The 2019 Formula One World Championship enters the home straight with the Japanese Grand Prix on this weekend. Round 17 on the calendar, the race takes place at the iconic Suzuka Circuit which is unique in that the track layout forms a figure eight.
Ask any driver to list their three favourite tracks, and almost of them will include this one. It was designed in 1962 by Dutch car and racetrack designer John Hugenholz, originally as a test track for Honda, and it is notorious for its high speeds and limited runoff areas.
It's a circuit of two halves, stretching 3.6 miles in length and featuring virtually every possible type of corner, from high speed kinks to flowing linked turns and profiled curved bends and chicanes and hairpins. As such, it’s a tough challenge for power units which need to deliver across the entire power spectrum without sacrificing drivability and responsiveness.
Equally, drivers can never stop working as there isn't much heavy braking and as mentioned above, limited runoff areas. It’s a track where finding a good rhythm and having good aero balance are the keys to success. The track is also quite narrow, making overtaking difficult, so strategy is also vital.
Mercedes-AMG at the 2019 Formula One Japanese Grand Prix
The track surface is also among the roughest and most abrasive of the year, which means tire wear and degradation is on the high side. As a result, Pirelli has nominated the harder C1, C2 and C3 compounds for the weekend.
Suzuka is well-known for its variable weather, too, with typhoons possible at this time of year. Overnight rain often has the effect of resetting the track by washing away any rubber laid down. Looking at the forecast, we'll be in for rain during Saturday's qualifying session but there looks to be fine conditions for Sunday's race.
After Friday's practice, Mercedes-AMG's Valtteri Bottas topped the time sheets. Right on his tail was fellow Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, with Aston Martin Red Bull Racing's Max Verstappen the third fastest. Right up there as well were Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, with the times separated by about half a second or less. Hopefully the race will be just as competitive.
Going into the weekend, Hamilton leads the 2019 Drivers’ Championship with 322 points. Bottas is second with 249 points and Leclerc is third with 215 points. In the Constructors' Championship, Mercedes leads with 571 points versus the 409 of Ferrari and 311 of Red Bull. Last year's winner in Japan was Hamilton driving for Mercedes.