Suzuka showdown – an incomparable classic

2019-10-09 06:01

THE Japanese Grand Prix is always one of the most anticipated races on the Formula 1 calendar.

The trip around the celebrated Suzuka circuit is a nostalgic and highly demanding one.

It’s nostalgic as it reminds racers and fans alike of how circuits used to be constructed – fast, demanding, and with little room for error. It’s nostalgic for less positive reasons too.

It was here, five years ago, that then Marussia driver Jules Bianchi crashed heavily sustaining injuries that would sadly claim his life several months later. Bianchi, a Ferrari Academy driver at the time, held much promise to be an F1 star of the future.

Earlier in the season, he had scored a sensational point in Monaco for the otherwise embattled Marussia team. It underlined his enormous potential and drew a line under the knowledge that he was likely to end up in a Ferrari sooner rather than later.

Sadly, Bianchi’s potential will remain forever unfulfilled.

However, in a rather romantic twist of fate Bianchi was the godfather of current Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc. The Monaco-born driver has impressed in his short stint as a Ferrari driver and currently sits with the most pole– position starts of anyone in 2019.

Ferrari’s recent uptick in form, including three wins in the last four races, comes on the back of a tremendous amount of work in Maranello and, specifically, the fast-tracking updates meant for 2020.

The team will be buoyed but still wary of the challenge in Japan. It is a markedly different circuit from those of Spa, Monza, Singapore, and Russia. Still, given Leclerc’s incredible form in the last two months, it would be brave to bet against him, especially in quali.

Seb Vettel, too, looks a man renewed after an emotionally fuelled win in Singapore.

Nevertheless, the Italian squad will face stern opposition from Red Bull and Mercedes. After all, it was here that Max Verstappen made his debut, in practice, just three days after his 17th birthday.

It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the Dutchman ever since, that includes seven victories and a slew of impressive drives from the back of the field.

Although Red Bull has lagged behind since the summer break, the Suzuka circuit should suit the characteristics of the car.

As it happens to be engine supplier, Honda’s home race to boot, nothing less than a podium will suffice.

In Russia, Mercedes’ one-two victory would have reinstalled a much-needed calm. Of course there wasn’t any great panic in light of the results since the month-long break, but there have undoubtedly been a few nervy and uncomfortable moments in the last two months.

Japan should be a good track for Mercedes, given the high to medium speed make-up of most of the corners.

Through the decades, Suzuka has delivered some of the most memorable races in the history of the sport. It was here, in 1990, that Ayrton Senna, arguably, drove into the side of arch-rival Alain Prost, took him out of the race, and won the championship title.

It was here, too, that produced one of the best races in the history of the sport when, in 2005, Kimi Raikkonen came from 17th on the grid to pass Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault on the last lap of the race for an extraordinary and unforgettable win.

And it is here, in 2019, where teams and drivers will arise to fervent fans at one of the most iconic and beloved circuits in the world.

On form, the suggestion is that Mercedes head into the weekend as favourites, but only by the smallest margin.

But this Suzuka circuit has its own ambience, its own way of dishing up the unexpected and because of that so-called form and results from years gone by may not be the best predictor in Japan.

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