F1
Nate Saunders, F1 Associate Editor 17d

Japanese GP preview: Sebastian Vettel's fightback must start at Suzuka

Formula 1

ESPN looks ahead to the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, the 16th race of the 2017 season, and what Sebastian Vettel has to do to cut the gap to Lewis Hamilton in the championship fight. 

Focus on... Ferrari 

September 2017 is unlikely to live fondly in the memory of Ferrari and the tifosi. The Singapore Grand Prix crash involving Sebastian Vettel, his teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull's Max Verstappen was unfortunate; the double dose of engine trouble in Malaysia was nightmarish for the Italian team. "Angry" Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne responded immediately, blaming youth and inexperience in the engine department and making immediate operational changes to the 'quality department' of the team -- highlighting the tremendous pressure Maranello is under to end its wait for a championship.

The events of Malaysia, where Ferrari's supremely quick cars were struck down with engine issues on Saturday and Sunday, allowed Lewis Hamilton to move 34 points clear of Vettel in the championship. Ferrari's pace in Malaysia was mightily impressive and proved it has a car capable of reversing the tide, but the gap to the front means it is still likely to require Mercedes to hit some misfortune of its own to have a realistic chance. To put the gap into perspective, if Hamilton finishes second at all of the remaining races, Vettel would need to win all five to win the title by a single point. 

Despite struggling at the two previous races, the smart money says Mercedes should be back on form at Suzuka, a high-speed circuit rewarding its engine power and aerodynamic efficiency, with few of the characteristics of Singapore or Malaysia which so badly tested the team's diva-ish W08. For all of the team's struggles recently, Hamilton is in the supreme vein of form he demonstrated during his title-winning 2014 and 2015 campaigns, further complicating Vettel and Ferrari's hopes of overhauling the deficit in the championship. Valtteri Bottas' drop-off in form could leave Hamilton without an effective rear-gunner for the run-in, meaning Kimi Raikkonen's own performances in the final rounds could be crucial in determining how the championship is looking at the end of October.

Red Bull throws another curveball into proceedings this weekend. Revitalised by Max Verstappen's victory in Malaysia -- a win on merit -- the team looks likely to be a thorn in the side of Mercedes and Ferrari for the remainder of the year. As with Singapore, where Ferrari's drivers put Red Bull between themselves and Mercedes, the former world champions will have an intriguing role to play in the final five races if they can continue its relentless rate of development. 

In need of a win

The previous two races have made it imperative Sebastian Vettel returns to the top step in Japan. Ferrari has squandered two good opportunities to win in recent races and are in desperate need of changing momentum back in the opposite direction. A win at Suzuka -- a track expected to suit Mercedes -- would be a huge statement going into the final four races and, if he beats Mercedes on merit, provide a huge indication that the championship race is far from over.

In need of a strong weekend

Valtteri Bottas has labelled his current struggles as the worst period of his racing career. It might seem odd to call his recent run -- since winning in Austria, he's finished 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 2nd, 3rd and 5th -- disappointing but in comparison to teammate Lewis Hamilton its clear the Finn is not comfortable with the car. He's not qualified on the front row of the grid since Azerbaijan, a remarkable statistic given Mercedes' dominance at some of the races since, and he's all but out of contention in the title race. A timely return to form at Suzuka would be a huge boost to Bottas (and Mercedes) going into the final four races.

Betting

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are joint favourites to win the championship at 13/8. Red Bull's Max Verstappen (9/2) and Daniel Ricciardo (7/1) have better odds than Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas. Honda will hope to score strongly at its home race, but bookies only have 40/1 on Fernando Alonso finishing in the top ten with his McLaren. Toro Rosso is favourite to be the first retirement at 11/2.

Weather

Rain has been a factor at the last three races and it looks set to be again this weekend. The current forecasts suggest rain on Friday during the first two practice sessions, while there will be scattered showers early on Saturday. Qualifying and the race should proceed in the dry, but Suzuka is in a part of the world where the weather can change very quickly.

Prediction

Although Red Bull benefited from Mercedes' and Ferrari's problems in Sepang, the car was still very quick. Suzuka has always been a track where a good aero package counts for a lot and last year Max Verstappen split the Mercedes on track with a solid race to second place. This year, Red Bull are arguably even stronger compared to Mercedes, and with a forecast of rain during all three practice sessions, Mercedes may go conservative following their problems in Sepang. In such circumstances, we're backing Daniel Ricciardo to have the edge over the rest and take the team's second consecutive win.

Tyres

Available compounds: Medium, soft, super-soft

The circuit from a tyre point of view

  • Lateral forces through corners are the main feature, rather than traction and braking.

  • Weather, and therefore track temperatures, are quite unpredictable at this time of year.

  • Generally, there are high levels of wear and degradation: two stops was the winning strategy last year, with varied tactics.

  • Teams normally run high downforce: pushing down on the tyres to help cornering.

  • Track is quite narrow, making overtaking tricky, so strategy can make the difference.

  • Track evolution is often hard to predict and safety cars can provide another variable.

Mario Isola, head of car racing: "The Japanese Grand Prix continues the trend we've seen so far this year of bringing softer, and therefore faster, tyres to several grands prix compared to last season. In the case of Suzuka, this is particularly pertinent as it's one of the most challenging tracks for tyres of the entire year, with a very big emphasis on lateral loads that can cause thermal degradation if the tyres are not properly managed. This is also one of the reasons why the drivers enjoy Suzuka so much; with the cars travelling a lot faster through the corners this year under the new regulations with wider tyres, it's very possible that we will see another lap record fall and some truly impressive maximum g-force loadings".

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