SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel won his second Formula One title in Suzuka last year but it will take more than another Japanese Grand Prix victory this weekend to put the Red Bull driver back on top of the world.
The Red Bull driver, revved up after winning under the Singapore floodlights, lags Ferrari’s championship leader Fernando Alonso by 29 points with six races remaining and everything to play for.
Consistency is the key, with Red Bull plagued by alternator failures and Vettel’s win nine days ago only his second in a season full of surprises.
The 25-year-old has been on pole at Suzuka for the past three years, however, winning there in 2009 and 2010, and will fancy his chances even if Alonso, second last year, has a knack for appearing on the podium.
“I love the Suzuka circuit. In short, it has the most amazing corners and brilliant fans, I really like coming here,” Vettel said in a team preview.
“I wish I had won in 2011, it was my third Formula One race on my favourite track and it still bothers me a bit that I took my world title with a third place.”
McLaren’s Jenson Button, who considers Japan a home from home due to his Japanese girlfriend and long association with Honda, denied Vettel victory last year but will have a five-place handicap on the grid this time around due to an unscheduled gearbox change.
His team mate Lewis Hamilton remains the talk of the paddock after the 2008 world champion’s move to Mercedes next season in place of Michael Schumacher was announced last week to end months of speculation.
McLaren will want to shield Hamilton as far as possible from all the attention, with the Briton their best shot at the title even if his retirement in Singapore while leading left him 52 points adrift of Alonso.
“Clearly there will be cause to be distracted in the next days and weeks,” team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who has already signed Mexican Sergio Perez from Sauber to replace Hamilton, told reporters last week.
”We’ve got to try and protect him from that.
”If I know Lewis, he wants to win this year’s world championship, he wants to win the remaining six races.
“He’s assured me that he’s a McLaren man for the rest of this year and that he’s going to be completely focused on winning and we are going to try and create as much protection of him and the environment in which he can do that.”
Schumacher, the seven times world champion who has enjoyed some of his most memorable career celebrations at Suzuka, will also be in the limelight at what could be his farewell to the Japanese circuit.
“My motivation is completely intact after the news last week, especially because Suzuka is one of the season’s highlights for me,” Schumacher said in a team preview.
“I enjoy the circuit, it has sections that challenge you as a driver like almost nowhere else. Then there are the fans: They love motor racing and it is fun to feel their passion.”
Kimi Raikkonen, who still holds the race lap record from his McLaren days in 2005 when he came from 17th on the grid in one of his finest victories, will also be a man to watch in the Lotus.
The Finn has yet to win this season, despite being third overall, but Suzuka offers probably his best chance of the remaining races.
“You need an aerodynamically strong car there, and a solid car to go through those fast, long sweeping corners. I think that suits the E20,” he said.
Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi will be the local hero, with Japanese fans more revved up than ever after he put his car on the front row in qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix little more than a month ago.
No Japanese has ever won his home grand prix but Kobayashi, whose team mate Perez has had three podium finishes this season including two second places, will have some dreaming of what might be possible.
“I‘m very much looking forward to my home Grand Prix in Suzuka. I think our car should be very fast there,” said Kobayashi, who will have a new front wing and aerodynamic package on his Sauber. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by John O‘Brien)