Saturday Night Fever: Soggy Suzuka

Assuming everything runs to schedule we could be in for a spectacular Sunday at Suzuka, with a frantic qualifying session followed by just a few hours of preparation for the race. And who knows what the weather will do? Adam Cooper tells all

Saturday Night Fever: Soggy Suzuka

With the big storm having missed Suzuka it now seems likely that there won't be too many problems awaiting the teams on Sunday morning, but there is still one major concern.

There's been a lot of rain in the region in recent weeks, and after non-stop precipitation through Friday and most of Saturday, the place is pretty saturated. More rain is expected on Saturday night, and while there are conflicting reports, it seems that there could be more rain on Sunday morning - although it's generally thought that the race will be dry.

All this means that the track could still be very wet indeed come Sunday morning, and there is a risk that there could be puddles or streams that make it impossible for the cars to go out, at least at the scheduled 9am start time. The other problem is that a lot of mud and dirt could have washed onto the circuit.

At the moment the plan is to follow a normal qualifying procedure, with the first runs at 9am and the ones that count at 10am. That should see qualifying finished shortly before 11am.

If the track is not ready for action at 9am, there is a small window for a delay. But at some point the FIA will decree that it's too late, so we'll go straight into the race at 2.30pm. The grid will then be decided by lottery, and if that happens, it could be absolutely awesome...

As it gets dark not much after 5pm, the start cannot be pushed back much further than 3pm.

Assuming things do go to plan, the pit lane opens for the cars to go to the grid at 2pm. So by the time they are released from parc ferme there will be less than three hours in which to get them race prepared and the same amount of time for teams to look at possible strategies. Wherever they end up on the grid, they are of course stuck with the fuel load they selected for the second runs.

The bottom line is that the teams are heading into the race with less preparation that they have ever had before. All they've had up to now is two very wet sessions on Friday, and not surprisingly, some drivers didn't do too many laps for safety's sake. Wet or dry on Sunday, they are now at a disadvantage. For the record, here are the lap totals for Friday, which of course includes lots of in and out laps:

J Trulli...17
T Glock...16
Z Baumgartner...15
J Villeneuve...13
G Fisichella...12
C Klien...12
N Heidfeld...11
F Alonso...11
M Webber...11
G Bruni...11
M Schumacher...10
K Raikkonen...10
D Coulthard...10
R Barrichello...9
R Schumacher...9
J Button...8
T Sato...7
J Montoya...7
F Massa...5
O Panis...2

Massa didn't actually complete a flying lap, but managed to crash in the first session and have a spectacular spin in the second! As you can see Panis has not enjoyed ideal preparation for his final race...

Suzuka is not an easy track to learn in the dry for newcomers like Klien and Glock, and in the wet it is extremely tricky, and you have to know the lines and so on. It hasn't rained at a Japanese GP for many years; even someone as experienced as Trulli had not sampled the place in the wet until this weekend. The small number of guys who do have that sort of experience does of course include both Ferrari drivers, and Jacques Villeneuve...

Anything is possible for Sunday. It could be wet all day, it could be dry all day, or we could have a wet qualifying and dry race.

If it is dry in the morning all these guys will just have one pre-qualifying run to get a feel for the track, on a green (but probably brown!) surface. Conditions will change quickly - you could make an adjustment after the first run and find that the track is better and more grippy for the second. And then you'll be stuck with it for the race.

Don't forget that the China result means that Barrichello, Button, Raikkonen, Alonso and Montoya are first out, while Michael will be 12th and his brother Ralf the only quick guy near the back of the queue in 18th.

Dry tyre choice will almost be down the flip of a coin. The decision has to be made by 9am, ie just before the first runs.

Takuma Sato's race engineer BAR's Jock Clear will be in the firing line come Sunday, as the eyes of the country will be on his man.

"Obviously people are going to have to take early decisions on set-up and tyres without having the information," says Clear. "It's going to be quite interesting to see who's got the better simulations, who's got the better read on the tyre situation. And we don't know what the track conditions are going to be like on Sunday. We've tested at Jerez and Silverstone with these tyres, so we have enough information to make a decision, but it's probably the same information that other people have.

"We know enough about things like fuel consumption; simulation is pretty accurate, as it is on overall downforce level. The only thing we're missing really is the fine detail of the set-up, getting a better set-up over a long run compared to a better set-up in qualifying. That's often not easy to predict. There may be people who look good in qualifying and struggle in the race, or vice versa. Normally by the time you get to qualifying people have a pretty good idea of where their compromise is, but here people could be struggling to look after their tyres.

"Even in a normal race weekend when the track has been dry all weekend the difference in conditions between pre-qualifying and qualifying can be quite big. Jenson is going second, so it's almost too risky to base any changes on that. The track will be completely different an hour later. But if we were to choose qualifying out of a hat, I think it would be brilliant...'

As you can probably surmise, it could be a pretty interesting day. Several points are worth making. It was as clear as anything that in proper wet conditions, Bridgestone has a huge advantage, with Fisichella and the Jordans joining the Ferraris at the top of the times. But as we've seen in the past, Michelin should still be on top on the dry side of intermediate conditions. And if it's dry but cold the Bridgestone runners are going to be in trouble when it comes to getting heat into the tyres.

If we do have a slightly strange grid, don't forget that passing is very hard at Suzuka, and the race does tend to break up into packs. Some fairly quick guys could find themselves badly held up...

Suzuka to reward quick thinkers

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