Japanese Grand Prix 2011: Preview


Sebastian Vettel leads the field in to the first corner at last year's British Grand Prix but the yellow Renault of Vitaly Petrov (right) only manages a few metres - Photo Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Sebastian Vettel leads the field in to the first corner at last year's Japanese Grand Prix but the yellow Renault of Vitaly Petrov (right) only manages a few metres - Photo Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

 

Imagine a long thin bit of paper stretching from the Earth to the moon. Then imagine starting from one end by writing 99.9 and continuing to write 9s along its length in nice thin lettering. Finally, as you reach the end of the piece of the paper (having travelled successfully through the earth's atmosphere, and survived the intense solar radiation, the cold, and the lack of oxygen) write a percentage sign.

Congratulations! You have just, by the power of your imagination, written out the (rough) odds of Sebastian Vettel securing the 2011 Formula 1 title in Japan on Sunday.

That is a slight exaggeration of course. However, the German needs to score just one point at Suzuka to have a an unassailable lead in the standings and, even if he does not manage that, Jenson Button must do something he has never managed before – i.e., win in Japan – just to postpone the inevitable celebrations from Vettel and Red Bull.

It is rather unlikely that Vettel will need to rely on Button – he could probably pick up a point at Suzuka if he was driving around with his eyes closed. The 24-year-old has won the last two races at this venue from pole position and the smallest points haul he has taken from a race weekend all this season is the twelve points that he scored by finishing fourth at his home grand prix in July.

Last season, we described Vettel's drive to victory in Japan as 'serene', and the entire weekend was a demonstration of the soon-to-be double world champion at his best. Even when heavy rain forced qualifying to be abandoned on the Saturday and rescheduled for Sunday morning, Vettel seemed completely unfazed and beat team-mate Mark Webber to pole position.

Complete wash-out: The various pit crews made good use of the new stream that ran down the pit lane during qualifying last season - Photo Credit:Clive Mason/Getty Images
Complete wash-out: The various pit crews made good use of the new stream that ran down the pit lane during qualifying last season - Photo Credit:Clive Mason/Getty Images

 

Anyway, assuming that some incredibly unlikely chain of events does not prevent Vettel from picking up the title on Sunday, the final races of 2011 will become a battle between Button, Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, and Lewis Hamilton over who can take second place in the standings.

For the two McLaren drivers, this battle has an extra dimension. Hamilton has never been beaten by a team-mate in his four previous Formula 1 seasons but, in recent races, Button has been by far the better driver and currently has a seventeen point advantage of his team-mate in the championship table. At the beginning of last season, there were many people discounting Button's move to Woking as foolish but, to finish above Hamilton in just his second season with McLaren would be an excellent way to answer those critics.

Of course, Webber really needs a second place finish in the championship to but some sort of positive shine on a pretty ropy season. After being comprehensively out-raced by Vettel all season – with the possible exception of Germany – the Australian really needs a race win from one of the remaining grand prix to show that he is still capable of challenging at the top.

Just one win all season is pretty disappointing for Ferrari, but Alonso is currently only a point of second in the title and to finish best of the rest this season would be testament to the Spaniard's talents, if not to the quality of his car.

If Vettel was to win this weekend, he would become only the second driver to win a third Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. The first, of course, was Michael Schumacher, who has actually won this event six times altogether, and picked up two of his seven world titles here (in 2000 and 2003). Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello are the only other current drivers who have stood on the top step of the podium at Suzuka with one win each. However, in addition to his 2006 win at Suzuka, Alonso also won the Japanese Grand Prix in 2008, but that took place at the Fuji Speedway.

Michael Schumacher took his thirteenth win of a dominant Formula 1 season at Suzuka in 2004 - Photo Credit: Ferrari
Michael Schumacher took his thirteenth win of a dominant Formula 1 season at Suzuka in 2004 - Photo Credit: Ferrari

 

Suzuka is probably most famous for being the only figure-of-eight circuit on the calendar. Mention the track to F1 fans, and the high-speed 130R corner probably springs to the mind of most – so called because it has a radius of 130 metres. Other favourites are the 'S' curves (or 'esses') at the start of the lap and the two Degner curves and the spoon curve.

Apparently, the first seven corners, i.e. the first turn and then the 'S' curves, are some of the most crucial in the lap. Get it wrong somewhere, and you pay for it right up until turn 8. Drivers love the challenges of this track and the gravel traps and close walls that surround the circuit ensure that mistakes are punished.

In addition to Vettel's supreme performance, last season's race will also be remembered for a particularly great driver from Kamui Kobayashi. After qualifying down in fourteenth the driver impressed his compatriots in the grandstands with a series of sterling (and some rather robust) over-taking manoeuvres. He eventually finished seventh and, for many, he was driver of the day. The Spoon Curve was a particularly favourite sport of Kobayashi that day, so watch out for the Japanese driver on Sunday.

Don't forget that this race takes place in Asia, and there is not a single lighting projector in sight, let alone the 1500 that lit up the streets up Singapore during the last race. That means, for the first time since China in April, the weekend lie-in must be forsaken for some live F1 action. Suzuka generally gives us an exciting race though, so it should be worth the sacrifice.

  • Qualifying begins at 06:00 BST on Saturday and the race will start at 07:00 on Sunday. Coverage in the UK is available on BBC One and BBC Radio 5 Live
  • There will be reports and reaction from events in Suzuka throughout the weekend here on thecheckeredflag.co.uk
  • If you missed it last weekend, you can relive our comprehensive (and rather exhausting) coverage of the entire Britcar 24 hours from Silverstone through the hour-by-hour updates and the full report that will appear on this site soon.
  • Vettel needed just two points even if Button wins this race and the next four races!

  • David Bean

    Vettel only needs one point. If Button wins all five of the remaining races and Vettel only scores one point the two drivers will finish level on points. However, Vettel will still win the title because he currently has nine wins and Button will only have seven.