For Felipe Massa, 0.053 seconds could be the difference between a winnable race and a damage limitation exercise.
Those five hundredths of a second are the difference between Massa, fifth on the grid, and Heikki Kovalainen, third. With Lewis Hamilton starting from pole position Ferrari will have to bring Kimi Raikkonen, who starts alongside the championship leader, into play.
We’re yet to see how a standing start in the dry at Fuji Speedway might play out, but with dry weather expected tomorrow we should see one. There are a couple of things to keep an eye on.
Will one side of the grid offer better traction? At some circuits this year we’ve seen drivers starting on the racing line side of the track have an advantage. If that is the case at Fuji, it’s good news for Hamilton, Kovalainen, Massa and the other drivers starting from the odd-numbered grid slots.
It’s a very long run to the first corner, so the drivers that get away from the line best will surely have a good chance of passing into the first corner.
Turn one is a sharp hairpin with plenty of tarmac run-off area, so there’s a good chance we’ll see drivers trying to pass each other there.
IDR’s analysis of fuel loads predicts Raikkonen is fuelled several laps shorter than Massa. Given the considerable improvement in time Raikkonen found in Q3 compared to Q2, that seems likely.
Therefore Ferrari need Raikkonen to get in front of Hamilton at the start and try to contain the McLaren driver’s pace to keep Massa in the hunt.
Massa, meanwhile, has to overcome Fernando Alonso’s Renault as well as Kovalainen. With Ferrari’s superior engine performance to the Renault Massa may well accomplish that on the way to the first corner. Think back to Massa’s excellent start at the Hungaroring and it’s not difficult to imagine him arriving at turn one in third.
That’s the most realistic scenario Ferrari can hope for: Raikkonen leading Hamilton and Massa into turn one. The nightmare scenario has Kovalainen passing Raikkonen and Massa being stuck behind Alonso until the first pit stops – or even losing a place to Robert Kubica.
McLaren can use Kovalainen in one of two ways. If he can get past Raikkonen at the start and act as a rear-gunner for Hamilton, they could set up a one-two that would put them within touching distance of both championships.
But they can’t run the risk of a repeat of Kovalainen and Raikkonen’s last turn one run-in, at Istanbul, where Kovalainen picked up a puncture that ruined his race.
Even if Kovalainen can’t take the fight to Raikkonen, at the very least he needs to keep Massa behind him.
For Hamilton, he must remember the lessons of this time last year and not allow his attention to be directed from fighting his chief opponent – Massa – and get drawn into a needless battle with Raikkonen.
But some people are wondering why McLaren’s new-found conservatism hasn’t led them into changing Hamilton’s engine for this race, allowing the luxury of a fresh engine in time for the final round at Interlagos. Hamilton will be using the same engine here he had at Singapore. As discussed here a few days ago reliability failure for a championship contender in one of the final races could decide the title.
How do you think the Japanese Grand Prix will play out? And have McLaren made a mistake in not changing Hamilton’s engine?