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
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
2017 Japanese Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times
— F1 on NBC Sports (@F1onNBCSports) October 3, 2017