Formula 1: Japanese Grand Prix Predictions
The 2012 Japanese Grand Prix takes place this Sunday at Suzuka.
It will be the 15th round of what has been one of the most unpredictable and unusual seasons in decades.
Seven different drivers from five different teams have won races, and 10 different drivers from seven different teams have set the fastest lap.
McLaren appear to have the quickest car overall at this stage, but being fast at one circuit doesn't necessarily mean you'll be fast at the next—and the British team have seen reliability issues creep into the scene of late.
Red Bull are fast but occasionally fragile, while Ferrari look slower but bulletproof. And Lotus? Well, they're just Lotus—one minute they have the best car, the next they're off the pace.
So what's likely to happen this weekend?
Force India Moving Forward?
Force India ended the 2011 season at the head of the midfield, and looked capable of pushing forward into a more competitive position for this year. As we know, that isn't quite what happened. A target of fifth in the constructors' championship has become a (seemingly losing) battle to retain sixth.
But they've started to look stronger as the 2012 season has progressed, and in Singapore, Paul di Resta scored his best-ever finishing position in F1, fourth place. Teammate Nico Hulkenberg trailed home 14th, but he did at least set the fastest lap.
Suzuka is a very different circuit to Marina Bay, but Hulkenberg in particular looked very strong in practice, and while another fourth place is perhaps beyond the team, a double points finish certainly looks within their reach.
Pastor Maldonado Points-Scoring Watch
It would be interesting to know which driver holds the record for the most consecutive pointless finishes immediately after a win, because Pastor Maldonado probably isn't far behind.
The Venezuelan won the Spanish Grand Prix back in May, and has failed to score a single point since—a streak of nine races. Often it's been his own fault, but in Singapore, a potential podium finish was taken away by a hydraulic failure.
Last season he started and finished 14th, but I think Suzuka will be kinder this time around and he'll score his third points finish of the year.
The competitiveness of the Williams ebbs and flows so it's hard to say exactly where he'll end up, but Maldonado has proved he can drive it very quickly. Anything short of a top six finish will probably be a disappointment.
Regarding the record, five minutes on Wikipedia has given me Vittorio Brambilla with 13, following his victory at the rain-shortened 1975 Austrian Grand Prix.
For full-points wins, I've got Keke Rosberg with 11 after the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix. If you can beat either of those, do let me know!
Ferrari Legging Behind?
Through a combination of exceptional driving, a bulletproof car and a hefty dose of luck, Fernando Alonso has a lead of 29 points over his nearest rival, Sebastian Vettel.
The Spaniard has led the championship since the European Grand Prix, somehow bringing his slower Ferrari home consistently enough to stay ahead of his quicker but less reliable competitors.
But speaking after his third place in Singapore, Alonso sounded like a concerned man. He said:
In Monza, it was Lewis winning the race and Sebastian retiring. In Singapore, Sebastian won and Lewis retired, so for me it's okay if they keep doing that.
But it can't always be the case my closest rival retires. We can't go on like this.
We can't think of carrying on to the end of the season with qualifying sessions like on Saturday when our performance was almost a second off the best.
He knows he lacks the raw pace to defend his lead, and recognises how vulnerable he and Ferrari are.
Though I can't see him being a second off the pace in qualifying, I think the Japanese race will be a tough one. Suzuka punishes a poor car more than most circuits, and it's even with Alonso at the wheel, it's unlikely Ferrari will be a match for the McLarens and Red Bulls.
And maybe even the Lotuses.
Anything higher than fifth will be a real bonus.
I think the battle for pole will come down to Red Bull vs McLaren—in Japan and for the rest of the year. It'll take something very special for anyone else to crash that party.
Jenson Button has a five-place grid penalty so he's out of the running, and Mark Webber has really lost his way on Saturdays of late—his best qualifying position in the last four races has been seventh.
Lewis Hamilton has sat on pole for three of the last four races, and he seemed strong in practice.
But for whatever reason, I fancy Sebastian Vettel to set the fastest qualifying time. If he does, it'll be his fourth consecutive Suzuka pole.
This is a much more open market than pole.
Tyre wear is quite high at Suzuka, and with the performance gap between the soft and hard tyres likely to be at least a second a car which can run the softs quickly for longer will be at a real advantage.
So we could well see Sauber and Lotus coming through from less-than-great grid spots to challenge for the podium. Maybe even a Williams. Realistically, we could see half a dozen drivers with a chance of going for the win.
But I think this one could become a two-horse race between Hamilton and Vettel. The two men have been at the top together for several years, but haven't yet had many duels in evenly-matched machinery.
Whether the cars will be evenly-matched on Sunday is another question entirely, but for the win I'll stick with Vettel. Hamilton's forthcoming move to Mercedes might be a distraction too far—for him and his team.
But we shall see.