Traditionally the season-ending grand prix, such is the rampant expansion of the F1 calendar that Japan takes place with five more races still to follow once the chequered flag drops on Sunday. It was here that Sebastian Vettel secured his 2011 title with third place, joining the likes of Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost who have all won titles at this track.
A firm favourite amongst drivers for its unique figure-of-eight layout, the track poses many challenges from the awesome Esses in sector 1, the daunting Degner corners which catch many an unsuspecting F1 driver out, and the brilliant 130R towards the conclusion of the lap. The fanatical Japanese fans make this a riotous, colourful occasion with diehards staying behind to watch the mechanics disassemble the cars late at night.
Designed as a Honda test track by Dutchman John Hugenholtz, Suzuka had to fit into a small footprint, hence the switchback layout. The Japanese Grand Prix has been held at Suzuka on all but four occasions, when Fuji took over. Rain often strikes the Japanese races and this was no more evident than in the first event in 1976, when Niki Lauda, contesting the title for Ferrari after almost dying at the Nurburgring earlier in the season, withdrew from a monsoon-hit race, stating 'my life is more important than the championship'. Thus James Hunt became the first driver to clinch a championship on Japanese soil.
Tyre wear: 8/10
Button, Alonso and Vettel all made the podium last year despite stopping three times and that is expected to be the quickest way to the flag this time as well. Weather conditions will play a part, with higher temperatures pushing the teams towards more stops as thermal degradation plays more of a part when the ambient temperature increases. Pirelli are bringing the soft (yellow) and hard (silver) tyres, and may find that, as at Silverstone, the hard tyre proves to be the one for most of the race.
A balance to be struck as ever, with some long straights as well as tight, twisty sections which require the car to be squashed into the circuit in order to go quickly. Sector 1 is where the men and boys get sorted out – a quick car here will be fast across the whole lap.
Average speed: 8/10
A very fast circuit which has a lot of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-gear corners and doesn’t even require the use of first gear anywhere on track. Lots of fast corners mean the cars are very easy on the brakes here.
Track difficulty: 6/10
A long lap but there are three areas which need to be nailed every time round – Sector 1 through the Esses, the two Degner corners just before the crossover, and 130R towards the end of the lap. Get these right and you’ll look fast – even if you’re driving an HRT.
Suzuka is quite a tight circuit and as such overtaking can be more difficult than expected here. Particularly committed drivers will find ways to pass into the first corner, at Degner 1, at the Turn 11 hairpin and also at Casio Triangle. It is possible to do so however, and you only have to look at footage of the 2005 event, won by Kimi Raikkonen on the last lap having come through from 17th, for evidence of this.
Unique for its layout and the rabid frenzy of its fans, the Japanese Grand Prix is an event which every F1 fan should get to if they can. The track has seen some historic moments, but perhaps none more captivating than the Senna-Prost title battles of 1989-90, which prompted one writer to come up with the brilliant headline ‘Malice in Hondaland’ after the deliberate championship-deciding accidents of the era.
Long, fast, sweeping turns characterise the Suzuka track and contribute to it being the most demanding track on tyres - in respect of the amount of lateral energy transmitted through them – of the entire season. At times more than 800kg of load is heaped on the outside tyre as the cars go roaring through corners like 130R, a flat-out left-hander leading towards the last chicane. Cars tend to be easier on the brakes here as there aren’t a huge number of intense braking zones, more the requirement is to just scrub off enough speed to make the apex of the corner before nailing the throttle again. Suzuka is a very smooth track and as such the cars are able to run particularly low here, enabling the engineers to maximise downforce generated from the underside of the car. The main setup challenge is getting the car sorted for sectors 1 and 2, as the final portion of the lap is flat out save for the second gear Casio Triangle hairpin which leads onto the start/finish straight.
Sebastian Vettel took pole position but only narrowly retained the lead after second-placed Button made an even better getaway and forced the Red Bull driver into an aggressive block, putting Button on the grass on the run to Turn 1 and allowing Hamilton to slip by into second place. The McLarens swapped places on lap 9 when Hamilton suffered what was thought to be a puncture, but turned out to be high tyre degradation. Button homed in on the leading Red Bull through the second stint, and took the lead on lap 23 after jumping Vettel at the second round of pitstops. Hamilton meanwhile came to blows with Felipe Massa’s Ferrari, not for the first time in 2011, the Ferrari driver losing part of his front wing in the process and drawing out the safety car so the debris at Casio Triangle could be cleared. Button held the lead all the way to the flag save for four laps immediately after his third and final stop, and scored a fine win on Japanese soil, the first race to take place after the devastating tsunami that occurred in March 2011.
Venue Suzuka Circuit
Lap record 1m 31.540s – Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren (2008)
2011 Winner Jenson Button, McLaren
GP History (only races held as part of the Formula One World Championship are included):
Fuji 1976, 1977, 2007, 2008
Suzuka 1987-2006, 2009-present
Stats courtesy of Mercedes Petronas
- Sebastian Vettel