Maranello, 8 October – k Formula 1’s final foray to the Far East for 2013 is one of the undoubted highlights of the season, our annual visit to Suzuka circuit for the Japanese Grand Prix. The event has played a significant role in the history of the sport and, because it frequently brought the curtain down on the season, the race here has decided the outcome of the Drivers’ World Championship no fewer than thirteen times. Most of the Japanese GPs have been staged here with the exception of four at the Fuji Speedway and this year will be the twenty fifth time Formula 1 has come to Suzuka.
Originally designed as a test track for Honda cars and motorbikes, the 5.807 kilometres feature every conceivable type of corner and a figure of eight layout. It’s an incredible challenge for the drivers, so why not let them tell us about it? “It’s a fantastic track, for me one of the best of the season,” reckons Felipe Massa. “Spa and Suzuka give me the most driving satisfaction of all and Sector 1 at Suzuka is really wonderful, with one corner after another, changes of direction all the time, as it rises and drops. A real nice track which gives the driver plenty to do and I love going there. The first sector is the nicest in my opinion with reasonably fast corners with plenty of big changes of direction. In sector 2 you have one quick right handed corner and then the famous hairpin, the slowest turn at the track. Then in the third sector you have a reasonably long straight and the chicane at the end, so put them all together and you have a bit of everything.” Fernando Alonso echoes his team-mates enjoyment of Sector 1. “Suzuka is definitely a very, very nice track to drive, especially the first sector with all the fast Esses,” says the Spaniard. “I’d say it’s a track that definitely needs to be tackled in a very aggressive manner, where aerodynamics is the most important factor, because you have a lot of high speed corners and so the aero has to be perfect to be fast in Suzuka. Then the changeable weather that is a feature at this time of year means it is a very demanding race, not just for the drivers but also for the engineers.”
It’s a sad fact that, at some races, the teams are putting on a show for the TV cameras, with only sparsely populated grandstands, but Suzuka is always a sell-out, where the crowd adds greatly to the atmosphere. “I think Japan has one of the most incredible set of fans in general, and many of them are also cheering for Ferrari,” agrees Felipe. “Even on Thursday when there is no track action, the fans are there in the grandstands opposite the pits, whether it is dry or raining. That’s the most incredible thing about racing in Japan, looking at the excitement and the love the fans have for Formula 1. The people are fantastic, very well educated I think it’s a lesson in life going to Japan and living among them for a while.” Even if the Suzuka crowd is a knowledgeable one, the purpose of Friday’s two sessions is not always easy to understand. “On Friday, normally we concentrate on testing new components that we bring to every race, although maybe we do a bit less of that at this late stage in the season,” explains Fernando. “The first session is all about aerodynamics and the second we really look into the two types of tyre, the two compounds we have to use over the weekend, assessing their performance over a single lap and also on a long run.”
“The first free practice session allows you to begin to understand how the car is handling and gives you an idea if the set-up is likely to be going in the right direction,” adds Felipe. “You don’t do that many laps in the first session. Then in the second one, you do just a few laps on the new tyres, before pitting to put as much fuel in as you can and start a race simulation. So the second session is a bit more linked to the race, to get a feeling for the car on full tanks, and then on Saturday, you look much more towards the afternoon’s qualifying, with low fuel and so on.”
The circuit is also very challenging for the engineers. The key requirements are plenty of aerodynamic downforce, because although there are many high speed corners, there are very few straight sections and even the main downhill straight past the pits is not that long. The first sector requires a stiffly sprung car to deal with those violent and rapid changes of direction and pretty much the only part of a Formula 1 car that has an easy time here is the brakes, because there is only one heavy braking area, the one before the final chicane. As for the tyres, they too come under a lot of strain with the constant cornering forces, which is why Pirelli will be supplying its two hardest compounds, the Hard and the Medium.
Fernando has won the Japanese Grand Prix twice, the most recent victory coming at Fuji in 2008. “But the nicest memory was in 2006, my only win here in Suzuka, which was also very important in my fight for the World Championship title,” he recalls. “As for Japan itself, I like the culture, where education and discipline feature very strongly and the people are so polite. I am a fan of Samurai culture in particular and that is one of the things that inspires me and makes me happy when I come here.” Felipe has also been a visitor to the Suzuka podium. “I’ve got good memories of my two second places here, especially the one in 2006 when I started from pole after doing a fantastic lap in qualifying and I came second again last year. I think my driving style suits this rather old style track with all its fast corners.” Apart from the Brazilian’s driving style, the Scuderia Ferrari crew will be hoping it also better suits the F138’s characteristics than the Korean track, so that Fernando and Felipe can keep the title fight alive for some time longer.