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Formula 1 preview: Japanese Grand Prix

Written by Marcus Woodhouse, Edited by Meghana Sree

Credit: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Round Four of the Formula 1 season is upon us, and it will play out in the Land of the Rising Sun, where history and tradition overflow to form a rich fusion of culture.

The fans will be out in full force for Kanagawa-born Yuki Tsunoda, and Honda will hope for a handy result from the quartet of Red Bulls and RBs running on their engines. With the latest Max Verstappen victory streak over and Ferrari looking stronger than ever, fans can be hopeful of a proper battle at the front this weekend.

Circuit Guide

Credit: Formula 1

The Suzuka International Racing Course is a legendary track steeped in history, and an overwhelming favourite among drivers and fans alike. Ever since it made its F1 bow in 1987, Suzuka has provided a high-octane, high-risk challenge for every driver that braves its high-speed corners.

The iconic figure-of-eight layout and the mind-bendingly quick 130R corner make this circuit unforgettable, and it makes no apologies for its solo DRS (Drag Reduction System) zone, as it simply forces the drivers into risky lunges as well as daredevil divebombs.

Weekend Format

It’s a normal weekend format in Japan, but chances are it’s another early one depending on where you’re tuning in from (European fans like me may well be watching with weary eyes).

Schedule (in BST)

Practice 1 - Friday, 03:30 am

Practice 2 - Friday, 07:00 am

Practice 3 - Saturday, 03:30 am

Qualifying - Saturday, 07:00 am

Race - Sunday, 06:00 am

Weather Forecast

In typical Suzuka tradition, rain is once again likely to affect proceedings this weekend, so expect the drivers to be greeted by a damp track during the race weekend.

Major Talking Points

  • Can Ferrari keep the pressure on Red Bull? - The Australian Grand Prix was one of highs and lows, as Red Bull suffered rare reliability problems and Ferrari were able to capitalise and seal a 1-2 finish. The question is, was that a mere blip or are the Prancing Horse really ready to fight?

  • Can Mercedes bounce back? - A catastrophic weekend for Mercedes ensued in Albert Park, as Lewis Hamilton suffered a mechanical retirement before George Russell crashed dramatically behind a slow Fernando Alonso, right at the end of the race. Can the team recover quickly or will results like this become the story of their season?

  • Can Tsunoda excel in front of his fans? - It’s been a terrific season so far for young Tsunoda, picking up all six of RB’s points last time out and never qualifying lower than P11. Can he channel the support of his home crowd to seal a good result in Suzuka?

Suzuka in Years Gone By

Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Plenty of blockbusters have taken place here in Suzuka over the years, and one such race was in 1994, when impenetrable spray caused carnage and provided the conditions in which Damon Hill was ultimately able to edge out his rival Michael Schumacher after a race-long battle.

The legendary German driver was able to emerge victorious in a titanic duel of his own six years later, as he and Mika Hakkinen set a blinding pace at the front before Schumacher was eventually able to hold on for the chequered flag.

Of course, the two controversial title deciders of 1988 and 1990 between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost cannot be forgotten either, as both drivers left nothing on the table and claimed a championship apiece.

Last Race Recap

Last race in Melbourne, the main story was that someone other than Verstappen won the race. Carlos Sainz always looked a threat to Verstappen’s lead, but he was handed a massive opportunity as the Dutchman’s brakes let him down within two laps.

Sainz did superbly well to manage his pace and control the field, while a fight ensued behind for the podium positions between his teammate Charles Leclerc and the two McLarens, with the Monegasque driver ultimately proving too quick for Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri respectively. 

Sergio Perez was unable to pick up the pieces as Red Bull likely would have wanted him to, while a late crash for Russell saw Alonso penalised, somewhat controversially, allowing Lance Stroll and Tsunoda to be promoted up the order.

Haas claimed double points to cap off a delightful weekend, while Daniel Ricciardo couldn’t turn his home support into a commendable result. It was yet more woe for the pointless Alpine team, while Hamilton was another early casualty after an engine failure.

Drivers to Watch

Credit: Peter Fox/Getty Images

Yuki Tsunoda - The Man from Japan

It’s been an understated but impressive start to the season for Tsunoda, in stark contrast to the struggles of his vastly experienced teammate Ricciardo, and his points alone have got his team into sixth place in the Constructor Standings.

It is up to him to keep his head down and deliver again this weekend, but the pressure will be inevitable for his home race and it will be intriguing to see how he copes.

Carlos Sainz - Laying Down the Gauntlet

A Ferrari driver only in place until the season’s end, Sainz is in the business of proving his doubters wrong and has won two races since the 2022 Brazilian Grand Prix, the only driver not in a Red Bull to claim the top step of the podium in that time period.

Before Verstappen’s car was evidently hampered by a brake issue in Melbourne, the Spaniard looked a real danger behind him and could have gone on to challenge for victory regardless. With some momentum now behind him, it will be season-defining as to what he can do in a straight fight up against Red Bull and Verstappen this weekend.

Marcus’ Predictions

I suspect it may be a quieter weekend for Sainz this weekend, as Verstappen returns to winning ways and dominates, but Ferrari’s pace could still see Leclerc and Sainz make it onto the podium ahead of Perez.

McLaren look to be secure in their position as the third fastest team, but Russell or Alonso could possibly finish ahead of one of them if luck goes their way. Hamilton seems disillusioned with Mercedes after the announcement of his departure to Ferrari next year, and I could see him getting knocked out in Q2 and only scraping a point or two.

Tsunoda will impress I’m sure, extending his purple patch and proving once again why he is the main driver in the team. And, as is customary, Alpine will more than likely receive nil points.

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