Two weeks after Sebastian Vettel’s success on the streets of Singapore, the Formula One paddock moves on to the historic Suzuka track for the Japanese Grand Prix (Sunday, 07:00am BST), the 15th race of the season.
Vettel’s victory saw him close to within 29 points of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso at the top of the Drivers Championship. Kimi Raikonnen remains third, now 45 points off the lead after salvaging a sixth place finish from a poor weekend for the Renault team.
Lewis Hamilton had looked likely to establish his own title credentials after securing a dominant pole position and leading the race early on. However, a gearbox problem forced him to retire his McLaren on the 23rd lap. The British driver is now 52 points off the championship lead with just six races remaining.
Much of the post-Singapore talk has understandably focused on Hamilton’s decision to leave McLaren and move to Mercedes for 2013.
McLaren helped fund his progress through go-karts and the lower formulae before giving him his Formula One debut in 2007. It seems his relationship had deteriorated to the point where he was willing to accept an offer from a team that has won just once since taking over Brawn GP three years ago.
For the moment, however, he remains a McLaren driver and with a car that has proved quick, albeit unreliable, in recent races, he will be hoping for a good weekend in Japan.
McLaren have been on pole for the last four races and look in good shape to continue that run at Suzuka as the high downforce characteristics of the circuit should suit their car.
Hamilton will be the only McLaren driver going for pole, though, as his team-mate Jenson Button has received a five-place grid penalty for a pre-Suzuka gearbox change. With this in mind, Red Bull and in particular, Vettel, can be hopeful of achieving a good result in qualifying.
The two-time reigning drivers champion has qualified on pole position for the last three Japanese Grand Prix. With Red Bull having now apparently overcome their qualifying difficulties, he looks a decent bet to get his car on the front row for Sunday’s race.
Home favourite Kamui Kobayashi put in an excellent performance to qualify seventh in last year’s race. Sauber have a stronger car this year and one that should run well at Suzuka, so he has a good chance of making the top ten shootout for a second year in succession.
If qualifying goes as expected, the race for victory is likely to be a straight fight between Hamilton and Vettel.
McLaren are likely to have the edge on speed, but consecutive retirements due to mechanical problems – Button in Italy; Hamilton in Singapore – make it hard to back Hamilton in the race win market.
With this in mind, a safer bet would be Vettel finishing in the top three. He has the bit between his teeth having reduced Alonso’s championship lead and is likely to be there or thereabouts in every race between now and the end of the season.
Suzuka is a circuit that for most will probably best suit a three-stop strategy, but teams who are softer on their tyres could gain some advantage from stopping just twice.
Sauber had been very light on their rubber this season, especially in the hands of Sergio Perez, whose three podium finishes have been sufficient to secure him a move to McLaren. He takes the seat vacated by Hamilton at the end of the season.
At last year’s Japanese Grand Prix, Perez recovered from 17th on the grid to finish 8th. He is capable of making a similar charge through the field this season and is attractively priced to finish in the top six.
Races at Suzuka are often action-packed and when accidents do occur, the speed involved usually means a major clean-up job is necessary. The safety car has been deployed at least once in each of the last three Japanese Grand Prix and in four of the last five. The likelihood of a repeat on Sunday is quite high.
F1 Japanese Grand Prix Betting Verdict
- Back Sebastian Vettel to finish in the top two in qualifying @ 13/8 with SkyBet.
- Take Kamui Kobayashi to reach qualifying session three @ 4/5 with Ladbrokes.
- Back Sebastian Vettel to finish on the podium @ 10/11 with Coral, Paddy Power or Stan James.
- Take Sergio Perez to secure a top six finish @ 9/4 with Blue Square or Ladbrokes.
- Bet on the Safety Car to be deployed @ evens (1/1) with William Hill.