Round 16 of an intriguing F1 season takes place at the unique Suzuka circuit, in Japan, this weekend. Suzuka’s fast bends make this iconic venue a favourite with the drivers and the fanatical support of the Japanese fans – many dressed in full team colours, including helmets – helps to create an electric atmosphere.
We revert to Andrew Mount, our resident F1 betting expert, to talk us through this one.
The Flying Dutchman
Max Verstappen, whose sole previous Grand Prix success – in Spain last year – was widely regarded as a fortunate one, went some way to silencing his doubters with victory in Malaysia, just a day after his 20th Birthday. The young Dutchman has often out-qualified Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo this season but has struggled to produce the goods on Sundays, failing to podium on 12 straight occasions since his third in China in race two.
Last year, Verstappen produced a fine defensive display – when runner-up to Nico – after qualifying in fifth place. He also improved on his qualifying performance when ninth for Toro Rosso in 2015. His confidence will be sky-high and he has decent prospects of back-to-back wins.
Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, second in Singapore, held off Vettel for third place in Malaysia and sits fourth in the championship with 177 points. That was the Australian’s 26th podium finish and he also holds solid claims on Sunday.
Mercedes are bidding for a fourth straight win in Japan, however, team boss Toto Wolff tried to play this down in the first press conference of the week, stating that “recent weeks have reminded us that historic form counts for little with these 2017 cars and tyres.”
Hamilton is worthy favourite
There’s a degree of truth in this statement, though perhaps his comments were designed to stop complacency creeping in after his team exceeded expectations in both Singapore and Malaysia. Lewis Hamilton, successful here in 2014 and 2015, had his title hopes severely dented when third behind teammate Nico Rosberg last year, in what turned out to be the German’s last ever Grand Prix victory. Hamilton also won in 2007, when the race was held at the Fuji Speedway circuit. Second place in Malaysia was an excellent result for Hamilton, even though he started from pole, as his podium prospects were looking especially bleak in Friday’s qualifying.
He now leads Vettel by 34 points, though the three points he sacrificed when he sportingly allowed Valtteri Bottas to pass him in Hungary could yet prove crucial in what is sure to be a tight battle over the remaining five races. Hamilton is a worthy favourite for this year’s renewal but the momentum is with Red Bull and he makes only limited appeal at the available odds.
Vettel will require maximum points
Vettel, one slice of a ‘Max Verstappen Ferrari sandwich’ in Singapore, escaped censure for his sharp move to the left – which saw both Ferraris and Verstappen out of the race within seconds of the start. Fourth place in Malaysia was about the best he could have hoped for after starting from the back of the grid, but an unnecessary collision with Williams driver Lance Stroll on the warm-down lap led to fears that his gearbox had been damaged and would not be available at Suzuka, potentially resulting in a five-place grid penalty. However, on Monday Ferrari reported that the gearbox was available for Japan; news that saw Vettel’s odds of victory shorten considerably. He won here four times for Red Bull (2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013) and has finished third and fourth since switching to Ferrari. Nothing short of the maximum 25 points will do on Sunday.
Raikkonen a risky bet
In Malaysia, Kimi Raikkonen had the perfect opportunity for his first win of the season but his car had turbo problems on the way to the grid and was returned to the pits, never to emerge. Given how much pace his Ferrari teammate, Sebastian Vettel, displayed in finishing fourth from the back of the grid, Malaysia goes down as a missed opportunity for the Finn. Raikkonen has struggled here in recent years and, with team orders likely to come into play if both Ferraris are in contention, he remains a risky betting proposition.
Winner: Max Verstappen (7/2)