2023 Japanese Grand Prix
Budding Formula 1 tech-journalist Ashwin Issac pens his ‘F1 Midfield Tales’ from Suzuka, the home of 2023 Japanese Grand Prix. ‘F1 Midfield Tales’ will be a combination of data and analysis that will aim to dissect the uber-competitive F1 midfield race-after-race.
Preface for the F1 midfield in Suzuka
The samurai and ninjas of motorsport continue with the fly-away races in Japan.
The host for the Formula 1 Lenovo Japanese Grand Prix 2023 is the legendary Suzuka International Racing course located in Ino, Suzuka City, Mie Prefecture, Japan.
This track needs no introduction to a motorsport fan, a circuit loved by drivers for its high speed, undulating, challenging corners. It is a driver’s track where an individual dialed into the weekend can make an impression that will be remembered.
The “figure of eight” layout comprises iconic sections, curves, and corners that tickle the senses of the drivers. Engineers design their cars with a track like this on their mind, acing it gives them satisfaction because an efficient design that provides enough downforce while not compromising speed will prevail.
Here’s a track map for reference:
There were no changes made to the track layout. Pirelli offered the hardest range of tyres for the weekend.
Alpha Tauri, Alfa Romeo, and Alpine introduced new parts to their cars in Singapore but the fruits of their labor cannot be gauged based on a street circuit.
With the upgraded cars facing the challenge of Suzuka, let’s ponder how they fared over the weekend.
Observations from the F1 midfield in Suzuka
For the comparisons, data with similar variables are selected for a viable analysis. For instance, the fastest sectors by a team and not individual drivers are considered for the qualifying examination. Lap times are collected for the same tyre compound at comparable race periods.
Suzuka offered stable weather for all the practice sessions, the temperatures were on the higher side. This meant that with a very coarse tarmac, the wear rate was high forcing the teams to save up on tyres for race day.
The teams were tasked to test a new iteration of the C2 tyres by Pirelli, the new compound and construction were very similar in characteristics and thus were not a hindrance for the drivers in their preparation.
There was an overnight shower on Friday clearing all the rubber laid for Saturday. This made track evolution a factor for the qualifying session.
Qualifying battle between the F1 midfield in Suzuka
The improving track laid the onus on the last laps of the Q1 segment, the bar chart below depicts the performance of each driver from the midfield:
- The Alpha Tauris were clearly the fastest car in qualifying trim. Liam Lawson underestimated the car’s performance and with the worry of drastic track evolution, he opted to have three attempts with three new sets of soft tyres.
- It was very close between the rest of the midfield teams.
- Hulkenberg and Zhou were off-color for this session and fell back from their teammates.
- Both the Alfa Romeo drivers and Hulkenberg failed to progress to Q2.
The order was the same for Q2 with only Tsunoda making it to Q3 from the midfield. Liam Lawson set a slower time than what he achieved in Q1 courtesy of a mistake, if he had at least matched his time, he too would have progressed to Q3.
Lohan Sargeant failed to set a time in qualifying as he crashed in the last corner trying to set a time on his first attempt.
The Race between the F1 midfield in Suzuka
On Sunday the track temperature was at its highest over the weekend at a soaring 45°C. The race was predicted to be a 2 stopper at a minimum with a possibility of 3 stops for a few.
Logan Sargeant started from the pit lane as most of his car was changed under parc ferme. He was also penalized pre-race because of a curfew infringement.
To start the grid was split with medium and soft tyres. The narrow track width of Suzuka will always be tight for these relatively enormous cars, especially for the start and the run down to the first corner.
The cars did get very close to each other and there were nudges and contact between a few, most noticeably between Albon and Bottas, the slow-starting Williams was punted on the side by the squeezed Alfa Romeo. Albon, Bottas, Ocon, and Zhou suffered damages and punctures.
All four cars returned to the pits and made the necessary changes and tried to continue on in their races but Bottas, also driven into by Logan Sargeant, and Albon had terminal damage and had to retire their cars later. Sargeant too had to retire his car following his contact with Bottas.
Magnussen and Perez had a coming together at the hairpin, a desperate overtake attempt by Sergio, this compromised the race for the Danish driver.
The remaining midfield drivers had varying strategies but all of them bar Hulkenberg ended their race on hard tyres, here’s a scatter chart showcasing the race pace of the drivers in their last stint:
- On race trim, the Alpine were the fastest team with Pierre Gasly being the fastest. Ocon on his older tyres managed a decent race pace. Both the Alpines finished in the points.
- Hulkenberg on the mediums was fast in the end but because he opted for a three-stop race he was only ahead of his stricken teammate.
- Tsunoda was faster than Lawson in the final stint, but because Lawson had pit earlier, he managed to undercut his teammate, and their positions were locked in by the team. The undercut was very powerful because of high degradation, the advantage in fresh tyres was very drastic.
- Zhou in the race trim was on par with the rest of the midfield.
A lot of team orders were given out in the race that could be attributed to the powerful undercut.
Conclusion from the F1 midfield in Suzuka
The midfield was ever closer in Japan in Qualifying trim but when it came to the race, Alpine was a step ahead distancing themselves from the rest.
Alpha Tauri with their upgrades seemed to have promoted themselves to the next best team. They have the edge in qualifying but have room to improve with their race pace. They confirmed their driver lineup for 2024. They have put their trust in Tsunoda and Ricciardo but Lawson has had an impressive showing until now and if he accepts his reserve role, he will be always in their mirrors.
Williams had a weekend to forget, they did have pace based on the practice sessions but for their misfortune, they didn’t make any impression.
Alfa Romeo showed great promise in the practice sessions but fell behind on Saturday. Their altercations in the race hampered their weekend.
The Haas drivers are just waiting for their scheduled update in Austin. They have been the ‘Saturday’ team so far but points are earned on Sunday.
The fly-aways continue with Qatar in two weeks’ time, another fast-flowing and exciting track. Until then Sayonara!