After a rain-soaked Friday in Japan, Saturday at Suzuka Circuit dawned bright and sunny. With the conditions normalised, Mercedes were back on top of the timesheets in FP3 after seeming to struggle in the two Friday sessions.
Nico Rosberg had the advantage over teammate Lewis Hamilton going into the afternoon’s qualifying session, but the three-tenths that split the two left neither man truly dominant.
Mercedes’ Singapore struggles have increased the pressure on the championship leaders in Suzuka, as the team’s once seemingly unassailable lead is now looking vulnerable. After the Singapore Grand Prix, Marina Bay Street Circuit victor Sebastian Vettel asserted that all was still to play for in the drivers’ championship, and a fifth Japanese win for the Ferrari driver could keep alive a title fight most observers thought was already on life support.
Originally designed to be a test track, Suzuka circuit’s rollercoaster nature plays into the hands of a strong power unit, while the variety of corners on offer makes for a technically challenging track. Aerodynamic efficiency is rewarded, and tyres are punished. While the W06 is an excellent all-rounder, recent rubber struggles mean that the Japanese Grand Prix is unlikely to be a walkover for the team.
In dry conditions it was the driver pairings from Mercedes, Williams, and Ferrari who were consistently quick, and presuming that weather conditions hold for Sunday’s race the status quo looks set to continue. Rosberg’s pole position was largely unchallenged thanks to the red flags brought out by Daniil Kvyat’s last minute crash in Q3, when other challengers were on their final flying laps, and the German driver should be able to keep the competition behind him if he is able to make a clean getaway from the grid.
Sebastian Vettel was sandwiched between the two Williams drivers at the end of Q3, but the quadruple champion’s racecraft – and mastery of Suzuka – is such that both Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa will find it a challenge to keep the Ferrari in their wing mirrors for the full 53 laps.
Despite strong showings during Friday’s practice sessions, neither Red Bull nor Toro Rosso were able to capitalise on their wet weather pace. Red Bull’s on-track efforts could yet be halved, given the damage caused to Kvyat’s car in the final minutes of Q3. At the time of writing it was not yet clear whether the chassis would be fit to race, or how extensive any rebuild would be.
McLaren haven’t been able to pull any magic rabbits out of their crash helmets for Honda’s home race, and both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button failed to make it through the dropout phases of qualifying. But after the disastrous double DNFs of Singapore, getting both cars to the chequered flag would represent a victory of sorts for the team.