By Tom Keeble, USA
With the drivers' title already clinched, the attention is now switched to the Constructors' Championship, with McLaren and Renault ready to continue their fight at this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix. Tom Keeble previews the race and rates the teams' chances of success ahead of the eighteenth round of the 2005 season
Suzuka hosts the Japanese Grand Prix for the eighteenth and penultimate round of the season. The unique figure of eight circuit is popular with teams, drivers and spectators, rewarding excellent set-up, efficient aerodynamics and powerful engines. As it consists of numerous types of flowing corners, it is highly technical and drivers can make a difference. The high speed corners will punish poor set-up by wearing tyres, and there's always "weather"!
With the Drivers' Championship sown up, it is all about the prestige of the Constructors' Championship for the final two races of the season. McLaren are looking for a perfect result to put it out of reach of Renault, whilst the Enstone outfit have been working hard to develop their car well enough to restore their lead.
Track: The main straight sees cars getting to 200mph on the main straight as they head downhill to the fast opening corner, which leads in to the critical, 95mph second corner: a clean exit is vital to the first sector. Accelerating to 150mph, the "Esses" of turns three through six where smoothness and rhythm emphasised and speeds can drop to 135mph. The blind, uphill, left handed Dunlop curve follows, before cars get back up to 180mph ahead of the double right hander, Degner: the first corner is fast and blind, leading in to the 75mph second corner. Degner leads to a bridge, where the circuit crosses itself.
At the end of the straight, the 40mph hairpin is the slowest corner on the track, followed by a long acceleration up to 185mph through a slight right hander, leading to the Spoon Curve. This is another double corner is taken at 125mph in the first section, dropping 25mph for the second, which leads to a long straight ahead of the 180mph 130R: a corner that now allows cars to follow through relatively closely to set up an overtaking attempt at the final corner, the 45mph Chicane.
Tyres: The figure of eight circuit means more wear than usual for the tyres, but the high speed corners dictate relatively hard compounds in order to withstand the stresses. Tyre choice could prove complicated, due to the considerable evolution to the surface as rubber is laid down over the weekend.
Weather: With rain often a significant player at the Japanese Grand Prix, it should come as no surprise that showers are predicted for most of the weekend. Even if the rain doesn't interfere with the sessions directly, the cloud cover should help to ensure temperatures remain low.
Strategy: Although it was a mix of three and two stops in 2004, there should be a clear benefit to carrying a little extra fuel this year: making a three-stop strategy work would require drivers to make passes, so an aggressive strategy is quite likely to backfire. On the other hand, high fuel loads carry a noticeable penalty through the high speed corners, but expecting to be marginal on wear for the full race distance might gamble on this approach.
This race can be rough on engines - Williams measured 6G through 130R last year, which puts interesting stresses the oil systems; yet the high speed nature of the circuit rewards powerful engines almost as much as efficient aerodynamics, so teams will be taking them to the limit: don't be surprised to see drivers compelled to back off before the end of the race in order to make the finish, though.
Surprises: Drivers who make up places on this circuit include the experienced trio of David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello; if they stay out of trouble at the start, they should have strong races.
Conclusions: McLaren are clearly the team on form and favourite for another double to lock up the Constructors' Championship; Renault's improved form should let them compete for the podium, though the home teams BAR and Toyota will be looking to mix it up, they aren't real contenders. Wet conditions should allow Ferrari to look more competitive, but a dry race would see them struggle to score good points.
Team by Team
Although Ferrari have struggled all season, they continue to be a threat to the unwary at every event. In Brazil, Michael Schumacher illustrated considerable poise to finish ahead of Fisichella, whilst Rubens Barrichello was not too far behind. Considering the emphasis that Toyota and BAR will be putting on their home events, scoring decent points is going to be a tough challenge: this could be a long weekend for Ferrari.
Development effort is really going on the new car for next season, so there is not expected to be much in the way of chassis evolution for the last couple of races: that said, work progresses apace with Bridgestone, so there is always hope that the team will find something extra there. Furthermore, on a full wet track, the team think they have an advantage over their Michelin-shod rivals; a weekend full of showers might give the team their only genuinely competitive shot at a race this year.
Drivers: On any circuit where the driver can make a difference, Schumacher cannot be completely ruled out - though there might be nothing he can do about the McLaren or Renault challenges this weekend. Barrichello is no slouch here either: this circuit suits the Brazilian's style and he looks particularly good when it gets wet. With both drivers on top of their game, both can look for points.
Objectives: Qualify in the top eight, finish in the points - with a podium if it rains.
Finishing a lap down and behind both Ferrari's in Brazil was not what BAR had in mind for that weekend, so they are looking to put that to rights at their home event. Aiding that aim, both drivers will be racing a 'Suzuka special' Honda engines: a noticeable step up in power that ought to help improve the odds.
Of course, before they can expect to score well, they have to work out why they were off the pace in Brazil; the car never seemed to be quite properly balanced - something that will carry far more cost in Japan. The team will be working very hard to be sure they have something to show the Honda board, now that the manufacturer is intent on completing the buyout.
They would be particularly appreciative of finishing ahead of Toyota.
Drivers: Both Jenson Button and Takuma Sato could have their work cut out this weekend, if the cars are as difficult to get balanced as they were in Brazil. The smoother circuit should help a little, as will the more powerful engines, but the bottom line is that the more predictably the car drives, the better the performance they will get from it. Both drivers have a good history as Suzuka, with Sato particularly keen to make a good showing in front of his fans. Finishing on the podium would require mistakes from other teams, but it would be a worthy goal for the weekend.
Objectives: Qualify well, beat Toyota and score points - targeting a podium.
A decent race in Brazil was enough for Fernando Alonso to clinch the drivers' title, but McLaren's domination has left Renault a couple of points behind in the Constructors'. This leaves the team needing to take the fight back to McLaren in the closing races.
With new aero and suspension changes coming through in Japan, the team are hoping they have put their drivers in a position to compete for the win; whilst the gap will probably be closer, they are probably not in going to be in a position to climb the top step of the podium unless mistakes are made in the McLaren camp: this might not be an easy weekend.
Drivers: Alonso is riding a high after clinching his Championship, but is widely expected to continue to drive hard for the last races: if the team keep their heads and the race is wet, then he has a real chance of winning. Which is not to say that Giancarlo Fisichella should be overlooked: his performance last year was very solid and he often puts on a good show in Japan. With both drivers on song, McLaren will have to ensure both cars finish well to maintain their upper hand in the Constructors' Championship.
Objectives: Qualify in the front two rows, finish on the podium; challenge McLaren all the way to the line.
The Williams duo had a terrible race in Brazil, getting taken out at the start of the race. Even with Webber putting in a bundle of laps in an attempt to improve his place in the qualifying order, that weekend was a dead loss.
Looking forward to Japan, the team have some aerodynamic enhancements coming, and they have been continuing the work on the electronic package that has been costing time off the start line, and fuel in the traction zones relative to their opponents. Williams may not be quite back to competitive form, but they are continuing to show progress and will be looking to score points.
Drivers: Mark Webber has shown well in Japan before now and is looking forward to an opportunity to maximise the BMW engine's power this weekend. Although his reputation is building as a qualifying specialist, there is a good chance of scoring decent points here: good qualifying with a canny strategy should see him finish well.
Antonio Pizzonia, on the other hand, has never raced at this circuit before; although there is extra mileage available on the engine - after the early exit in Brazil - for running in practice, he will struggle if the sessions are hit by rain.
Objectives: qualify well, score points.
After the dominant Brazil performance, there is no doubt that McLaren are favourites in Japan - and that they ought to be in a position to repeat the one-two finish and close out the Constructor's Championship.
The push from Renault to improve their form for the final races does present some challenge: this is a place where the French outfit might close the gap. However, there is no denying the excellent package McLaren will be working with and they are seeing more developments coming through for this race: unless there is heavy rain and it turns out Bridgestone have a distinct advantage, the race appears to be theirs to lose.
Drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya needs to outscore Michael Schumacher in the remaining two races to clinch third overall: after his Brazil win, the Colombian will be looking for a repeat performance. That said, Japan wasn't his best circuit last year, so Kimi Raikkonen might have the opportunity to get back on top this weekend.
Objectives: aiming for the race win - and a one-two finish.
Brazil really didn't work out for Sauber, who were basically off the pace for the race; with the pace of development from the manufacturer teams staying consistently high, it is proving ever more difficult for the outfit to stay on terms with them. Accordingly, beating Red Bull remains the main aim for the weekend - though trying to score more points is always on the agenda.
For this weekend, the team will be showing little change from Brazil, though a higher downforce set-up is probably in order; they are secure in eighth spot and unlikely to make up ten points to catch Red Bull, so concentrating development effort on getting together with BMW and next year's car is more important.
Drivers: Felipe Massa has been putting in some excellent qualifying runs, and following them up with some solid races. Last year the Sauber chassis was well suited to the technical Suzuka track, and this year the aerodynamics are even better; he will be looking to cause some upset and get in to the points.
Jacques Villeneuve did not have a great weekend in Brazil, but he likes Japan and when he gets into the groove there, goes very well: considering his generally improving form with the team, he should give Massa some competition here.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten; score a point - beat Red Bull.
The tail end of the season has not been kind to Red Bull, Brazil included. David Coulthard's exit at the start deprived the team of their leading driver, whilst Christian Klien's stunning qualifying ultimately saw an unremarkable run to ninth. Still, it was encouraging that there was nearly another point to be taken, until Ralf Schumacher passed Klien near the end of the race.
In Japan, the team must be hoping for rain and then looking to make the most of wet conditions to gain positions. Their opportunistic approach to racing this year has given them the 27 points so far - indeed, Klien's five points makes Sato's season at BAR seem irrelevant. Another couple of points this weekend would ensure Sauber can't take seventh place away, though there is little chance they will be able to get back on terms with BAR.
Drivers: Coulthard's experience will be a huge boon to the team in Japan this year - particularly if the practice sessions are wet; the Scot often goes surprisingly well here, so keep an eye out for him in the race - provided his early qualifying spot doesn't leave him too far back. Klien has been to Japan before and ought to perform well, if the drivers share knowledge effectively.
Objectives: finish as well as possible, targeting a point. Beat Sauber, if possible.
After a poor showing in Brazil, where Toyota struggled to score a point, in Japan and in front of their home crowd, the team are shooting for a podium finish. This is not going to be a trivial: not only have Renault improved their game, but Ferrari are not too far off the mark themselves. Even beating BAR could be a struggle.
On the positive side, this high speed track lends itself more towards Toyota's package: if the revised car can be set up effectively and delivers as it did in testing, then the gamble could pay off. On the downside, whilst Ralf Schumacher likes the new chassis more, Jarno Trulli has found it to be more of a struggle.
Drivers: Schumacher's experience at Suzuka often comes through when the circus comes to town - he regularly outperforms his teammates here and with the introduction of a chassis that better suits his driving style, he will be looking to do the same again. A good qualifying session here, where overtaking is very difficult, could set him up for a strong race.
Whilst Jarno Trulli's qualifying speed might be compromised relative to his teammate with the new chassis, the improvement it brings should offset that disadvantage: he continues to be a threat for all the faster drivers, who will need to out-qualify him if their races are to go to plan. After a decent qualifying last year - if advantaged by the drying conditions - he must be looking forward to repeat the experience next weekend.
Objectives: target points finishes; aiming to collect another podium finish - and beat BAR.
After a fairly disappointing race in Brazil, where Narain Karthikeyan was again beaten by a Minardi and Tiago Monteiro withdrew with a dead engine - an unfortunate way to end his record run of finishes for a rookie - the outfit have to be hoping for more in Japan. The new EJ15B has not exactly been a revolution, but it is quite apparent that the improved aerodynamics has potential if the team can get enough running time to set it up effectively.
One thing that will help, is that this circuit let's better drivers get more out of the lap: shortcomings in the chassis should be slightly less obvious, so the team would hope that even if rain leaves them short of time to get set up perfectly, it won't compromise the race: indeed, a wet race might let the team gain some advantage from the Bridgestone wet tyres.
Drivers: Karthikeyan has run here before in Formula Nippon: that knowledge ought to give him a decisive performance advantage over Monteiro for the weekend, particularly in the wet, where knowing finding the grip will be a factor.
Objectives: make a good showing of the new car, beat Minardi.
With more mileage being generated by the press writing about the prospects of the new Red Bull junior team than they are able to get together for testing, there is little surprise that the team are heading to Japan with little chance of doing anything other than propping up the grid and acting following their rivals home. Although they had a fairly respectable day in Brazil, where they again beat a Jordan.
Now that Jordan are starting to work out how to get the most out of their new car, the odds of beating them are dropping. Which is not to say that it is impossible: provided the predicted showers stop Jordan from getting their cars set up effectively, there are no mistakes in the race, and any gambling on the weather actually pays off, there is a chance of finishing somewhere other than last.
Objectives: complete race distance - beat Jordan.
With the Championship convincingly sown up, the race at Suzuka was always going to be an attempt to close down Ferrari, though Williams and McLaren were tussling over fourth in the Championship. In the event, the weather played its part.
With an incoming super-typhoon threatening to drown the track on Saturday, the qualifying session was moved to Sunday morning: the wet track was drying, and the drivers were using dry weather tyres for the first time in the weekend.
Michael Schumacher looked likely to dominate from the start of the weekend, and delivered on that promise comfortably in qualifying. Brother Ralf Schumacher looked comfortable in the Williams, claiming the other front row spot - both drivers made the most of early retirements in the previous race.
Mark Webber made good use of the wet conditions to get his Jaguar up to third spot, whilst Takuma Sato's experience at the circuit was a clear benefit for finding grip in these conditions, leading his BAR team mate Jenson Button for fourth and fifth. Jarno Trulli, in his first race for Toyota, qualified sixth, whilst Giancarlo Fisichella put in a solid performance to qualify seventh.
David Coulthard looked comfortable for a change, taking his McLaren to eighth, whilst Jacques Villeneuve struggled to get up to speed in his end of season sojourn at Renault. Other notables include Raikkonen, who ran early and with heavy fuel to qualify twelfth. Montoya struggled in the first qualifying session, so he did well to make thirteenth in the second.
Turning the cars around in three hours for the race was no problem, since they had much the same time as they would under normal post-qualifying parc ferme conditions; but the time was enough for the track to finish drying before the race started.
When the lights went out, Michael Schumacher easily held of Ralf, though Webber struggled off the line, dropping to sixth. Button slipped ahead of Sato with Trulli following the BARs. The opening laps saw little action, though Fisichella passed Villeneuve for eighth, and Panis moved past Barrichello for thirteenth as the race settled.
Villeneuve acted as something of a road block, holding up a train of cars; teammate Alonso passed on lap seven, and immediately starting lapping much quicker. Around the same time, Button let the lighter fuelled Sato in to third. Before the first stops, Montoya passed Raikkonen for eleventh whilst Coulthard made a move on Webber, who was suffering from an overheating cockpit: the Jaguar driver would eventually retire because of it.
The first round of stops was fairly uneventful; Schumacher was one of the last three-stop runner to pit, just two laps before the two-stopping Button; after 20 laps, he held a twenty second lead over his brother, with Sato ten seconds further back, followed by the well spaced out Button, Coulthard and Alonso. Trulli meanwhile was coming under pressure from Montoya and Barrichello for sixth.
Montoya attacked Trulli on lap 22, but overshot the chicane, yielding his position to Barrichello: the Ferrari driver promptly passing Trulli. At the end of the main straight, the lost momentum cost Montoya another place as Fisichella made a good pass.
The second round of stops began on lap 24, with the three stoppers coming in over the next four laps; the two stoppers held off to lap 32 or so. Button was now a couple of seconds shy of his teammate, despite completing his stops.
Barrichello was closing down fifth placed Coulthard at a fair clip; on lap 38, he lined the Scot up for a pass down the inside at the chicane - but he came in too fast, and discovered the McLaren turning in as to make the corner. resulting in both cars retiring.
The third stops came and went without incident, though Sato lost his third place to Button, and the remainder of the race was processional, except for Massa's pass on Villeneuve for ninth, four laps from the end.
Point Paying Positions
Pos Driver Team Time 1. M.Schumacher Ferrari (B) 1h24:26.985 2. R.Schumacher Williams-BMW (M) + 14.098 3. Button BAR-Honda (M) + 19.662 4. Sato BAR-Honda (M) + 31.781 5. Alonso Renault (M) + 37.767 6. Raikkonen McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 39.362 7. Montoya Williams-BMW (M) + 55.347 8. Fisichella Sauber-Petronas (B) + 56.276 Fastest Lap: Barrichello, 1:32.730, lap 30 Classified: 16 from 20 starters