SUZUKA // The increasingly tense Formula One world championship battle continues this weekend at Suzuka, Japan, and Ferrari know they might struggle to maintain the momentum conjured by back-to-back victories in Italy and Singapore.
Suzuka's sweeping contours are perfectly suited to the Red Bull-Renaults of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel - but a theoretical car advantage is no guarantee of success, as this season has proven countless times already.
Ask any contemporary driver to name their favourite circuits and Suzuka will feature high on the list. An endless succession of quick, high-speed turns make it one of the season's most demanding venues - and also play to Red Bull's strengths. Efficient aerodynamics are crucial and, in this domain, the team are second to none. Vettel dominated last season's corresponding event, but Webber endured a miserable weekend that highlighted Suzuka's other side.
First used in the early 1960s, the track hosted its maiden F1 race in 1987 and remained on the schedule until 2006. Fuji Speedway - host of the first Japanese GP, in 1976 - then stepped in for two years, after which the event was supposed to alternate between the two circuits. That has not happened, however, because Fuji subsequently relinquished its staging rights. Suzuka was sympathetically renovated during its time away, but while the facilities have improved the circuit remains largely unchanged. It remains one of F1's most traditional venues and a cocktail of sustained high speeds and slender run-off areas allows precious little margin for error.
Several newcomers discovered as much last year - and Webber underlined that rookies were not alone in their susceptibility. He did not hit the barriers particularly hard during free practice, but the damage forced him to miss qualifying and start the race from the pits, whereupon a series of early problems stifled his recovery chances. Things are a little brighter for the Australian right now: he leads Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) by 11 points in the title chase, but Vettel and the McLaren-Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, are all within 25 of him.
"Suzuka is one of the world's truly great circuits and a supreme challenge," Button, the world champion, said. "It's all about scrubbing off as little speed as possible and maintaining a very smooth, precise rhythm. Get it wrong and you're usually scrabbling to regain your momentum for several corners. It's a punishing place." Last season's rash of accidents prompted inevitable questions about Suzuka's suitability as a grand prix circuit, but Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, who was in the news again this week after distancing himself from rumours of a potential F1 comeback with Renault, after a year in rallying, summarised it best.
"This is a dangerous sport," he said, "and Suzuka is an old-style circuit. "Newer tracks have asphalt run-offs and it makes no difference if you commit a mistake. "Do that here and you're going to hit the wall, but that's how it should be. You get punished - and that encourages you to be more precise." firstname.lastname@example.org