Japanese Grand Prix: F1's fantastic showdown in Suzuka

F1 horse power: Ferrari fans at the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix, at Suzuka

They come around fast, these F1 races, don’t they?

The marshals have barely finished sweeping the bits of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari off the Sepang circuit and we’re already at Suzuka, Seb’s car – gearbox included – is intact and some familiar scripts are being adhered to.

For example…

READ MORE: Lewis Hamilton promises to ‘prepare for war’

Mercedes are wringing their hands with worry

Tech that: Mercedes Technical Director James Allison talks shop with Lewis Hamilton at Suzuka

To be fair to Mercedes, Ferrari have had the edge on them in recent races. Well, apart from when the red cars have crashed out, been out-qualified or blown up.

Lewis Hamilton is talking his chances down but Mercedes still have that fancy qualifying mode to keep them at the pointy end of the grid – and Hamilton is banking decent points even when he’s not dominating races.

But, whisper it, Hamilton has never been on pole here. Last year, he was the equivalent of just 18cm behind pole-sitter Nico Rosberg, and he’s won three times, so it’s not exactly a bogey circuit for the Brit.

Merc will be trying upgraded aero packages on both cars, in practice at least, after their recent struggles with set-up.

Their longer wheelbases should cope well with all but the tightest corners at Suzuka – whether Valtteri Bottas copes is another matter altogether. He admitted to being off form in Malaysia, and Suzuka is a technically challenging circuit (heck, it’s a fabulous circuit) where he’ll really need his A-game if he’s not to be shown up by the Red Bull boys

Ferrari have it all to do. Again

Laddie in red: Sebastian Vettel relaxes ahead of the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka

Vettel has to win. Obviously. But, ideally, he could do with Hamilton struggling with his set-up and then binning it at one of those epic Suzuka corners.

Ferrari are bringing a bunch of upgrades to Japan as well, though rumours that they include bumpers for Seb’s car are wide of the mark.

Kimi Raikkonen has a good record at Suzuka and he’ll be under pressure to take points off Hamilton too.

But Vettel really needs a perfect weekend. He was lucky, very lucky, not to damage his gearbox when he hit Lance Stroll on the cool-down lap in Malaysia – footage from Stroll’s Williams was released as the drivers arrived in Japan and it showed that Vettel was far from innocent in that crash.

The fact it took so long to release the video brought out the best in conspiracy theorists, who suggested F1 bosses had sat on the footage so they wouldn’t be under pressure to punish Vettel.

The thing is, no one has punished Vettel more than Vettel has punished Vettel this season, and he has only himself to blame for being quite so far behind Hamilton in the Drivers’ Championship.

Red Bull are once more F1’s dark horses. Well, dark cattle

Who, us? Red Bull’s highly-rated duo, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, at the Suzuka circuit

We just don’t know where the Bully boys will finish in the mix. It’s not likely that they’ll be challenging for the big points but how often have we seen them on the podium this year?

After his victory at Sepang, Max Verstappen was at pains to play down its significance, coming as it did on a weekend when Ferrari fell apart.

In fact, he said his finest motorsport moment wasn’t even in F1 – but becoming the World KZ Kart Champion in 2013.

He likes winning, that one, and not just winning piddling F1 races.

I wonder which team he’ll take his first Formula 1 title with..?

Force India: There’s good news, and then…

Think pink: Force India driver Esteban Ocon meets some fans who’ve gone the extra mile…

The pink panthers, Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon, are clear leaders of F1’s midfield pack, sitting seventh and eighth in the drivers’ table after a creditable 2017 season.

But the team owners, well, that’s not such a good story.

Vijay Mallya was arrested and bailed in London this week as India sought to extradite him to face fraud charges – and his F1 team have been mentioned in connection with allegations of money laundering. Mallya denies all the charges.

His business partner, Subrata Roy, was jailed two-and-a-half years ago and, although he’s now out on parole, the Indian authorities are forcing him to sell off his assets to settle a multi-billion-dollar slap on the wrist.

The long and the short of it is that, although Force India are having a cracking season, and should win enough prize money to keep them at the head of the midfield pack next year, it is being rumoured that they are up for sale.

The allegations surrounding Mallya and Roy aren’t going to be driving the value of Force India up and, if a new buyer doesn’t step forward in the coming months, there is a real danger that the team will find itself in the wrong sort of headlines, no matter how good its performances on track

Suzuka, you mad old beast you

Driving like champs or chumps? Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna have a McLaren-on-McLaren moment at Suzuka during the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix

One thing no one is surprised to hear is that Suzuka remains a brilliant, brilliant circuit.

It’s proof that F1 is not just about overtaking – this is not a particularly easy circuit at which to pass – but also about technical ability and about the beauty of a circuit that flows, loops back on itself and always, always entertains.

The circuit is like no other, the fans in Japan are like no others and the hats they wear are certainly like no others. We’ve long been used to seeing people wandering about with replica F1 wings or miniature F1 cars on their heads.

It seems like every driver has a fan base here on race weekend, even those drivers whose backsides haven’t seen a competitive F1 car for a decade or two.

In terms of drivers, teams and, ahem, engine suppliers, Japan hasn’t had a lot to cheer about for a while, though you’d never believe it to see a Suzuka crowd.

They deserve a break and so, if there is a god of motorsports, here’s a little request: please let those McLaren Hondas amaze us all this weekend, one way or another…

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