The penultimate round of the F1 season is just a few days away and although the top three in the drivers' championship are now decided, the teams have more to play for at the Japanese Grand Prix. Ferrari's duo of Michael Schumacher and Rubens ...
The penultimate round of the F1 season is just a few days away and although the top three in the drivers' championship are now decided, the teams have more to play for at the Japanese Grand Prix. Ferrari's duo of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barricehllo, and BAR's Jenson Button are unbeatable in their first, second and third places, but at Suzuka last year it was a very different picture for Schumacher.
In 2003 Michael clinched his sixth championship in Japan, which was the last race, after a season finale battle with McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen. Ferrari's champion didn't have an easy race; he started 14th and scraped home in eighth for the single point he needed to take the title -- just two points ahead of Raikkonen overall in the standings.
This year, naturally, Schumacher is aiming for the win at Suzuka. "Last year we saw a great race, one that, happily for us, ended well," he commented. "I have good memories of the day. Maybe I'll be able to transform this into a good race as my sole objective is, obviously, victory. In any case, I'll be doing my outmost to win here."
It would have been nice if we still had a fight for the title but Schumacher and Ferrari's triumph in 2004 was never really in doubt -- so we have to make do with what's left, which is the battle for second in the constructors'. After BAR's double-points finish in Shanghai, Renault trails the Brackley squad by nine points. For the moment it seems that BAR is the favourite for the second place.
Renault will not give up, that much is for sure, but the team is in a precarious position. Fernando Alonso is it's main driver strength, while BAR has both Button and Takuma Sato capable of scoring points and podiums. Jacques Villeneuve is no slacker but Renault opted not to have him testing at Jerez last week, which seems a strange decision when the Canadian surely needs more time behind the wheel.
While the focus is on those two rivals, behind them another fight is heating up. McLaren, for all its woes of the early season, is now only six points behind Williams. That says quite a lot for McLaren's improvements and an equal amount about Williams' lack of progression. Of course, Williams' season has not been without its own problems but it surely didn't expect McLaren to catch up so rapidly.
Juan Pablo Montoya has previously been competitive at Suzuka and is well aware of Williams' tenuous grip on its position in the standings. "The track should suit our package, which makes me fairly confident for a good result," he said. "It was good to collect some points in China and I am aiming to score some more in Japan, as we really need to strengthen our position in the Constructors' Championship."
Renault is not yet free and clear of Williams and McLaren is the same with Sauber but the gap in points looks unlikely to be closed. Alonso's fourth place in the drivers' standings is by no means safe -- Montoya and Fernando's now-ex temmate Jarno Trulli are both only four points behind. But, to be honest, fourth is really not much to get excited about.
Suzuka is a technical circuit and is demanding on both the drivers and the teams. There are high-speed sections and tight corners but few overtaking opportunities. Good brakes are needed for the hairpin and the chicane, and set up has to be a compromise between straight-line speed and downforce. The car also has to be well balanced, especially for the changes of direction at the esses.
From the Spoon Curve to the chicane is 16 seconds at full throttle and the 130R is a challenging, high speed corner. The track surface is abrasive and the figure-of-eight layout means equal tyre wear on each side. Tyres will be from the mid to hard end of the compound range and Japan is, of course, Bridgestone's home race.
"We are extremely excited to be moving on to our home round where over a thousand Bridgestone employees will get the chance to cheer on our teams at Suzuka," said Hiroshi Yasukawa, director of motorsport. "Many of the staff involved in our Formula 1 programme are based in Japan and this is their only chance to attend a GP and see Bridgestone's teams in action for themselves. We aim to give them a good show."
The Honda-owned Suzuka circuit is also the home track of Sato. "There is a big following for F1 in Japan and personally for me, at my home Grand Prix, the feeling driving there is unbelievable," said the BAR driver. "The fans at Suzuka always support me very well and they are so enthusiastic!"
Trulli returns to racing this weekend with Toyota, a move that came as no surprise. Ever since Renault dropped him and the Cologne based squad confirmed him for 2005, the Italian was expected to be in a Toyota race seat before the end of this year.
"It will be a big challenge for me to join Panasonic Toyota Racing for the final two races of this season in Japan and Brazil, but I am more motivated than ever before," said Trulli. "I have had four days testing over the last three weeks, working mainly on making myself comfortable in the car and settling into my new team."
Suzuka is a new beginning for Trulli but a final farewell for Olivier Panis. It will be the Frenchman's last Formula One race before he retires from competition -- he will step aside at the end of the season in Brazil so Ricardo Zonta can compete in his home race. Next year Panis will stay with Toyota in a test role.
"I always enjoy racing in front of the Japanese Toyota fans, but this year's event will also be quite emotional for me because it will be my final Formula One race," he commented. "Although I will miss the excitement of racing, I will have the chance to give a big input in Panasonic Toyota Racing's future in my new role as third driver."
Unsurprisingly, there's fighting talk from Renault and BAR: "At the next two races we hope to see things swing back in our favour," said Renault technical director Bob Bell. "Make no mistake, BAR will be very tough to beat, but we will be giving them a good run for their money and expect to be a lot closer at the next races."
BAR boss David Richards is equally determined. "We were delighted to play our part in a thrilling F1 baptism for the Chinese GP last weekend, and of course to extend our lead over Renault to a very pleasing nine-point margin," he commented ahead of BAR's 100th race. "However, we are certainly not out of the woods yet and we have a tough battle on our hands in the last two Grands Prix."
We've not had a really wet race this season. There's been a couple of soggy qualifying sessions and Monza tried to be wet but didn't quite make it. Currently the weather forecast for Suzuka is rain and thunderstorms. Weather predictions have been rather hit and miss this season so don't count on it -- but it would make for an interesting race.