The 3.6-mile track, which has the only figure of eight-style crossover of the season, features a tantalising mix of fast, demanding corners and technical, potentially lap time-draining sections that make Suzuka one of the best – and toughest – challenges in the motorsport world. It’s right up there in the same league as Spa, Monza and Silverstone.
Here are some of the talking points that are likely to be major features of the 2019 Japanese GP, which takes place next weekend.
This is the biggest race of the year for Honda, not simply because it takes place in Japan but more pertinently because Suzuka is owned by the car giant. Pride, honour, not losing face – these are factors that matter deeply in Japanese culture, which makes a strong showing from Honda-powered Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso imperative this weekend.
The days of Fernando Alonso publicly comparing Honda’s F1 engine to a GP2 powerplant, via the team radio at this of all tracks, are now an increasingly distant bad memory. Such was the sense of dishonour felt keenly by Honda’s bosses, Alonso’s relationship with the car maker never recovered. The opposite is true for Honda’s F1 form.
Red Bull’s apparent gamble to switch from Renault to Honda power for 2019 has been emphatically justified this season, especially by Max Verstappen’s form. Two victories, Honda’s first in motorsport’s premier division since 2006, have proven that Honda has the chops to live with Mercedes and Ferrari at the sharp end. A decent result at its own circuit would cap Honda’s breakthrough season in the best and most important manner.
In recent races, Verstappen and Red Bull have been overshadowed somewhat by Ferrari’s resurgence. But we should expect a concerted push from Honda to eke every drop from its hybrid powertrain this weekend – and for the honour of Japan, Verstappen must be a contender, while a big result for Alexander Albon would go a long way to confirming why Red Bull should stick with the Thai rookie for his sophomore season in 2020.
On pure performance, that Charles Leclerc has outqualified Sebastian Vettel at every race since the Canadian GP in June clearly speaks volumes. Vettel’s tetchy response amid contentious team orders scenarios at Monza and Sochi have been utterly in character with a four-time world champion seemingly living through a spiral of decline. Even when he did win, in Singapore just two races ago, Vettel relied on circumstance and a big slice of luck.
What’s going through Seb’s mind right now? Naturally, he’ll continue to stonewall external criticism, but make no mistake: he will have been profoundly affected by the string of errors and the fact he is being outpaced by Leclerc on a regular basis.
Vettel is still performing at a level that means he’s probably not going to quit. Probably. But is there a sliver of a chance that he might come around to that extreme decision sooner rather than later? Mark Webber used to say of his former team-mate that Vettel will do everything early, then get out of F1: he set a string of youngest-ever records in the first few seasons of his career, secured four consecutive titles, then made the big move to Ferrari. What else is left for him, other than a world title in red – which is looking less likely with every passing race right now?
Born in the same year that Suzuka first hosted the F1 Japanese GP, Vettel could still have years ahead of him. But bearing in mind Webber’s insight, what we know of this intelligent and sensitive man – and the growing challenge of keeping up with his young team-mate – the end for one of F1’s biggest hitters could be on the horizon.
A Renault-powered team is very clearly the fourth best in F1 – but from the French manufacturer’s perspective, it’s not the right one. McLaren’s impressive revival – with a paid-for customer Renault powertrain – is growing a-pace under new boss Andreas Seidl, with Carlos Sainz Jr and talented rookie Lando Norris consistently delivering points-paying performances.
In contrast, Renault’s works team, complete with big-money signing Daniel Ricciardo, is languishing down in fifth, 33 points off McLaren and with little sign of fortunes improving any time soon.
Just to turn the screw a little more, Seidl has now decided to ditch Renault’s powertrain for Mercedes’ in 2020, a call that has deeper implications than simply a loss in revenue for the manufacturer. Renault’s works team will soon stand alone in F1 – and its stark underachievement, five years after the manufacturer returned as a full-blown constructor, will become increasingly uncomfortable under an unrelenting spotlight.
Ricciardo can only do so much with what he has to work with, but after a decent showing at Monza – where he and team-mate Nico Hülkenberg delivered the team’s best performance of 2019 – the Australian will hope Suzuka’s high-speed character will allow for a much-needed boost in form. But don’t expect him to be holding his breath.
Ahead of him, the Honda powered Red Bulls he could have been driving this year will have every reason to expect much more from a circuit that remains one of F1’s best-loved annual highlights.