Out of all the races on the F1 calendar that Sebastian Vettel has won over the past few weeks, the Japanese Grand Prix is probably the one you would have fancied him in the most. The Red Bull driver loves it here. He has been on pole position for the last four years in Suzuka and has gone on to win the race on three of those occasions.
Whilst not the most popular figure in every venue on the calendar, the fanatical Japanese supporters embrace Vettel as one of their own, and they will be hoping he can secure his fourth successive world championship in front of them on Sunday. He will, if he wins and Fernando Alonso finishes lower than eighth.
This weekend, however, things haven’t gone entirely Vettel’s way. He looked imperious in the second session of free practice, granted. But he was plagued by reliability issues in the final practice session, which manifested itself as an absence of KERS in qualifying.
Still, Vettel managed to produce a wonderful drive to secure second place on Sunday's grid behind teammate Mark Webber.
Perhaps, Vettel isn’t invincible around here after all then? Well, at least for this weekend. Let’s highlight some of the drivers who will pose a real threat to the German driver on Sunday.
The most obvious candidate is Australian Mark Webber. Vettel’s Red Bull teammate will be walking away from the sport at the end of this season and has spoken of his desire to finish with a flourish.
After out-qualifying his teammate for the first time this season, he has an excellent chance to do exactly that. If Webber can stave off Vettel early on, he should be able to pull away from the rest of the field as the race draws out.
But, Webber qualifying in front of Vettel throws up that age-old issue of team orders. Would Webber be asked to move aside if the title was there for Vettel’s taking?
It would certainly make for an intriguing scenario, especially after Vettel disobeyed team orders himself to overtake Webber back in Malaysia.
Would Webber continue to be the ultimate professional and yield for the German on a whim? Would Red Bell make such an order with the title virtually wrapped up anyway? Or would the chance of one last victory in the sport lead him to take a leaf out of Vettel’s book?
Either way, the conclusion of this race looks set to be a controversial one with these two scrapping away at the front.
Hamilton clearly has some pace around this circuit. He was comfortably the fasted man out there in the first practice session and a solid qualifying session sees him lining up in third place behind the Red Bull front row.
His best chance at getting amongst things will be the start. If the Red Bull’s are tussling amongst themselves, Hamilton has enough tactical acumen and awareness to split them or maybe even overhaul the pair.
Those opening few corners at Japan, where the succession of S-bends give the drivers ample opportunity to jostle for track position ahead of a long approach into a tight hairpin, will be his best opportunity.
Whether or not his car has the longevity to stay ahead of either of the Red Bull's for the course of the Grand Prix remains to be season. But he needs to get in front of at least one of the Red Bull’s early to stand any chance whatsoever.
After that, with the conditions in Japan such an unpredictable commodity, who knows what might happen?
The Ferrari driver is the only man who has a slither of stopping Vettel win four world titles in a row. That looks like an impossible task—especially when you consider the grid positions of each driver ahead of Sunday’s race.
Alonso will start down in eighth place on Sunday, knowing that he must improve on that to keep those slim titles hopes alive.
It looks difficult to see past either of the Red Bull's here, but if anyone can produce something special from down the field, then it is the former double world champion. He will be hoping for a rain interrupted race—not something that looks to be out of the question—that could see more mistakes, more pit stops and his own skills in variable conditions come to the fore.
But even then, it could be beyond Alonso. At the moment, the Ferrari’s are really struggling to compete with the likes of Red Bull, Mercedes and even Lotus.
If Alonso does pull something out of the bag here, then it’d be facilitated by his genius alone.