Distance: 5.807 kilometres
On any bona fide Formula 1 fan’s dream calendar, Suzuka Circuit has pride of place. South of Nagoya in central Japan, Suzuka is a true drivers circuit and one of the most iconic in all motorsport. Fast, flowing and punishing of mistakes, its origin as a test track to hone automotive beasts is still evident today in the way it puts a driver and their car to the limit of their abilities.
Winner: Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
Valtteri Bottas kept his faint title hopes against Lewis Hamilton alive with an easy win on a difficult weekend interrupted by a typhoon. Ferrari qualified on the front row, but Sebastian Vettel jumped the start and Charles Leclerc was put off by the mistake, allowing third-placed Bottas to sweep into the lead and control the race. Hamilton won the championship two rounds later in the United States.
Despite a trip-up in slick Singapore, Verstappen remains the form man of the series, with five wins in the last six races, all of them coming in succession between France and Italy. He leads Leclerc by 104 points and teammate Sergio Perez by 106 — a just about uncatchable margin.
But he’s opened this massive advantage without commanding single-lap pace. Verstappen’s taken only one pole position from the last six rounds to Leclerc’s three and Ferrari’s four. Verstappen has just four poles for the entire season to Leclerc’s nine.
Yet Verstappen has had the incontrovertible race pace to win grands prix regardless of his qualifying deficit.
Red Bull Racing leads Ferrari by 139 points, while the Scuderia leads Mercedes by 66 points, the German marque’s midseason resurgence having cooled despite having hoped for a strong result last weekend in Singapore.
Max Verstappen has his second chance in as many rounds to seal the title, having failed to do so in Singapore. The odds were always against him sealing the deal in Marina Bay, but this weekend the equation is straightforward.
He needs to lead Leclerc and Perez by 112 points to claim the crown. That means he needs to outscore Leclerc by eight points and Perez by six points in Suzuka.
Winning the race with a point for fastest lap would guarantee him the title. Winning the race with Leclerc third or lower would also be enough to make his lead unassailable.
Suzuka used to be a Red Bull Racing stronghold, the team winning all but one race between 2009 and 2013, but Mercedes has made it a fortress since, with a 100 per cent winning record in the turbo-hybrid era.
Its demands are similar to those levied by Silverstone, Paul Ricard and to a lesser extent Spa-Francorchamps — all high-speed, high-downforce circuit. They reward efficient downforce through the speedy sweeps that doesn’t also add drag down the straights.
Red Bull Racing was dominant at all three analogous tracks, with Verstappen failing to win in Silverstone only due to debris damage.
The RB18 may not be the most powerful or bear the most downforce, but it’s been honed into the season’s most efficient machine and should be very much at home at Suzuka.
The only catch is that grid position is disproportionately important at Suzuka given its narrowness and the ubiquitous grass and gravel run-offs. Qualifying is very influential in the final classification, and that’s been one of the RB18’s few weaknesses in the battle with Ferrari.
Overcoming its Saturday pace problems will go a long way to putting Verstappen in position to be crowned champion on power unit supplier Honda’s home country on a Honda-owned track.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author. Quotes have been obtained from team press conferences and issued press releases.