Hamilton heads to Mount Fuji

The snow-capped cone of the mighty Mount Fuji volcano forms the impressive backdrop to the Japanese Grand Prix, the 16th race of the 18-round 2008 FIA Formula 1 World Championship.

The 3,776m peak towers over the state-of-the-art Fuji International Speedway, which returned to the Formula 1 calendar in 2007 after last hosting the Japanese race in 1977. The revamped venue, which updates the track’s configuration while still retaining much of its original character, hosts the event for a second successive year. Next year, the race returns to Suzuka, in Mie Prefecture, beginning an annual alternating programme between the two circuits. This year’s event will be the 24th Japanese Grand Prix.

The Fuji track has been kind to the McLaren team: in 1976, rebellious racer James Hunt dramatically clinched the world title after finishing third at the wheel of an M23; a year later, he won the event in an M26. Last year, Lewis Hamilton memorably emerged victorious from a torrential downpour that saw the race run behind the Safety Car for the first 20 laps.

Lewis HamiltonWas it difficult to hold back in Singapore, or have you started driving with one eye on the world championship?

“Actually, I think I learned something when I was behind David Coulthard in Singapore: previously, you’d tell yourself to be consistent and avoid any unnecessary mistakes – but it’s one thing saying it and another to do it. And once you get in the car, it can be hard to stop the instincts you’ve been developing since you were eight years old. But I actually think Singapore was a good learning experience: there was less pressure to achieve a victory because of the unusual circumstances, which meant I was actually able to start thinking of the world championship. I hate driving for points, but I think we can all see the benefit of that approach at the moment.”

Fuji was the venue of possibly your most memorable victory of 2007, what are your feelings as you head back to Japan?

“I love Japan. Last year might have been difficult because of the wet weather and the poor visibility, but I actually really enjoyed that weekend. The Japanese fans are some of my favourite in the world: so passionate, but really polite, charming and respectful. As for the race, one of the questions I get asked most is whether I prefer to drive in the rain: my answer is always the same, I’ll race in the wet or dry, I don’t mind. But it’s always easier for us drivers to race in the dry; I’d always prefer a dry race. This weekend, I’ll be hoping for dry weather for another reason – I want the fans at the track to have the best weekend possible and to enjoy the atmosphere of one of the season’s best races.”

Heikki KovalainenLast year’s Japanese Grand Prix was the scene of one of your most impressive drives, are you looking forward to going back?

“Absolutely. Last year was one of those races where everything went right for me, one of those races where you can perform to a higher level than the car. I didn’t qualify too well but kept my head, drove sensibly, didn’t make any mistakes and battled with Kimi to finish second – my first Formula 1 podium. It was the highlight of my season. Of course, I love Japan, I’m looking forward to visiting Tokyo and also getting back to a circuit where I’ve got plenty of good memories.”

What sort of set-up do you need for a lap of Fuji?

“There is no single corner at Fuji that particularly contributes to your laptime. It’s relatively easy to understand the corners, and it’s not a particularly tricky circuit. So it’s a place where you can’t afford to make any mistakes, you have to be absolutely precise and extract the maximum from your car to be fast. And that’s not easy: you’ve still got to understand the car and find a good set-up: finding the ideal compromise is the tricky bit.”

Martin Whitmarsh, CEO Formula 1, Vodafone McLaren MercedesWhat sort of challenge does the Fuji circuit provide from an engineering point of view?

“It’s not a particularly extreme circuit; it’s not a place that really places a premium on the car or the driver – unless it’s raining, of course. But, as a result, it’s a circuit where you really benefit from solid, clever engineering rather than raw power or efficient aerodynamics. This year, we’re bringing a number of smaller components to the car ahead of the race and will be working hard with our engineers to ensure that we can maximise our track time in order to get our cars well-balanced. Of course, we are reliant on good weather – and we learnt last year that this is not always forthcoming when you’re racing on the side of a mountain!”

Norbert Haug, Vice President, Mercedes-Benz MotorsportWhy did Lewis Hamilton not win after Felipe Massa’s refuelling problems? At the time he was second and the winner came from 15th on the grid, the runner-up from eighth – Lewis ended up third.

“Up until his first pit stop, Lewis was in second position. The first Safety Car period beginning on lap 15, of course, brought forward those drivers who had pitted shortly before – like, for example, David, who was ahead of Lewis for 20 laps after his pitstop and who drove significantly more slowly than Lewis’s race speed would have allowed. Drivers who could race without traffic after the Safety Car deployment had an advantage, so, as a consequence, the current Safety Car rules came under criticism.”

What are the specific challenges for drivers and teams at Fuji?“The 4.5km track at Mount Fuji is quite a difficult task for drivers and engineers. The near-1.5km-long front straight is the longest of all circuits on the Formula 1 calendar; here the cars race at full throttle for 20 seconds. At Turn 10, the cars reach only about 70km/h. Therefore, it will be quite a challenge for drivers and engineers to find the best compromise for the set-up between the high-speed section and the slow corners. Last year’s data can only be used in a limited way due to the heavy rain encountered during that event.”

Prior to the final three grands prix of the season, Lewis leads the Drivers‘ Championship by seven points; in the constructors‘ rankings, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes leads by a single point. How do you approach these three races?

“Three grands prix within three weeks, on two different continents, in three different time zones are a big challenge for all drivers and teams. Since Lewis’s victory in Silverstone, where he re-gained the championship lead, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes has scored 77 points. Our closest competitors, Ferrari and BMW Sauber, have achieved 43 and 46 points respectively. Lewis scored 46 points during that time. For the seventh time in a row, Lewis arrives at a grand prix as the championship leader. Everybody in the team will work hard to achieve that at the final race in Brazil.”

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