F1 Preview: 2016 Japanese Grand Prix

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As the 2016 Formula 1 season approaches its twilight hours and the final run-in to Abu Dhabi commences, the paddock ventures to the Land of the Rising Sun for one of the most exciting and exotic races of the year.

The Japanese Grand Prix has been a mainstay on the F1 calendar since for 30 years now, the race has been held on a handful of occasions at Fuji Speedway, but is most synonymous with Suzuka.

The track has played host to many a title decider throughout its history, most famously between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at the peak of their rivalry in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In more recent years, it has been a race dominated by champions: the last driver to win the race who wasn’t a world champion at the time was Sebastian Vettel in 2009 (he went on to win four titles and four Japanese Grands Prix).

Fast forward to 2016, and another fierce intra-team battle for the world title is set to take center stage once again. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have enjoyed a rivalry likely to go down in the annals of F1 history for a number of years now, but we appear to be on the cusp of one of the most defining moments of their scrap.

Hamilton arrived in Malaysia last weekend trailing Rosberg by eight points in the drivers’ championship, knowing he had to put an end to the German’s streak. Hamilton duly took pole and looked dominant in the race, while Rosberg dropped all the way to the back of the field at Turn 1 after being hit. The momentum looked to have taken a decisive swing in the favor of the Briton, who was on the verge of moving back into a healthy championship lead.

But it wasn’t to be. With a 20-second lead over the pack and the race win all but secured, Hamilton’s engine gave way with 17 laps remaining, forcing him to park up and retire from the race. Rosberg recovered from his setback to finish third, ensuring his points advantage grew to 23 points with five rounds remaining.

Suzuka has seen its fair share of drama throughout its time as an F1 circuit. Will 2016 offer another memorable or poignant grand prix?

2016 Japanese Grand Prix – Talking Points

Hamilton praying for a change in fortune

Lewis Hamilton’s comments in the wake of his retirement in Malaysia once again ignited conspiracy theories concerning Mercedes and its support of his title bid in 2016. Such speculation is, naturally, unreasonable, unfair and unthinkable. That said, Hamilton does have every right to feel irked given that all of the issues on Mercedes power units this year have hit the #44 car.

Alas, motorsport can be a cruel mistress. Such misfortune can strike a driver over and over again. Put simply: these things happen.

For Hamilton, the focus now must be on repeating what he did in Malaysia and put Rosberg in the shade on-track. Up to the moment his power unit went, Hamilton had not put a single step wrong – it was a comfortable display that we hadn’t seen since before the summer break.

Trying your best and not succeeding is, as Coldplay noted, pretty crushing. But it is all Hamilton can do if he is to keep his hopes of a fourth world title in 2016 alive.

Time for Nico to ditch the ‘one race at a time’ mentality

A peer of mine recently joked that you could probably pre-write Nico Rosberg’s comments on the podium after a race and get reasonably close. Phrases to look out for are “great day”, “thank you local fans”, “one race at a time” and something about not thinking about the championship.

It’s time for Rosberg to ditch this. Because with 23 points to his benefit, he is now in the enviable position whereby the title is very nearly his to lose. If he wins in Japan – or, indeed, any of the remaining five races – then finishing second in the remaining four would be enough to give him a maiden world title, regardless of what Hamilton does.

Rosberg may have been second-best to Hamilton in Malaysia, but he was the star for the three races leading up to the Sepang weekend. If he can rekindle that form and dominate at Suzuka, the odds of him winning the title shrink ever more.

Win drought ended, Ricciardo looks to cement third at Suzuka

Daniel Ricciardo’s victory in Malaysia may have been very fortunate, but it was one that was overdue. Monaco was his race to win (or, as it turned out, lose), so Hamilton coming unstuck perhaps balanced things back out.

Ricciardo knows that, as evidenced by both the qualifying and race pace of Mercedes in Malaysia, a win on merit is perhaps out of reach for Red Bull in the remaining races. The next best thing is putting himself in a position to pick up the pieces should a repeat of Hamilton’s Sepang issue crop up.

Ricciardo will also be aiming to cement his grip on third place in the drivers’ championship. Another DNF for Sebastian Vettel meant his hopes of finishing as the best of the rest behind the Mercedes drivers has grown all the slimmer, while Kimi Raikkonen is also a good chunk of points behind. Another podium on Sunday would be very handy for the affable Aussie.

A happier homecoming for McLaren-Honda

The Japanese Grand Prix weekend is arguably the most important of the year for McLaren and its engine supplier Honda, the latter enjoying its home race at Suzuka. With the team now lightyears ahead of where it was at this time last year, there will be a greater sense of optimism and – as is consequential of success – expectations from the fans donned in McLaren-Honda colors in the grandstand.

With no Japanese drivers on the grid, Honda is the big draw for locals making the trip to Suzuka. The track annually welcomes many of F1’s most passionate fans, draped in all kinds of weird and wonderful paraphernalia. The F1 car hats make a regular appearance, but a personal favorite is the fan stall at the track sells sweets that are in the same shape and look like tire marbles – each to their own…

How much longer will silly season drag out?

After the 2017 driver market’s biggest soap opera was finally put to bed last Sunday when Sergio Perez announced that he would be remaining with Force India for 2017, all eyes are now on Williams and Renault to make their next moves as the puzzle pieces for next year’s driver market begin to come together.

Having clinched the FIA F3 title last weekend at Imola, 17-year-old Lance Stroll is widely expected to get the nod at Williams to partner Valtteri Bottas. While he has benefitted from having a billionaire father, his on-track achievements speak greater volumes. Stroll has the makings of something very special indeed.

Then we have Renault, who had been expected to sign Esteban Ocon and then keep either Jolyon Palmer or Kevin Magnussen in its second seat. However, we now know that Renault contacted Red Bull about possibly breaking Carlos Sainz Jr. out of his contract, while Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg have also been linked with a seat at Enstone. Perhaps Ocon isn’t as certain to make a step up as many expect…

Let’s see what movement we get over the Suzuka weekend with the driver market.

2016 Japanese Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Suzuka Circuit
Corners: 18
Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:31.540 (2005)
Tire Compounds: Hard/Medium/Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:32.584
2015 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:36.145
DRS Zones: T18 to T1

2016 Japanese Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 9pm ET 10/6
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1am ET 10/7
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 11pm ET 10/7
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 10/8
Race: NBCSN 12am ET 10/9