F1 lands in Japan this week, finding itself in the midst one of the sport’s most fevered fan bases and at one of its most beloved circuits, Suzuka. The 18 turn figure of eight is constantly praised by drivers and fans alike for its challenge and character.
There are many, many talking points going into this year’s race, chief among them the problems at Ferrari. As I’ve laid out before, the past two grands prix have been nothing short of disastrous for the Scuderia. Because of that, Japan is now a must win for the boys in red.
Mercedes, meanwhile, look to bounce back to their race winning form after being humiliated in Malaysia by a 20 year old Dutchman.
That Dutchman and the rest of his Red Bull team will look to continue their race winning form as they look to finish the season far better than they started it.
Turn Down for What?
Suzuka is a track that Mercedes have dominated the past three years. But I’m inclined to believe that dominance may end. But not in the way you think. No, I think Ferrari may still be on the back foot. One week turnaround is not nearly enough time to ensure all kinks are worked out of their new engine system. I don’t think we will see another retirement-palooza like we did in Malaysia, but I do think they may begin to air on the side of caution. It very well may be that the team turns down their engine modes in a hope of ensuring they don’t have any unexpected failures. Let us go ahead and call this the Prost Approach to racing. Do everything you can do to position yourself for the championship. Results for an individual race don’t matter so long as you beat the people you need to beat.
In essence, what I’m saying is that Ferrari will turn down just enough to be competitive with Mercedes. Nothing more, nothing less. If a Force India mysteriously gets ahead of them on the grid while Hamilton sits behind them, they will not challenge the Force India. They will, however, block the living hell out of Hamilton.
This is Red Bull’s race to lose. Yes. You read that right This is Red Bull’s race to lose.
They proved last week in Malaysia that their car isn’t just competitive on the traditional ‘Red Bull circuits’ like Monaco and Singapore. They completely surprised everyone by being competitive at a track they shouldn’t have been competitive on. And this week… Well, this week they’re on a track that naturally suits them to some degree.
Sector one, with its superb combination of sweeping esses plays right into the Adrian Newey ‘downforce is king’ mentality. After sector one, the track straightens out a bit and there are less twisty bits. Traditional thinking would lead us to believe that Red Bull will dominate sector one and fall off in sectors two and three due to a lack of straight line speed. However, as last week proved, they don’t seem to have that problem anymore.
I anticipate a fierce battle between Ricciardo and Verstappen for pole and for the top step of the podium. Vettel will be in there too. But I think this very well may be the second time in two years where we do not see a single Mercedes on the podium.
So What is Wrong with Mercedes?
I will be completely honest; I had not noticed Valteri Bottas’s ‘lack of form’ in recent races because I was too focused on the intrigue of the Hamilton/Vettel battles up front. But the facts don’t lie, since winning Austria, he has been off the pace and consistently out paced by his teammate.
It very well be a mental thing for Bottas, having signed a one year extension to his contract, he may have fell into a pit of semi-complacency. We’ve seen crazier things happen in the sport.
But it is also not out of the question to put the blame on the car. Something is clearly not right in the W08. Or, at least, something hasn’t been right in the past two races.
Toto Wolff has reiterated his claim that the W08 is a ‘Diva’ and just gets finicky sometimes. But it may be more than that. We’ve seen the team struggle previously this year. And each time it seems to come at the hotter circuits on the calendar. Bahrain, Singapore, Malaysia, Baku. These were all hot races.
If it is merely the heat, my previous prediction of Red Bull stomping to the top once again may be null and void as Suzuka is looking at temperatures in the high 70s for the majority of the weekend.
That said, if heat continues to be a problem, we very well could see the W08 struggle once again in Austin, Mexico City, and Abu Dhabi. I’m no expect, but three of the final five races being a potential problem is not good news for a team hoping to lock down another championship.
The Mystery of McLaren
The Woking team surprised the living hell out of everyone last week by giving Stoffel Vandorne the chance to actually be competitive. They will, no doubt, hope to repeat the feat in front of their engine manufacturer’s home fans.
I am past the point of predicting if and when a Honda engine will fail, so I won’t bore you with that. But what I do want to focus on are the resurfaced claims that McLaren has the best chassis on the grid, but not the engine to make it work.
That very well may be true, I genuinely don’t know. But we should be able to get a better sense at Suzuka. Not on the whole track, mind you, but just in sector one. If the McLaren chassis really is the cream of the crop, it should be able to be right with the leaders in sector one.
Sector one’s demanding sequence of turns put high loads on the car. Because of its sweeping nature, downforce is at a premium. And what creates downforce? The chassis. Who supposedly has the best chassis? McLaren.
Watch those sector one times. If McLaren is indeed quick, they’re right and next year is going to be very interesting as they do have a good grasp of the new regulations. If they’re as slow as they always are, well, then McLaren is full of it and they’re going to be backmarkers once again.
Quals: RIC, VES, VET
Race: RIC, VES, VET
First Out: Palmer. His engine decides it would rather spend its life as a race track. As a result it explodes and imbeds its parts on the tarmac.