In less than seven days the Formula 1 paddock goes from the floodlit city streets of Singapore to the sublime Suzuka circuit in Japan.
The return to Suzuka one year after the tragic crash of Jules Bianchi is poignant one. The heartbreaking passing of the French driver has never been too far away from the consciousness but this weekend it will be vaulted to the forefront. The one consolation is that this circuit and all of glorious Formula 1 history is a proper place to pay homage to Jules.
The 5.8 kilometre circuit is a true car tester and it combination of high speed, low speed, elevation changes and demand for accuracy makes it one of the biggest and most satisfying challenges of the calendar. “As a track it’s one of my favourites and I really enjoy the old-school fast corners. The first sector stands out as the most fun,” says Williams driver Valtteri Bottas. “The weather can always play a part so you always need to keep that in mind strategy wise.”
The fast flowing nature of Suzuka will play to the strengths of Williams’ car and the team will be expecting a significantly stronger weekend in terms of outright pace and performance. “In qualifying last year we showed great pace and dominated the second row,” says Rob Smedley. “The team continues to get stronger throughout this year and we can go back there expecting another good performance. It’s important to capitalise on our car performance and score more points than our closest rivals.”
At the start of the season Ferrari would’ve been earmarked as Williams’ closest rivals but with three victories under Sebastian Vettel’s belt the Italian team may too far away from the Martini sponsored team. The victory in Singapore was an excellent but the pace shown throughout the weekend is what was most impressive. But how is it possible that Ferrari suddenly unleashed an unbeatable pace in Singapore? The characteristics of the Marina Bay circuit contributed greatly and so did the use of the supersoft Pirelli compound tyres which Ferrari has always been able to exploit.
However, the real improvement happened two weeks earlier at Monza. The team introduced an upgrade in Monza of which resulted in Kimi Raikkonen qualifying on the front row of the grid only two tenths of the peerless qualifier Lewis Hamilton. Due to the demand on mechanical grip and driveability of the engine Singapore highlighted the gains made from the Monza upgrade.
Now the question is whether the same gains will translate to a substantially different circuit such as Suzuka. The one thing that could be to the detriment of Ferrari is the tyre selection, made by Pirelli, for the grand prix weekend. To cater for the high energy demands of the circuit Pirelli has selected the orange- and white-walled tyres, the two hardest compounds in its range. The weather too will be considerably cooler and will influence the ability of the driver to get the medium and hard compound tyres up to operating temperature.
Twelve months ago Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg headed into the Japanese grand prix weekend with a slender three points separating them at the top of the driver’s standings. In 2015, the gap is 41 points with Rosberg trailing Hamilton but this won’t, initially, be the focus of either driver.
Their respective performances throughout the Singapore weekend were dismal by their lofty standards and whispers of uncertainty have slightly tainted the belief of the dominant team. But the hesitation won’t last too long as the team should be well within their wheelhouse this weekend. That is, if the tyre pressure regulation doesn’t have anything to do with it.
While Mercedes should re-affirm their pace advantage there will be a few uncomfortable looks over their shoulder at Ferrari this weekend and more than a keen eye will be kept on their rival’s pace. For whatever issue they encounter it is certain that Ferrari are more than ready to pounce.