by Adrian-Liviu Dorofte

Japanese F1 Grand Prix 2012: Preview (VMM)

The Suzuka Circuit is one of the most revered racetracks in the world. Its undulations, fast sweeps and unique figure-of-eight layout require total commitment from the drivers, and victory, perhaps unsurprisingly, is confined to the world’s best. World champions have won 16 out of the last 17 races at Suzuka.

A good car is also vital, as aerodynamic efficiency and strong balance are rewarded in all three sectors of the lap. Sector one features the Esses, a sequence of five high-speed corners similar to Becketts at Silverstone; sector two includes the high-speed downhill left-hander called Spoon and sector 3 is made up of a long straight back towards the pits.

Suzuka is the only circuit on the 2012 calendar that features a downhill start-finish straight. This presents the drivers with a tricky balancing act at the start, when they have to hold their cars on the brakes until they release the clutch. As a result, there is a greater likelihood of jumped starts than at any other venue.

McLaren has a long history of success in Japan, having clinched seven world championships at the Japanese Grand Prix. This year, Lewis and Jenson go to Suzuka hoping to close the gap to points leader Fernando Alonso.

Race distance - 53 laps (191.054 miles/307.471km)
Start time - 15:00 (local)/07:00 BST
Circuit length - 3.608 miles/5.807km
2011 winner - Jenson Button (Vodafone McLaren Mercedes) 53 laps in 1hr30m53.427s (202.972km/h)
2011 pole - Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing) 1m30.466s (231.083km/h)
Lap record - Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren MP4-20) 1m31.540s (228.372km/h)

McLaren at the Japanese Grand Prix

- Wins: 9 (1977, 1988, 1991, 1993, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2011)

- Poles: 6 (1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 2007, 2008)

- Fastest Laps: 8 (1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 2000, 2005, 2007, 2011)

Car 3: Jenson Button
- Age: 32 (January 19 1980)
- GPs: 222
- Wins: 14
- Poles: 8
- FLs: 7
- 2012 points: 119 (6th)
- Japan record: 2011 Q2 R1; 2010 Q5 R4; 2009 Q10 R8; 2008 Q18 R14; 2007 Q6 R11; 2006 Q7 R4; 2005 Q2 R5; 2004 Q5 R3; 2003 Q9 R4; 2002 Q10 R6; 2001 Q9 R7; 2000 Q5 R5

“All of my grand prix wins have felt special, but winning at Suzuka in 2011, at the first grand prix held in Japan since the terrible tsunami last March, was an achievement that still makes me feel incredibly proud and emotional.

“As everybody knows, Japan means a lot to me. It’s a place I love, I’ve been here so many times – for business and pleasure – and I still feel that wide-eyed awe and deep emotion for a country that exists so comfortably on so many different levels.

“Suzuka is definitely a circuit that puts hair on your chest. It’s extremely uncompromising; like a street circuit, it doesn’t allow for a single mistake, punishing you for putting a wheel wrong at almost every point on the circuit.

“But it’s also extremely quick – there’s only one line through the esses that make up the whole first section; the Degner corners are blind, hidden in dips in the track, and approached over bumps that jolt the car, trying to unbalance it. Successfully hitting the apex for Degner 1 is a bit like trying to thread a needle while running the 100 metres – difficult!

“We go to Japan with a car that I feel convinced can fight for victory – it should be another good weekend for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.”

Car 4: Lewis Hamilton
- Age: 27 (January 7 1985)
- GPs: 104
- Wins: 20
- Pole: 24
- FLs: 11
- 2012 points: 142 (4th)
- Japan record: 2011 Q3 R5; 2010 Q8 R5; 2009 Q3 R3; 2008 Q1 R12; 2007 Q1 R1

“When I first raced here in 2009, I couldn’t believe a place like this could still exist in Formula 1 – it still feels like a proper old-school circuit. It doesn’t have the polish or finesse of an ultra-modern track – but is all the better for it.

“It’s fantastically quick, too, and very difficult to master. It’s an unforgiving place, and it also has that special atmosphere that you only get in Japan, for some reason.

“I think that’s due to the fans – they’re what make any visit to a racetrack in Japan feel so special. They’re very passionate about Formula 1, but also extremely polite and friendly – they make you feel very special every day when you’re going in and out of the circuit.

“In terms of the championship, there’s nothing to really be gained by analysing the points tables, from now on, it’s simply gloves-off. As in Singapore, I’ll come out fighting, I’ll just be hoping for a better result next weekend.”

Martin Whitmarsh
Team principal, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

“Suzuka is a very special circuit, a place where some of the greatest chapters in McLaren’s history have been written over the past 25 years.

“Of all our achievements there, I look back at Jenson’s victory last year with particular fondness and satisfaction. It was an extremely tense afternoon, and the victory was a perfect team effort – Jenson drove with all the measured aggression we’ve come to expect, and his back-up from the team was superb.

“Despite Lewis’s retirement from the last race, our performance in Singapore was encouraging for the whole team; it showed that we have a car that can fight for victory on a wide range of circuits, and we’re confident of once again challenging at the front in Japan next weekend.”

McLaren has won at the Japanese Grand Prix’s two homes – the Fuji Speedway and Suzuka Circuit. Here’s how the team defined 12 days in the history of the Japanese Grand Prix:

1. October 24 1976
The world-title decider between James Hunt and Niki Lauda. They qualify second and third at Fuji Speedway, but the race is marred by dreadful weather. Lauda withdraws his Ferrari on lap two, leaving James in need of fourth place to take the title. A late-race puncture drops him to fifth, but he claws his way back to third to bag the sport’s biggest prize.

2. October 23 1977
The easiest victory of James’s career? He qualifies second at Fuji Speedway, alongside pole-sitter Mario Andretti, but takes the lead on the run to Turn One and is never headed. He finishes more than a minute clear of second-placed Carlos Reutemann. “That was pretty easy, wasn’t it?” he says afterwards.

3. October 30 1988
The world-title decider between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at Suzuka. Ayrton takes pole, but stalls at the start and drops to 14th. Alain leads early on, but his chances are blighted by a gearbox problem. Ayrton charges through the field and takes the lead on lap 28. It’s a McLaren 1-2 and Senna is world champion for the first time.

4. October 22 1989
Ayrton needs a victory to keep his title challenge alive. He duly takes pole position, but arch-rival Alain beats him away from the grid and takes the lead. They run nose-to-tail until lap 46, when they collide at the chicane. Alain retires, but Ayrton continues and wins the race, only to be later excluded by the stewards for cutting the chicane. Victory goes to Alessandro Nannini.

5. October 21 1990
Another world title showdown between Ayrton and Prost,now driving for Ferrari. Ayrton takes pole position for the third consecutive year, but Prost, in second, starts on the clean side of the grid and beats Ayrton away from the line. The pair collide at the first corner, giving Senna his second world title in controversial circumstances.

6. October 20 1991
Only a win will do for Williams driver Nigel Mansell, whose title challenge is on the ropes. Gerhard Berger and Ayrton work together to make his life difficult: Gerhard disappears into the lead, leaving Ayrton in second place to hold up Mansell. The Englishman spins off on lap 10, giving Ayrton his third world title. Gerhard leads home a McLaren one-two finish.

7. October 24 1993
Ayrton and Mika Hakkinen qualify second and third, behind pole-sitter Prost. The race is dominated by changeable weather conditions and Ayrton jumps ahead of Prost when the conditions worsen. The gap between them is reduced dramatically when Ayrton stumbles across the battle for fifth place between Damon Hill and Eddie Irvine, but he holds on to take the 40th win of his career.

8. November 1 1998
The world-title decider between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen: Schumacher starts from pole, but stalls on the grid and drops to the back for the re-start. Mika is never headed in the race, winning by six seconds and taking the title, while Schumacher fights back to third, before a puncture ends his challenge. David Coulthard finishes third in the second MP4-13.

9. October 31 1999
Another title decider at Suzuka, but this time Mika is fighting Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine. Mika enters the race four points behind Irvine and leaves it two points ahead after winning in emphatic style. It’s his second consecutive world title.

10. October 9 2005
A mesmerising victory by Kimi Raikkonen. He starts 17th, after rain scuppers his qualifying lap (one-lap qualifying, remember) on Saturday afternoon, and he scythes through the field in fearless fashion during the race. With five laps to go, he’s five seconds behind race leader Giancarlo Fisichella and he seizes the lead at Turn One on the final lap. “One of my best victories,” says Kimi.

11. September 30 2007
The first grand prix at Fuji Speedway for 30 years and it’s wet, very wet. Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso lock out the front row of the grid, but the race is started behind the Safety Car and doesn’t go green until lap 20. The two Vodafone McLaren Mercedes cars run one-two in the awful conditions, until Fernando crashes out with 25 laps remaining. Lewis finishes eight seconds ahead of Heikki Kovalainen.

12. October 9 2011
Jenson Button starts second on the grid to Sebastian Vettel, but he wins the race after taking the lead during the second sequence of pitstops. He has a titanic struggle with Fernando Alonso and Vettel in the closing stages, but he drives an inch-perfect race and wins by 1.160s. Lewis comes home fifth in the second MP4-26.

~ Official photo and details courtesy of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes ~

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