The Japanese Grand Prix will begin the way the last race ended: with Sebastian Vettel in the lead and Jenson Button giving chase.
But will Button be able to keep Vettel from his fourth consecutive win?
And can Lewis Hamilton bounce back from a series of poor races to finish on the podium for the first time since his Nurburgring win?
The pole sitter’s advantage has been a controversial in the past at Suzuka. Ayrton Senna complained bitterly when he had to start from pole position on the right-hand side of the track in 1990.
Today pole position is on the left-hand side of the track and the second-placed driver has the disadvantage of starting off-line. With just a 300m run to the first corner, and little braking to be done when they arrive there, the pole sitter has a serious advantage here.
Jenson Button, second on the grid, will have to keep a close eye on his team mate. The third-placed driver has taken second at the start in three of the last four races here.
Button may be the only driver left who can beat Vettel to the championship but don’t expect Hamilton to cut him any slack on that account. Button’s chances of beating Vettel to the title are very remote, and it’s unlikely the team would want to instruct their drivers what order to finish in unless Vettel retires from the race and Hamilton is in a position to hand Button victory. What a scenario that would be.
Keep an eye on the two Ferraris which have made some rapid starts. Particularly Fernando Alonso, who has gained eight places in total on the first laps of the last three races.
Michael Schumacher, eighth on the grid, has done even better. With a net gain of 21 places over the season so far he and Sebastien Buemi (15th) have been the best off the line this year.
Vettel stretched out a commanding lead over Button in Singapore and did the same in Monza, aided by having Alonso and Michael Schumacher between him and the McLarens. Can he do the same here?
Friday practice indicated Red Bull have good long stint performance and tyre life. Button seemed to as well but Hamilton’s lap times dropped off quite quickly.
Button was doubtful about his car’s long-run pace today: “Our Friday long-runs on high-fuel were less than ideal,” he said, “but we?óÔé¼Ôäóve seen the form vary significantly between Friday and Sunday, so tomorrow should be very different.”
There is cause for optimism at McLaren: the new Suzuka-spec rear wing appears to have unlocked some more pace from the car. In qualifying, Button was faster than Vettel in the first two sectors of the lap.
Practice made it clear that tyre life is going to be a demanding factor in this race. The growing build-up of rubber on the racing line since then, reducing lap times and increasing cornering speeds, will only add to that.
Enter Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber, the car which has been kindest to its tyres this year. Starting a career-best seventh on the grid for his home event, he has a chance of a great result for the team here.
Starting alongside Kobayashi on the fourth row is Schumacher. He has two set of fresh soft tyres left giving him a slight advantage over the cars in front of him.
Team mate Nico Rosberg, however, faces a long grind from the back of the field. Schumacher started 24th and finished fifth in Spa – what can Rosberg do from 23rd at another of F1’s greatest tracks?
Unless something dramatic happens to Vettel it’s likely he will win the drivers championship in Japan.
But will he cap it with his tenth win of the season? Have your say in the comments.
2011 Japanese Grand Prix
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