The 2017 Formula 1 season enters its final quarter this weekend with the Japanese Grand Prix at one of the world’s most famous and revered racetracks: Suzuka.
Ordinarily a mighty challenge, the stakes have been raised once again in 2017 with the new-style high downforce cars with wider tires, prompting a number of drivers to pick Suzuka as the circuit they were most looking forward to tackling in them.
Last weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix saw both of the championship protagonists endure a rollercoaster ride of fortunes, but it was Lewis Hamilton who emerged with his lead extended.
Sebastian Vettel put in the drive of the day by charging from P20 to fourth, yet it was not enough to prevent Hamilton from going 34 points clear with five races remaining.
Neither were victorious at Sepang, though, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen taking a dominant victory that proves the team is a serious threat
Here is what to watch for in this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.
2017 Japanese Grand Prix – What to watch for
Will Malaysia victory kick-start Verstappen’s season?
Max Verstappen’s stunning victory last weekend in Malaysia was remarkably just the second time he had stood on the podium all season long, the first occasion coming in China back in April.
Various on-track incidents and reliability issues had denied Verstappen the chance to dice at the front, but Red Bull’s pace for much of the year did that anyway, with the team being largely marooned in P3 behind Mercedes and Ferrari.
Yet Malaysia saw Red Bull not only fight against but also overcome its rivals, proving the development the team has undertaken throughout the year and the progress made, setting it up well for the final five flyaways.
The high-downforce tracks should play towards the strengths of the RB13, meaning the team has most likely not seen its final chance to win this year pass by if its Malaysia form is to be trusted.
Hamilton closing in on the numbers game
Hamilton is close to being mathematically in control of the championship and not need another victory this year. Nico Rosberg moved into that territory at Suzuka last season by taking what will likely be his final F1 win, barring a shock comeback, allowing him to finish second behind Hamilton at the remaining races and still be world champion.
Hamilton will reach that point so long as Vettel does not outscore him by six at Suzuka, but this is a circuit the Ferrari driver has excelled at in the past. With the top three teams also looking tighter than at any point so far this season, there are no guarantees Hamilton will be able to find that breathing room.
Suzuka has been the site of many classic F1 showdowns through the years. Seeing Hamilton and Vettel go toe-to-toe would be a perfect chapter to add to the narrative of this season.
A final home hurrah for Honda with McLaren?
The Japanese Grand Prix has always been an event of pride for Honda, but this year’s race will offer bittersweet feelings as it teams up with McLaren at Suzuka for the final time.
Three weeks after their divorce for 2018 was confirmed, McLaren and Honda will enjoy the bulk of local support from the fans at Suzuka, even if their hopes of a big result are going to be very slim indeed.
But there have been good signs of progress in recent weeks. Stoffel Vandoorne has scored back-to-back P7s, overtaking teammate Fernando Alonso in the drivers’ championship, and the team is slowly reeling Haas in for P8 in the constructors’ championship.
While this will be a final goodbye for McLaren-Honda at Suzuka, there will undoubtedly be a good deal of expectation for the entire team to impress on Honda home soil.
Driver market continues to piece together
With five races to go, we’re starting to get towards the endgame in the driver market for 2018 following reports that Williams is set to hold a shoot-out between Robert Kubica and Paul di Resta to replace Felipe Massa.
Suzuka has been an important place for driver announcements in the past – Michael Schumacher confirmed his final retirement here in 2012; Sebastian Vettel left Red Bull in 2014 – but it does not appear there will be any news on the main focal point for next year’s market: Fernando Alonso.
Alonso said in Malaysia that he wanted his future decided by the time F1’s heads to Austin for the United States Grand Prix, making the off-weekend following Japan crucial. The signs suggest he will re-sign with McLaren, but might there be a twist?
Sauber also has two seats going, with one seeming certain to go to Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc, who can wrap up the Formula 2 title at Jerez this weekend. Pascal Wehrlein finds himself floating about a bit with no real way of fitting on the F1 grid for 2018 as things stand.
Let’s see what movements we get on the driver side for next year.
New cars take on iconic Suzuka
When the new, high-downforce cars were introduced for the 2017 season, a couple of tracks stood out as being favorites for drivers to thrash them around on. Suzuka typically was the number one pick though.
The esses in the first sector are where the new cars will be particularly effective by comparison to last year’s models, with the added grip allowing the field to take more speed and get on the power earlier. Even through the Degners, Spoon and 130R – the latter being easy flat and very, very fast – the 2017 cars should be at home here.
Expect some happy drivers and some spectacular racing this weekend.
2017 Japanese Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Suzuka Circuit Corners: 18 Lap Record: Kimi Raikkonen 1:31.540 (2005) Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium 2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:30.647 2016 Fastest Lap: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1:35.118 DRS Zone: T18 to T1
INDIANAPOLIS – Will Power went on his “Victory Lap” last week to celebrate his second career championship as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.
It began with several media interviews in Monterey, California, the day after he won the championship with a third-place finish in the Sept. 11 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.
From there, it was off to Los Angeles for more interviews and personal appearances that included a VIP Tour at the Petersen Automotive Museum, several appearances on SiriusXM and lunch at The Ivy, where the Team Penske IndyCar Series driver was treated to Wagyu Beef.
“It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life,” Power told NBCSports.com.
From L.A. back to Power’s North Carolina home, near Team Penske’s home base of Mooresville, there was one stop left on Sept. 17 — the Victory Lap Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, an invitation-only banquet where Power and his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet crew at Team Penske were honored for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.
They didn’t even have to check into a hotel and spend another night on the road. Power and his team left on a Team Penske plane from the Statesville, N.C., airport at 4 p.m. ET Saturday to fly to Indianapolis. On arrival an hour later, a limo bus took the team to IMS.
Power led the 2022 season with five NTT P1 Awards for pole, earning the NTT P1 Award as the best qualifier of the season for the fifth time in his career. Power also made history with his 68th career pole, breaking the all-time mark held by the legendary Mario Andretti.
Power and Scott Dixon also became just two of only five drivers to complete every lap of every race in IndyCar Series history.
“What a year,” Power said as he was awarded his personal Astor Cup trophy (the second in his collection after the 2014 championship. “What a phenomenal year coming off one of my worst seasons personally. We came back with a vengeance.
“I want to thank Roger and Kathy Penske for everything they have done for me over the years. I wouldn’t be standing here and have the numbers I have without what Roger has done for me. I’m given a car every week that is capable of winning the pole, races, championships, and Indianapolis 500s. I’m so grateful for that.
“Also, to Greg Penske, you are there every week now at every event and I know we will be in good hands moving forward with the Penske Family.”
There are many on Power’s team and at home, that helped support Power throughout his career. None is bigger than Power’s wife, Liz, who told Power before the season that he would win the championship and break Andretti’s record.
“I must thank my wife. I’m so lucky to have a wife with that crystal ball that can tell me what is going to happen,” Power said. “I can’t think you enough, babe. I love you so much and you have been a big support to me my whole career. We’ve been together 17 years, and I’ve been in the series 17 years. She has been such a huge support to me. The mother of our child and she is a fantastic mother.
“She can’t tell the future. She just had faith in me.”
Liz Power’s premonition came true and that allowed Power and his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet team to celebrate Penske’s 17th IndyCar championship and 42nd title in the racing team’s history.
“The 12 crew this year, I’ve never had such a great group of guys,” Power said. “Trevor Lacasse (chief mechanic) is such a calm guy, but he does such a meticulous job on the preparation of the car. He is very, very good at keeping the whole crew happy. It feels as if there is no pressure on us. That’s a huge part in getting the most out of people. It was our first year together with you as a crew chief. What a great year to start our relationship.
“Dave Faustino (Power’s longtime engineer), we’ve worked together for 15 years. He’s almost like a wife to me, a partner … apart from sleeping together. We have a very good working relationship. Sorry Dave, I’m an awkward person and you are not.
“The things we have been through in our years together, it’s crazy that we continually improve and get better. We are standing on the podium after winning the championship and we are talking about the car, the race, and the tires. We weren’t talking about the championship.
“We never stop. The other boys were laughing at us, but I’m already thinking about next year.
“Ron Ruzewski (Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director and strategist) on the radio, always calm. He has actually made me a calm person. I rarely get upset on the radio anymore.”
“This series is growing,” Power said. “With open wheel racing now so popular because of Formula One, it’s really our time to push and put money behind it and go now and take IndyCar to another level because we have the best racing product in the world.
“I have to thank my teammates and (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric. I can’t tell you how hard we push each other. We are ultracompetitive and love each other and push each other hard, so thank you.”
Power won the championship by 16 points over hard-charging teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished second in the standings for the third year in a row.
“Overall, I’m filled with a lot of pride for our team and what we were able to do this year,” Newgarden said in his banquet address. “Any year that you step in the championship, you can easily see the challenges it presents everybody.
“It’s a very difficult challenge for the teams and drivers. To be a part of it, make it through it and for us at Team Penske, to topple it, is a very big deal. We’re all competitive.
“The tough thing about being in a championship fight, especially with teammates is we all want to be the best. That’s how it should be. We are competitive people and want to be the best. But it’s a team sport.
“Will, tremendous season, great, great job. I think the world of everybody on our team. It’s a big group. I’m so happy for all of you on the 12-car crew. There is so much we can take into next year.”
Six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was unable to attend the banquet because of the Goodwood Festival in England but sent congratulations to Power via a video message.
“I really want to congratulate Will Power,” Dixon said. “You drove a tremendous season this year. Even with some of the lows that you had, some of the mistakes with qualifying, you bounced back tremendously. I know how tough these championships are and to see you do it in the style that you did it in the last race of the season, massive congratulations.”
Power’s championship formula included one victory, nine podiums and 12 top-five finishes. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second in the championship with five wins but only six podiums.
Cindric saluted Power’s season in accepting the championship team owner award.
“Will, you took it to another level this year,” Cindric said. “You are the complete package. You completed every lap, had nine podiums, finished out of the top 10 just four times, broke Mario Andretti’s record, and you did it all without cussing at the officials on national TV.
“One complaint I do has is while most of us think you might be from another planet, you never told us your wife was a fortune teller.”
Cindric also honored the seasons of Penske drivers Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who won three times in his second full season (“You are one of only two full-time IndyCar drivers that has driven for us in the past 23 years that hasn’t won an Indy 500 or an IndyCar championship. Your time is coming.”).
Kyle Moyer was named team manager of the year (his fifth time and Penske’s sixth). Pennzoil presented Lacasse with the chief mechanic of the year for the first time, the sixth time for Team Penske. The No. 12 crew also won the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the most pit stop performance award points in 2022.
Power, Newgarden and McLaughlin delivered nine of Chevrolet’s series-leading 11 victories this season, helping Chevy win the Manufacturer Award for the seventh time since it returned to the series in 2012 and the first time since 2017. Jim Danahy, U.S. vice president, Competition Motorsports Engineering for Chevrolet, accepted the award on behalf of his team.
Christian Lundgaard was honored as the 2022 NTT IndyCar rookie of the year. Lundgaard, from Denmark, scored one podium, two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the No. 30 Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He edged David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD by 18 points in the standings for first-year series drivers.
“It’s been a tough season and looking at how it panned out, we struggled so much at the beginning of the season and how we were able to turn it around means so much to me and the team,” Lundgaard said. “It’s the one thing that you only get one shot at. I’m happy to have it.
“Being the first Dane at the Indy 500 certainly helps. Competing here for me is quite important and also special. To win this award and to be here in future years means so much to me. I have a chance to compete for wins and championships.
“This team gave me this opportunity at this track one year ago. We came back and got redemption. We got our first podium here. This year was 40 years ago that Bobby Rahal won the same award. It’s pretty special to keep it among the team.”
Sweden’s Linus Lundqvist was honored as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion after a dominant season for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing. Lundqvist won a series-high five races in the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry and clinched the Lights championship with a race to spare, ending with a 92-point advantage over Sting Ray Robb. HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing owners Henry and Daiva Malukas accepted the team championship.
“I’m very proud of that,” Lundqvist said. “It’s cool to see. We are starting to look to the future, and this might not be doing too bad. It’s been great. As most of you can guess with Henry and Daiva Malukas (team owners), it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun that we’ve had. To be on the grid this year was so much of a struggle for us. I didn’t even know I would be doing this until January.
“To be able to pull out the season that we had, I cannot thank this team enough. We will celebrate this for a long time. I’m so happy and proud about that.”
“When I think of Dr. Billows, I think of two words,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “One is selfless and the other is tough. He’s gone through a lot these last couple of years, and he didn’t want anybody to know. He’s an amazing man, and we are very grateful for what you have done.”
Billows was presented with a framed checkered flag signed by all drivers in the series as well as other IndyCar officials and dignitaries.
“I was not expecting this at all,” Billows said. “This means so much for me to be part of this family for the past 30 years. I’ve been presented with opportunities I never thought I would ever have. I can’t tell you how much I love all of you guys and care for all of you guys.
“Thank you so much. I want to also thank my wife, Tammy, who has been a pillar of strength as I continue on this journey with cancer for the past two years as well. You will still see me as a consultant because I love this too much to quit altogether.”
When the evening concluded, Team Penske boarded a bus to the airport for the short return flight to Statesville. They were home by midnight.
Power’s Victory Lap was complete.
“The best thing about this is I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” Power said.