With the drivers’ and constructors’ championships almost unbelievably close the tension between the Renault and Ferrari camps is unreal – and it gets exponentially greater with each passing race.
The chances of it all boiling over on the track on race day are tantalisingly high.
Suzuka has a habit of deciding championship battles in spectacular fashion – 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1998, 2003 being just a few examples. But there is only one way the championship can be concluded this weekend – with Schumacher winning and Alonso not scoring.
Up until a few races ago you would have ruled that out as unthinkable. But the errors started creeping in at Renault and were plain to see in Hungary, Italy and China.
The same can largely not be said of Fernando Alonso who, aside from an off at Shanghai, has scarcely put a wheel wrong.
It would be a cruel injustice if car failures robbed him of this title. But although it would vindicate his decision to leave Renault, it would hardly support his reasons for joining McLaren, who haven’t won a race since he signed for them.
Michael Schumacher on the other hand has made some very public errors this year – crashing out in Australia and then his little ‘moment of madness’ in Monaco. But his Ferrari has been bullet-proof, where Alonso’s Renault has failed him twice. That could prove decisive.
Going into the race it is extremely difficult to predict which team holds the initiative at present. Of the last four races two have been wet and Alonso’s speed at Monza was unclear as he spent most of the race in traffic.
Ferrari seem to have a slight edge but Alonso was visibly driving out of his skin in the closing stages at Shanghai and apparently able to do so consistently. Schumacher can ill afford either to relax or to make another of his celebrated ‘mistakes’ late in the championship.
But of course, he will want to avenge the dignity Alonso wounded at this very circuit last year, when Alonso passed Schumacher around the outside of the ultra-fast 130R as if he were a mere backmarker.
The role of their team mates will be crucial. Jean Todt may have made loud and unsubtle comments about Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella’s synchronised swimming act for two laps at Shanghai, but there’s no ignoring the fact that Schumacher has a more capable and acquiescent number two in Felipe Massa.
Where the number twos qualifying will be vitally important (so it’s all the more frustrating for British viewers that ITV are once again not showing the qualifying session live.)
While the championship battle rages we should not overlook the fact that this will be F1’s last visit to the sensational Suzuka circuit for the foreseeable future. A fixture on the calendar since 1987, the track is being dropped because Toyota paid mega-bucks to switch the race to their Fuji Speedway.
Fuji held the first two Japanese Grands Prix in 1976 and 1977, the latter very sadly seeing the death of two spectators. Since Toyota acquired the track it has seen a (USD) $170m redesign courtesy of Hermann Tilke but many are sceptical that it can rival the fast, varied sweeps of Suzuka as a driving challenge.
If Honda have lost the battle with Toyota over where the Japanese Grand Prix goes, they are undoubtedly winning the war in the constructors’ championship. While Honda managed a double points finish in China, Toyota suffered a double retirement.
Last year Toyota seemed hell-bent on securing pole to undermine their domestic rivals – sitting Ralf Schumacher on the front of the grid with a preposterously light fuel load. But they’ve been so far off the pace this year it’s questionable whether they could achieve that again with only vapour in the tank.
McLaren have only two races left to avoid their first winless season since 1996. Up until Shanghai a demob-happy Kimi Raikkonen did not look motivated enough to deliver it. But in China, faced with wet conditions, he was thoroughly switched on and right up at the sharp end – until his car gave up.
Sadly McLaren do not look likely to use Raikkonen’s impending departure or the loss of Juan Pablo Montoya as an opportunity to trial either of the exciting young British talents – Gary Paffett and Lewis Hamilton – before the season is out.
Things are finally looking up at Williams where Mark Webber finally gave the team another points finish in China. The competitiveness of their Bridgestone rubber will dictate whether he can be in the hunt again this weekend.
And it will be fascinating to see how Webber’s team mate Nico Rosberg copes with the demanding Suzuka track for the first time – and, for that matter, fellow rookies Robert Kubica, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed and Sakon Yamamoto.
The crowd will be utterly spoiled for teams to cheer for, with not only the factory Honda and Toyota teams but also the two that share their engines – Super Aguri and Spyker-MF1, respectively.
Meanwhile Super Aguri’s all-Japanese line-up will surely gain a rapturous reception. Takuma Sato has often got well here and memorably scored his first points at home in 2002.
There are only two occasions left to witness the ferocious battle between the two best drivers in the world today. Set your alarm clocks and make sure you don’t miss this one.
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