2015 Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix Preview

SUZUKA: ‘WE’LL TAKE THE SAMURAI SPIRIT WITH US’

For the second race in a row our headline quotes Fernando Alonso. While he and teammate Jenson Button will need all their warrior spirit as McLaren head for Honda’s homeland, everyone in Formula 1 will need resolve and resilience as the sport returns to the place which ultimately cost Jules Bianchi his life.

First and foremost, the fine French driver’s Manor team – and that’s why team principal John Booth has said “this weekend we wish to deal with the experience of returning to Suzuka in a very private way”.

As we think of Jules, of course we remember the fighting qualities he showed. Every driver will need those this weekend as Suzuka poses one of the sternest challenges on the current calendar – perhaps, in fact, the toughest of all.

“It has almost the opposite characteristics to Singapore in terms of set-up, so it’s a very different challenge,” says Alonso. “We’ll take the samurai spirit with us…”

Singapore provided just the fillip the sport needed: no disrespect to Lewis Hamilton, but the Englishman had the Championship on its knees, so Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel did us all a favour by ending his apparently serene run of results.

Not that Lewis seemed to mind his Singapore failure. He called Singapore “a strange weekend” but added “I’m chilled about it.” He will need to heat up again for the Japanese fray, with Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg now 41 points behind. If that sounds a lot, it’s also a lot less than the pre-Singapore margin of 53…

The two of them produced a 1-2 for the Silver Arrows at Suzuka last year, but if it happens this time Rosberg needs to make sure he is 1 and Hamilton 2. In fact if Nico could win all six remaining races, then he would be world champion even if Lewis were second every time. Yeah, and how likely is that?

A few things have happened to bring the F1 picture into focus even in the short time since Singapore. One is that Pastor Maldonado has re-signed for Lotus, which implies that the team will still be in existence next year, albeit perhaps in a different guise.

While current team-mate Romain Grosjean is being coy about his own future, F1 insiders seem certain that the Frenchman is off to America to drive for the new Haas F1 outfit. That’s part of a longer game: Haas has very close ties to Ferrari… Kimi Raikkonen is out of contract with Ferrari at the end of 2016… there will be a seat vacant alongside Vettel for 2017…

Meanwhile Grosjean remains one of the most articulate of current drivers, waxing lyrical about a track he enjoys so much. “Sector one is unbelievable,” says Grosjean of Suzuka, “and after you have finished it you can breathe a little bit… but not for long. There is no margin for error with very little run-off area and the track is quite narrow, especially at the top of the hill. There is not a single corner on the track that is not a big challenge. I love it.”

Also fixed for the immediate future is Sergio Perez. As his home Grand Prix looms, the Mexican driver has committed to Sahara Force India, for whom he has taken three strong points-paying finishes in the last three races.

His team-mate Nico Hulkenberg serves a three-place grid penalty this weekend for his part in the clash with Felipe Massa’s Williams on the Singapore streets, but the German is also looking forward to the chance to redeem himself in Japan.

“The challenge of Suzuka is making sure you find the right rhythm,” says The Hulk, who is also staying put at Vijay Mallya’s team. “The lap is technical and you have to be precise because almost all the corners flow into the next one.”

And that means that 53 laps will also flow by very quickly. When the weather is kind the average race speed is pushing up over the 200 km/h mark; the lap record on the current lay-out is Kimi’s 1:31.540 from 2005, an average lap speed of 228.372 km/h. That was done in a McLaren: even Alonso’s samurai spirit may not carry the current car anywhere remotely close to that mark…

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