Round 15 of the 2014 Formula One World Championship brings us to Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix, held at the Suzuka Circuit.
Lewis Hamilton: Singapore was a good weekend for me. It's the first time in quite a few races that I've not had to fight through the pack to get a result which made life a lot easier. In the final stint, I had to clear Sebastian quickly after making the extra stop. But the car just felt fantastic and I could push whenever I needed to throughout the race. Of course, it was disappointing for the team to have another retirement but I know they have made this a priority moving forwards. It's levelled things up in the Drivers' Championship, so hopefully we'll now have a straight battle right to the flag in Abu Dhabi. Suzuka is one of the races on the calendar that drivers love the most - and arguably one of the greatest tracks in the world. There's so much history and there have been so many defining moments there - like those unforgettable battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. I've never won at this circuit and have only made the podium once, on my first visit way back in 2009. I've had a couple of chances and last season was probably the best of those. This year, though, we have an exceptional car and I'm really hoping I'll finally have my shot at the top step. All the greats of Formula One have won at Suzuka since the sport first came there in the 1980s and I'm determined to add my name to that list this weekend.
Nico Rosberg: I said at the time that Sunday in Singapore was probably the toughest moment of my year so far and, looking back on it, I still think that is true. To have the chance for a top result basically taken away before you even reach the grid is hard to swallow and, of course, it was a lot of points lost in the Championship battle. I can't fault the effort of the team, though. I go to the factory and I see how hard everyone is working, so it's clear that they want the results just as much as us drivers do. I have faith in my colleagues to improve our reliability and I know they will get it right. Next up we have the Japanese Grand Prix - which really is one of the special races in motorsport. There's so much history at this race - especially at Suzuka. It's definitely one of the best tracks in the world. The fans, too, are just unbelievable. They go absolutely crazy for Formula One and it's so nice to see their enthusiasm for the sport. They show us so much support - the teams and all of us drivers individually - so we all really enjoy going there and seeing them all. I'm looking forward to this weekend - particularly with the car we have at the moment which should give us a good chance to get a great result.
Toto Wolff, Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport: Singapore was a bittersweet event for the team, with both of our drivers producing strong performances throughout the weekend but only one leaving with the result he deserved on Sunday. Whilst it was good to see the pace of our car used to full effect by Lewis in the race, Nico's problems left us under no illusions that our reliability must improve. With five races to go and three points separating Lewis and Nico, it is now a straight fight between the two of them and each will be looking to gain the first advantage in Suzuka, one of the best driver's circuits in the sport. We are also now entering arguably the most intense phase of the racing season: the final quarter. Inside the team, motivation is stronger now than at any point so far this year. Every single one of us wants to finish 2014 in style.
Paddy Lowe, Executive Director (Technical): We left Singapore with mixed emotions. Lewis produced a fantastic drive in difficult circumstances with the safety car to take a great victory. Credit must go to the team in terms of the strategy - which was bold but absolutely the right call. It demanded a lot from Lewis in terms of his performance in the final phase of the race - but as always he delivered faultlessly. On the other side of the garage, it was very disappointing to have lost Nico's car in Singapore. This was down to the failure of a part which we have been running faultlessly since its introduction six years ago and so demonstrates the challenge of ensuring reliability in a modern Formula One car. Clearly, this is an area in which we need to perform a lot better in the future. Reliability is something we have been working on intensively over the past 12 months and we will redouble our efforts moving forwards. Now, we look ahead to Suzuka. It's a fantastic track - unique in its figure-of-eight configuration with some spectacular corners, and a very well-liked circuit amongst the drivers. It demands the utmost skill from the driver in order to get the right lines - particularly through the 'S' Curves - and good all-round performance from the car in terms of power, braking and cornering. We hope that will play to our advantage and that we can bring home another good result. The Japanese fans are some of the very best on the planet - we particularly look forward to seeing what interesting costumes they produce each year. Their enthusiasm for the sport is second to none and we hope to reward them with a good show.
In The Cockpit
Lewis: It's downhill on the way into Turn 1, which is incredibly fast and taken flat out. You've then got to brake briefly into Turn 2 - shifting down to third gear, or maybe fourth in these new cars, using all of the track on exit. Next it's the legendary 'S' Curves. It's really important to hit every apex just right through here to carry the momentum. You actually run quite wide out of Turn 5 and then really hug the apex through Turn 6 - bringing you out to the right-hand side of the track for a good line through Turn 7. You have to get the car hooked up through here to hit full throttle as early as possible for the flat-out run up the hill.
Next, you're into the Degner curves, which always seem to catch people out. You don't want to brake too late into the first part, Turn 8, or you'll find yourself straight into gravel. Then, for the second part at Turn 9, the car can get really out of shape at the apex and it's so easy to make a mistake. There's no room for error through this section as there's very little run-off area.
After a short, slightly curved straight it's into the Turn 10 hairpin, which is really difficult to attack. There's so little grip through here - partly because the circuit is so dependent on high-speed performance that your setup is not as optimised for low-speed corners as you'd like. It's important to get a good exit here, as you're flat-out all the way through Turn 12 on the long run down to Turn 13. The Spoon Curve, made up of Turns 13 and 14, is really tricky to get right. It's very fast on the way in and, once you're there, it's all about keeping the minimum speed up all the way through the corner. You really do have to use all of the circuit on exit and get on the throttle as early as you can for the back straight.
Turn 15, the spectacular 130R, is so fast. Today, we easily take it flat-out but it must have been so tough years ago. After a short run down to the final chicane, Casio Triangle at Turns 17 and 18, you're braking hard for the crucial finale to the lap. You use all of the kerbs through here and, once again, hitting full throttle early is key as the following start / finish straight provides one of the best overtaking opportunities around the lap.
Nico: Suzuka is really exciting to drive, with so many high-speed sections and a bit of everything thrown in around the lap. It's also unique in that it's the only track we go to which features a figure-of-eight configuration - crossing over itself around the mid-point of the circuit. This means you have almost the same amount of left turns as right turns - which is quite unusual as there are normally more in one direction than the other.
For me, the most exciting part of the track is the opening sector of the lap. It's just a relentless, never-ending sequence of left, right, left, right, left turns running all the way up the hill. They're all really high-speed corners which really flow into each other. If you get just one wrong all of the others after it will be wrong so it's very, very challenging.
On the Pit Wall
Back to a 'Normal' Circuit
Since we were at Hockenheim in July, each of the circuits on the calendar has brought extremes in terms of their characteristics - be that in one direction or the other. Both the Hungaroring and the Marina Bay Street Circuit are tight, twisting tracks with low power sensitivity and precious few overtaking opportunities. Then, there has been Spa and Monza - the polar opposite with their long straights, high power sensitivity and high demands on the Power Units. Suzuka, however, is more what might be termed a 'normal' circuit - with a good mix of low, medium and high-speed corners coupled with a fairly average lap length.
The circuit is used fairly regularly throughout the year by a variety of different motorsport categories, placing track evolution around the middle of the scale at around two seconds per lap between Friday practice and qualifying.
Japan is one of the toughest locations of the season for the teams in terms of the offset hours, which are tricky to get to grips with. For those working back at the factories in Brackley and Brixworth in particular, effectively adjusting to a night shift for the week inevitably puts a strain on the body. Suzuka itself is the only circuit on the calendar to run in a figure-of-eight configuration, with the run between Turns 14-15 crossing over that of Turns 9-10. The distribution between left (8) and right (10) turns around the track is well-balanced, leading to relatively equal tyre wear on each side of the car. There are also a lot of elevation changes - the most significant of which begins on the run out of Turn 1 and continues all the way up through the 'S' curves towards the Dunlop Curve at Turn 7.
Suzuka regularly sees significant shifts in weather patterns - not necessarily across a race weekend, but certainly from year to year. While ambient temperatures tend to remain between 23-25 degrees, track temperatures have historically varied from 25-38 degrees. This is due to the ever-changing cloud cover above the circuit. Rain is not uncommon, with the muggy conditions regularly leading to quite intense thunderstorms overnight and often into the following day. When it rains in Suzuka, it really rains - demonstrated by the infamous pit lane boat races, as last seen in 2010.
Suzuka sits towards the upper end of the scale in terms of tyre energy. There is a lot of high-speed content around the lap, starting with the 'S' curves - which stand as one of the most historic sequences of corners in the world, similar in style to Eau Rouge. Each corner builds on the other through here, putting a lot of energy through the tyres. As per 2013, it is for this reason that the hard and medium compounds are nominated for this race. These compounds have proven to be very predictable this season and, as such, a similar trend in pit stops can be expected. In 2013, a mixture of two and three stop strategies came into play, with the majority of the front-runners opting for the former.
Conversely to the last race in Singapore, Suzuka presents a number of good passing opportunities. The most popular locations tend to be the first corner and then under braking into the final chicane. Although overtaking is possible, it is far from simple - often forcing the drivers to produce some spectacular manoeuvres. Watching two cars run side by side through the opening bend, or lining up a move out of130R and into the final chicane, is highly entertaining to watch.
On the surface, the Suzuka circuit would not seem to lend itself to a high Safety Car probability. However, only the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix has not featured the Safety Car since the race returned to the circuit in 2009. As one of the 'old school' circuits on the calendar, run-off areas largely consist of grass, gravel and tyre walls. Coupled with the high-speed track layout, this generally means that any accident which does occur will frequently result in the race being neutralised. The tight first corner is another contributing factor, with contact between cars a regular occurrence on the first lap in particular.