From the top two in the championship starting on the front row to Alpine well-placed for a big haul, and from Sebastian Vettel excelling in his final Japanese GP to a worrying weather forecast, we pick a few key areas to keep an eye on inside. Sunday’s race at Suzuka…
1. A Verstappen vs Leclerc first row
It took a while to be confirmed after Max Verstappen was investigated for losing control of his car ahead of Lando Norris in Q3, but being given just a reprimand by the stewards means Verstappen starts from a favorable position as he goes for his second drivers. championship
The task is simple for Verstappen from there. Win the race with the fastest lap and he is world champion, come what may. But the driver starting next to him on the front row is the one with the best chance of preventing that this weekend.
Charles Leclerc ranks second and if he finishes there and neither driver wins the fastest lap bonus, then the title will roll over for another race. However, if Verstappen wins and Leclerc slips to third then the championship will be wrapped up at Suzuka.
The start is Leclerc’s best chance to try to get ahead of his main rival and he starts on the inside line for Turn 1 – but on the dirty side of the grid. Should Verstappen not win the race, then Leclerc only needs a top four finish to take the fight to Austin, or can finish fifth with the fastest lap to do so.
It is at this stage that we also bring Sergio Perez into the equation, because he starts fourth on the grid behind Carlos Sainz. If Verstappen wins, then Perez’s final position is irrelevant, but second place for the championship leader will only be good enough if Perez is outside the top three and doesn’t set the fastest lap (and of course Leclerc fails to score the required points). Simple!
2022 Japanese GP Qualifying: Max Verstappen seals pole at Suzuka ahead of Ferrari duo
2. Alpine’s chance to fight back
The first race of this double-header was painful for Alpine, as a solid run by Fernando Alonso in Singapore was ended by a power unit problem that took him out of the race when he was close behind Lando Norris.
Just a few laps later, Esteban Ocon also retired with a reliability issue, opening the door for McLaren to leapfrog them with a big result as both their cars finished in the top five at Marina Bay.
It was a significant turnaround but the gap between the two teams is just four points at this stage and Alpine is in a strong position to deliver an immediate response, with Ocon qualifying fifth and Alonso seventh in Suzuka, ahead of the McLaren pair of Norris and Daniel Ricciardo in tenth and eleventh respectively.
Alpine mixed it up with Mercedes in qualifying and if they can continue the form in the race then it could put a buffer between themselves and McLaren as they try to regain fourth place in the constructors’ championship at the first opportunity.
3. Vettel’s final visit to Suzuka
It was a touching moment for Sebastian Vettel ahead of what is set to be his last Grand Prix start at Suzuka, when he reached Q3 and then put together an impressive lap to match his best grid position of the season with ninth place.
As he returned to the pits after his one and only flying lap in the final part of qualifying, Vettel said: “Thank you for the session, I really enjoyed it. This track is much better than all the others … Arigatou. gozaimasu Suzuka, I will miss this place.”
Before he retires from the iconic circuit, however, Vettel will get 53 laps to try to turn that P9 starting position into what would be his fourth points-scoring finish in six races.
And Aston Martin has tended to be a more impressive force in races than in qualifying, with the four-time world champion finishing a season-best sixth in Azerbaijan after starting from the top ten.
4. Fired AlphaTauri drivers
While Vettel delivered emotional radio messages at the end of qualifying, the same cannot be said for Pierre Gasly, who was eliminated in Q1 after AlphaTauri struggled with a brake problem.
Gasly fumed after the session because he asked to go out as late as possible to avoid traffic and be able to manage the problem better, which he felt his teammate Yuki Tsunoda was allowed to do.
He could be leaving for Alpine at the end of the season, but Gasly will be on a mission to recover from 17th on the grid at Honda’s home race, as AlphaTauri carries the Japanese manufacturer’s brand here for the first time this year.
Tsunoda complained of a similar problem to Gasly but managed to advance to Q2 and will start from 13th on his Japanese Grand Prix debut, and he will be desperate to impress in front of his home fans after not being able to race at Suzuka for the last two seasons.
2022 Japanese GP Qualifying: Furious Gasly rages over the radio after being knocked out in Q1
5. Delicious weather forecast
There has been all kinds of weather during the race weekend so far, with Friday seeing heavy rain, light rain, and no rain, but resulting in completely wet practice sessions – and then Saturday being completely dry but having spells of gusty winds and lower temperatures.
Those were tough enough conditions on their own, but the forecast for Sunday is for a mix of the two, with an increasing threat of rain from when the race starts at 1400 local time onwards.
That’s one of the reasons there was so much racing going on in the wet Friday, and it could really mix up the competitive order.
Mercedes looked particularly strong in the wet after being able to turn on their tyres, and a high level of downforce suggests their car is in a good place from a set-up point of view to exploit any rain, but Alonso was fastest overall in FP1. and there is another driver who says he enjoys the prospect of mixed conditions.