Drivers relish Suzuka challenge (Japanese Grand Prix preview)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Sinuous Suzuka is a firm favourite among the drivers
Sinuous Suzuka is a firm favourite among the drivers

Suzuka has only been off the calendar for two years, but already eight of the 20 drivers competing this weekend have never raced there in F1.

It’s a warm welcome back for one of F1’s most beloved circuits. And once again, it could provide the setting for a championship showdown.

Whatever bland PR nonsense was put out about F1’s return to Fuji two years ago, it’s quite clear most (if not, all) F1 drivers are glad to be back at Suzuka. None of them bothered to praise Fuji as highly as they have spoken about Suzuka this week:

I am thrilled that my favourite Formula 1 circuit is back on the calendar.
Nick Heidfeld

Suzuka is the best track in the world. I’m looking forward to racing there as it’s one of the most challenging circuits with a lot of high-speed corners.
Sebastian Vettel

Vettel is one of the eight drivers yet to race in F1 at Suzuka although, like Adrian Sutil, he did test at the circuit in 2006. The other six are Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Romain Grosjean, Timo Glock, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi and home driver Kazuki Nakajima.

Those who have raced before will find many changes at the venue. Thankfully, few alterations have been made to the track, which is in substantially the same form as it was after the controversial easing of 130R in 2003.

The most significant change to the circuit is the extension of the pit lane exit. As at Singapore, it now comes out after the first corner. There’s also a couple of corners where the run-off has been extended.

But it largely remains faithful to the John Hugenholz design first used by F1 in 1987. It may not have the dramatic backdrop of Mount Fuji, but it does have a sublime, fast, rhythmic ribbon of tarmac that challenges the drivers and thrills the fans in equal measure. Suzuka is a rollercoaster – by comparison, Fuji was a kart track laid out in a car park.

So which teams will have the upper hand this weekend?

My first choice would be Red Bull, who impressed at the similarly quick Silverstone, and Ferrari, who relished Spa’s high-speed turns.

But the mystery factor this weekend is tyres, as Bridgestone are returning to their previous policy of bringing rubber that is two ‘stages’ apart. This weekend they’re bringing the hard and soft tyres.

Expect the latter to struggle for durability and, just as we saw at the start of the season, there is one driver above all who should relish that: Jenson Button. Keep a close eye on those green-striped tyres when practice gets started and see how well the drivers cope with them…

Drivers to watch

Sebastian Vettel – Suzuka’s high-speed configuration should suit Red Bull and make Vettel one of the favourites to win.

Rubens Barrichello – Singapore was a costly setback. He needs a win on a poor day for Button to apply fresh pressure in the championship chase.

Kimi Raikkonen – Magnificent at Suzuka in 2005 – and he has a point to prove to Ferrari.

Vitantonio Liuzzi – Back to a track he knows – can he put one over his team mate?

Japanese Grand Prix