ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 40 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   The Japanese GP Preview

Suzuka, Japan by Ewan Tytler, U.S.A.

Leaving the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the USA, Formula One flies to the Pacific, to the current home of the Japanese Grand Prix: Suzuka.

The Suzuka circuit was opened in 1963 and has hosted the Japanese Grand Prix since 1987. Honda commissioned John Hugenholtz, the Dutchman who designed Jarama in Spain and Zandvoort in Holland, to design the Suzuka circuit. At 5.864 Km, Suzuka is the third-longest circuit used in Formula One (after Hockenheim and Spa), and it is the favourite circuit of many drivers. Although fast in sections, Suzuka is average in speed as there are a number of slow corners.

Suzuka is unique to Formula One in that it has a fly-over, but it is best described as 'funky', because it has a few idiosyncrasies and is quite difficult to learn. Part of the funkiness in its design comes from its original role as a car and motocycle testing circuit.

The start is difficult, as the grid is on a downhill slope, which means the drivers have to be careful not to accidentally jump the start or stall holding the car back. The left-handed 130R corner, which gives the drivers a lateral load of almost 4G, is considered to be one of the most challenging corners in Formula One. Accident black-spots on the circuit are the 3rd gear Spoon curve, the 2nd gear Degner curve and the 2nd gear Casio chicane.

Overtaking at Suzuka is not easy, often the following driver has to force the leading driver to make an error. Benetton's Technical Director, Pat Symonds noted, "It is a very difficult circuit for the drivers to learn and I have no doubt that those drivers that have some 'local knowledge' from competing in Japanese series earlier in their career can have an advantage at Suzuka."

Symonds explained the challenges presented by Suzuka, "The circuit itself requires reasonably high downforce, similar to that used at a circuit like Barcelona, and it is very important to have a good balance through the S's behind the pits and to minimise understeer through some of the long corners, while maintaining good traction out of the hairpin and round the chicane."

Williams's Ralf Schumacher added a driver's perspective: "Setting the car up for Suzuka is not an easy job because you have to find a good compromise between mechanical grip for the slow corners and aerodynamic downforce for the faster sections of the track. Approaching the Spoon 1, you brake very late and deep into the corner. In the second Spoon the car always understeers so you must turn in earlier to balance this out. Accelerating well out of this section is very important in an effort to carry speed onto the long straight. One of the most exciting corners is 130R, which is a very fast left-hand corner that is taken nearly flat in seventh gear. At the end of it there's good overtaking possibilities because you have to break down to first gear for the chicane."

Jordan's Heinz-Harald Frentzen concluded: "The Japanese circuit is one of the most challenging that the F1 Calendar has to offer. It demands, that before you enter a corner you already prepare for the next one. You constantly need to be on your toes in anticipation of what lies ahead. Suzuka is full of surprises and the chicane before the start-finish line can be very tricky. It seems quite simple to start with, but can entice you to brake too late making you over run the corner and lose a second in the process."

Weather is a major concern. Although the past four Japanese Grands Prix have been dry, it rained during the 1988, 1993, 1994 and 1995 races. Last year, 130,000 Formula One fans packed into Suzuka. BMW-Williams' Ralf Schumacher remarked, "Suzuka usually provides great action for fans and TV viewers and if the weather plays-up again, I'm sure it will be an exciting race." Schumacher's teammate, Jenson Button, added, "The Japanese are very passionate about their motorsport and I'm sure they'll be slightly disappointed that the race has lost its season finale status."

Pitstops and Tyre Strategies

Attrition can be quite high at Suzuka; twelve finished in 1995 and 1998, a lucky thirteen finished in 1997, 1996 and 1994, while fourteen were classified as finishers in 1999.

There is limited opportunity for overtaking so qualifying and pitstop strategy are very important. In last year's race, every team used a two-stop strategy - the first stops were made between laps 15-23 while the second stops were made between laps 31-38.

Bridgestone Motorsport Technical Manager, Yoshihiko Ichikawa, stated, "This is a very important race for us, not only because it is our home Grand Prix, it could be the deciding round which settles whether Michael or Mika become World Champion. We will be supplying the teams with a Medium specification dry tyre. This is a totally new compound and is very different from the other medium compound tyres we have been using throughout the season. We do not have our normal choice of two compounds we decided to bring only one compound to Japan as everyone would have chosen this new Medium tyre if they had been offered the choice of two compounds.

"Normally we would take Soft and Medium tyres to Suzuka. The new Medium specification produces enough grip, compared to the old soft rubber, and they last much longer so we don't believe that Soft rubber is needed. The teams have already tested this new tyre and we evaluated this week at Silverstone, Fiorano, Mugello, Estoril and Magny Cours."

The Teams

Ferrari now lead the constructors' championship by ten points. The Italian team won twice at Suzuka, in 1987 and 1997, and have scored 45 points in the Nineties.

The World Championship leader, Michael Schumacher, has an eight-point lead over Mika Hakkinen. Michael won the Japanese Grand Prix in 1995 for Benetton and in 1997 for Ferrari. He finished second in 1994 for Benetton and again in 1996 for Ferrari. Schumacher took pole position in 1994, 1995, 1998 and 1999, and set fastest lap in 1995, 1998 and 1999.

Rubens Barrichello consolidated his fourth position in the drivers' championship at Indianapolis. Barrichello finished fifth in 1993 for Jordan, but he has not shone during qualifying at Suzuka, his highest grid position being tenth in 1995. Rubens mused on the prospect of a wet race: "The rain can often make for a few surprises. It worked out well for me when I won Hockenheim this year, but I stopped too early for dry tyres in Indy and that made it a difficult race for me."

McLaren have slipped to second in the constructors' championship. Team Principal Ron Dennis stated, "Our commitment to winning the World Championship is undiminished and we are as focused and determined as ever to make sure that this year's Championships will not be decided until the last race in Malaysia." McLaren have won 5 times at Suzuka - in 1988, 1991, 1993, 1998 and 1999 - and have scored 73 points there in the Nineties. McLaren also hold the qualifying record for Suzuka, of 1:34.7s, set by Gerhard Berger in 1991. Their horsepower and aerodynamic advantages and reliability are important at this circuit. McLaren need a one-two victory to maintain their challenge for the drivers' and constructors' championship.

Mika Hakkinen has slipped to second position in the drivers' championship. Hakkinen confessed, "I have a special relationship with the Japanese Grand Prix as I have claimed my two World Championships there. I like the Suzuka track, but overtaking can be difficult and the incredibly tight chicane situated just before the start/finish straight is considered the best opportunity. I'm as focused as ever and determined to leave Japan with a victory."

Hakkinen won the Japanese Grand Prix in 1998 and 1999 for McLaren. He has been consistent in his nine Japanese Grands Prix starts, finishing second in 1995, third in 1993 and 1996, and fourth in 1997. Hakkinen has yet to set pole position at this circuit, his highest grid positions being second in 1998 and 1999. Hakkinen normally excels on a medium-speed circuit like Suzuka and he needs to finish ahead of Michael Schumacher on Sunday, to keep his championship hopes alive.

David Coulthard is still third in the drivers' championship. Coulthard commented, "Suzuka is one of the classic Formula One circuits and is one of my favourites. It's relatively light on the brakes but the abrasive nature of the circuit means that it's often heavy on tyres because of the high level of degradation. The track is a challenge not just for the drivers but for the team as well as it can be tricky to find the right balance."

Suzuka is not a circuit where Coulthard has excelled, perhaps due to a lack of early experience in lesser Formulae that many other drivers have. From five Japanese Grands Prix starts, Coulthard finished third in 1998 for McLaren, and his highest grid position was third, in 1998 and 1999.

Williams are still third in the constructors' championship. BMW Motorsport Director, Dr Mario Theissen, said: "In Indianapolis we were very strong all weekend, especially during the race. The disappointment, therefore, about the completely unnecessary double-failure was even harder to accept. Ralf had a defective gasket on the pneumatic system charger, and in Jenson's car, the safety switch came on unintentionally. But again the team was closer to the top and this makes us confident for the next race.

"We are going to Suzuka with the same engine specification that we have been using in the races since Spa. Our aim now is to secure third place in the Constructor's Championship in Japan, preferably before the final race of the season."

Williams have been a successful team in Japan, winning in 1992, 1994 and 1996, and have scored a total of 62 points in the Nineties.

Ralf Schumacher is still fifth in the drivers' championship. Ralf commented, "There are good reasons to be optimistic about Suzuka, particularly because of how competitive we are right now - a point clearly demonstrated in Indianapolis, albeit having to retire from second place when I was running strongly behind my brother! I enjoy driving at Suzuka because of the fond memories I have from my Formula Nippon days." Ralf was the Formula Nippon Champion in 1996 and he finished fifth in 1999 for Williams. His highest grid position was seventh in 1998 for Jordan.

Jenson Button has slipped to nineth in the drivers' championship. Button remarked, "I have fond memories of racing at Suzuka in 1996 and 1997, albeit in the Super A karting Championship. Nevertheless, it is a circuit that places great demands on both car and driver and having studied on-board footage from last year, I can't wait to drive the FW22 on this track. I spent two days behind the wheel of the FW22 this week in Estoril and as has been the case all season, the car feels well balanced. My Formula One debut at Indianapolis was unfortunately marred by bad luck and this time I hope to avoid a repeat of any racing incidents."

Benetton hold on to their fourth position in the constructors' championship. Technical Director Pat Symonds revealed, "With the cars travelling straight from Indianapolis to Suzuka there has not been time for specific preparation for the Japanese Grand Prix, and added to this, at this stage in the year development work is tailed off to concentrate on the new car for the next season. However, there are always small developments to address any problems that may have been discovered in previous races or items that have been tested beforehand and have now reached production. However, the cars will be substantially the same for the final two races as they were at the United States Grand Prix."

Benetton won the Japanese Grand Prix in 1989, 1990 and 1995, and have scored 44 points there in the Nineties. This race is strategically important to the team, since Benetton is sponsored by the Japan Tobacco.

Giancarlo Fisichella is still sixth in the drivers' championship, while Alexander Wurz is 15th equal. Neither Benetton drivers competed at Suzuka before entering Formula One and neither have scored a point at Suzuka.

BAR are fifth equal in the constructors' championship. Chief Engineer Steve Farrell stated, "Suzuka is generally regarded as a 'driver's circuit', so on the basis that we have one of the best drivers in the business in Jacques Villeneuve, we feel that we have the chance of a good result there. It's clear that the car has been improving steadily, culminating in BAR almost achieving its first podium finish at Indianapolis. Jacques likes Suzuka, so with some luck and a couple more improvements to the car, we might be in with another chance of a podium finish next weekend.

"This is obviously a very important race for our partner, Honda, and I'm sure they, like us, will pull out all the stops to put on a good show in front of their home crowd. It's currently a tight race for the Constructors' Championship and fourth place is very much up for grabs. Until such time as it is no longer attainable, that's what the team will be aiming for."

Technical Director of Honda Racing Development, Kazutoshi Nishizawa, added, "The Suzuka specification engine is based on the qualifying unit that we ran in Monza. The speed of Suzuka places a lot of emphasis on engine performance and we have up-rated the engine with the circuit's requirements in mind. We completed a race distance with the new engine during testing at Silverstone earlier this month, so we are well prepared for our home race." In last year's race, both BARs finished outside the points.

Jacques Villeneuve is still seventh in the drivers' championship. Villeneuve commented, "I love Suzuka and I have great memories from Formula Three racing in Japan there. It's a track where we have been quick in the past, even though the races have never been particularly good for us. Hopefully, this year the race is going to be good as well. Suzuka is a great track to drive on. There are a couple of very dangerous spots that could probably be improved, but the track layout is amazing. It's got a good rhythm, high-speed and mid-speed. It's a very difficult circuit to do a good lap on, to drive properly. I love it."

Villeneuve finished sixth in the 1998 Japanese Grand Prix. In 1997, Villeneuve set pole position and finished fifth but was disqualified for overtaking under a yellow flag during practice. In 1996, Villeneuve set pole position and fastest lap but retired after losing a wheel. Villeneuve also competed in All Japan F3 in 1992.

Ricardo Zonta finished second in the 1998 FIA GT1 race at Suzuka. In last year's race, Zonta finished 12th after qualifying 18th.

Jordan are still fifth equal in the constructors' championship. Team Principal Eddie Jordan stated, "We are simply going to race our own race and do as good a job as we can. We would like to have both drivers finish in the points so we can realistically challenge for fourth place in the Constructors Championship. A good race result would also be wonderful for the team and all of our sponsors."

Managing Director Trevor Foster added, "Both Jarno and Heinz are competitive on this track; Heinz raced in Japanese F3000, and has done a lot of testing there so knows the track extremely well. Jarno was very competitive last year qualifying seventh on the grid, we are aiming to be on the podium in Japan." Jordan have scored 16 points at Suzuka.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen has climbed to eighth position in the drivers' championship. Frentzen confessed, "Suzuka is a circuit that has fascinated me since the first time I ever raced there, to this day I still have fond memories of the circuit even though I have driven over 20,000 test kilometres there."

Frentzen holds the race lap record for Suzuka, of 1:38.942s, which he set in 1997. In 1992, Frentzen raced in Japanese F3000 and the following year raced both Japanese Sports cars and F3000. Frentzen finished fourth for Jordan in 1999, second in 1997 and fifth in 1998 for Williams, and sixth in 1996 and 1994 for Sauber. His highest grid position was third in 1994.

Jarno Trulli is eleventh equal in the drivers' championship. Trulli commented, "I like Japan, I have my own fan club and I get good support from the Japanese fans. The circuit in Suzuka is very technical which I enjoy as it is interesting from a driver's point of view and provides a challenge. I think we will be strong in Japan and have the chance to qualify well up the grid and get ourselves in a position to challenge for fourth in the Constructors Championship." Trulli was classified 12th but did not finish in 1998, and his highest grid position was seventh in 1999.

Arrows are still seventh in the constructors' championship. The team have not scored a point at Suzuka since Derek Warwick's sixth position in 1989.

Pedro de la Rosa is still fifteenth equal in the drivers' championship. "It's a circuit I know very well as I've raced in F3000 there," de la Rosa commented. "I like Suzuka and I think our car will be very good there because there aren't many slow corners. I'm really looking forward to it so I can improve on my performance in the US Grand Prix. There are two races left and I still think we have to score more points."

De la Rosa raced in Japan from 1995 to 1997, winning the Japanese F3 title in 1995 and both the Formula Nippon and the All Japan GT Championships in 1997. In last years's race, the Spaniard finished 13th after qualified 21st.

Jos Verstappen is still 12th in the drivers' championship. "This will be my fourth time racing at Suzuka and I really like the circuit," Verstappen stated. "It's a great circuit for racing as it's challenging, is very long and has quick corners, and is generally very interesting to drive. I'm not so keen on travelling there though, but I am looking forward to racing at Suzuka again." Verstappen has yet to score a point at Suzuka; his best finish was eleventh in 1994 for Footwork, after qualifying 17th.

Sauber are still eighth in the constructors' championship. Sauber have scored four points at Suzuka, with a sixth position in 1994, 1996, 1997 and 1999. Pedro Diniz stated, "Suzuka is one of my favourite circuits, because of the challenge that it represents. I'm really looking forward to the race." Diniz has yet to score a point at Suzuka, his best finish was eleventh in 1999 for Sauber, and his highest grid position was 16th, in 1996 and 1997.

Mika Salo is still tenth equal in the drivers' championship. "I made my Grand Prix debut at Suzuka in 1994, and I know it well from my days racing F3000 in Japan, so I have a bit of a soft spot for it," the Finn stated. "Like Pedro, I'm looking forward to racing on a circuit that places high demands on a driver's ability." Salo competed in All Japan F3000 from 1991 to 1994. Salo finished sixth in 1995 for Tyrrell, after qualifying 12th.

Jaguar are still nineth in the constructors' championship. Technical Director Gary Anderson stated, "Suzuka is a good circuit but the driver can really make a difference there. Hopefully we'll be able to stay focussed and get the best out of our package. We're reasonable happy with what we achieved at Silverstone. The weather wasn't very good but we managed to do a lot of wet weather running which is useful in the run up to Japan. We concentrated mainly on running the Suzuka-spec tyres."

The Stewart team never scored a point in a Formula One race at Suzuka, their highest finish was Johnny Herbert's seventh place, in 1999. The Jaguar drivers probably have the most combined experience of Suzuka of any Formula One team.

Eddie Irvine has slipped to thirteenth equal in the drivers' championship. Irvine's thoughts prior to Sunday's race: "Naturally, I am looking forward to the Japanese Grand Prix. Suzuka is a special circuit for me; it's a difficult track, not only to drive well, but also to set the car up for since you need a lot of traction to power out of the slow corners and plenty of power for the fast straight sections. There are some really challenging corners, especially the 130R, a left kink which needs all of your concentration if you are going to take it flat."

Irvine competed for three seasons in Japan in Sports Cars and Formula F3000 before his Formula One debut in 1993, when he finished sixth for Jordan and was assaulted by Ayrton Senna after the race. Irvine finished fifth in 1994 and fourth in 1995 for Jordan. He did not finish in 1996, but he finished third in 1997 and 1999, and second in 1998 for Ferrari. His highest grid position was third in 1997.

After a season in Japanese F3000, Johnny Herbert has competed in ten Japanese Grands Prix, finished third in 1995 for Benetton and sixth in 1997 for Sauber. Herbert's highest grid positions was fifth in 1994. He commented: "Suzuka is definitely one of my favourite circuits. It's always been a great circuit and it is a big challenge. Suzuka is demanding for the driver, the car and the whole team, as set-up is very difficult there. There are a good variety of slow and high speed turns, the best being 130R, which is a real bravery test! There is certainly no time for a rest during a lap of Suzuka. I hope we are more competitive there than we were in Indianapolis as I have always gone well in Japan."

Minardi had another promising race at Indianapolis. They have not scored a point at Suzuka since Christian Fittipaldi's sixth place in 1992, and for the past three years neither Minardis have finished the Japanese Grand Prix. In last year's race, Marc Gene qualified 20th. At Indianapolis, Gaston Mazzacane showed that a well set-up Minardi can be a surprisingly effective Formula One car.

Prost have announced that they will replace the Rampant Lion of Peugeot with the Prancing Horse of Ferrari in 2001, and that they will also have to kick the Gauloises habit. Team Principal Alain Prost never won at Suzuka and his team have yet to score a point at this circuit. In last year's race, neither Prosts finished, despite an early charge by Olivier Panis.

Jean Alesi has competed in ten of the thirteen Japanese Grands Prix held at Suzuka, missing the 1990 race due to a neck injury. Alesi finished third in 1994 and fifth in 1992 for Ferrari, fifth in 1997 for Benetton and sixth in 1999 for Sauber. His highest grid position was second in 1995 for Ferrari. His teammate, Nick Heidfeld, had a promising race at Indianapolis, bringing the Prost AP03 home in nineth position.

My Predictions

If it is dry, I'm going to pick Ferrari, McLaren, Jordan and Williams as the top four teams for qualifying.

Starting grid:

  1. Michael Schumacher
  2. Mika Hakkinen
  3. David Coulthard
  4. Rubens Barrichello
  5. Heinz-Harald Frentzen
  6. Ralf Schumacher
  7. Jarno Trulli
  8. Eddie Irvine
  9. Jenson Button
  10. Giancarlo Fisichella
  11. Jacques Villeneuve
  12. Alexander Wurz
Who will benefit if it rains on Sunday? Probably Ferrari and Jordan.

The Japanese Grand Prix Preview in a Nutshell:

  • Can Michael Schumacher clinch the drivers' title by winning at Suzuka? Rubens Barrichello will be trying to finish 2nd to bring the Constructors' Cup back to Maranello.

  • Can McLaren-Mercedes strike back? Mika Hakkinen needs to win on Sunday to keep his championship hopes alive. David Coulthard will be trying to finish 2nd to take points away from Ferrari.

  • BMW-Williams are still the Best of the Rest. Can Jordan-Mugen Honda or BAR-Honda catch up and overtake Benetton for 4th position in the constructors' championship at Honda's home track?

  • Sunday's race is bound to be eventful. Early experience at Suzuka in lesser formulae has a big influence on success in the Japanese Grand Prix. Qualifying is very important but attrition, team tactics and the weather are likely to determine the outcome of the race and the championships.

  • Dark Horse: Pedro de la Rosa

  • Always in the points at Suzuka since 1996: McLaren, Ferrari and Williams.

  •       Related Articles:

    A Lap of Suzuka

    The Atlas F1 1999 Japanese GP Preview Issue
    (Oct-27, 1999)

    The Atlas F1 1999 Japanese GP Review Issue
    (Nov-3, 1999)

    Ewan Tytler© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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