Questions for the 2013 Japanese GP
Will the fourth be with Sebastian at Suzuka? Can Webber end his luckless run? Will Sauber continue to trouble the bigger teams?
By James Galloway, William Esler and Sky Bet's Jamie Casey. Last Updated: 09/10/13 6:53pm
Will Vettel become Sebastian the Fourth at Suzuka?
Just what is it about Japan and title-clinching races? The expansion of the F1 calendar may mean the ever-popular round no longer occupies a coveted end-of-season slot but yet, thanks to Sebastian Vettel's recent winning surge, the World Championship could still be settled for the 14th time on Japanese soil this very Sunday.
Hard work behind Red Bull's success
The Red Bull driver stretched his lead over main contender Fernando Alonso to 77 points with his eighth win of the season in Korea on Sunday, shortening his title odds to 1/500. Sky Bet make Sebastian Vettel 9/1 to clinch his fourth consecutive World Championship in Japan this weekend. Vettel is odds-on (8/15) to win again at Suzuka and should he do so with Ferrari's Alonso simultaneously finishing outside the top eight, he'll confirm his fourth consecutive title.
So those are the odds, but what are the realistic chances of it actually happening and Vettel's now inevitable coronation not being delayed by at least two weeks to India? As the odds reflect, Vettel starts as the overwhelming favourite to deliver his part of the equation via a fifth straight win - a sequence he has never achieved before incidentally - and his record at Suzuka of four poles and three wins since 2009 is as ominous as anywhere on the calendar. But it's the chances of Alonso finishing ninth or lower that are certainly far more remote, given the only time that has happened this year is when the Spaniard crashed out at the Malaysian GP in April. Indeed, you have to go back to China 2012 for the last time he finished outside the top eight on the road.
However, for those who might just fancy that 9/1 flutter, the required result for Vettel to clinch the title on Sunday has actually occurred twice at Suzuka (2012 and 2009) in the last four years...
JG & JC
Can Mark Webber build some late momentum?
While his team-mate stands on the brink of yet another piece of history, the embers of Mark Webber's Formula 1 career are proving somewhat less spectacular. It's now over three months since the Australian announced on the eve of the British GP that he would quit the sport at the end of the season to take on a new career in endurance racing with Porsche. In the seven grands prix that have followed the news Webber has only twice finished on the podium. The last two have seen his RB9 parked up on the side of the track on fire.
Webber looking ahead to Japan
Indeed, the 37-year-old's luckless fortunes last time out in Korea kind of emphasised just how his career at the top level is in danger of fizzing out without at least one last hurrah. Having known his race weekend was always going to be compromised by the ten-place grid penalty he carried over from Singapore, Webber made a decent fist of limiting the damage - qualifying 0.2s behind the pole-sitting Vettel and within a whisker of the other front-row starter Lewis Hamilton - to ensure he only dropped to 13th and in the race was making his way up the field nicely towards the podium. However, being in the wrong place at the wrong time is often disastrous in F1, and Webber found this out to his cost when Sergio Perez's tyre exploded right in front of him, causing him to pick up a puncture of his own, before a spinning Adrian Sutil knocked him out of the race. How's your luck?
The Australian's subsequent decision to renew his public criticism of Pirelli's tyres post-race appeared to underline his general frustration with how things are going at the moment and you get the sense that he's really looking forward to checking out of F1 and starting the next chapter of his motorsport career come the New Year.
However, with five races still to go, what you would also suspect is Webber, who is the only driver on the grid not to outqualify or out race his team-mate 14 rounds in to 2013, is determined to have at least one more day in the sun. On the weekend that Vettel can clinch his fourth straight crown, what better time for Webber, the man who could have won Red Bull's first ever title in that dramatic 2010 finale, to begin a late-year surge.
Can Sauber maintain their form?
Sauber have shown a dramatic return to form in recent races and the Korean Grand Prix saw both cars qualify inside the top ten for the first time since the 2012 Japanese GP - exactly a year ago.
Having only made the Q3 once all season (in Germany), Nico Hulkenberg shocked the paddock by qualifying third at Monza. Whilst those heights have not quite been repeated, it has been far from a flash in the pan for Sauber as changes to the C32's sidepods and rear finally gave the Swiss outfit the performance boost they had craved all season. Underling that progress has been the rookie Esteban Gutierrez's sudden qualifying step forward - he had never started higher than 14th until F1 got to Singapore but has now made Q3 twice on the spin.
In last Sunday's Korean race Lewis Hamilton was heard on the radio to his Mercedes team bemoaning the "incredible rear-grip" the Sauber had as he failed to find a way past Hulkenberg for fourth place and a stable rear-end should help the team at Suzuka once again this weekend through the high-speed Esses, as well as on the exit of the hairpin and chicane where good traction is a must.
A repeat of Kamui Kobayashi's podium finish at least year's race seems unlikely - after all racing at home is "worth a second a lap" according to Nigel Mansell - but Sauber do now seem to have the edge on Force India and perhaps even McLaren as F1's fifth-fastest team.
Will everyone get through the first corner?
It's ironic that the characteristics of Suzuka that make it so appealing to drivers and fans alike, namely the circuit's fast sweeping corners and narrow, unforgiving confines that place a premium on error-free driving, are rather prohibitive when it comes to putting on a thrilling wheel-to-wheel race. In recent times, the epic and still to this day astonishing 2005 event side, the Suzuka race has tended to witness one driver dominating proceedings, indeed Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel have won seven of the last 11 races there between them.
Japanese Grand Prix in 60 seconds
The tight nature of the track means gaining places at the start is particularly crucial as a result, making incidents on the run to the first corner and into the tight opening right-hander inevitable. Fernando Alonso discovered this to his considerable, and arguably title-winning, cost 12 months ago when he tangled with Kimi Raikkonen and was sent sprawling across the unforgiving gravel trap and into instant retirement. Mark Webber was also punted into a spin by Romain Grosjean while two years before it was Felipe Massa who suffered a similar messy fate to Alonso.
While the advent of expansive asphalt run-off areas, and the fact DRS and fast-wearing tyres do allow greater opportunities to overtake at most circuits, mean major first-corner crashes are generally not as regular as they once were, the reassuringly traditional nature of Suzuka remains something of an exception.