The Japanese Grand Prix puts the biggest energy loadings through the tyres all year, with the two compounds that have been nominated for Suzuka – hard and soft – taking to the track for the first time during the two free practice sessions on Friday.
McLaren driver Jenson Button, the winner in Japan last year, went fastest in the first session with a time of 1m 34.507s: two-tenths of a second quicker than his team mate Lewis Hamilton. Button used the hard tyre to set his time with half an hour of the session to go, displacing Red Bull’s Mark Webber, who had been fastest earlier in the session with the hard tyre as well, used exclusively by all the drivers in the morning.
As usual, the drivers sampled the soft tyre for the first time in the afternoon, with track temperatures close to 40 degrees centigrade. Caterham’s Vitaly Petrov was the first driver to try the soft compound after half an hour of the second session. Button subsequently went quickest on his first run with the soft tyre, but the fastest time of the session and also the weekend so far was established by Webber with a benchmark of 1m3 2.493s on the soft after an hour of running. The final 30 minutes of the second session were largely devoted to long fuel runs by the majority of the teams, on a circuit where understanding the degradation is vital.
The first half of the lap at Suzuka is essentially a series of non-stop corners, which brings the tyres rapidly up to temperature but also means that the compound is constantly working with no chance to cool down. There is some new asphalt laid last year for the second half of the lap, which consists mostly of high-speed, wide radius corners, but as is often the case the whole circuit was ‘green’ and slippery at the start of free practice, before some rubber was laid down on the racing line.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli Motorsport Director
“The teams had a lot of information to assimilate during the opening two free practice sessions, with the soft compound likely to be the tyre that most frontrunners choose to qualify on. Today as always was about fully understanding the tyre behaviour, establishing crossover points, and also collecting data about the relative speed of the tyre when used for more than one run, which is why we saw so many different programmes and cycles. The teams also assessed tyre degradation with different fuel loads, which is vital information for race day. Last year, tyre strategy was crucial, with Jenson Button winning for McLaren from second on the grid, after managing to pit one lap later for his first stop than Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who was on pole. The top three all did three stops in 2011, with three stints on the softer compound and a final stint on the harder compound. This year we’re more likely to see two stops, depending also on outside factors such as safety cars and weather conditions. We’ve got a lot of data to look at now, but we would expect the performance gap between the two compounds to be in the region of 1.0-1.2 seconds. There is no doubt that Suzuka will be extremely demanding for the tyres, but with the right tyre management skills and race strategies, there will be plenty of opportunity for some outstanding performances. This is no less than the fantastically enthusiastic fans here deserve, who once more have made us all extremely welcome.”