2019 Japanese Grand Prix —
strategy preview

Mercedes might be aiming for a sixth straight constructors title and Lewis Hamilton might be just a fortnight away from his own sextuple of crowns, but the biggest player of the Japanese Grand Prix weekend is Typhoon Hagibis.

Classified as a ‘violent’ typhoon by the Japanese Meteorological Agency, the most extreme rating in the system, Hagibis and its 1400-kilometre diameter was foreboding enough for race organiser to keep the track closed on Saturday, cancelling third practice and postponing qualifying to Sunday morning.

The FIA also clarified that times set in second practice would be used to set the grid if qualifying couldn’t run at its postponed time if the weather persisted or the clean-up took longer than expected, turning FP2 into the most significant 90-minute practice session we’ve seen in a while.

Friday afternoon therefore became a hybrid session with dual aims. While long-run simulations went ahead as normal, qualifying simulations were conducted with less fuel and higher engine modes than usual, giving us a clearer understanding of the one-lap pace picture.

Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton locked out the top two spots, with Max Verstappen splitting the Silver Arrows from the Ferrari pair, with Alex Albon bringing up the rear of the frontrunners.

The top three cars were separated by only 0.356 seconds, but Hamilton suggested it may be less — he contended Bottas got a half-second slipstream down the back straight on this fastest lap. Eliminating that time would shrink the gap separating the frontrunners to just 0.256 seconds.

Further, Ferrari left its final hot lap until the end of the session, but with the rest of the field running slowly with full tanks on race simulations, traffic was severe, meaning there could be more for the team to find in a conventional qualifying session.

2019 Japanese Grand Prix FP2 results

Pos Driver Team Time Gap
1 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:27.785
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:27.885 +0.100s
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing 1:28.066 +0.281s
4 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1:28.141 +0.356s
5 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:28.376 +0.591s
6 Alexander Albon Red Bull Racing 1:28.402 +0.617s
7 Carlos Sainz McLaren 1:29.051 +1.266s
8 Sergio Perez Racing Point 1:29.299 +1.514s
9 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso 1:29.354 +1.569s
10 Lando Norris McLaren 1:29.358 +1.573s
11 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 1:29.477 +1.692s
12 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1:29.512 +1.727s
13 Romain Grosjean Haas 1:29.553 +1.768s
14 Lance Stroll Racing Point 1:29.597 +1.812s
15 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1:29.651 +1.866s
16 Kevin Magnussen Haas 1:29.749 +1.964s
17 Daniel Ricciardo Renault 1:29.859 +2.074s
18 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1:30.334 +2.549s
19 Robert Kubica Williams 1:30.916 +3.131s
20 George Russell Williams 1:31.071 +3.286s

Suzuka Circuit

Circuit statistics

Laps: 53
Distance: 5.807 kilometres
Corners: 18
Lap record: 1:31.540 (Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren, 2005)

Circuit characteristics

Tyre stress: Very high
Lateral load: Very high
Asphalt grip: High
Asphalt abrasion: High
Downforce: Medium

Strategy particulars

Safety car probability: 60 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 394.9 metres
Pit lane time loss: 17.770 seconds
Fuel use: 2 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: Hard–0.9 seconds–medium–0.7 seconds–Soft

Strategy forecast

The principal change from Friday to Sunday will be the state of the circuit post-typhoon. Heavy rain will clean the rubber off the circuit, resetting it to a green state — though Pirelli motorsport boss Mario Isola believes it will have little impact on the overall performance picture.

“[Friday] morning it was green and we didn’t see any graining — a bit of abrasion on the front tyres but the tyres were looking good. No blisters, no graining — nothing special,” he said. “In the past we had one session that was wet, and it’s true that the track was green, but in terms of performance it does not affect too much the performance.”

Soft (C3), 4 laps
Mercedes 1:34.650
Renault 1:35.303
Red Bull Racing 1:35.366
Ferrari 1:35.427
Racing Point 1:35.463
McLaren 1:35.580
Toro Rosso 1:36.217
Haas 1:37.085
Alfa Romeo 1:37.357
Williams 1:38.028

Assuming that’s the case, a one-stop strategy should be achievable. Pirelli’s compounds are one step harder this year, meaning last year’s soft-medium winning strategy should be straightforward with the same-named rubber this year.

“It depends on how much they can manage the rear degradation of the soft,” Isola said. “This circuit is one with some of the highest lateral energy — highest energy in general, because here you have a bit of everything.

“The asphalt is quite rough. That means that tyres are subject to a high level of stress, and the soft tyre, especially the rear, is subject to overheating and degradation.”

Mercedes looked formidable on the soft tyre on Friday, leading Red Bull Racing by more than half a second on average. We shouldn’t be too surprised — Mercedes has locked out the front row and won all five of the races here in the turbo-hybrid era, and at all but two of them has finished one-two. The flowing, high-energy nature of this track rewards a Mercedes machine that is loaded up with efficient downforce.

Medium (C2), 4 laps
Red Bull Racing 1:34.447
Mercedes 1:34.455
McLaren 1:35.287
Ferrari 1:35.467
Haas 1:35.943
Renault 1:36.157
Racing Point 1:36.280
Toro Rosso 1:36.302
Alfa Romeo 1:36.839
Williams 1:37.125

On the medium compound Red Bull Racing holds a fractional advantage, albeit with the team embarking on shorter stints than Mercedes on the yellow-striped tyre, making direct comparisons difficult. What is clear, though, is that on both compounds Ferrari is well off the pace.

“The balance is not that bad actually, we are just lacking speed,” Charles Leclerc said. “It seems we are lacking pace this weekend, which is a bit of a surprise because we were very strong in the last four races.

“We expected to be quite good here, but it’s less this case.”

But with all that said, the most important strategic tool in Suzuka is track position. Overtaking is very difficult at the tight and aero-dependant Japanese track, meaning a race can be made or broken in qualifying. Ferrari would surely be hoping that Sunday qualifying goes ahead as planned to give the team a shot at moving further up the grid; Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas would surely be pleased not to take to the track until later that afternoon to maximise their advantages.