When Lewis Hamilton controversially passed teammate Valtteri Bottas to take the chequered flag in Russia last week, he took another decisive step towards dominating the F1 Drivers Championship.
The Brit’s win in Sochi represented his third consecutive triumph – one that resulted in him opening up a whopping 50-point lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, with just five races to go.
The first of these final five races will take place in Japan this weekend, and there’s no doubt that Vettel will be feeling nervous when he assumes his position on the grid. But will he revive his chance at the title, or will Hamilton make it four wins in a row?
The Drivers to Watch
All eyes will be on Hamilton in Suzuka, as he arrives at the track having won five of his last six races.
In contrast, Vettel has a sole triumph at the Spa-Francorchamps track in Belgium to show for this period. This was also the last F1 race in which the champion claimed a top two podium finish.
The German has great pedigree at this track, having won four times in Japan since his debut. Of course, the one man to rival his record at Suzuka is Mercedes’ Hamilton, who has also prevailed four times here, including three victories in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
From a constructor’s perspective, it’s interesting to note that these three Hamilton triumphs are included as part of four consecutive Mercedes successes in Japan. This will hardly fill the Ferrari team with any great sense of optimism, particularly given that their last Suzuka win was delivered by Michael Schumacher back in 2004.
However, the fact that Suzuka is an F1 power track with significant throttle sections running into turns 1, 13 and 16 will suit the Ferrari and Mercedes power units, making it likely that the winner will come from one of these teams.
Given that both Kimi Raikkonen and Bottas are likely to remain at the mercy of team orders, we should be bracing ourselves for a straight shootout between Hamilton and Vettel.
The Key F1 Statistics
While securing a position on the front of the grid always offers an advantage to drivers, this is particularly important in Japan. Throughout the 29 races at Suzuka, the winner has come from the front row on 25 occasions, while the successful driver has started on pole in 14 of these instances.
Interestingly, Raikkonen is the exception to this rule, with the Finn winning from 17th on the grid back in 2005.
However, Raikkonen has now gone 110 races since his last win in Australia back in 2013, so he’s long overdue a triumph here. He did at least record his 200th points finish last week in Russia, with only Schumacher and Fernando Alonso having earned more.
Seven of the last 13 F1 winners have started in pole here, so both Hamilton and Vettel will be desperate to secure this coveted position. The smart money may be on the Brit this time around, as aside from his record at Suzuka, he also has a record 79 career poles to his name, whereas Vettel has 55.
Hamilton has now won eight races this F1 season, with Vettel trailing behind with just three victories. Overall, this means that the Brit has 70 victories from 224 races, with Vettel only having 52 triumphs during his entire career.
While both drivers remain behind the legendary Michael Schumacher who earned 91 victories during his career, Hamilton is closing the gap and is likely hoping to add to his tally here.
What About the Circuit and the Tyres?
Arguably, the track at Suzuka has become the most challenging circuit on the F1 calendar in recent times, primarily due to its challenging turns. Make no mistake – few circuits test the natural ability of drivers quite like this one, particularly since the turns at Silverstone and Spa became flat-out.
Usually on an F1 track, downforce will be compromised in order for drivers to achieve lower drag. This can be challenging on an extreme circuit like Suzuki, meaning that the cars with the greatest aerodynamic efficiency and high-speed downforce will ultimately deliver the most competitive lap times.
As we’ve said previously, this should benefit Mercedes and Ferrari, while also providing a competitive advantage for whoever qualifies in pole position.
Tyres will also play a big role on this track, with Pirelli recently announcing that they are bringing back the same tyre compounds that they did in 2017. However, these are all a step softer than last year, making a one-stop strategy possible when using the harder compounds.
With Vettel desperate for the win, it’s interesting to note that Ferrari have opted to eschew the medium tyre in practice, suggesting that they’ll also do without this during the race as they adopt a particularly aggressive strategy.
Mercedes are unlikely to adopt a similar strategy, however, especially as Hamilton does not necessarily need to win any of his races if he’s to retain his title.
Overall, the momentum is clearly with Mercedes and Hamilton, and the former are clearly the favourites to win at Suzuka for the fifth consecutive time.