[Are Red Bull and Ferrari on back foot for potential Japanese GP tyre wrecker?
The iconic figure-of-eight track has always been punishing on its rubber, but things could well be a bit more extreme this time around.
Race day is expected to be another scorcher, and complaints that George Russell mentioned on Friday about a “strange” sliding have been caused by a track surface that has had a 15% drop in macro roughness (so effective grip) compared to 12 months ago.
As Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc said: “Especially with the very warm temperatures this year, the overheating is really, really bad. So, I expect that it [the race] will be all about the tyre management and the strategy.”
A two-stopper looks nailed on then, but it comes with not all teams having the luxury of what appears to be the ideal tyre allocation to get them through without much drama.
F1 tyre supplier Pirelli thinks the best approach to the race is to start on the soft, run through until laps 12-18, and then split the rest of the grand prix up into two hard stints.
But that is something that only eight drivers can do tomorrow, as they are the only ones who have two sets of hard tyres available.
They are Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, McLaren’s Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, plus Fernando Alonso and Kevin Magnussen.
Everyone else has, beyond just their one new hard, a combination of mediums and softs.
For those without that second hard, it means guaranteed heavy thermal management over the final stint of the race – which could prove problematic if an earlier-than-ideal switch is forced because of a safety car or VSC. Drivers will not want to get on to a final set of softs or mediums before lap 36 of the 53-lap race.
Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
This situation could be great news for McLaren, as it would put its drivers Norris and Piastri in a great tactical position against Red Bull.
Asked about the strategy situation, team principal Andrea Stella said: “We are happy that we have a double hard because the hard seems a good tyre here, mostly because the other two will overheat even more.
“Even the hard overheats, but this one seems to be more capable of still providing some decent lap times. So it’s an interesting strategic situation. We’ll see if it turns to our advantage tomorrow.”
However, while Stella was happy with the tyre choice made, he was in no doubt about the scale of the advantage the RB19 has around the Suzuka circuit – so if it doesn’t disrupt pole position man Max Verstappen straight away then it is game over.
“The only way we can attack Max is tactical,” he said. “Should we be able for some reason to be ahead at the end of lap one, then you become tactical in the sense that you may try to respond to what he’s doing.
“But if he takes the lead, he just has so much pace that this is not going to be our race, or we are not going to be in his race. So, for me, I see definitely that we are in competition with Ferrari, and Mercedes. And that’s the race in normal circumstances for us.”
Where the tyre strategy offset will be especially fascinating is in the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari, which is fast becoming a fight for second place in the constructors’ championship.
Ferrari holds track position advantage, with its cars fourth (Leclerc) and sixth (Carlos Sainz) on the grid ahead of the two Mercedes, but its drivers each have only one new hard available.
For Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin, the focus is very much on exploiting the tyre advantage it has to take points off its Maranello rival.
“We are getting to the stage of the championship where strategically we’re going to have to have an eye on Ferrari,” he said.
George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
“As the grid has fallen, that’s probably not too difficult because they are the cars that are going to be ahead of us.
“That second set of hards means we can do strategies that they can’t, and we can do stints that they can’t do. You’re always going to look at whether you can exploit that.”
It is too early to be sure that those drivers without the extra set of hards have already derailed their hopes for Sunday’s race.
However, the tyre offset between a number of drivers is something that Pirelli racing manager Mario Isola thinks does swing the advantage one way.
“I believe that tomorrow, if we have similar conditions to today, with the track temperature that is not far from 50 degrees, the extra hard can make a difference, yes,” he said.
After a tyre offset helped turn the finish to last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix into a thriller, there looks to be every chance it could do the same this time out.