The Japanese Grand Prix has long been a much anticipated race on the F1 calendar for fans and drivers alike. The Suzuka circuit is the only figure 8 track in F1 and is most known for the Spoon Curve leading onto the back straight and the ‘S’ Curves after the first turn. It contains a very slow hairpin and a tight chicane which slows all the cars down before they launch onto the pit straight.
The first F1 race at Japan was one of its most famous in 1976. Won by American Mario Andretti in monsoon type conditions on the track at Fuji, it also saw Niki Lauda retire from the race due to the dangerous conditions which allowed James Hunt to race and claim his sole Drivers Championship title.
The Japanese Grand Prix wasn’t run from 1978-86 before returning in 1987 at the Suzuka track where it remained until 2007 when it returned to Fuji for two years. In 2009 it was reverted back to Suzuka where it has remained.
Mercedes has won all of the last 4 races there, with Lewis Hamilton scoring 3 of those wins and his former team mate Nico Rosberg winning there in 2016.
Hamilton has hit his straps now, while his closest competitor, Ferraris Sebastian Vettel, has had just 1 win in his last 6 races, which has seen him move from Drivers Championship leader to 50 points behind Hamilton in second place.
Hamilton and Vettel have both won 4 Japanese Grand Prix’s apiece, however one of Hamilton’s wins was at the Fuji circuit. Vettel’s form here is very impressive. He won in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013, while scoring podiums in 2011, 2014 and 2015 (3rd each time) and a 4th place in 2016. Last year he retired from the race.
There has been some severe weather this week at Suzuka. The rain is expected to continue falling during all practice sessions and possibly even qualifying, however race day is expected to be clear.
Hamilton’s recent form in both 2018 and at this track suggests he will be the one to beat yet again. The last few races has seen Mercedes enforcing team orders to protect Hamilton, at the expense of their other driver, Valtteri Bottas. If this continues, it will be hard to see Sebastian Vettel rise any higher than third. Hamilton is regarded as a better driver in wet conditions, so he would also be a better chance of claiming pole as well.
Max Verstappen has proven to be quite strong in the wet and given he is now getting preferences at Red Bull, he could well prove to be a thorn in the side of both Mercedes and Ferrari. He stands a good chance of snaring a podium. Verstappen has been performing better than expected at both Sochi and Monza - tracks where his Red Bull car is at a huge disadvantage. Both times he finished 5th, not far behind a Ferrari.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo has run 6th in both of his last two runs and given he is essentially the second driver at Red Bull now, it would seem his only chance of finishing higher is if the five cars in front of him (both Silver Arrows, both Ferraris and team mate Verstappen) are forced to retire, or Ricciardo manages to pass them despite having the slowest car of them all. He’s had 2 wins and 8 finishes in the 4th to 6th position. He’s also had to endure car troubles all year which has seen him retire six times already this year, more than any other driver.
Charles Leclerc has also been performing well above expectations in his last two starts. The rookie has placed in the points on both occasions and has shown enough to prove that he will continue that run again here.
With Mercedes proving to be a dominant force and team tactics ensuring that Lewis Hamilton is given every opportunity, it’s hard to look past another victory for Hamilton in Japan.
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