At a venue which has played host to an array of decisive championship moments – both good and bad – for Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel now pins his hopes on one of the most dramatic ends to a season in Formula One history, starting with Suzuka, a venue at which they last tasted success back in 2004.
As Ferrari know all too well, it can only take a couple of races to derail a championship challenge. Last year at Suzuka, a spark plug problem forced Vettel into race retirement, and the win for Hamilton put the Briton 59 points ahead with four rounds to go.
After his win in Sochi, Lewis Hamilton’s lead at the top of the drivers’ standings has become increasingly secure. In theory, he can now afford to retire from the next two races and still hold the championship lead, even if Vettel wins both races. In this scenario, he would be ahead due to having more wins than Vettel.
To put it another way, if Vettel somehow manages to win the final five races, Hamilton would only require four third-place finishes and one second-place finish to take the title. Five third-place finishes would put them level on points, but Vettel would take the title due to having more wins.
Clearly, along with trying to find some extra pace, Ferrari need some extenuating circumstances in order to claw themselves back into the championship fight; Mercedes have won all hybrid era races and locked out the front row from 2014-2016. They would’ve locked out the front row last year, but a gearbox penalty for Valtteri Bottas ended their run.
However, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff claims that Mercedes aren’t resting on their laurels and that they’re expecting a response from Ferrari at Suzuka.
“We left Sochi with a bigger lead in both championships. But we know that doesn’t mean anything because our fight with Ferrari is far from being over,” said Wolff.
“The battle with Ferrari remains extremely close, as was underlined by Sebastian’s pace on Sunday and the pressure he put us under.
“Suzuka will be another challenging weekend for us – we will need the very best from our team, our car and our drivers to come out on top.
“It’s a track that shows some similarities to Silverstone, where we didn’t perform as strongly this year as we had done in previous seasons. So we’re going to Japan knowing that we all have to be at our very best if we want to claim the win.”
Red Bull, meanwhile, will be encouraged by their pace shown at the Sochi Autodrom. They were closer to the ultimate pace than many expected them to be, and this should offer them some encouragement heading to Japan, which relies a little less on outright power unit performance.
The Milton Keynes team always have the option of returning to the higher-performance ‘Spec C’ Renault power unit, which they were saving for the Grands Prix where they could be closer to the front.
The weather is often a factor at the Japanese Grand Prix, and rain is expected to play a part in at least some of the weekend. For Ferrari, rain was the game-changer (to their detriment) at the likes of Hockenheim and Budapest, but could this be an element that gives them a fighting chance in the championships?
Haas & Force India to flourish at Suzuka?
After a couple of non-scoring races (including a disqualification at Monza which is subject to appeal), Haas chipped away into Renault’s hold of fourth place in the constructors’ championship.
Kevin Magnussen’s eighth-place finish, coupled with Renault’s failure to score, has resulted in the gap coming back down to eleven points. Interestingly, this also put Magnussen joint-seventh with Nico Hulkenberg in the drivers’ championship, at the head of the ‘class B’ race.
Haas performed well at Suzuka last year – taking only their second double-points finish of 2017 – and, with their car now being towards the front of the midfield, they’re anticipating being able to battle for points this year too. The VF-18 is particularly handy through the fast corners, but it will be intriguing to see if they can strike a balance in setups for both the fast and slow corners at this technical circuit.
Also hoping to be in contention for a strong points haul are Force India, who have never failed to score less than five points at the Suzuka circuit in the hybrid era.
The extra three points they bagged in Sochi means that they continue to close in on sixth-placed McLaren, who have only one points finish in the last four races.
The gap between the teams is now down to 23 points, meaning Force India will be setting themselves a target of out-scoring McLaren by an average of around five points per race. This should be achievable if current form is to be maintained; since becoming Racing Point Force India, they’ve been averaging 8.75 points per race.
Many in the Japanese crowd will also have their eyes on Toro Rosso-Honda, who will be hoping to successfully implement their internal combustion engine upgrades for a strong showing on home soil.
By: Luke Murphy
All images: Motorsport Images
Do you think Vettel can cut the deficit to Hamilton in the championship race? Who do you think will perform well at Suzuka? Leave your comments in the section below.