After the amazing Singapore GP experience it is time to move to Japan and for second year in a row to Fuji Speedway. Although this will be the second GP on the revamped Fuji track it still remains sort of an uknown quantity. Torrential rains turned the 2007 Japanese GP into a speedboat race and so we are yet to see how the Formula 1 car racing here looks.
The 2007 race was a bizzare spectacle. The race had to be started behind the safety car and continued in that fashion for 18 laps. Ferraris messed up the tyres and had to pit following the orders from FIA (hey, there really are times FIA rules against Marenello). At that point it looked like that blunder handed the 2007 title to Lewis Hamilton (before he handed it to Kimi).
The race took off after those 18 laps, crashes followed (see the Japanese GP Video Preview for flashback), Vettel hit Webber behind safety car (and behind erratic Lewis Hamilton – see this video) while both Red Bull family cars were poised for podiums. The other memorable moments – Kovalainen vs Raikkonen for 2nd place and Massa vs Kubica for 6th – see video. It was race full of excitement but it also created controversies. The decision to actually go ahead with that race under those horrible conditions was questioned after race, even raising questions about the track itself being the right venue for F1. The behaviour of Lewis Hamilton behind the safety car that resulted in that Vettel Webber incident was investigated before Chinese GP after amateur (and “illegal”) video surfaced on YouTube (no penalty imposed on Hamilton but the original 10 places grid penalty to Vettel was changed to reprimand only).
Fuji Speedway is sort of a “normal Tilke style” track. That means we have a very long straight – the longest in F1 actually, 1.475 km – and some tight corners. This being a normal track of sorts means we should expect the usual suspects fighting it for the win – Ferrari and McLaren.
Although there are still mathematically 5 drivers in the hunt for the title it does look now like a 2 horse race. We can expect both Fins to work for their team mates. Kovalainen has been doing that for better part of the year, and for Kimi not winning or making podiums will not be anything unusual (last podium and points back in Hungary, last win all the way back in Barcelona). Both Ferrari drivers should be on new engines in Japan, both McLaren drivers on old ones, although Hamilton still has the engine joker in hand (see engine and other 2008 stats).
Ferrari drivers are aiming for 1-2 finishes in the remaining 3 races of the season, preferably with Massa in front. They only managed three 1-2 finishes this season, the last one in France, so one can say this is a big task. Still, they may be able to do that but only if the team stops making stupid mistakes, no engines blow up and Kimi finally returns back to podium.
At the same time Hamilton can play it conservatively, he does not need to win any more races to win the title. But would he be able to hold back for the second race in a row ?
And there are always the guys behind who can spoil it for the front runners – BMW Sauber with Kubica still with (very slim) chance for the title and relaxed Nick Heidfeld with new contract in the pocket, Fernando Alonso charged up following his good practice form and (lucky) win in Singapore, the Toyotas at home, ready to get back that 4th place in constructors table from Renault, Sebastian Vettel regularly in points since German GP and Kazuki Nakajima, the only driver eyeing home glory in Japan this year…
Track technical info (ING Renault data):
The Fuji Speedway mixes very slow corners with a long main straight designed to encourage overtaking maneuvers. The teams therefore need to adopt a compromise in terms of set-up in order to balance straightline speed with grip in the low-speed sections. Mechanical grip and an engine with good low-end performance will therefore pay dividends and count towards a competitive lap time.
The Fuji circuit is dominated by slow-speed corners, so mechanical grip will be a critical factor. This is likely to push the teams towards a relatively soft overall set-up, much like in Bahrain for example, although achieving a good change of direction will be important in the tight, slow-speed sections, which may push teams towards a stiffer front end. Traction will be a critical parameter, as cars performing poorly on the exit of turn 16 will be vulnerable to overtaking maneuvers on the main straight, or into turn 1. Due to the smooth nature of the new tarmac, the cars can run with a reasonably low ride height as there is little concern of the car bottoming-out.
In terms of downforce level, the circuit has been designed on the modern principle, which requires teams to sacrifice lap-time (and downforce) in order to achieve competitive top speeds on the straight to make up or defend position. As such, the cars will be running lower-than-optimum wing settings for the twistier sections, further emphasising the importance of good mechanical performance.
The circuit includes only two medium to high-speed corners, at turn 3 and the long 180° right-hander of turns 4 and 5. The latter in particular is likely to see the cars suffering from a high amount of understeer, which the drivers and engineers will work to dial out through the weekend without compromising the slow-speed performance.
Brakes and Tyres
The brakes will have a relatively easy time, with just two major braking events, into turns 1 and 10 – and plenty of time to cool in between. In terms of tyre energies, the circuit is not particularly severe owing to the absence of high-speed corners; however, rear tyre wear is an important parameter due to the heavy traction demands, and the penalty that excessive wear will bring in terms of making a driver vulnerable to overtaking. Bridgestone will therefore supply the soft and medium compounds from its 2008 range for this race, as was the case last year.
And … The tyres will be green in Japan, F1 will show its support for the FIA’s Make Cars Green campaign by running on specially prepared green-grooved tyres at the Japanese Grand Prix:
I want to see the wet weather versions of these .
Fuji does not provide a particularly tough test for the V8 engines with just 53% of the lap spent at full throttle, but the problems it poses are poles apart. The long main straight will see the engines at full throttle for over 17 seconds, providing a severe test for some of the major moving parts. For most of the rest of the lap, though, good low-end performance will be critical and a torquey engine will be an important asset in launching the cars out of the low-speed corners towards the end of the lap. Smooth mapping will also be important for maintaining car stability, as the cars will often be downshifting while turning and braking in the final part of the lap.
Here are top ten from the extreme wet race that was 2007 Japanese GP:
1. L. Hamilton – McLaren – 2:00:34.579
2. H. Kovalainen – Renault + 8.377
3. K. Räikkönen – Ferrari + 9.478
4. D. Coulthard – Red Bull + 20.297
5. G. Fisichella – Renault + 38.864
6. F. Massa – Ferrari + 49.042
7. R. Kubica – BMW Sauber + 49.200
8. A. Sutil – Spyker + 1:01.100
9. V. Liuzzi – Toro Rosso + 1:20.600
10. R. Barrichello – Honda + 1:28.300
Photos: Red Bull/GEPA, Bridgestone