Suzuka 2009 preview
Round 15 of the 2009 FIA Formula One World Championship returns to the Suzuka Circuit in Japan. Located on the southeast coast of the island of Honshu, Suzuka is a favourite circuit amongst drivers. Designed by Dutchman John Hugenholtz, the long and varied circuit combines several high-speed corners and a tight hair pin. It comprises 18 turns, eight left and ten right, which are laid out on a figure of eight track. The Suzuka Circuit is renowned for corners such as the 130R and the Dunlop Curve which test tyre performance, traction and grip levels. The circuit has a reputation for close racing and engine power and good braking will be key elements for teams to consider in preparation for the race.
Compared to 2006, Suzuka has now a new pit building and new team offices, a bigger and better paddock area, and new grandstands. A few changes have been made to the circuit itself, the pit exit has been realigned to join the track after the first corner, asphalt has been laid in parts of the run- off area around the outside of turns 1 and 2 and the track has been resurfaced between turns 17 and 7.
Suzuka has been the stage of two controversial championship deciders, every Formula One fan remembers the races in 1989 and 1990. In 1989 McLaren drivers Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna interlocked wheels at the last chicane, both cars ended on the escape road and stalled, ending the race for Prost. Senna's car was push-started by the marshals, and he made it to the pits for a new nose section, rejoined the race and won it. But he was disqualified for cutting the chicane and crossing the pit lane entry and Prost won the title in 1989. Senna blamed Prost for the 'accident' and returned the favour in 1990, when he ruthlessly kept his line in the first corner of the race immediately after the start, resulting in a collision at 270 km/h with the Ferrari of Alain Prost. Both cars flew off the track in a big cloud of dust and this time Senna became World Champion.
Suzuka is a real driver's circuit and many drivers are very pleased that Suzuka has returned on the Formula One calendar:
Fernando Alonso: "I think all the drivers enjoy the high-speed corners of Suzuka, but it's also a technical track which gives the engineers a big challenge. In terms of set-up, you have to work hard to make sure you have a car with a good front end for the changes of direction, and a stable rear so you have the confidence to attack the high-speed corners."
Lewis Hamilton: "It feels like I've been waiting my whole life to race at Suzuka - so, as you can imagine, I'll be really excited when practice starts there on Friday morning. Ever since I was a kid, I've raced Suzuka on computer games - and while it kind of gives you an idea of how the circuit goes, nothing can beat the real thing. It looks like a real driver's circuit."
With three race left to go Jenson Button leads the Drivers Championship with 84 points, followed by team mate Rubens Barrichello with 69 points and Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel with 59 points. The championship could be decided this weekend at Suzuka:
. Button will win the title if he scores at least five points more than Barrichello and Vettel, so a Prost/Senna scenario where Button and Barrichello would eliminate each other wouldn't give the title to either of them and would therefore be a pointless exercise.
. Barrichello is still in the race for the championship if he scores six points or more than Button, but he would have to beat Button during the next two races as well to become world champion.
. Vettel is still in the race for the championship if he scores six points or more than Button, but he also would have to win the last two races, with Button scoring no points at all. If that would be the case, Vettel would also have to beat Barrichello in the next two races to become world champion.
The Constructors Championship is led by Brawn GP with 153 points, followed by Red Bull Racing with 110,5 points. The title could go to the Brawn team at Suzuka if they score at least 11,5 points more than Red Bull. Brawn GP could become the first team in the history of Formula One to win the championship in its maiden season.
The other teams
Now that Ferrari has announced Fernando Alonso will be driving for the Reds for the next three years, the drivers market is wide open. Drivers like Kimi Raikkonen, Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Rosberg, Adrain Sutil, Timo Glock, Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica are looking for a job, and they will be very eager to show that they have got what it takes.
Ferrari and McLaren will use the KERS system at Suzuka, and at the start they will have an advantage over the non-KERS cars. Raikkonen and Hamilton have overcome the problems they had at the start of the season, and have now become regular podium visitors. Hamilton has never driven at Suzuka, but he is looking forward to the challenge, and I'm sure he will master this circuit in no-time.
Although Suzuka is a Honda-owned circuit, Toyota will see this as their home Grand Prix, and that could give them wings. Toyota still needs some more good results this season, Timo Glock scored an impressive second place last weekend in Singapore, and he and Jarno Trulli could surprise us again with a podium position.
Williams driver Nico Rosberg has some unfinished business, he is still looking for his maiden win. He was very close in Singapore, but a drive- through penalty ruined his chances. Team mate Kazuki Nakajima will have to deliver some good results if he wants to stay at the Williams team, he knows the circuit very well and in front of his home crowd he could deliver some points for his team.
Force India team owner Vijay Mallya said the lack of performance in Singapore was a once-off, and expects his drivers Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi will make it into Q3 at Suzuka, like they did in Belgium and Italy. Their cars are very fast at low downforce circuits and they will certainly have a chance to fight for points.
Both Squadra Toro Rosso drivers Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi have never driven at the Suzuka circuit, but are looking forward to race there and hope they will not encounter technical problems like they both experienced in Singapore.
Suzuka Circuit Japan
Circuit length: 5.807 km
Total number of race laps: 53
Total race distance: 307.573 km
Full throttle percentage: 65%
Top speed: 311 km/h
Average speed: 233 km/h
Tyre wear: High
Brake wear: Low
Downforce level: Medium
Lap record: 1:31.540 - Kimi Raikkonen - McLaren (2005)
Speed limits in the pit lane:
60 km/h during practice sessions;
100 km/h during qualifying and race
The race, the tyres and the strategy
What can Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel do? The Red Bull protest concerning the drive-through penalty of Sebastian Vettel in Singapore, where he exceeded the pit lane speed limit with 1.5 km/h, didn't impress the FIA and was rejected. Red Bull showed the telemetry of Vettel's car to the FIA, but the FIA insisted Vettel was 1.5 km/h too fast.
Vettel has a huge problem, he will have to use his eighth and last engine of the season. If the engine brakes down, or starts to make suspicious sounds during free practice or during qualification, his chances to win the 2009 title will be reduced to almost zero. All Vettel can do is to give it his best shot, take pole position on Saturday, and cross his fingers and hope and pray the Renault engine won't give him any problems.
What will Brawn GP do? Both Brawn drivers have had problems with the temperature of the tyres in the past, it is not very hot in Suzuka this time of the year, so they could have tyre problems again.
Although the pressure is now increasing, Ross Brawn said the relationship between Barrichello and Button is certainly not under pressure. He promised a fair championship with equal opportunities for both drivers. This also means that all information regarding the tyres and the set-up of the car will be shared between the two drivers and their engineers, and no information will be withheld from either of them.
Button has said that he will not adapt a different approach this weekend. In an interview with a British newspaper he said: "People say if I finish five points in front of Rubens I can win the championship. I know that's a fact, but my aim is to win the world championship and I'm not going to take any unusual risks. I'm just going to drive like I have been and hopefully that will be enough."
Tyre strategy and pit stop strategy will be very important in Japan. A two- stop race is the norm for this circuit, but things could dramatically change if the safety car comes on the track. As a result of a new rule this year, drivers can come into the pit immediately after the safety car is deployed and don't have to wait until everyone is lined up behind the safety car like last year. A swift decision of a team to call in a car for a pit stop while the safety car is on the track, could make or break the race and the championship.
All in all, a classic driver's circuit, with its sensational 130R corner (remember Alonso overtaking Schumacher's Ferrari on the outside in 2005?), a circuit praised and loved by the drivers, equal opportunities for all three championship contenders, the possibility of the world championship being decided, the Japanese fans who really love Formula One, all ingredients are there to make this a race to look forward to.