If you have been watching Formula 1 for over a decade you will know all about those early Pirelli era races during 2011 and 2012 when tyre degradation was huge and there were multiple pit stops.
That’s an aspect which has changed over the years and the majority of races are a one-stopper. However, the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday will be reminiscent of those multiple pit stop races, where the lap times fall off and the drivers will struggle for grip.
Warmer than average temperatures at Suzuka and rainfall during September have contributed to a high tyre wear on a track which really punishes the tyres. Strategy is going to be the deciding factor on Sunday, even though it probably won’t stop Max Verstappen from winning.
Can McLaren stop Verstappen?
Probably not. It will require both Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris to jump Verstappen off the line to give McLaren a realistic chance of winning their first race since Daniel Ricciardo at Monza in 2021.
Piastri will be starting on the front row for the first time in F1, while Norris will remember his superb Silverstone launch when he started high up the grid.
“We are going to try,” said Norris. “I mean, if he [Verstappen] is leading by Turn 2 there’s not a lot you can really do.
“If you want to emulate Alain Prost, Oscar, into Turn 1… I mean Ayrton Senna into Turn 1 you can do that happily! It would be lovely for me! So, I think we’ll try.
“I think our race pace is decent. It’s definitely not going to be as good as the Red Bull here but we’ll do our best.”
If one McLaren jumps ahead of Verstappen, the Red Bull driver should be able to make an on-track overtake, although Suzuka is one of the hardest tracks to overtake at on the F1 calendar.
Verstappen‘s advantage has mainly been in Sector 1 too, where you cannot make a move through the high-speed sweeping Esses. The championship leader had the best tyre wear during the Friday long runs, so it really would take something special from McLaren to deny Verstappen from victory number 13 in 2023.
Two or even three stops?
Pirelli predict a two-stop will be the way forward for most teams over the 53 laps around Suzuka. However, a three-stop shouldn’t be ruled out either depending on the timing of a safety car or virtual safety car.
Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Piastri and Norris are the only leading runners with two sets of hards but only have one set of mediums. This suggests they will go medium-hard-hard, or a combination of that.
On the other hand, the Red Bulls and Ferraris only have one set of hards, so are relying more on their new medium tyres, of which they have two sets, apart from Verstappen who has three.
It will be key to see whether the medium or hard tyre performs better because that will dictate the way the podium battle pans out. Interestingly, Pirelli have avoided the medium tyre in all but one of their predicted strategies, which is unusual.
“We feel that a two-stop will clearly be the most popular option, especially as temperatures should be the same as Saturday,” said Pirelli boss Mario Isola.
“In fact, it will be interesting to see what combinations of compounds will be chosen by the strategists, given that all three of them have shown themselves capable of playing a part.
“The hard is probably the favourite compound, with eight drivers having saved the two sets of C1 supplied, while the other 12 one new set.
“Furthermore, the soft, which obviously has shown the greatest signs of thermal degradation, could be useful for the first stint for those looking to make up places at the start.
“Also towards the end of the race, when with less fuel on board, a driver could try and exploit the performance difference compared to those who might possibly be running a slower and more used compound.”
Who will be on the podium?
McLaren‘s track position advantage and their excellent speed all weekend makes them favourites to have at least one car on the podium. Sergio Perez hasn’t looked confident at Suzuka, so will have a big battle to beat Piastri and Norris from fifth place.
Any tyre wear problems for Ferrari will be seriously tested on Sunday, so don’t expect too much from Charles Leclerc or Carlos Sainz, with the pair looking to finish as close to the podium as possible.
Mercedes generally have better race pace than one-lap speed and they will be the team on the attack with strategy as they can trigger a pit stop phase with an undercut, which will be very powerful.
For Hamilton or Russell to get into the top three though will take something pretty mighty because overtaking is hard and they will struggle to make up several positions through strategy alone.