After the excitement of Singapore, where Fernando Alonso picked up his fourth win of 2010, Lewis Hamilton's title hopes took a huge hit, and I developed a good sun tan, F1 makes another trip to the Far East this weekend. For Round 16 of this closely fought, exciting championship, we head to Suzuka, Japan.
This 5.807km circuit is the only figure-of-eight circuit on the calendar, and it is one of the favourite of both drivers and spectators. There are famous corners, such as 'the esses', Degner, Spoon and, of course, 130R – taken at over 190mph in 7th gear. Look up this track in any F1 publication and you will see comments such as “One of the world's great circuits” and “One of the best circuits in the world”.
Up until 2003, Suzuka was the traditional end-of-season venue, and as a result, many champions have been crowned there including, in relatively recent times, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Damon Hill. However, the 2010 title race will still be undecided as the checkered flag falls to mark the end of Sunday's race, although we may have a clearer idea of who the eventual victor will be.
Fernando Alonso was on the top step of the podium in Singapore, but arguably the real winner from that night race was Mark Webber. His championship lead was increased from five points to eleven, but these are still narrow margins under the new points system. The Red Bull driver has a very competitive car underneath him, and is in the strongest position to claim the title.
Alonso, who boasts three victories from the last five races, including the last two, clearly has the momentum though and, from looking like a plucky also-ran just a month ago, is now undoubtedly Webber's main threat for the title.
Lewis Hamilton, on the other hand, who was leading the championship after the Belgian Grand Prix, has slipped down the standings thanks to his two DNFs in Italy and Singapore. He sits 20 points behind Webber and, with just four races to go, needs a huge result in Japan just to stay in the hunt for his second title. The McLaren has not been as competitive as Red Bull and the resurgent Ferrari in recent races, and this fight-back will be difficult for the 2008 champion.
Of course, if Hamilton is still in with a chance of glory, so is Sebastian Vettel, who is just one point behind the Brit, and Jenson Button, just five points off his McLaren teammate. In fact, all five title contenders are still covered by the amount of points handed out for a race victory, and a DNF for Alonso or Webber this weekend will be enough to breathe new life into their challenges. However, as the races tick down, and the finale in Abu Dhabi gets ever closer, the opportunities for these trailing three will continue to evaporate. This weekend is crucial if they are to keep their title aspirations on track.
So who will have the performance advantage at Suzuka? Ferrari has shown that their car is very versatile, and can be made to suit a variety of track types. There is a question mark over engines though – Alonso has no new engines available to use without incurring a ten-place grid penalty, and the final engine of his allocation has already taken him to victory in Italy and Singapore. All of his title rivals have one more new engine up their sleeve.
Red Bull are fast everywhere and probably still has the fastest car on the grid. McLaren have been struggling with pace against their title rivals since Belgium, although Suzuka should suit the MP4-25 better than Singapore did.
Further down the grid there is an intense rivalry building between Force India and Williams, who are fighting for sixth place in the constructors' championship. Sixth and tenth places for Rubens Barrichello and Nico Hulkenberg mean that Williams are within just four points of Force India – a tiny margin.
The intrigue at Mercedes continues as well. Ross Brawn and the rest of the team management continue to state that Michael Schumacher will be racing for them next season, and that they should be fighting for race wins. Schumacher had another difficult race in Singapore though, colliding with both of the Sauber drivers, and generally showed poor pace compared to teammate Nico Rosberg. However, he can boast six race wins at Suzuka, far more than any of the current drivers (Alonso, Barrichello and Vettel each have one) and the seven-time world champion has tended to perform better this season at circuits that he knows well.
Nick Heidfeld, who has returned to F1 to replace Pedro de la Rosa, did a solid job for Sauber in Singapore. He qualified fourteenth in his first race of 2010, behind teammate Kamui Kobayashi who made it into Q3, and was going reasonably well in the race until he succumbed to Schumacher in an optimistic overtaking manoeuvre. He may pose more of a challenge to his rookie teammate in Japan.
At the back of the grid Lotus are celebrating the deal they signed with Red Bull this week to receive gearboxes and hydraulic systems, and are expected to announce a Renault engine deal soon. Tony Fernandes' team clearly has aspirations to make their way up the grid next season, and will be using the final four races of 2010 to consolidate their position ahead of Virgin Racing and HRT.
In contrast to this, nobody is entirely sure what is going on at HRT. Writing this on Wednesday, I have no idea which two drivers will be appearing in the car at Suzuka, although I suspect Sakon Yamamoto will have recovered from his bout of Singaporean 'food poisoning' and be in the car for his home race. Bruno Senna will probably be alongside him, although if there is a higher bidder, it could be someone else. This switching of drivers is an indication that money is tight in this team, and who knows if they will be on the grid in 2011.
There are plenty of reasons to sacrifice the weekend lie-ins and tune-in to the action this weekend: the excitement of the championship battle, the last chances for some drivers to get a seat for next season, and the inter-team battles up and down the grid. With just four races to go, every point and every position is valuable, and this Japanese Grand Prix should be very entertaining.
Qualifying starts at 06:00 BST on Saturday morning and if it is anything like last years' session, it will be worth watching. The short run-off areas and gravel traps caught out many drivers, especially around the Degner curve, and the session had to be red-flagged twice in Q2. Timo Glock was unfortunately taken to hospital with minor injuries after crashing in Q3 and five drivers were given five-place grid penalties after the session. The race on Sunday begins at 07:00 BST and reports and reaction will be available throughout the weekend on this site.