MotorSportsTalk’s predictions: Japanese GP

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Following Sebastian Vettel’s fourth consecutive victory in Korea last weekend, you would be forgiven for thinking that the writing team at NBC have had it pretty easy in recent weeks. In fact, three of the four writers managed to correctly predict that the German driver would win the Korean Grand Prix (and the selection of Max Chilton was nothing more than a thinly-veiled snub), but can Seb make it five-in-a-row in Japan? It would be the first time in his career that he has achieved this feat, proving that for all of his records, he still has plenty more to set.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Drive for five straight wins could see the unstoppable German lock up the title this weekend. Gotta keep picking him until he is dethroned.

Surprising finish: Adrian Sutil. Has made it in the bottom of the points two of the last four races and should thrive on a circuit he knows well. His only Japanese GP points were the first of his career in Fuji 2007; I’ll say he gets his first Suzuka scored on Sunday.

Most to prove: Max Chilton. If for no other reason than it would be a huge surprise to see him outqualify Bianchi on a true driver’s track, and with Bianchi having got his Marussia deal already wrapped for next year, time for the unheralded Briton to do something memorable in an otherwise forgettable rookie season.

Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Will the champagne party finally begin for the soon-to-be four-time World Champion? Barring a engine/mechanical disaster, I’m not expecting Fernando Alonso to finish in the back so perhaps the party will be put on hold for now. Still, I reckon Vettel will be on the top step again this weekend.

Surprising finish: Nico Hulkenberg. The Hulk turned a lot of heads at Korea with his strong fourth-place finish for Sauber, which hasn’t had a relatively great year. I’m interested to see what he’ll do for an encore and wouldn’t be surprised if he came through again.

Most to prove: Esteban Gutierrez. With Hulkenberg’s improved pace, his Mexican teammate needs to start breaking into the points. He missed out by one spot at Korea, but if he can qualify well this weekend, he should be on target to finally hit the board in 2013 (he’s one of six competitors that have not scored yet).

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. Four straight wins, three wins in four years at Suzuka, calls it his ‘favorite’ circuit, RB9 is suited to the track, gunning for a fourth straight title… need I say any more? On talent and pace alone, there is no chance of Seb losing this one.

Surprising finish: Jenson Button. JB has struggled all season thanks to the pace of the McLaren MP4-28, but Suzuka has treated him well over the years. A few retirements here and there and the Briton could yet return to the top five in Japan.

Most to prove: Paul di Resta. Paul’s luck of late has been lacking to say the least. Five straight retirements and no points since June means that he needs a good result in Suzuka to prove that he still has what it takes to compete in F1.

Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine)

Race winner: Sebastian Vettel. He owns Suzuka. You can’t argue with four poles, three wins and a championship in four many years. I expect Mercedes will be closer than they were in Korea, and could even break his stranglehold on pole position, but the race will be his.

Surprising finish: Mark Webber. His run of misfortune simply has to come to an end soon. He always a bit handy around ‘proper’ tracks like Suzuka, and this is the last time he’ll get to play on this fabulous track for a while as the World Endurance Championship races at Fuji.

Most to prove: Esteban Gutierrez. Now that Nico Hulkenberg is bringing home serious points for Sauber, Gutierrez must at the very least start raking in the lower points finishes.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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