The penultimate round of the 2006 championship is a farewell to the Suzuka circuit, at least for the foreseeable future. The Japanese Grand Prix will be held at Fuji in 2007 and while Suzuka hopes to return to the calendar perhaps in 2008, it ...
The penultimate round of the 2006 championship is a farewell to the Suzuka circuit, at least for the foreseeable future. The Japanese Grand Prix will be held at Fuji in 2007 and while Suzuka hopes to return to the calendar perhaps in 2008, it remains to be seen if that will happen. Meanwhile, the title fight is approaching boiling point.
Two races, two titles, two drivers: will anything be decided at Suzuka? It is possible for Michael Schumacher to claim his eighth championship this coming weekend, if he wins and Fernando Alonso doesn't score any points, but it's more likely that the showdown will come in Brazil. That would be fitting for the last race and Schumacher's final bow.
Suzuka is a technical track with a mixture of corners and the high speed section of 'Esses' is a challenging part to get right. "There are five consecutive corners which flow beautifully and are tremendous fun if you manage to get them right," said BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld. "But if you mess up the first turn, it will pursue you right through to the last one in the sequence."
Car set up is a tricky business. "You need a good high-speed balance because there are a lot of medium and high speed changes of direction," explained Toyota's Pascal Vasselon. "Grip is always massively important, of course, but in Suzuka you might even compromise a little bit of grip in order to get a better balance. Handling is very important and the driver needs to feel confident, which ultimately gives you lap time."
The track surface is quite abrasive so tyres need good durability. Many times we've heard it said that this championship will be decided by tyres and the weather will play an all important part. The Bridgestone runners suffered in the wet at Shanghai but even the Michelin teams struggled with the switch from intermediate rubber to dry tyres on the improving track.
With one more win to his name than Alonso, Schumacher has taken over the lead of the drivers' standings despite their level points. "In Suzuka the championship almost starts from the beginning and I think that this is the ideal starting-point for all motoring enthusiasts," said Schumacher. "We are ready for a tough and tight fight; during the last two weekends it's all about giving our best."
Alonso has reportedly blamed Renault, teammate Giancarlo Fisichella, tyres and any amount of other things for the loss of his title lead. Certainly the Spaniard's overly long pit stop in Shanghai probably cost him the victory but the defending champion needs to keep his focus firmly on track if he is to stop Schumacher snatching this title away from him.
"The performance between both cars is very similar," Alonso said of Renault and Ferrari. "So the last races will be dominated by the tyres. Michelin have done a great job in Suzuka for the past couple of years, and I have a good feeling. But we are confident at Renault, and they are confident at Ferrari. So let's see what happens."
McLaren trails the leading teams by over 70 points and Kimi Raikkonen suffered another car failure in China. The Woking squad is desperate to win a race this year but although the MP4-21 was evidently competitive in China before it failed, McLaren's chances of taking a victory in the last two races look fairly slim compared to Ferrari and Renault.
CEO Martin Whitmarsh recalled two great moments of last year's Japanese GP. "Kimi's pass on Fisichella to take victory on the final lap, and of course Fernando Alonso's move to take Schumacher through the 130R were impressive to say the least and we are all looking forward to what we hope will be a similarly entertaining Grand Prix."
Heidfeld was robbed of a deserved fourth place finish in China when he got tangled up with a whole host of Hondas. The result was that he dropped to seventh and was, unsurprisingly, not happy. Robert Kubica had another eventful race and overall the team appears to be gaining in competitiveness. The same can't really be said for Toyota.
Both Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli got dropped in the first round of qualifying at Shanghai and went on to retire from the race with oil and hydraulic problems. Ralf was on pole at Suzuka last year but it's a bit of a stretch of the imagination to think a Toyota could achieve the same again this time around.
Suzuka is a home race for Bridgestone, Toyota, Super Aguri and Honda, the latter being the owner of the circuit. Super Aguri's Sakon Yamamoto was born near Suzuka and wanted to be an F1 driver ever since he saw a race at the track when he was eight years old. His career started at the Suzuka Kart Racing School when he was 12.
"I have grown up with the Suzuka circuit, so I cannot help but be excited to be going to the Japanese Grand Prix for the first time as a Formula One driver and with a Japanese team," Yamamoto commented. "Last weekend in China I finished an F1 race for the first time, so this is a good step for me going to Suzuka this week."
Opinion still seems firmly split about who will win the title this year and with Michael and Alonso both aggressive and competitive it's by no means clear cut. After Renault's strength early on, Ferrari seemed to have the advantage in the mid-season but the French squad looked to be on the pace of the reds in China, if not a little faster.
Michael has always gone well at Suzuka but Renault's Pat Symonds claims the R26 will be 'fabulous' in Japan. Let's just hope that we see some fabulous performances as well. It would be nice if just for once we could get through a weekend without any penalties, accusations, petty bickering and snide remarks. Just shut up and race!