Japanese GP preview: Questions, questions
Can Lewis start to make the unlikely likely? Will Jenson draw inspiration from the Magic of Medinah? Is this finally the race for Lotus? The Sky Sports F1 Online team of Pete Gill, James Galloway and Mike Wise discuss the key talking points heading into the crucial Suzuka weekend.
Last Updated: 10/10/12 5:13pm
The big questions to be answered ahead of a critical weekend in the title race...
Can Lewis start to make the unrealistic realistic again?
Attention-grabbing they may be, but forget about Lewis Hamilton's plans for 2013 for a moment because he still has much to think about in 2012. After surrendering 25 points in Singapore, Hamilton now needs one of two things to win the World Championship: retirements for Fernando Alonso or six wins on the bounce. Of those scenarios, the latter is more likely- the Ferrari seems bullet-proof, frankly - and is far from unfeasible. After all, but for his gearbox failure, McLaren would have claimed four consecutive victories. So, starting in Suzuka this weekend, can Lewis make it one won, five to go? PG
Will Ferrari's Singapore form prove a one-off?
Writing in his post-Singapore column on this website, Mark Hughes' suggestion that Ferrari doesn't actually need to be unduly concerned about their F2012's competitiveness heading into the final six races certainly provided more than a little food for thought. On the face of it, while Fernando Alonso again aptly demonstrated his suitability for damage limitation exercises by racking up another podium finish at Marina Bay, the pace gap to McLaren and Red Bull was stark. Indeed both Alonso and Stefano Domenicali were quick to admit afterwards that Ferrari wouldn't be able to hold on to their points lead for much longer if they didn't find a step forward in performance.
Yet if you think a little deeper about it, as Mark suggests, there are reasons of hope for the Scuderia. For starters the characteristics of Singapore were something of an anomaly given what's left to come on the calendar and the car, as was shown at Silverstone, isn't that shabby in higher-speed corners and cooler conditions.
That's not to say the F2102 doesn't need improving - it certainly does - but a bit of kidology has hardly been absent from Alonso's repertoire so far this season. The proof will be in the pudding at Suzuka of course and certainly if Ferrari can rebound there then that long-awaited third title is really going to move firmly into view for Fernando. JG
Did Jenson Button watch the Ryder Cup?
As anyone who tuned into Sunday night's Ryder Cup coverage before mouthing sentiments in line with the txtspeak 'WTF?' will surely attest, momentum in sport is a wonderful thing. In fact, it's the most wonderful thing. Like many such things, it can't be explained entirely rationally; that's probably why people like it so much. European people, anyway.
Jenson Button was not among the Twitterati expressing wonder at the exploits of Jose Maria Olazabal's fairway warriors as they grabbed the formbook and knocked it 300 yards down the fairway with a touch of draw. But had he tuned in, Button would have witnessed the sort of comeback he must now achieve if he's to win this year's World Championship.
And such comebacks do happen in Formula 1 as two of this year's contenders, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, know all too well. Standing 75 points behind Fernando Alonso with 150 up for grabs, Button needs to start moving in the right direction in Japan. There's that five-place grid drop, of course, but he clearly has the right car at his disposal. What's more he arrives at Suzuka having won last year's race.
Most intriguing of all is the question of whether or not last week's news will have an effect at McLaren. Of course, there's no reason to suggest that Lewis Hamilton and McLaren will conspire to wilfully wreck the former's title hopes over the coming races. But Hamilton's decision to fly the nest after 14 years could give Button a certain tweak of authority as the season reaches its climax. MW
So just how will Jenson play it?
From the sounds of it, Jenson approached McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh after the Singapore GP and offered to support Hamilton's faltering title bid. If so, it's fair to ask whether that offer still stands after confirmation of Lewis' defection. After such a shattering blow to their morale, there would be no greater fillip to the team's self-esteem if Button trumped Hamilton this weekend. But, nonetheless, there is still a Drivers' Championship to play for and McLaren can't treat any title lightly after such a long trophy famine. Quite the balancing act of priorities - and emotions. PG
Is Senna running out of borrowed time?
Bruno Senna literally left Singapore sporting the war wounds of his weekend when heat escaping from a faulty wiring seal in his FW34 left him with back burns. Clouting Marina Bay's omnipresent walls in three consecutive track sessions, while your team-mate puts the same car on the front row, certainly wasn't the best way to go about convincing your bosses that you deserve another shot at it in 2013.
Yet in another example of the curious juxtaposition that has defined his season, and one which surely continues to infuriate Williams, Senna was again driving an assertive race towards the points before a KERS fault on his FW34 intervened. It's been Pastor Maldonado's aversion to the points since Barcelona that has until now cast Senna's stealthy Sunday drives into a better light than they might otherwise have been. Yet if Singapore showed that the penny might finally have dropped with the Venezuelan that his all-or-nothing approach needs reigning in, then the 'put your points on the table' argument might reflect rather more badly on the Brazilian in a race or two's time. That's why Japan is the start of a very important eight weeks for Bruno if he is to stay on the grid, let alone at Williams, next year. JG
Are Red Bull on the right track?
Speaking after watching his World Champion win in Singapore, Christian Horner said that some of the tracks to come on the calendar might play into Red Bull's hands if they're to retain their titles.
With the paddock in the process of being dismantled and packed up before being freighted off to Japan, time was pressing. Even so, we should really have asked which tracks he meant and whether Suzuka might be one of them.
A quick glance at the way the season has panned out so far suggests that Suzuka has got 'McLaren' written all over it. The MP4-27 performs very nicely indeed in high-speed corners, something Lewis Hamilton commented upon the very first day he drove the car in testing.
McLaren did struggle at Silverstone, where Mark Webber passed Fernando Alonso during the closing laps to take victory. Besides that win, however, Red Bull's successes have all come on tighter tracks: Bahrain, Monaco and at Marina Bay two weeks ago. So, then, which car might best show its legs through the likes of the S Curves and the swooping, mighty 130R? McLaren or Red Bull? Or might the best be bested? MW
Will Caterham deliver an immediate answer?
Considering Caterham had aspirations of scoring their first point this season, the fact they now go into the final six races suddenly needing to regain the 10th place Constructors' Championship they had surely taken as a given - and the reputed $30m prize money and travel benefits that come with it - must be acting as a sobering experience at the moment.
Of course, with none of the trio of new 2010 entrants still having scored a point, the positioning in that three-team order is always somewhat precarious given a freak result can suddenly make a mockery a season's worth of finishes. It could be unfair to describe Marussia's 12th place in Singapore as such, considering the team did make a clear step forward with their upgrade package, but the Banbury team certainly wouldn't have finished there had seven cars not failed to make the finish - a high attrition rate by current F1 standards.
The problem for Caterham now though is that with their own development path having gone somewhat awry since making Q2 on merit in Valencia back in June, securing a 12th-place or better finish of their own before the season's out will prove far from a formality. Indeed, under their various guises, they have only finished as high as that once - and that was at Suzuka two years ago when only 16 cars made the finish. For the financial department's nerves alone, an immediate riposte in Japan this weekend would certainly warrant more than a few celebratory sakis on Sunday night. JG
Can Lotus's double DRS keep them in the game?
In the glass-half-empty world of Formula 1, it's the disappointments of Lotus's season that continue to be at the forefront of the collective paddock mind heading to Japan. Their repeated failure to win a race has been a millstone they had to lug around for quite some time, yet since the summer break that has gradually been superseded by concerns about where exactly the pace that put them in that position to challenge for wins in the first place has gone too.
If third at Spa was a slight disappointment, and their underperformance at Monza frustrating but hardly surprisingly for a Renault-engined car, Singapore's showing was surely as alarming as it was lacklustre. Only Kimi Raikkonen's sustained points scoring - the Finn's run of top ten finishes now stands at 11 races - and the mistakes of others have ensured they retain a reasonable mathematical shot at the Drivers' title heading to Suzuka, even if the points up for grabs are fast running out.
But is the white knight for Raikkonen's chances the fabled double DRS system that will finally - we expect - be raced for the first time at Suzuka? The full introduction of the 'device' has been a long time in coming, having first debuted in practice in Germany, yet if initial estimations about the system's lap-time gain prove anywhere near accurate - anything up to half a second was the word in the paddock - Suzuka may just be the weekend Lotus remind everyone their challenge isn't quite over yet. But that's one big if... JG