Around this time of year you suddenly start wondering where the season has gone, with only three races left. It's been an eventful year, for both good and bad reasons, and the last three flyaway events hold the key to the drivers' championship.
Around this time of year you suddenly start wondering where the season has gone, with only three races left. It's been an eventful year, for both good and bad reasons, and the last three flyaway events hold the key to the drivers' championship. There's still four ways it could go, if only just, and the final sprint for the title begins with the Japanese Grand Prix on unfamiliar ground at the Fuji Speedway.
The first championship Japanese GP was hosted by Fuji in 1976 and saw James Hunt clinch the title with third place in torrential conditions. Hunt won the following year but the event was marred by an accident that resulted in the death of a marshal and a photographer. The race disappeared from the calendar for 10 years and on its return in the mid eighties it was hosted by Suzuka, where it has been until now.
Fuji has obviously changed quite extensively over the years but it still retains the 1.475km start/finish straight, where the cars are estimated to be able to reach a top speed of around 315kmph. But other than that long straight it's not a particularly fast circuit; the majority of the corners are slow with only turn three and the right hand sweep of four and five being medium to high speed.
Japan is a home race for Toyota and chassis manager Pascal Vasselon knows the Fuji track. "Since Fuji has been upgraded it is now of the very highest standard but it still retains a lot of the character of the original circuit, with the long straight and slow infield," he commented. "In terms of car set-up, this calls for an obvious compromise and this will be the main challenge this weekend."
The teams have to rely mainly on computer simulations to prepare for this race, with no previous data for modern F1 cars available, and the technology is fairly adept at providing the information needed. Things such as mechanical set up, downforce levels, brake specs and gear ratios can be decided in advance and then put to the test and fine-tuned during the free practice sessions.
However, there are always variables that can't be predicted quite so efficiently. "We don't know how the drivers can use the kerbs, for example, and we don't have detailed information about the grip level," said Renault engineering chief Pat Symonds. "This means we have to run many different simulations, with different estimated values, in order to be full prepared for every eventuality."
As far as racing F1 cars is concerned Fuji is new ground for all the drivers but some on the current grid know the circuit from other series. Both the Spyker pilots are familiar with the track; Adrian Sutil raced there in Japanese F3 last season as well as testing. "The experience will help as I know which parts are important and how you set up the car there, what the benefits are and so on," he said.
"It has a long straight, and also very tricky middle and last sectors. It's hard to find the right balance, because you need to be quick on the straights, but you need downforce for the last corners. In general I really like it. The last corner is really good, as you go straight towards Mount Fuji, and you see it right in front of you."
Naturally most of the interest this coming weekend will be focused on the front of the grid and how the drivers' standings develops -- perhaps more on the battle between McLaren teammates Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. The Ferrari duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa are not out of it yet, but it will surely take some disaster to befall the McLarens for the reds to realistically stay in the fight.
Alonso has had the upper hand on Hamilton recently; the Spaniard has been in this position before, fighting for the title at the end of the season but Hamilton appears to have lost focus just a little in the last couple of races. Many believed that Alonso's experience would make the difference when it came to the crunch and that could well be the way it goes -- but not necessarily.
"I have to say when I was first asked about my feelings of Fuji, I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn't be getting to race at Suzuka because everyone goes on about how great it is, but this season I have really enjoyed going to new tracks and learning them," said Hamilton. "It provides a slightly different challenge so I am looking forward to it. Everyone will be in the same boat and it should be quite exciting."
There has been a lot of speculation about whether Ferrari will now call upon Massa to support Raikkonen, as the Finn is ahead on points, but the Scuderia has insisted that they are still free to race. The pair have traded third place in the standings near enough all season so there was no real reason to choose between them. Whatever happens at Fuji will likely be decisive in making the choice, if it hasn't been made already.
Massa is well aware of the situation but not about to throw in the towel just yet. "As usual, I will do my best to get the better result for the team," he said of the final races. "In Ferrari, our main priority is the interest of the team. However, there is a lot to do, but you never know what might happen. In Formula One, there can be surprises sometimes and I am hoping for the right sort of surprise!"
As for the rest, well, it doesn't seem likely that there will be any drastic changes in position, either in the drivers' standings or the constructors'. BMW Sauber will be second in the constructors' unless it gets no more points and Renault scores a one-two in every race remaining. Hardly likely, no offence to Renault. BMW boss Mario Theissen said he still considers his team to be the third best, but presumably he's not unhappy with No.2 for the record.
Nick Heidfeld is solidly ahead of Robert Kubica in the drivers' to be fifth overall but there's still room for manoeuvre between the Renault and Williams pairings. Heikki Kovalainen has slowly but surely been eclipsing Giancarlo Fisichella and is now five points ahead, while Nico Rosberg has just a two point advantage over Alex Wurz. Fisichella and Wurz have a lot to prove in a short time.
The drivers' title aside, currently the most talked about scenario seems to be whether the antagonism of the McLaren boys will see them eventually take each other out in any of the last races. Hmm, seeing as the constructors' title is now irrelevant to them let's just say it wouldn't be a huge surprise. If such an incident does occur no doubt the Ferrari duo would be delighted.