This is it then. After dominating the Formula One season since the summer break, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are within touching distance of their fourth straight Drivers and Constructors Championships respectively. The smart money is on them wrapping things up with another victory in India but there are many other drivers with plenty to prove this weekend and the The Checkered Flag’s Form Guide analyses their prospects…
|Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull Racing Renault – 297 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st||Best In India: Winner (2011, 2012)|
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to construct an argument against Sebastian Vettel winning each Grand Prix that we go to. Despite missing out on pole position and dropping to third at the start in Japan, Sebastian still came through to win his fifth race on the bounce. To become a four-time world champion, Vettel needs to finish in the top five and his record in India reads 120 laps raced, 120 laps led, so achieving the required result should be a formality. You get the feeling that the German wants to clinch it in style though and barring a calamity, he probably will.
|Fernando Alonso – Ferrari – 207 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 6th, 4th||Best In India: 2nd (2011)|
As the only man in with a mathematical chance of catching Vettel, we should be talking about Fernando Alonso as a potential winner this weekend but Ferrari would appear to have the third quickest car at best. The Spaniard was over half a minute behind Red Bull and Lotus in Japan and much of that time was lost in qualifying when Fernando could only qualify eighth, three places behind teammate Felipe Massa and Saturday is surely all-important for Alonso to build the foundations for a podium challenge.
|Kimi Raikkonen – Lotus Renault – 177 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: DNF, 11th, 3rd, 2nd, 5th||Best In India: 7th (2012)|
He may have consolidated third place in the championship at Suzuka but the Japanese Grand Prix weekend was another disappointing one for Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn qualified mid-pack once again and finished 37 seconds behind his teammate which, whatever your popularity with the Formula One public, shouldn’t happen to a driver of his class. Kimi doesn’t appear to enjoy the current spec of Pirelli tyres after their summer tweak which may go some way to explaining his problems but surely his dip in form won’t continue for too much longer.
|Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes – 161 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 3rd, 9th, 5th, 5th, DNF||Best In India: 4th (2012)|
Frustratingly, Lewis Hamilton never really got the chance to show how quick he and Mercedes were at Suzuka. The Briton was the nearest challenger to Red Bull in qualifying and beat Sebastian Vettel off the line, only to clip the German’s front wing and pick up a right rear puncture. His qualifying record in India for McLaren suggests he should be towards the front on Saturday and the task will then be to get ahead of the Red Bulls on the opening lap and prevent them from escaping.
|Mark Webber – Red Bull Racing Renault – 148 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 5th, 3rd, 15th, DNF, 2nd||Best In India: 3rd (2012)|
Although he didn’t come away with the victory he craved, Mark Webber was back to something resembling his best at Suzuka. The Australian finally claimed his first pole position of the year and was a contender for victory throughout the Grand Prix, only for his teammate’s two stop strategy to prevail over his three stopper, a fact that gave the conspiracy theorists a field day. With Red Bull clearly enjoying a pace advantage over the rest, Mark will surely win again before departing Formula One and upstaging Vettel’s title success wouldn’t be a bad way to bow out.
|Nico Rosberg – Mercedes – 126 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 4th, 6th, 4th, 7th, 8th||Best In India: 6th (2011)|
Mercedes seem to be struggling to execute a clean Grand Prix weekend at the moment and Nico Rosberg has dealt with his fair share of bad luck. With fourth place up for grabs, Mercedes released Nico into the path of Sergio Perez’s McLaren and that wouldn’t be the last he’d see of the Mexican. If Mercedes can cut out the recent mistakes, Rosberg should be right in the thick of the action and with second place in the Constructors Championship at stake, Nico and the team have plenty to race for.
|Felipe Massa – Ferrari – 90 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 7th, 4th, 6th, 9th, 10th||Best In India: 6th (2012)|
If ignoring an instruction from the pitwall to release Fernando Alonso didn’t impress Ferrari, Felipe Massa certainly wouldn’t have endeared himself to the team by speeding in the pitlane later on in the Japanese Grand Prix. The subsequent tenth place wasn’t much use to Ferrari in their championship battle with Mercedes and Felipe will be expected to stay out of trouble (and do as he’s told) in order to keep the Scuderia in second place in the Constructors’ standings.
|Romain Grosjean – Lotus Renault – 87 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 8th, 8th, DNF, 3rd, 3rd||Best In India: 9th (2012)|
You would be hard pressed to find anyone driving better than Romain Grosjean at the moment. The Frenchman has been the only driver remotely capable of keeping the Red Bulls in sight in the last two races and on current form, it is surely a matter of time before we see a maiden Grand Prix win for Romain. Pirelli’s aggressive choice to bring the soft tyre to India is sure to benefit Lotus too so as long as he qualifies on the front two rows again, this might just be Grosjean’s weekend.
|Jenson Button – McLaren Mercedes – 60 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 6th, 10th, 7th, 8th, 9th||Best In India: 2nd (2011)|
A last minute set-up change at Suzuka left Jenson Button wrestling an understeering McLaren to ninth although that was enough to extend his points-scoring streak to seven races. After looking more competitive than usual in free practice, Button would have been hoping for more than that but with Sauber now ahead of them in the current pecking order, Q3 and a handful of points is probably the best Button can hope for at the moment, especially with the weather not expected to interfere in this weekend’s action.
|Nico Hulkenberg – Sauber Ferrari – 39 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 13th, 5th, 9th, 4th, 6th||Best In India: 8th (2012)|
In the last four races, Nico Hulkenberg has not only outscored Felipe Massa in his Ferrari-powered Sauber, but the German has also accumulated more points than either Mercedes driver, a graphic illustration of the level Nico is currently driving at. In many ways, the Buddh International Circuit is similar to Yeongam in Korea where we saw Hulkenberg show so well and another top six finish would come as no great surprise. In fact, it would be more surprising if the Sauber driver isn’t up there on current form.
|Paul Di Resta – Force India Mercedes – 36 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: DNF, DNF, 20th, DNF, 11th||Best In India: 12th (2012)|
Although Jenson Button denied him a points finish in the closing laps, Paul Di Resta certainly stopped the rot in Japan with a solid drive to eleventh place. With his Formula One future looking a little uncertain, Di Resta will be desperate to show what he’s made of at Force India’s ‘home Grand Prix’ and secure his place on the 2014 grid. Missing FP1 due to illness isn’t exactly the ideal start but so long as he’s fit enough to drive, Paul and the team will have eyes on some world championship points with Sauber closing fast.
|Adrian Sutil – Force India Mercedes – 26 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 9th, 16th, 10th, 20th, 14th||Best In India: 9th (2011)|
After his rather embarrassing exit in Korea, Adrian Sutil will have wanted a trouble-free weekend at Suzuka but unfortunately that wasn’t what he got. The German put himself on the back-foot by crashing in final practice and with the resulting gearbox change added to a surprise exit in Q1, Adrian’s weekend never recovered. India will hopefully represent a fresh start from Sutil’s point of view and he will be looking to add to the two points he scored on his only previous outing here.
|Sergio Perez – McLaren Mercedes – 23 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 11th, 12th, 8th, 10th, 15th||Best In India: 10th (2011)|
Suzuka saw both sides of Sergio Perez on a day when he should have added to his rather modest points tally for the season. After outpacing teammate Button in the early stints, Perez was on the receiving end of Nico Rosberg’s unsafe release and lost crucial time but his move on Rosberg and subsequent puncture later on showed the other side to his driving, the side that has placed his McLaren future in doubt. The question for India is which Sergio Perez will show up? Martin Whitmarsh and company will be hoping it’s the former.
|Daniel Ricciardo – STR Ferrari – 18 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 13th, 10th, 7th, DNF, 13th||Best In India: 13th (2012)|
Daniel Ricciardo was another driver left cursing his luck in Japan after falling foul of the stewards. The Australian was confident he would’ve ended up in the points had he not landed a drive-through penalty for illegally overtaking Adrian Sutil at 130R, demoting him to thirteenth at the finish. Sauber’s sizeable points return from Suzuka has given Toro Rosso an uphill challenge to finish seventh in the constructors’ championship but Ricciardo is certainly capable of lifting the Faenza squad in the four remaining races.
|Jean-Eric Vergne – STR Ferrari – 13 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 12th, DNF, 14th, 18th, 12th||Best In India: 12th (2012)|
Jean-Eric Vergne was forced to come from behind in Japan after his Toro Rosso encountered a brake problem during Q1, sending his hopes literally up in smoke. Starting from eighteenth on the grid, the Frenchman drove well to take twelfth but admitted he was expecting more given the new tyres at his disposal. The pressure will crank up on Jean-Eric next year when his rookie teammate Daniil Kyvat arrives but he will still be expected to match Daniel Ricciardo in the final four races of 2013 before taking up the mantle of team leader.
|Esteban Gutierrez – Sauber Ferrari – 6 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 14th, 13th, 12th, 11th, 7th||Best In India: Debut|
After continued progress in his rookie season, Esteban Gutierrez was finally rewarded with his first world championship points in Japan. The Mexican youngster raced in the same pack as some of Formula One’s drivers and showed impressive maturity to keep Nico Rosberg late on and secure seventh place. Unlike many of this year’s venues, Gutierrez has F1 experience in New Delhi after replacing the unwell Sergio Perez on Friday last year and he surely has every chance of cracking the top ten once again.
|Pastor Maldonado – Williams Renault – 1 Pt|
|Last 5 Races: 17th, 14th, 11th, 13th, 16th||Best In India: 16th (2012)|
Pastor Maldonado was actually the only driver other than Sebastian Vettel to finish fastest in a session last year when he topped the timesheets in Q1 but a mid-race puncture following contact with Kamui Kobayashi ensured that wouldn’t be translated into any points. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Williams are anywhere near the front this weekend but points will remain the ultimate goal and if the final corner at Suzuka is anything to go by, Maldonado has certainly not lost any of his motivation.
|Valtteri Bottas – Williams Renault – 0 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 15th, 15th, 13th, 12th, 17th||Best In India: Debut|
Maldonado’s forceful and opportunistic move at the chicane definitely didn’t go down well with Valtteri Bottas but the Finn’s frustration will have largely come from being beaten by his teammate who had trailed him for much of the race. With the promise shown by Jules Bianchi and recent emergence of Esteban Gutierrez at Sauber, the rookie who many expected to shine the brightest has now been upstaged a little, even if that owes more to an uncompetitive car than anything else. Beating Maldonado in India should get everyone talking about Bottas again and that is sure to be his target.
|Jules Bianchi – Marussia Cosworth – 0 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 18th, 19th, 18th, 16th, DNF||Best In Japan: Debut|
In fairness, he’s set a very high standard this season but Jules Bianchi had a weekend to forget at Suzuka. Things started to plummet downhill very quickly when the Marussia driver ploughed into the wall at Degner 2 and Saturday saw him outqualified by Max Chilton on outright pace for the first time. To complete his misery, Bianchi was tailgated by Giedo van der Garde at the first corner of lap one and Jules will be hoping that Suzuka was simply a one-off and not the beginnings of a end-of-season lull.
|Charles Pic – Caterham Renault – 0 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: DNF, 17th, 19th, 14th, 18th||Best In India: 19th (2012)|
Charles Pic made history in the Japanese Grand Prix although admittedly, it wasn’t the kind of history he would like to have been involved in. With a grid penalty already carried over from Korea, Pic passed a red light at the end of the pitlane and became the first driver to receive a drive-through penalty before the race had even started. Despite that handicap, the Caterham driver chased down Max Chilton to win the mini-race at the back of the grid and starting in India on a level playing field, that will be Charles’ goal again.
|Giedo van der Garde – Caterham Renault – 0 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 16th, 18th, 16th, 15th, DNF||Best In India: Debut|
Given the problems and penalties that befell his teammate, Giedo van der Garde will feel he should have been the first driver home among the younger teams but the first corner collision with Jules Bianchi put paid to that. The Dutchman described the crash as a racing incident but either way, he will looking to keep his nose clean in India. Giedo drove the Caterham in FP1 last year and matched Vitaly Petrov for pace so there is every reason to think he will be giving Pic a headache or two this weekend.
|Max Chilton – Marussia Cosworth – 0 Pts|
|Last 5 Races: 19th, 20th, 17th, 17th, 19th||Best In India: Debut|
It hasn’t exactly been a sparkling rookie season for Max Chilton but credit where it’s due, the Briton was impressive at Suzuka. At one of the world’s great driver circuits, Chilton steered clear of the pitfalls that caught many out, including his teammate Jules Bianchi, and went on to outqualify the Frenchman fair and square. The only blot on his copybook was a mistake in the closing stages which cost him 18th to Charles Pic but Max now has a springboard for the last four races. The challenge for him now is to make the most of it.