As we enter the twilight of the 2015 season, Formula 1 ventures to the land of the rising sun for the Japanese Grand Prix at the iconic Suzuka circuit.
Suzuka has etched itself a unique place in F1 history over the past three decades, being the site of numerous title deciders and duels, including those infamous battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989 and 1990.
In recent years, the track has been something of a stronghold for Sebastian Vettel, who arrives in Japan with the wind in his sails following his crushing victory at the Singapore Grand Prix last weekend.
Vettel’s lights-to-flag charge brought him back into the championship fight – albeit as the outsider – as Mercedes endured a weekend to forget. Lewis Hamilton was resigned to his first retirement of the season thanks to a power unit problem, while Nico Rosberg could only finish fourth, leaving him 41 points behind his teammate in the title race.
In Japan this weekend, the teams will renew their battle for supremacy at the front, but with a number of storylines meandering throughout the field, there is plenty of play for at Suzuka.
2015 Japanese Grand Prix – Talking Points
Can Mercedes bounce back?
Mercedes’ lack of pace in Singapore was something of a shock to everyone in the F1 paddock. All weekend long, the Silver Arrows found themselves battling for fifth and sixth place at best, lagging well behind the pace of Ferrari and Red Bull at Marina Bay.
Most have put it down as a one-off, and are expecting Mercedes to roar back at Suzuka and surge to a one-two finish. The tire allocation certainly suits the W06 Hybrid far better, but Ferrari’s engine updates make it a force to be reckoned with. Vettel’s Suzuka form is second to none – four wins and two podium finishes in six appearances – making this weekend far from being a two-horse race.
Vettel the outsider
Vettel may be a serious contender for the race win at Suzuka this weekend, but he remains the outsider in the championship battle. The 49-point deficit to Lewis Hamilton at the top is not a great amount if we are to consider Rosberg (41 points down) to still be in the title fight, yet it requires Singapore repeating itself another three or four times in the final six races of 2015.
Nevertheless, what Vettel continues to do is not only justify his move to Ferrari, but also prove his own greatness. Those who wrote off his four world championships with Red Bull by attributing them to car and the car alone have been silenced. Vettel is excelling with Ferrari, and his excellent Suzuka record makes him a threat to Mercedes on Sunday.
Jenson Button’s future remains the biggest talking point in a largely static F1 silly season, with reports earlier this week claiming that he would be announcing his retirement from the sport ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix.
However, Button remains engaged in “good talks” with McLaren about 2016, meaning that we are unlikely to get a decision anytime soon. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if anything about the driver market comes out of this weekend. Sergio Perez has signed up with Force India for another season, leaving only Lotus, Manor and Haas to be finalized.
Running on fumes
For Lotus, though, there are bigger problems at play. After having a High Court hearing adjourned until September 28 last week, the team is facing an increasingly difficult fight to survive. At Suzuka, its freight only arrived at the track midway through Thursday due to outstanding payments from last year, putting pressure on everyone in the team.
If the hearing on Monday goes against the team, it could be game over. Talks with Renault about a buy-out for 2016 are ongoing, and it is hard to see a future for the Enstone operation if they are not successful.
Nevertheless, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado continue to fight the good fight, and will be hungry for points at Suzuka this weekend.
Aside from all of the on-track action this weekend, the paddock will have a heavy heart as it returns to the site of Jules Bianchi’s accident 12 months ago.
Bianchi died in July following a nine-month fight, having suffered a severe head injury when he collided with a recovery tractor during the closing stages of last year’s rainy Japanese Grand Prix.
Just as the grid did Jules proud in Hungary, we can hope for another thrilling event this weekend.
2015 Japanese Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Suzuka Circuit
Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:31.540 (McLaren, 2005)
Tire Compounds: Medium (Option); Hard (Prime)
2014 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2014 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:32.506
2014 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:51.600
DRS Zone: Main Straight (T18 to T1)
2015 Japanese Grand Prix – TV Times
Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 9pm ET 9/24
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1am ET 9/25 NBCSN
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 11pm ET 9/25
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 9/26
Race: NBCSN 12:30am ET 9/27
All sessions will be streamed live at f1stream.nbcsports.com.