It used to be that the Japanese Grand Prix was a Mercedes stronghold.
Between 2014 and 2019, the last race at Suzuka before the pandemic, the German marque won six grands prix, including four alone for Lewis Hamilton.
But much has changed since the pandemic, and in the race’s 2022 return not only is Red Bull Racing in the ascendancy but Max Verstappen is on the cusp of winning the world championship.
Verstappen can claim his second straight title by beating Charles Leclerc by eight points and teammate Sergio Perez by six — no guarantee but very much on trend with the overall season.
But despite his hefty points lead with five rounds still to run, Verstappen isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“We need a perfect weekend, that's for sure,” he said. “It would be very nice if it happens here, but if it doesn't happen here, I will be even more in favour the next race, so it doesn't really change anything.
“You just want to have a good weekend and try to maximise everything you can.
“To be honest, I'm not really thinking about it too much.”
Rather than asking whether Verstappen can win it this weekend, it’s more pertinent to ask: who can stop him?
Mercedes could be the dark horse, having made big strides this season to be in close competition with Ferrari for second place.
The Singapore Grand Prix was earmarked for a strong result, and the W13 had the pace, but the bumpiness of the track was a roadblock to big points.
Suzuka, however, is smooth, and with the car able to run in its happier higher downforce mode here, the team might be an outside chance of making it seven straight Suzuka wins.
“We thought Singapore would be our best shot at it,” Lewis Hamilton said. “One of the things we still underestimate is the bouncing.
“Here we shouldn’t have the bouncing, which should be good.”
But the four-time Suzuka winner was keen to keep expectations in check.
“The others are going to be very, very strong,” he said.
“The Red Bull is going to be rapid here, I think. I think this is going to be one of their strongest circuits — but that’s just my guess.
“I’m hoping that I’m wrong and I’m hoping our car feels mega and we can get a good balance here.”
After two seasons without the Japanese Grand Prix and with a wet Friday forecast, it could be whoever hits the ground running around Mercedes’s old fortress ends up best placed to take victory at the Japanese Grand Prix.
The Suzuka Circuit is fast and flowing in a way that should reward Red Bull Racing’s good downforce efficiency, allowing it to pile on the cornering performance without the punishment of excess drag down the straights. It was dominant in Belgium for this reason, and while its advantage shouldn’t be as great here, it’ll still be the car to beat — and Verstappen will wield it to perfection.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author. Quotes have been obtained from team press conferences and issued press releases.