It’s crunch time in the 2019 Formula 1 season, as the final five races kick off with the Japanese Grand Prix this weekend.
For Mercedes, the iconic Suzuka Circuit offers the first chance at championship glory, needing to outscore Ferrari by 14 points to wrap up the Constructors’ crown for the sixth straight year.
Their Italian rivals are a team reborn though, while Red Bull also have big expectations on their first visit as partners of Honda.
Add to that the threat posed by an approaching typhoon and a very unpredictable weekend lies in store.
About the race:
Arguably the toughest circuit on the F1 calendar, Suzuka was built as a Honda test track in 1963 and has hosted almost every Japanese GP since 1987.
Featuring a unique figure-of-eight design, the track has some of the most famous corner sequences in motorsport starting with the ‘Snake’ section, flashing through the Spoon Curve and on to the infamous 130R corner leading into the final chicane.
The Japanese GP hasn’t always been about one circuit, however, with the Fuji Speedway making some noticeable history of its own.
It was the original host circuit for the race until 1977, and saw the famous conclusion of Niki Lauda and James Hunt’s title fight in 1976 when the Briton won after Lauda had pulled out due to the extremely wet conditions.
Fuji would make a brief comeback in 2007 and 2008, but F1 returned to Suzuka in 2009 where it has stayed since.
Over the years, Japan has seen many championship-defining moments and also became synonymous with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s bitter rivalry.
In 1989, the pair collided at the final chicane while both driving for McLaren before the Brazilian took out the Frenchman, now at Ferrari, at the very first corner to win the title a year later.
Three straight world titles were decided at Suzuka between 1998-2000 beginning with Mika Hakkinen claiming his two championship at McLaren before Michael Schumacher ended Ferrari’s 21-year wait for a Drivers’ title at the start of the new Millennium.
The most recent champion to be crowned was Sebastian Vettel in 2011, otherwise, Japan’s increasingly earlier position on the calendar has made the possibility less likely.
In recent times, Mercedes has dominated, winning every race since 2014, however, it is that year which also saw F1’s most recent tragedy.
With a typhoon hitting the country, the race was wet but with conditions worsening, first Adrian Sutil and then Jules Bianchi went off at the Dunlop curve.
In doing so, the Frenchman hit a recovery vehicle suffering head injuries which he would ultimately die from the following July.
This was F1’s first crash-related death since Senna in 1994 with the impact of that day still being felt now.
Top Pick: Lewis Hamilton ($32.4m)
Having won four of the past five Japanese Grand Prix’s, it is difficult to look past anyone but Hamilton for victory this weekend.
Yes, Ferrari will be competitive, but with rain expected, that makes stopping the world champion even harder, as a result, he is the clear top pick.
Medium pick: Alex Albon ($13.6m)
While yet to have a major result, Albon has been consistent with four top-six finishes since joining Red Bull back in Belgium.
That means the Thai driver is certainly a solid addition to your fantasy team, with perhaps only Carlos Sainz offering better value for money.
But it is Red Bull’s potential and Albon’s strong performance in the wet back in Germany, which stands him in good stead for this weekend.
Low pick: Lando Norris ($5.9m)
At this price, Norris is a no-brainer as McLaren should continue as the top midfield team again in Japan.
The only slight con is the need for experience to master Suzuka, but, given the drivers at a similar price, that is not a major worry.
Max Verstappen ($26.7m)
Verstappen has plenty of good memories at Suzuka, driving an F1 car for the first time there in 2014 and scoring podiums in every race with Red Bull since 2016.
Also, add in the likelihood of a wet race, and you only need to look back to Hockenheim to know what he can do.
Daniil Kvyat ($8m)
Toro Rosso will be a team to watch in Japan, particularly if it’s wet, and both Pierre Gasly and Kvyat are well worth considering.
What swings it in the Russian driver’s favour is his greater knowledge of the car, which is important to optimizing performance at Suzuka.