Kovalainen: Watch out for Williams

Heikki Kovalainen 14:20 25/09/2015
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Lewis Hamilton will look to reassert his dominance at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Motorsport is very popular in Japan and the Grand Prix is the biggest event in the country every year. Everyone follows their favourite drivers and teams from a young age and will stick by them regardless of their success.

– Japan GP: Mercedes show pace in rain-hit practice
– Japan GP: Raikkonen aiming for win but staying cautious
– Test Drive: Car of the week – Hyundai Sonata 2.0-litre Turbo

– Japan GP: Grosjean rejoices at Suzuka challenge

When I was in formula three I met some Japanese fans in Macau. I then came to the Japanese Grand Prix as a test driver in 2005 with Renault and the same guys came out to support me. It continued all the way though my McLaren years and even when I dropped to the back of the grid with Caterham they were still cheering me on. It is a special atmosphere in Japan with a lot of very intense fans that get close to you. One woman even learned Finnish so that we could chat together easily.

I remember one particular incident when I was driving from the hotel to the paddock on the Sunday morning of the race with a friend from Finland. It was only a ten minute drive and when we stopped at the traffic lights at one junction a car load of Japanese fans stopped us and insisted on autographs. Despite holding up traffic the fans would not be moved and eventually two police officers had to intervene. They just didn’t want move and it was a funny situation. It was my friend’s first time in Japan and he was quite impressed with the level of excitement.

The figure of eight track at Suzuka is a narrow, high-speed circuit. In a way it is an old fashioned track as there are not many straights to drive the car flat out. Over the years there have been some big accidents with drivers trying overly risky overtakes.

Pirelli have brought their hardest tyres over this year as it is a very high energy circuit with many high speed corners. The whole first sector up to about turn eight forces drivers to change directions many times at high speed and tyres must be able to deal with a large amount of force going through them. The hard tyres are the most durable and have been selected specifically to cope with these sharp turns. The issue with hard tyres is that they must be warmed up properly and the predicted cool weather will make it difficult to regulate the temperature of the rubber. Losing warmth results in losing performance as a cold tyre won’t grip the surface sufficiently.

Mercedes’ poor run in Singapore came as a surprise to the whole of Formula one. Maybe it should have been predictable as they had a poor race at the same track last year but I didn’t think that they would be so far off the pace. Singapore will have served as a wakeup call for Mercedes and I am sure they will have done everything possible to correct their problems. The Japan circuit is very different to Singapore’s and I think the design will play into the hands of Mercedes this time as their car performs well with harder tyres on high-speed circuits. The expectation is that they will be back on top. Teams like Ferrari and Red Bull should not be ahead of them here.

Ferrari will be keen to keep their winning momentum going with Sebastian Vettel looking very strong last week. I suspect that Kimi Raikkonen wouldn’t have a problem playing Vettel’s supporting act as he is aware of the situation and experienced enough to help Ferrari in this way. I don’t think he will think about that too much though as he will be more focused on getting his car to perform better than it did in Singapore.

This week Romain Grosjean is rumoured to be joining the new Haas team and if he goes it will be interesting to see how he competes for them. Grosjean will have established a relationship with his current team over the years and it will be a challenge for him to get used to working with a new engineering team and car crew. I don’t know much about the size of the team and the level of their investment but in my experience leaving a bigger team for a new team takes some getting used to. The response time to problems and production times for new parts is a lot longer and as a result the team is less efficient. Grosjean may have to be a little patient at the beginning but it will be interesting and exciting to monitor their progress.

Last week in Singapore my predictions were totally wrong, but no one could have predicted the extent of Mercedes’ troubles. Despite the dominance of Ferrari I think that Mercedes will get back to winning ways in Japan. Lewis Hamilton will be keen to stamp his authority back on the other racers and he will want to restore his glory. I think an interesting team to watch this weekend will be Williams as their car is also very quick in the turns and should be well suited to this course. It is risky not picking a Ferrari for the podium but I suspect that Vatteri Bottas may pip Vettel to third spot.

Williams cars are suited well to the turn-heavy Japanese Grand Prix.

HEIKKI’S PODIUM PREDICTION

1) Lewis Hamilton

2) Nico Rosberg

3) Valtteri Bottas

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