Japanese Grand Prix Preview
Suzuka Circuit • Mie-Ken • Japan
by Toby Waller
Circuit Length: 3.640 miles / 5.859km
Race Length: 53 laps (192.952 miles / 310.527km)
So this is it ... the final round, and the championship ends here. On both sides of the Atlantic on Sunday, hearts will be in mouths - guaranteed. Let's get it straight right here: Jacques Villeneuve has to win; Damon Hill has to score a DNF. It looks like it will go in Hill's favour, but anything can, and probably will, happen. With the Constructors' title already in their grasp, Williams have made all efforts to ensure the fight is both fair, and on the track. The team are allegedly transporting an extra spare car (one each for both drivers, so no scrapping over who it's set up for) and a spare chassis to Japan at an estimated cost of $25,000. So, with the atmosphere within the team being competitive, but friendly, the finale looks set to be a sparkling affair.
But what of the rest? The opposition were lagging well behind the championship contenders at Estoril -the same can be expected at Japan. Ferrari have been showing promise on fast challenging circuits, as have McLaren - Suzuka is just such a circuit. Benetton continue to plod along in the wake of Williams, and Suzuka should continue that trend. Yet again, the opposition can only really benefit from a Williams retirement - with Renault de-tuning their engines, and Williams providing plenty of chassis' to trash, there should be no chance of that. In motor racing, though, the unexpected should be expected - after all, who would have predicted such a close end to the season at Germany. Still, here's to a great Japanese race ... until next year, enjoy!!
The Suzuka Circuit in Japan currently stands out as a high point in a world populated by bland and dreary Grand Prix tracks. Designed by the man responsible for the challenging Zandvoort circuit, Suzuka is unusual in that it crosses over itself in a figure-of-eight. The track is twisty, but fast, and some sixty percent of the lap is spent at full throttle - more than Hockenheim. Expect to see the cars running medium levels of downforce as the teams cope with the need for high cornering speeds and extra oomph on the straights. With such a long lap, as well as the inclement weather at this time of year, rain can be expected - although the atrocious conditions that dominated the 1994 race should be unlikely. High points of the lap are the many long and tightening corners: First Curve; Degner and Spoon. With the correct racing line being particularly critical around these, expect the time spent racing in Formula Nippon to be of particular value to Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Eddie Irvine and Mika Salo. The only sore point on the circuit is the ridiculously tight Casio Chicane, as well as the lack of sufficient run-off at some of the faster corners. All said and done, though, Suzuka is one of the few remaining challenges in Formula One and well deserves it's place on the calendar. With the local Japanese fans being almost as fanatical as the tifosi, expect a packed and enthusiastic crowd for the 1996 title finale.
What Happened Last Year?
With the Drivers' championship firmly wrapped up at Aida, Michael Schumacher gave his Benetton team a leaving present to remember with their first Constructors' cup. In mixed conditions, Schumacher shone whilst others fell by the wayside - first the Ferraris, then Williams, leaving only Mika Hakkinen and Schumacher's team-mate, Johnny Herbert, trailing in the German's wake. Indeed, Ferrari's woes started as early as lap two - both cars receiveing jump-start penalties. Jean Alesi was first in, and returned a lap later for slicks - a gamble that paid off almost immediately. In just five laps, the French-Sicilian gained fifteen places and 44s over the competition - and that included a spin behind Pedro Lamy's Minardi! After another impressive drive, however, mechanical gremlins (similar to those that have dominated this season) struck the scarlet charger. Engine problems would also sideline Gerhard Berger, but where were the Williams? Qualifying down in fourth and sixth, Damon Hill and David Coulthard were faring little better in the race. After a stop for slicks on lap 37, Hill did a bit of off-roading at Spoon Curve. The Englishman returned to the track, but needed a stop for a new nose. He would slide off again at the same spot just a few laps later - this time for good. Coulthard's departure was somewhat more spectacular. After sliding off in a similar manner to Hill at Spoon, the Scot spun off on the next corner as dust and gravel from his off-track jaunt sprayed over his front tyres whilst braking. On Williams' darkest day, Benetton had taken the crown that Williams had held for three years - Frank Williams' expression said it all.
1995 Results 1. Michael Schumacher Benetton-Renault 1h36m52.930s 2. Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes + 19.337s 3. Johnny Herbert Benetton-Renault + 1m23.804s 4. Eddie Irvine Jordan-Peugeot + 1m42.136s 5. Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen Honda + one lap 6. Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha + one lap Pole Position Michael Schumacher Benetton-Renault 1m38.023s Fastest Lap Michael Schumacher Benetton-Renault 1m42.976s
Like many, Benetton struggled for grip at Estoril, but finished in the points - Japan should be no different. With Flavio Briatore effectively owning two teams (Benetton and Ligier), he was testing a variety of drivers at post-race Estoril testing. Giancarlo Fisichella looks to be vying for a 1997 seat, but will probably be staying at Ligier next year. One suspects that, after a lack-lustre start to the 1996 campaign, either Berger, Alesi or both will be dumped by the end of next year. Until then, however, the pair make a solid line-up that may threaten the podium in Japan.
Last race at Williams for Damon Hill, and he really has to win the championship. Jacques Villeneuve has to go for the win at all costs, whereas Hill can play it cool and just score points. The championship looks in Hill's favour - but in motor racing, who knows? Whatever, it's been a brilliant season from the team and both the drivers - next year's potential looks just as strong. For those Heinz-Harald Frentzen fans eager to hear of his first Williams test, keep your eyes peeled in the week starting October 21st - it's strongly rumoured his debut with the team will be sometime then.
Predicting McLaren's form from one race to another is impossible - every time the team does well, they seem to slip back a bit next time out. The newly extended partnership between David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen hardly got off to a flying start at Estoril - the TV cameras missed the collision between the pair, but the post-race reviews indicated that the Finn was at fault. Still, things bode well for next year if the car is right, first time out. The team traditionally do well in Japan, so expect them to be threatening the top runners once more.
A tale of understeer and struggling race-day performance was the Portuguese story at the French marque. On home ground, Mugen should be out to impress the Honda staff, and may just do alright - the circuit favours a strong engine, but the chassis may let the package down. The future looks secure for Ligier - at least for the next few seasons - whether under the ownership of Flavio Briatore, or as a national French team if the rumoured buy-out occurs.
Last week saw Ralf Schumacher's first taste of life in the Irish team. Eddie Jordan must have had the Blarney stone permanently attached to his upper lip to get the Schumacher Jr. deal, but will the gamble pay off? And, who's in the other seat? Basically it's anyone's guess, but expect someone with a fair bit of experience: Martin Brundle or Rubens Barrichello maybe? Whatever, the team expect to do better next year with a new and revolutionary Peugeot engine. We'll see ...
Are the team looking forward to, or fearing a year without Ford power. This year's engine has been a bit of a dog, but without works backing will next year's engine be any better? Will it be Cosworth, will it be Hart? Who can tell. Johnny Herbert seems satisfied, as he has already confirmed a long term deal with the team. His partner? Take your pick from the following: test driver Norberto Fontana; Rubens Barrichello; Gianni Morbidelli or F3000 front runner Jorg Muller.
What a shock!! If Damon Hill's dismissal from Williams was a 'bolt from the blue', then last week's unexpected announcement caught everyone off guard. Opinion is divided as to whether Hill is taking a huge risk or a minor gamble. It is worth remembering, however, that TWR basically starts the team from scratch next year - or should that be they starts as they finished with Benetton? If Tom Walkinshaw can continue the work he did at Benetton, then the team is set for the top step pretty quickly. With the focus of the team concentrated on Hill, the Englishman's development and testing skills, and the wildcard of Bridgestone tyres, the team could well be starting in the top ten as early as the first race. The weak point is the engine. With all the works deals gone, only Yamaha looks left. Again, just going on this year's unit doesn't tell the whole story - TWR have their own experienced engine department that can right the wrongs. The outside bet for '97?
After a quick start to the weekend, it was all downhill at Estoril. With a customer deal with Ford for their promising ED4 V8 engine, things look good for next year. The drivers? Well, judging by the rumour mill, Mika Salo may (or may not) stay. His partner is even less certain - take your pick from Ukyo Katayama or any promising lower formulae talent.
Question marks over the engine for Minardi. Will it be Hart, will it be Ford? Who will be driving? with all the top drivers and engine contracts secure, there's a swarm of young talent surrounding the cheap seats, and a bunch of small engine suppliers eager to find a team to exploit their talents. Name any talented youngster from the lower formulae, and he's probably connected in some way to Minardi
It's been a bit quiet from Forti since the announcement that they had restored control of their company and were ready to begin racing once more. Unfortunately, no news is usually interpreted as bad news, and it seems unlikely that we'll be seeing the plucky Italians racing next year. Still, we can but hope to see the yellow perils lining up once more - it certainly put a bit of colour into the rear of the grid.
No, they're not racing this weekend, but a quick update...
The '97 challenger is apparently progressing nicely, and the budget looks set for the next few years. The driver line-up will probably contain two of the following: Jan Magnussen, described by Jackie Stewart as 'the most talented young driver to emerge since Ayrton Senna'; Dario Franchitti, jobless after the crash (no pun intended) of the ITC; Rubens Barrichello or F3 team members Ralph Firman or Johnny Kane.