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Wednesday 23 August 2017

Motorsport: Title contenders need to summon Samurai spirit

Team strategy will play a vital role in mastering the tricky circuit at Suzuka, says David Kennedy

'After victory, tighten your helmet cord.' So said the ancient Samurai -- fearless warriors that ruled Japan for more than one thousand years.

You won't have to tell Fernando Alonso that twice, as he leads his resurgent Ferrari squad to Suzuka for next weekend's Japanese Grand Prix in a battle that will be pivotal to the outcome of the 2010 championship.

These modern-day warriors may not be battling for land on behalf of feudal landlords but glory, honour and prestige never go out of fashion. Alonso, a hugely experienced double world champion, will be bracing himself for the inevitable backlash from the vanquished Red Bull and McLaren drivers after his back-to-back wins in Monza and Singapore, but the Spaniard is only too aware of the glorious tradition of title battles in Suzuka.

As a circuit that used to be positioned at the end of the calendar, Suzuka has had more than its fair share of title tussles, and had he pre-ordained it thus, Bernie Ecclestone could hardly have picked a better circuit to stage the annual F1 dénouement.

There are few F1 tracks that place as many demands on driver and car as the Honda-owned complex deep in the Japanese countryside. And over the years many of the most memorable moments in the F1 championship have been created there. The Senna/Prost duels parts one and two in '89 and '90 are part of F1 legend. Then in 2000, the one-on-one ding-dong where a victorious Michael Schumacher beat Mika Hakkinen and ended Ferrari's long championship drought.

Alonso took victory in 2006 on his way to his second title but perhaps his career-defining moment came a year earlier when he pulled off an outrageous 180mph move round the outside of Michael Schumacher at the first corner. Alonso knows what it takes to win there and he also knows that, with four races to go, Suzuka is likely to once again have a defining role. The circuit is just so tough to master that we're certain to have a much better idea by next Sunday morning just who has got the chops to take this one all the way to Abu Dhabi.

Will this be the race where reigning champion Jenson Button is finally cast adrift to face the ignominy of supporting Lewis Hamilton in the last three races? Certainly Button has not been a match for Hamilton on outright pace since the races started to establish a pattern in the European season, but he has stayed in the hunt through tactical nous and a cool head. Suzuka's capricious weather could throw him a lifeline.

McLaren is planning two aerodynamic upgrades for Japan, but they have some way to go to rattle the cages of Red Bull and Ferrari, the latter a late and welcome interloper in a battle that is gaining momentum with each passing race.

Ferrari and McLaren have eroded much of their extraordinary early-season pace advantage. Niggling reliability issues continue to make unwelcome appearances. But in Alonso and Hamilton they possess two highly motivated drivers who are knocking spots off each other and dragging the ultimate pace out of the car. In some ways the story of 2010 has been of Red Bull's extraordinary inability to make the most of the fastest car on the grid.

Mark Webber's fifth place starting position in Singapore was a worrying sign that perhaps he is driving every lap with the points table on a metaphorical heads-up display.

But, with only an 11-point advantage over Alonso and 20 over Hamilton, it's too early for him to take his foot off the gas and coast to the line in Abu Dhabi, a fact he seemed to have taken on board by race day, when he produced a gritty podium place, following an interesting strategy call.

For Webber must not play the safe journeyman and hope to gain from the miseries of others. He has to focus on the fight and banish negative reminders such as that he has never scored a podium at Suzuka. But winning when the gloves are off is all about turning pre-conceived notions on their head. And Webber has shown he is capable of doing that.

Alonso, Hamilton and Button -- F1 champions all -- will remind him that he'll never experience anything like the pressure that's coming down the tracks in the next month. Still, Webber and Sebastian Vettel have the best car heading to the toughest track of the championship run-in and there will also be considerable pressure, for different reasons, on Alonso, Hamilton and Button.

Alonso's Ferrari engines have proved to be less reliable than even the Renault units employed by Red Bull and the Spaniard has already used all nine lives of his season's allocation of motors.

Ferrari must manage their engine mileage and the presumption is that Alonso will be forced to run slightly reduced revs in some or all of the remaining races, which will be a hindrance, not least on the long straights in Suzuka.

For Hamilton, the points deficit means his all-or-nothing approach which has cost him points this year is, ironically, now his only option. He's almost a full Grand Prix win behind Webber. He must continue to attack in trademark style as it's his only option when running behind the other contenders. But we can be grateful that the softly softly approach was never in the repertoire of this extraordinary driver.

Samurai military strategy will be as relevant today as it was in the days of yore. Back then they had strict codes and strategy.

Fearlessness, attack and speed will be paramount. In the words of the ancient warlords, 'one should make decisions within the space of seven breaths . . . a warrior is a person who does things quickly'.

At Suzuka last year Vettel won from pole in his Red Bull. Jarno Trulli (Toyota) and Hamilton completed the podium. This time Vettel is favourite to win. Webber leads his team-mate by 21 points. There's a lot of people gunning for Webber, it almost certainly represents his last crack at the title. But does he have the Samurai spirit that is needed now more than ever?

We have to give the last word to the legendary Samurai Ishida Mitsunari: "It's bubbling up nicely". Were he around today he would probably add 'hang on to your hats lads.'

David Kennedy is Setanta's

Formula 1 analyst

Sunday Independent

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