By Ben Edwards
The Suzuka circuit is a fantastic combination of neck-straining S-bends, mind-numbingly fast straights and eye-popping braking areas, all embraced in an atmosphere of buoyant enthusiasm from the Japanese fans.
It holds a unique place in the heart for many drivers, tinged with tragedy from the ultimately fatal accident suffered by Jules Bianchi in 2014, yet encapsulating so much of what a racing driver loves.
It seems amazing that it has changed so little since it was built in the early 1960s, and although F1 cars didn’t visit until 1987 it rapidly became absorbed into the grand prix psyche.
Several of the current drivers were asked about the challenge by a Japanese media colleague when we were in Russia and instantly you could see eyes light up and anticipation begin to flourish.
Man or Machine?
It is a real drivers' circuit, and yet the statistics tend to tell a different story. Over the past decade, on no fewer than eight occasions, the fastest two cars in qualifying have come from a single team; Red Bull in the earlier years and Mercedes since 2014.
Half of those 10 races have resulted in a team one-two result, split between those multiple title-winning rivals. There’s no doubt that the car’s performance is crucial to a good result here, and it tends to favour whichever machine has been dominant throughout the course of the season.
In theory, that should point towards Mercedes achieving a sixth consecutive win in Japan this weekend. They are bringing a minor upgrade to the car and they have a package which works well when a mixture of slow and fast-corner downforce is required.
But Ferrari have demonstrated a pretty impressive step forward in recent events, capitalising on their straight-line speed in Belgium and Italy, and backing that up with excellent cornering capabilities in both Singapore and Russia.
Honda’s Home Turf
There’s also the question of Red Bull. They have been a little disappointing in terms of pace at the previous two events, but we are now coming to the home of their engine supplier Honda, who own the Suzuka facility and where honour is at stake.
Interest in Japan has ramped up since Max Verstappen took two victories in the summer and we are back to the days of the event being a sell-out, although not quite to the era of Senna-fanaticism when the only way to get a ticket was through a lottery system.
Honda will have held back a little extra performance for this one, and Verstappen himself has a good relationship with the circuit. It is where he jumped out of Formula 3 and into his first ever Friday F1 practice session in a Toro Rosso back in 2014, delivering an impressive lap to go 12th fastest. From the start, Verstappen’s potential was obvious.
He has gone on to finish on the podium in each of the last three years and that was before the tie-up with Honda – and with a high chance of rain over the weekend to add to the mix I would not discount him as a potential winner.
For team mate Alexander Albon, it will be a slightly tougher time. Not only will he be up against Verstappen at one of the Dutchman’s favourite venues but he’s never driven at Suzuka before, and there are so many potential pitfalls to avoid throughout every session.
A wheel just a few centimetres off line may touch damp grass, and all of a sudden the session is over. Albon did crash out in qualifying in Russia but fought his way back from a pit lane start to finish fifth.
Mind you, while Albon is learning his trade and Verstappen is polishing his skills, the internal rivalry within Red Bull is relatively muted. Unlike Ferrari where, as we predicted, things have taken a more sinister turn.
It really does feel like a gloves-off battle between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc to establish their authority within the team, following the pre-race agreement being ignored in the early laps of Russia.
Each is determined to be the key Ferrari driver leading into the winter, to have the sway when it comes to specific technical requirements for next year’s car, to carry the momentum into a championship campaign that might actually come to something.
If one of them can pull it together this weekend, it will be the first Ferrari win in Japan since 2004, Michael Schumacher’s dominant year in which he took his seventh and final world title.
Ferrari are on a roll in terms of performance, but can they convert that into a long-awaited victory at one of the most significant venues?
Join us on Channel 4 to find out. Coverage of qualifying is on Saturday 12th October from 1:30pm with highlights of the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday at 2:25pm.
By Ben Edwards