F1: Will we see back-to-back British champions at Suzuka?

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarWednesday, September 30th, 2009

 
 

Jenson Button could theoretically win the Formula One Drivers’ Championship at Suzuka this weekend if he finishes far enough ahead of team-mate Rubens Barrichello.

If he does, it will be the first time since the reign of Graham Hill and then Jackie Stewart in the late 1960s that Britain has produced two successive world champions. It will be the 14th occasion since the start of the modern era in 1950 that a British driver has won.

Realistically the title fight will probably go closer to the wire, with Button currently enjoying a 15-point advantage. If he finishes more than five points ahead of the popular Brazilian, currently thought to be heading off to Williams next year, then the title is his.

But that’s a big ask, especially given the recent form of both drivers. Certainly Barrichello would love to still be in with a chance at his home race of Interlagos, and he will pose a considerable challenge to Button on that circuit.

Elsewhere, it is questionable how much attention any member of the F1 circus will have to spare for the weekend’s racing. With Alonso finally confirmed for Ferrari after possibly the longest courtship in F1 history, the driver market is suddenly in full flight.

Expect Suzuka to be the scene of as much wheeling and dealing as on-track action. The deal we’re most interested in here at Brits on Pole concerns the second McLaren seat – will Hamilton have the undemanding presence of Heikki Kovalainen in the next-door garage during 2010?

Or will we see the return of McLaren’s prodigal son Kimi Raikkonen – an entirely different proposition as a co-driver?

Most fans of the team seem to adore the prospect of The Iceman arriving back in Woking to hand it out to Alonso and Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali, but it’s certainly got the potential to unsettle Hamilton. Do let us know what you think of a potential Hamilton/Raikkonen partnership in the comments.

McLaren has recently declared that its goal for the season will be to finish ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ championship. Currently the Woking outfit is on 59 points and the Maranello one on 62, so it’s certainly a feasible ambition.

But as Hamilton’s form has improved over the season, so has Raikkonen’s. Game on. In more ways than one.

Red Bull managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory last weekend after a promising qualifying session devolved into a poor race. Vettel qualified second but finished fourth following a drive-through penalty, cutting the gap to Button by just one point.

His season has been characterised by engine problems plus a lack of experience which has prevented him from really capitalising on the strengths of the Adrian Newey-designed RB5. Team-mate Mark Webber, who went into the weekend saying his own title challenge was effectively over, retired with a brake failure after qualifying fourth.

The team looks certain to hold its second place in the constructors’ championship which is a mighty achievement, and probably the sum total of its expectations now.

The Suzuka Circuit, which is owned by Honda, is one of the more popular destinations on the F1 calendar for both drivers and fans. Reminscent of a giant Scalextric track, it is one of the few worldwide to have a figure-eight layout with a crossover, and is one of the most challenging that drivers will face.

It is 3.6 miles long with 17 turns and the lap record of 1:31.540 was set by Kimi Raikkonen in 2005 while driving a McLaren MP4-20. It has been off the Formula One calendar in favour of Toyota-owned Fuji Speedway for the last two years but returns this year following a renovation.

Brawn GP: Easy does it at former home grand prix

Jenson Button said earlier this week that he will not be pushing to secure the title this weekend. But it has been speculated that Honda may possibly retain some interest in the team it formerly owned. If so, it would no doubt be extremely happy to see a fairytale win for the Brackley squad on its own test circuit.

The fast-flowing drivers’ circuit is particularly suited to Button’s fluid driving style and he says he is keen to return: “Suzuka is such a fun circuit and I have lots of good memories from racing there over the years. I think everyone has missed having it on the calendar for the last few years.

“130R is one of the fastest corners in Formula One and you really have to think about how you approach it. We might not be flat through there this year but it is still a real buzz to take the corner carrying speeds of 300kph.

“I’ve had some moments there in the past! I’ve always enjoyed great support at Suzuka in the past from the Japanese fans who are so enthusiastic about the sport so we’ll be hoping for more of the same this weekend and I can’t wait to race there again and put on a great show.”

Team principal Ross Brawn added: “The venue has played host to some great races over the years and with all the hard work that has been undertaken recently to improve the facilities, it should prove to be an even better venue for the Japanese Grand Prix after the three-year break.

“From Brawn GP’s perspective, I was very pleased with how the team recovered well from a problematic qualifying session in Singapore and came away with further valuable points for the championship challenge.

“We will learn from those experiences and put the lessons in good practice for the final important three races of the season. We were pleased with the performance of the upgrades that we took to Singapore and expect to continue to see the benefits of this package in Suzuka this weekend.”

McLaren: “We won here with Kimi…”

Lewis Hamilton was characteristically enthusiastic when faced with his first-ever race at the circuit: “It feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to race at Suzuka so, as you can imagine, I’ll be really excited when practice starts there on Friday morning.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve raced Suzuka on computer games and, while it kind of gives you an idea of how the circuit goes, nothing can beat the real thing. It looks like a real driver’s circuit – the first sector esses look very demanding and the higher speed corners towards the end of the lap will probably require real precision and a good car set-up.

“I’m also really looking forward to returning to Japan. It’s one of my favourite countries and I love racing in front of the Japanese fans. It should be a great weekend.”

Meanwhile, team principal Martin Whitmarsh once more talked up Kimi Raikkonen’s history with the team, saying: “Along with Spa-Francorchamps, Suzuka is one of Formula One’s greatest circuits, and one that every driver relishes.

“Certainly, McLaren has had more than its fair share of spectacular moments there. We’ve won at Suzuka on six occasions, and I vividly remember the 2005 race, when Kimi took the lead on the final lap of one of the most spectacular grands prix I have ever witnessed.

“For 2009, we go to Japan knowing that overall victory will not be easy to achieve but the improvements we evaluated in Singapore, particularly some useful changes to the floor, should give us a competitive boost and it will be interesting to see how our pace translates against that of our rivals.”

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