With all the discussion around Lewis Hamilton and the confirmation of his move to Mercedes last week, plus the news that Sergio Perez will replace him at McLaren, and the speculation of the future for Michael Schumacher, you would be forgiven for forgetting that we still have an F1 season to finish and some championships to decide.
When the Formula 1 circus arrives in Japan later this week, the media activity on Thursday will no doubt continue to be dominated by driver moves. Yet hopefully, as cars emerge onto the fantastic track at Suzuka on Friday, attention can turn back to racing.
The gearbox failure for Hamilton in Singapore, while he was comfortably leading the race, has left a huge dent in his championship chances. The Mercedes-bound 2008 champion is now 52 points behind leader Fernando Alonso and, with only six races to go, will need an awful lot of luck if he is to catch the Spaniard.
Based on their performance in the last four races (three of which they won, and Singapore which they should also have won), McLaren appear to have the fastest car at this stage of the season. Hamilton could conceivably win most of the remaining races, but would still need Alonso to finish out of the points in a few of them if he is to overhaul the deficit. However, the Ferrari looks bullet-proof when it comes to reliability and, first-corner incident in Belgium aside, Alonso has a knack for staying out of trouble on race day.
With Kimi Raikkonen only seven points better off than Hamilton and with the Finn yet to win a race this season, he probably has to be discounted from the title fight as well. This leaves only Sebastian Vettel who, at just 29 points behind Alonso, has a very real chance of securing a third consecutive championship.
Suzuka offers a decent place for Vettel to up his title challenge, as a place that holds plenty of happy memories for the German. Last season, his third-place finish was enough to secure him that second championship, and in 2009 and 2010 he was standing on the top step of the podium here.
It is also a track that suits Red Bull well, with the high-speed corners and few long straights. They should go better than Ferrari here on Sunday so, even if one of the McLaren drivers wins, expect Vettel to eat into Alonso’s lead.
Hamilton has never finished higher than third at Suzuka, although he did win the Japanese Grand Prix in his first season, when it was held at Fuji. Team-mate Jenson Button, who has strong links to the country through girlfriend Jessica Michibata, was the winner last season.
Suzuka is widely regarded as a challenging circuit, and one that separates the great drivers from the merely good. In fact, of all the winners of the last 19 Japanese Grand Prix (including the two at Fuji in 2007 and 2008), only Rubens Barrichello, who won in 2003, has not won a world championship. Michael Schumacher is a six-time winner at Suzuka, whilst Vettel is the only other driver who can boast multiple victories at this figure-of-eight circuit.
Whilst the crossover gives Suzuka its unique and distinctive layout, there is much more that makes this track so impressive. Most F1 fans, when the think of Suzuka, will automatically think of 130R. The sweeping corner is taken flat out in a modern Formula 1 car but, like Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps, the corner has achieved legendary status over the years. One of the most memorable moments in recent times was in 2005, when Alonso overtook Schumacher around the outside of this corner in a very brave, high-speed manoeuvre.
Other corners of note are the ‘S’ curves near the start of the lap. Drivers must get the first of these five corners right or they suffer through the rest of the sector. The Degner curves also present a challenge to drivers – expect to see a number crossing the gravel traps and flirting with the barriers through these two corners during Friday practice.
Put simply, Japan is another great, classic race track, and it is no stranger to the thrills and spills that we associate with the most exciting of F1 races. The only problem is the time zone in which it sits – for UK fans it is time to sacrifice the early morning lie-in once again.
Finally, as we head into the fifteenth of twenty races, a championship battle is beginning to emerge. It will probably boil down to Alonso vs. Vettel, although Raikkonen and Hamilton will still consider themselves contenders at the moment. In such an unpredictable season, there are bound to be plenty of twists and turns on the way, and perhaps Suzuka will provide some this weekend…
- Qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix begins at 06:00 BST on Saturday and the race will get underway at 07:00 BST on Sunday.
- Coverage in the UK is available on Sky Sports F1 HD and BBC Radio 5 Live. Highlights will be shown on BBC One (HD).
- For more on Hamilton’s move, see ‘Hamilton to Mercedes: Gamble or Great Decision?’