2019 Japanese Grand Prix race preview: Ferrari set to storm Suzuka?

by Jake Williams-Smith on 9th October 2019

A category five super typhoon could add another layer of drama in the intense battle between Ferrari and Mercedes as Formula 1 heads to Suzuka

Lewis Hamilton leads the start of the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix

Photo: Motorsport Images

Ferrari somehow achieved defeat in the face of certain victory in Russia as Mercedes overcame a faster package on race day much to its own surprise.

As Formula 1 heads to Japan with the prospect of a super typhoon taking over proceedings this weekend, the Mercedes vs Ferrari battle could be just as intense as the expected downpour.

Closing in on both world championship titles for what would be a record-breaking sixth-straight year, Mercedes could wrap up the constructors’ championship at Suzuka at the first time of asking if everything goes the team's way like it did in Sochi.

Will it get another gift-wrapped present from Ferrari? Or will the Prancing Horse show its newfound pace once more?

Here is a team-by-team preview ahead of the 2019 Japanese Grand Prix.


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Mercedes

Mercedes celebrates its 1-2 finish in the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

A rare sight: Mercedes celebrates its first win in three races Photo: Motorsport Images

A one-two finish in Russia was not the result Mercedes perhaps deserved after looking well beaten by its recently rejuvenated Italian rivals.

The three-race run without a win is over but that was not because of an upturn in form for the Silver Arrows.

New updates will be present on the W10 this weekend after Ferrari said that it had already completed its 2019 programme and had switched focus towards next season.

Team principal Toto Wolff admitted ahead of the race in Suzuka that it cannot afford to slip up despite comfortable leads in both championships.

"We delivered a strong race in Russia, made the most of our opportunities and both Lewis and Valtteri drove flawlessly.

"However, the win in Sochi doesn't change the fact that Ferrari had a stronger start to the second part of the season than we did.

"We'll bring some minor upgrades to the car in Japan which will hopefully help us take a step in the right direction; however, we know that we need to extract absolutely everything from our car and the tyres if we want to be able to challenge for a win.

"We have a strong track record there, having won every Japanese Grand Prix in the hybrid era, but we expect this year to be challenging given the strength of our opponents.”

Lewis Hamilton can’t take a sixth title just yet, but a victory at one of his favourite circuits on the calendar could make it a formality by the time F1 reaches America in a few weeks time.

 

Ferrari

Sebastian Vettel leads Charles Leclerc during the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc's intra-team battle looks as though it will last the entire season Photo: Motorsport Images

Opportunity squandered in Sochi; Ferrari will be raring for revenge at a circuit it has not won at since 2004.

After the resumption of racing post-summer break, team principal Mattia Binotto has had to play diplomat to keep tensions from rising further between his two drivers.

Russia saw yet another team orders row played out over team radio, and once again it was Charles Leclerc filing complaints with his team boss.

Sebastian Vettel’s rediscovery of his fighting form gives Ferrari a headache while fighting for possible wins, a problem Binotto may wish he had at the beginning of the season.

The team order maelstrom could manifest once again in Japan as both look to assert their claim as number one in the team.

Binotto knows the SF90 is capable of fighting for wins now but expects another battle with Mercedes around a circuit the Silver Arrows are undefeated at since 2014.

“Our performance level was good in Sochi, which is how we managed to take our fourth straight pole position, but we know that in order to be at the front in Japan, every aspect of our work must be perfect,” the Ferrari boss insisted.

“That’s the way we are going to approach the race in Suzuka, trying to extract all the available performance from the car package.

“If we can do that, then we hope to be able to be as competitive as we have been in recent races.”

One year on from its woeful strategic misstep in qualifying during changeable conditions, Ferrari could have an unbeatable package around Suzuka.

Another scrap between the two team-mates would provide sparks everyone is eager to see in a Ferrari battle of supremacy that has been missing for decades.

 

Red Bull

Alexander Albon during the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

Red Bull and Honda will be under huge pressure at the Japanese manufacturer's home race at Suzuka Photo: Motorsport Images

It was another weekend of middling performance for Red Bull in Russia that left the team cut adrift of the fight for victory.

That was partly due to engine change grid penalties incurred in Sochi to prepare for Honda's home race in Japan. It leaves the team with nowhere to hide at a circuit that should suit the downforce-focused RB15.

The fresh Spec 4 Honda power units for both Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon should put both in a strong position for Saturday if the weather holds off.

Verstappen believes the cornering advantage Red Bull normally enjoys over Ferrari could be crucial in the qualifying battle.

“Ferrari will be very strong as they have so much power and will be fast on the straights but our car will be quick in the corners so hopefully we can gain some time there," said the Dutch driver.

“We’ve had some great results with Honda already this year and it won’t be easy at Suzuka but we will of course deliver the best performance possible for the Japanese fans.”

Albon will be competing in his first Japanese Grand Prix in F1 but has previous experience of the circuit in karts.

“I’m really excited as it’s going to be my first Japanese Grand Prix. I have raced at the track once before but only in karts, so I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like in an F1 car.

“Last time out in Russia, it was a good comeback from the pit lane to finish P5, but hopefully I can have a smoother weekend and a better starting position so I can fight towards the front.”


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The Midfield

McLaren continued its 2019 resurgence in Russia with a sixth- and eighth-place finish. Carlos Sainz has been a man in fine form since his early-season reliability woes subsided and has Pierre Gasly’s sixth place in the drivers’ standings firmly within reach, now just three points behind.

“Although we managed to extend our lead in the midfield battle, the competition remains tight and I know that I need to keep pushing all the way to the end of the season,” Sainz said,

“I want more, and that is the mentality we need to keep the whole year.”

Rivals for fourth place, Renault fell further behind in the fight for best of the rest. Nico Hulkenberg’s solitary point for 10th has the French team fighting a 33-point deficit to McLaren in the constructors’ standings.

The German driver believes that the team will need to maximise points in Japan to stand a chance of fighting back.

“It’s obvious we missed out on points in Singapore and Russia and that’s frustrating given our competitive pace and qualifying positions.

“We’re still in the battle for fourth. We have to focus race by race and extract everything from the weekend. We have to target big points in Japan.”

McLaren continues to impress as the best behind the top three Photo: Motorsport Images

Racing Point’s upgrades were said to be worth valuable lap time and they proved so in Russia, as Sergio Perez flew typically under the radar to a well-deserved seventh-place finish.

Team principal Otmar Szafnauer believes that there is no reason why the team’s impressive run cannot continue at a venue both his drivers enjoy.

“There have been many positives to focus on since the summer break and there’s no doubt that we have taken some important steps forward with car performance," he said.

“We picked up more points in Russia and I’m optimistic that we can be scoring well in all of the remaining races. The race in Japan is always one the team enjoys and it’s a firm favourite with the drivers.”

Toro Rosso endured a difficult weekend by virtue of starting at the back of the pack or in the pitlane in Daniil Kvyat’s case ahead of Honda’s home race.

Pierre Gasly will not be in the car until Free Practice 2 as reigning Super GT and Super Formula champion, Naoki Yamamoto will be driving in his place in FP1.

The Honda-backed 31-year-old will be sampling an F1 car for the first time on Friday and says he will be making the most of the opportunity.

“To get this chance at Suzuka, a very important circuit for all Japanese racing drivers, in front of such a big crowd of Japanese fans, will make the experience even more special," he said.

“My main aim in FP1 will be to do a good job for the team, gathering data and information which will be useful for them over the weekend.”

In Sochi, Kevin Magnussen scored Haas’ first points since Germany.

The American outfit may have finally admitted defeat with the VF-19, still finding it impossible to identify the tyre operating window.

Three teams with a lot to prove in Japan Photo: Motorsport Images

“The car is very temperamental, to say the least, and we never know on any given weekend where we’ll end up,” team boss Guenther Steiner said.

“You’re always learning when you’re racing. Hopefully, we can carry that form into Suzuka and beyond.”

Pirelli released a tweet last weekend revealing the operating window for each compound; maybe a message direct to Haas would be valuable too.

Antonio Giovinazzi had been enjoying his best run of form in his brief Formula 1 career, finishing ahead of veteran team-mate Kimi Räikkönen in two races in succession. That came to an end in Russia, but the Italian is hopeful of starting another streak.

“I had a good run of races before Russia and I know we can be at that level again in Japan," he said.

“It’s a very different track from the last few we raced, so hopefully we will be able to turn our fortunes around and get back in the points.”

Räikkönen is eager to arrest the slide in performances he has experienced lately but believes the Suzuka circuit could suit Alfa Romeo.

“The last four races have been disappointing for me and the team, but we shouldn’t forget we looked strong in Belgium and Italy despite the issues that prevented me from scoring," he said. "The key is to recover the form we had before and immediately after the break: the gap from our rivals in the midfield is not big and hopefully a circuit like Suzuka can help us get the most out of our car.”

And Williams. The Grove-based team could scarcely have had a worse weekend in Russia if it tried.

George Russell in the wall after crashing out of the 2019 Russian Grand Prix

George Russell in the wall after a failure on his FW42 Photo: Motorsport Images

A bizarre failure on George Russell’s car and immediate retiring of Robert Kubica’s sister car courted controversy the underperforming team really could have done without.

Kubica’s sponsors demanded an explanation and the forthcoming one revealed the team was saving parts for the rest of the season. Hardly a good look.

So then to Japan where the weather forecast is super typhoon, perfect for a team trying to keep its cars in one piece.

Senior race engineer Dave Robson says the team will have new parts to test at Suzuka and added that it is aiming to continue to find performance before the end of the year.

“We come to Suzuka with some new test components to evaluate as we continue our preparations for the 2020 season," he said.

“Alongside these test items, we will conduct our usual race preparation, consisting of car set-up refinement and tyre understanding.

“As a team we had a difficult weekend in Russia, and we arrive in Japan recovered and ready to continue the steady improvement that we have witnessed since the middle of the season.”

 

 

 

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