The Formula 1 world descends on Suzuka this weekend for the 39th running of the Japanese Grand Prix. It will be the 26th time the race has been held at this venue.
Suzuka has been the scene of numerous championship-deciding battles over the years. Thirteen champions have been crowned here to date, including Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Mika Hakkinen.
No one can win the title at Suzuka this year, but the outcome will still have a huge impact on the title race.
Fernando Alonso remains clear at the top of the drivers' standings, 29 points ahead of second-placed Sebastian Vettel. Kimi Raikkonen is third, while Lewis Hamilton's DNF in Singapore leaves him 52 points behind Alonso in fourth.
Mark Webber and Jenson Button are probably too far back to mount a serious challenge this late in the year. The current Top 10 is:
|02||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull||165|
|05||Mark Webber||Red Bull||132|
Red Bull have a healthy lead at the head of the constructors' standings. McLaren, seeking their first team title since 1998, are second with Ferrari third.
Winless Lotus can thank consistency for their fourth place. The current standings are:
Marussia, Caterham and HRT remain pointless.
Designed in 1962 as a Honda test track (and still owned by the motoring giant), Suzuka first hosted the Japanese Grand Prix in 1963. Its first Formula 1 World Championship event occurred in 1987.
Not much has changed since then.
Suzuka is a rare example of a track which has stood the test of time. It features a mixture of corner types in a layout which tests man and machine like few others.
A lap begins on the start-finish straight (obviously), with a reasonably long run down to Turn 1, a downhill right-hander with a very fast entry and the first overtaking opportunity of the lap. The drivers bleed off speed as they go through this corner ready for the tighter right of Turn 2 which follows immediately.
It's slightly uphill here, and the track continues to climb steadily as the drivers head into one of the finest group of corners in the world, the S Curves (Turns 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7).
These are sequence of medium-speed corners, starting with a left, then a right, then another left, another right and a final more open, sweeping left.
The exit of each corner leads straight into the entry of the next and even the smallest error can ruin a driver's rhythm and cost him a lot of time.
The final corner of the group, Turn 7, opens onto a short straight before the fast entry to the first (Turn 8) of the two right-handed Degner Curves. It looks so easily to put a wheel wide on the exit here,
As soon as they're through the first, the drivers begin to brake for the second, a much tighter 90-degree corner (Turn 9). From here the cars pass through a short tunnel under a different section of the circuit (which they drive over later in the lap).
Turn 10 is a right-hand kink just after the tunnel, then it's the hairpin left of Turn 11. If one car is significantly faster than another overtaking is possible here under braking, but a little bit of courage is needed to even think about it.
And if the guy you're trying to overtake doesn't play ball, it's easy to lose a front wing.
Next up is the long, sweeping flat-out right-hander of Turn 12, before another of Formula 1's great corners, Spoon.
This is a beautiful double-apex (Turns 13 and 14) left-hander, the first part slightly quicker than the second. Taking a smooth line through here is crucial for a good lap time as it leads onto the circuit's longest full-throttle zone.
The back straight is beautiful as far as straights go, with a pleasant downhill blast into a shallow valley before the track rises again on the approach to the Crossover.
This is spot where the track passes over itself at the point just after Degner.
And next up is one of the most famous corners in the world—130R.
Named for the original radius of the corner (130 metres), 130R (Turn 15) is the fastest corner of the year, a left-hander taken at full speed thanks to the incredible level of downforce an F1 car generates.
Until 2002, this corner was a fearsome test, and taking it flat out was a true challenge. It was re-profiled into a more open, two-part left in 2003, and the greater and greater levels of downforce modern cars have mean taking it without lifting is now relatively easy.
And the name is no longer strictly accurate, but we'll forgive that—"85 and 340R" just wouldn't sound the same.
Overtaking is possible along the straight before 130R, or immediately afterwards under braking for the Casio Triangle (Turns 16 and 17). This tight chicane jinks right then left, dramatically slowing the cars before releasing them through Turn 18 back onto the start/finish straight.
The line is only a short distance down the road.
The pit lane entry is on the inside of Turn 18, and the exit is just before Turn 1.
Pirelli are bringing the yellow-marked soft and silver-marked hard tyre compounds to the Japanese Grand Prix.
The tyres are really put through the wringer at Suzuka.
The long, fast corners such as Spoon, Dunlop and 130R subject the tyres to sustained lateral forces in excess of 3g, and there's little time for them to cool off before the next quick turn comes along.
The choice of compounds being brought offers a choice of better grip or longer life. The extra step (medium is skipped) and performance gap between the two compounds could see several of the expected front-runners having to use a set of soft tyres earlier than they might have wanted during qualifying.
Last year, most of the drivers opted for a three-stop strategy with some stretching out a two. While the 2012 compounds are softer overall than their 2011 counterparts, we'll probably see similar strategies employed this time around.
There will be a single DRS zone at Suzuka, in what is perhaps the only sensible place to put it.
The detection point will be 50 metres before the Casio Triangle (final chicane), with the activation point at the exit of Turn 18. The zone will end at the turn-in point of the first corner.
This is 20 metres shorter than the zone was last year.
You never know...
Suzuka has seen its fair share of awful weather over the years, but this season's race looks like it'll be a dry one.
The Japanese Meteorological Agency's forecast for Mie Prefecture (in which the circuit is located) suggests a 40 percent chance of rain on Sunday, but that's not specifically for Suzuka itself. Weather Underground and Formula1.com expect the whole weekend to be dry and bright.
This could change as we move towards the end of the week.
As always, the Japanese Grand Prix weekend will consist of three free practice sessions, qualifying and the race.
The session times are as follows:
All times given are Japanese local time. Formula1.com has a handy one-click tool to convert them to your own timezone.
Enjoy the weekend!