Feature: Talking points as Formula 1 gears up for Japanese GP

The Rugby World Cup has been dominating headlines in Japan but now it’s Formula 1’s turn to take centre stage in the country. Motorsport Week looks at the key talking points ahead of this weekend’s event at Suzuka.

Typhoon Hagibis

Typhoon Hagibis currently in the Pacific Ocean, heading towards Japan

Formula 1 officials are on alert to Super Typhoon Hagibis which is currently en route to Japan and is set to make landfall late Friday night into Saturday. The latest forecast from meteorologists is that the storm is to drastically downgrade in intensity as it hits the island, but extremely high winds and heavy rain could well halt any running on the Suzuka circuit during Saturday. No word from the FIA has been given on how the weekend format could change due to the storm.

Should the governing body want to move the qualifying session, precedent in the past has shown it can be moved either to Friday afternoon with a shift in the schedule for practice, or moved to Sunday morning before the race, as happened in both 2004 and 2010 at the venue. More recently, qualifying in Austin in 2015 was shifted to Sunday due to torrential downpours on Saturday.

Expect more updates as the storm closes in.

Can Mercedes maintain unbeaten streak – and win title?

Mercedes has been the benchmark since the start of Formula 1’s hybrid era and, astonishingly, six years into the regulatory cycle there remain circuits at which they remain unbeaten. Since 2014 the Silver Arrows have swept up at Suzuka, with Lewis Hamilton victorious on four occasions. It is an impressive record at a circuit that fully tests the capabilities of both man and machine. This year there is an added incentive for Mercedes as it can clinch both titles for a sixth straight season. It heads Ferrari by 161 points and if it finishes Sunday’s race 176 clear it will be assured of the Constructors’ crown, bringing it level with Ferrari’s 1999-2004 record streak. Similarly, if Lewis Hamilton leaves 104 points ahead of any of Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen or Sebastian Vettel it mathematically means either he or Valtteri Bottas will bring home the Drivers’ title.

Is it Honda’s time to end long wait?

It has been 28 years since Honda savoured a triumph on home soil but this season surely represents its best chance in decades. In the early years of the hybrid era it endured humiliation at the venue which it owns but its progress, and switch to powering Red Bull, has propelled it into contention for victories at points this year. It has triumphed twice and is now among the big boys. It compromised its prospects in Russia, taking penalties to get fresher power units, and while the days of a ‘Suzuka special’ are long gone, it is a place where it can risk turning it up to 11 – with no title on the line – as it did in Austria. Win or bust and to hell with the rest of the season? Not quite, but this is an important weekend for Honda to demonstrate its progress to its home spectators, particularly with the board yet to commit officially beyond 2020.  

Can Ferrari keep a lid on driver tensions?

What would you do if you were Mattia Binotto? The excellent engineer turned Team Principal, for the first time, faces a serious driver management quandary. It is clear that, if not well maintained, the relationship between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc is likely to sour further. Vettel was irate at Leclerc for the Monza Q3 antics, for which Leclerc was held accountable, while Leclerc was miffed but understanding about the outcome in Singapore. Vettel’s refusal to concede the lead in Russia – “I would have passed him anyway” – raised eyebrows and while a becalmed Leclerc re-captured the position, it was done through strategy, albeit later denied by Ferrari that this was its intention. Leclerc is the in-form man, particularly in qualifying, but Vettel insists he is still as fast in race trim. Vettel is the heavily-paid four-time champion, Leclerc the rapidly rising protégé marked out as Ferrari’s future. There are now two roosters in the hen house, so how do you placate both?

Can Racing Point keep racing for points?

This year has been a rebuilding one for Racing Point (nee Force India) in the wake of its mid-2018 takeover that prompted compromises with its early 2019 package. Having begun the year with a basic car it understandably struggled to fight for the top 10, scoring just two points in a six-race spell through the spring. But it introduced a three-part upgrade package across Germany, Hungary and Singapore, and since then has been back in the mix. Sergio Perez has scored a sixth and two sevenths, while Lance Stroll can consider himself unfortunate not to have added to his tally. Saturday pace remains a relative weakness but Sunday speed has now improved to the extent that Racing Point is back in contention to fight Renault and McLaren. It surely now has eyes on Toro Rosso’s sixth place which, given all that has happened, and the improvements made by its opponents, would represent a fine finishing position.

Can Raikkonen get out of current slump?

While Racing Point has progressed, Alfa Romeo has comparatively regressed, with Kimi Raikkonen point-less in four races. Whereas once he led the closely-contested midfield he is now down in P14, albeit just four points behind Lando Norris in P9. Alfa Romeo has suffered for pace recently but equally Raikkonen has made more errors than usual. Two crashes in Italy blighted a thoroughly languid weekend while in Singapore he clashed with Daniil Kvyat, and in Russia a scruffy Q2 effort and jump start skewered what little points prospects he had. A season that began in fine fashion, with points at each of the opening four events, is at risk of fizzling out in disappointment.