Japanese Grand Prix Preview: Vettel battles to stay in title picture in Suzuka

By Neil Leverett

  • Round 16 of Formula 1 season moves on to Suzuka, Japan
  • Lewis Hamilton holds 34-point advantage over Sebastian Vettel in Drivers’ Championship
  • Final race of three in Asia, after Max Verstappen won in Malaysia last time out
SUZUKA, JAPAN – With just five races remaining on the calendar, Formula 1 arrives in Japan with Lewis Hamilton holding 34-point lead in title race with five races left.

 

Can Vettel end Asian tour on high?

A second-successive Asian failure in the space of a fortnight, was a two-fold body blow to Sebastian Vettel that has dealt severe, but not terminal damage to the German’s title hopes this season.

After a double take-out by both teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in Singapore, the Ferrari driver’s misfortune continued apace last weekend as Vettel suffered engine failure that caused his car to smoke and subsequent failure to qualifying, forcing the 30 year-old to start from the back of the grid in Kuala Lumpur.

The German could only finish fourth despite a drive of marvel in the final Malaysian GP. With Lewis Hamilton finishing second behind Verstappen on this occasion, the Briton had opened up a sizeable advantage in the Drivers’ Championship.

As the circuit arrives in Japan for Round 16, this weekend sees Vettel’s chance to salvage not only what has been a miserable month for both he and the Italian red, and for his own chances of glory next month in Abu Dhabi.

Hamilton knows only too well of the threat Ferrari poses due to its superior speed on the Suzuka track, despite what has been a hugely humbling section of the F1 calendar where Vettel was set to open up a decision lead in the race for Dubai’s finale. At least on paper, or indeed tarmac.

The 34-point lead to overhaul now stand as something of a sporting Matterhorn to overcome at this stage in proceedings, but momentum in this sport is an unpredictable beast at the best of times.

 

Weather threatens to thwart Ferrari once more

Vettel is still seen as somewhat of a favourite on Sunday and his opening drive in first practice highlighted that fact. However, such as been proved in the last few races of the season, the weather sits ready to douse Ferrari hopes once more.

In a wet second practice early on Friday, Hamilton then usurped his rival to finish fastest once more and as the Briton has shown this term, when it comes to a damp track he is the undisputed master in such conditions.

Whilst race day itself is forecast to be sunny, qualifying remains a rather cloudier picture quite literally. Rain is a possibility for Saturday morning in the area and even with a dry track, the cooler conditions could favour the Mercedes Benz engine.

Not only that, but with Hamilton able to play somewhat of a cautious game, Ferrari may be forced to opt for a risky tire change or pit strategy.

With the United States Grand Prix two weeks away, it will be the Brit’s aim to reduce any damage to his existing lead as the drivers roll into Austin in a fortnight’s time.

 

Will Suzuka live up to its hype?

In the pantheon of F1, Suzuka stands as one of the most historic venues when it comes to race drama down the years. As one of the oldest and most popular tracks of both driver and fan alike, the 5.8km, 18-turn circuit has staged sporting drama of its’ highest level.

1976 saw James Hunt’s and Niki Lauda’s battle for the title reaching its’ dramatic conclusion on the rain-drenched speedway, which saw Hunt claim the world title – much to his own surprise – after Lauda retired but with the Briton also suffering problems of his own.

Continuing the hill metaphor of Vettel’s task ahead, Damon Hill has described the Japanese race as “a bit like our Everest or K2”. In previous years, Japan has seen the finale of seasons’ gone by also.

1998, Mika Hakkinen led Michael Schumacher by four points into the final race and held his nerve to take the title. Two years later the pair fought again, before Schumacher gained vengance and took the win and his third title by two seconds. With four races to go after this weekend, can Suzuka provide a fitting send-off for this campaign’s Asian adventure?

The Japanese Grand Prix takes place between 6-8 October.

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