of the car. The main setup challenge is getting the car sorted for sectors 1 and 2, as the final portion of the lap is flat out save for the second gear Casio Triangle hairpin which leads onto the start/finish straight.
Race strategy highlights from last year
The 2012 event was pretty uneventful at the front, thanks to a lack of serious competition for Sebastian Vettel after Fernando Alonso was eliminated in the first corner and Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean fell down the pack after coming together. Jenson Button and Felipe Massa were the big beneficiaries of the first lap chaos, moving from 8th to 3rd and 10th to 4th respectively, behind Vettel and home favourite Kamui Kobayashi, who would convert his third place in qualifying into a memorable podium finish behind Massa and the winner, Vettel.
Massa didn’t make it into Q3 on Saturday and so had an extra set of new tyres at his disposal and made them count brilliantly, letting him run longer than both Button and Kobayashi and jumping them both at the first stops. From then on the first two places were fixed to the end, and Kobayashi had enough pace in the Sauber-Ferrari to hold off Button, who won here in 2011, although the McLaren was quicker all afternoon and closed the gap from 3.5s after their final stops to a fraction over half a second at the chequered flag.
What to look out for in 2013
With low traction requirements because of the number of high speed corner exits, we are unlikely to see Mercedes and Ferrari struggle quite so much as they did in Korea, where Nico Hulkenberg was able to hold Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso at bay in a superb defensive driving display. Vettel has always gone well in Suzuka as it could have been tailor-made for the Red Bull’s high-speed downforce advantage, so the champion-elect will fancy his chances in both qualifying and the race. Overtaking is not as common here – just 15 overtakes happened in last year’s race - so it tends to be slightly more processional unless rain comes.
Who has the best record in Japan?
Japan is a track that has always suited Red Bull and it’s that man Vettel who dominates the standings here, with three wins and a third place from six races to date. He’s been on the podium for the last four races and looks likely to extend that run to five this weekend. Fernando Alonso is next up with two wins and three podium appearances – last year he failed to finish after being clipped by Kimi Raikkonen in the first corner, and cannot afford for a nil points result here else Vettel could be crowned champion with four races still to run.
Raikkonen’s sole win here is the 2005 epic detailed below, and he’s also notched up four podiums with a higher average finish than Alonso. Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have both won here for McLaren and are the only other previous winners of this race, although Felipe Massa and Mark Webber have both recorded podium placings at Suzuka.
How important is pole position?
With five winners from pole in the last nine races, Japan is a track where being at the front really counts. It was also the scene of one of the sport’s best races of recent times, where the rain-affected 2005 Japanese Grand Prix ended in a spectacular last-lap pass by McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, snatching the win from Giancarlo Fisichella. The Renault driver had started from third while Kimi was stranded in 17th after a wet qualifying, making the Finn’s sensational performance even more memorable. Overall the race has been won 50% by the polesitter, a higher percentage than any other track that has spent a comparable length of time on the calendar – even Monaco.
Tyre wear: 8/10
Last year it was two-stoppers all round for the points finishers, with first stops coming between laps 13-17 and a second trip to the pits between laps 30 and 37. Mark Webber even made what was essentially a one-stop strategy work after pitting on the opening lap with front wing damage, using the hard tyres and only stopping again on lap 25.
Medium settings are the best compromise here – Suzuka has some long flat-out blasts which require low downforce, but some high-speed direction changes which need the car to be pressed into the track to maintain laptime. The Esses in the first sector is one of the best places to see a Formula One car really working hard, and a car that does well here will be quick across the whole lap.
Average speed: 8/10
Suzuka is a fast, flowing track with high-speed corners that segue from one into another with the car bouncing between fourth, fifth and sixth gears in the turns. Turn 15 – 130R – is the fastest corner on the current calendar, with the cars maxing out at over 190mph in seventh gear and pulling in excess of 3G.
Track difficulty: 6/10
Suzuka boasts a long and fast lap which throws up a variety of challenges: the Esses, Degner 1 and Degner 2 have caught out the best drivers in the past, and the fearsome 130R. In between these the rest of the lap is not overly challenging, but the combination is one to be savoured. Look up video footage of a qualifying lap online and just enjoy the ride.
Last year there were just 15 passes here and that reflects the nature of the track: quick, interlinked corners do not allow for close racing and the field spread tends to be quite significant here too. There looks to be just the one DRS zone again this year, on the start/finish straight, so the drivers will have to look at other parts of the lap to pull off a pass. The hairpin at Turn 11 is a good spot to attempt a move.
You don’t always get great racing in Japan but somehow, that doesn’t seem to matter here. The track is steeped in so much history – F1 fans can instantly visualise drivers crossing the line to win the World Championship at Suzuka – and the fans follow the sport with a fanatical intensity unmatched anywhere on the planet. If you follow the drivers on Twitter, you’ll definitely see some pictures of the weird and wonderful gifts their Japanese supporters bestow upon them on their annual trip to the country.
Driver’s eye view: Paul di Resta, Force India
“Japan is definitely an interesting country to visit and a great place to go racing with a lot of passion and history. It’s in Japan that we meet some of the most dedicated fans in Formula One because the grandstands are always full – even on a Thursday! Suzuka is one of the best tracks we race on. For me it’s up there with Silverstone because it demands so much from the car. Running on low fuel for a qualifying lap is a great feeling and something I look forward to. It’s also a big technical challenge in terms of optimising the set-up and it’s very tough on tyres because of the high-speed corners.”
Paul Hembery, Pirelli Motorsport Director
“Suzuka is one of the circuits where we experience the highest rates of wear and degradation all year, because of the relatively abrasive surface and most of all because of the high-energy loadings that are going through the tyres. That’s why we’ve nominated the two hardest compounds in our range to take to Suzuka this year. It’s not all about the fast corners though as there are also some heavy braking areas and tighter corners. It’s a high-demand circuit when it comes to lateral energy but relatively low-demand in terms of traction, because the layout is very flowing with one corner sequencing into another. Strategy is set to play an important role once more – this was a two-stop race last year, when we nominated the soft and the hard compounds – and Suzuka is a circuit that all the drivers enjoy because of the high speeds. Japan is all about raw speed, and the tyres we have selected for this weekend should enable the drivers to showcase that in front of the amazing Japanese fans.”