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My Japanese Grand Prix predictions

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Jonathan Legard | 17:13 UK time, Friday, 2 October 2009

If Jenson Button and Brawn are going to clinch either the constructors' or drivers' championship - or both - this weekend then they are going to have to do it the hard way in Japan.

The rain, some of it torrential in the second practice session, made sure that none of the teams had any meaningful running on Friday, which is, in essence, a test day. I talked to various engineers and they all said they had learnt nothing at all.

It was a frustrating day and it looks like the first dry running at Suzuka will come in the first part of qualifying on Saturday as most forecasts are predicting it will be wet again for third practice.

Now it is pretty much down to the ability of the drivers and engineers as well as the performance of the cars during qualifying and then the race - and that cranks up the sense of anticipation even more.

For Red Bull, it is pretty much do or die this weekend. If Button scores five or more points than his team-mate Rubens Barrichello he will be crowned world champion.

There are so many permutations for the third contender, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, but the top line is that he needs to win in Suzuka. In terms of the constructors' title, Red Bull must cut Brawn's lead by at least seven points to stay in the hunt.

Having said all that, here are my top-eight predicted finishers for the Japanese Grand Prix:

Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Mark Webber (Red Bull)
Rubens Barrichello (Brawn)
Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
Jenson Button (Brawn)
Adrian Sutil (Force India)
Nico Rosberg (Williams)
Fernando Alonso (Renault)

vettellight595.jpgSebastian Vettel is not completely out of the running for the drivers' championship

The track which is most similar to Suzuka is Silverstone where Red Bull scored a one-two this season with Vettel leading home Webber. Of course, other teams have improved since the British GP but Red Bull have an upgrade for this race and a specification to fit the track's famous high-speed corners.

They have to hope their Renault engines hang on; especially as far as Vettel is concerned as he has used up his maximum quota of eight engines for the season.

Red Bull know that this track should suit them more than the Brawns so it is far better for Christian Horner's team to have tried and failed rather than to have taken a conservative approach.

Team orders are not allowed in Formula 1 but it is possible for the drivers to 'come to some sort of arrangement' - think back to China last season when championship contender Felipe Massa 'got past' his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen late on in the race.

For those reasons I've gone for Vettel to take the victory. He has to win to keep his title hopes, and the hopes of his team, alive.

Barrichello is another man who needs to score points at Suzuka. He knows this is his best-ever chance of winning the championship, especially if paddock speculation that he is going to Williams in 2010 is correct.

The Brazilian needs to attack having lost ground on Button last week in Singapore. He has proved the master of Suzuka before, winning in 2003, and if there is any hint of dampness on the track he knows exactly how to cope with that.

In contrast, Button doesn't need to chase the victory here. He would like to win but it's not about winning this race, it's about winning the championship. He is looking relaxed here and I'm told he's very confident.

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons for the Englishman to go for glory in Japan. He has a lot of history here because of his former ties with Honda; he has spent the last few days in Tokyo and will stay on for another week after the race and his girlfriend Jessica is Japanese.

What's more, Button would love to clinch the title as soon as possible to take the pressure off.

Brawn know they perform better on stop-start tracks, for example in Singapore, but even if they don't expect to have the out-right pace of the Red Bulls they are still to be feared.

I have predicted Lewis Hamilton to take fourth place in Japan. He hasn't driven at Suzuka before but is inspired by this famous track and McLaren were very happy with the world champion's performance on Friday, despite the limited running.

For the likes of Renault's Romain Grosjean and the Toro Rossos of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, their first race here could be a real struggle but for someone like Hamilton his talent simply shines through, he has the class to learn the track straight away.

The pressure is off Hamilton and now he is driving for fun. Watching him on his first serious lap in Suzuka was a joy; he flew up the hill and was almost two seconds quicker than anyone else even on the intermediate tyres.

Adrian Sutil, who is driving for a new Force India contract, loves this track and as a former Japanese Formula Three champion he knows it well. The team didn't particularly want him to go out in the rain-drenched second session but he is so confident that the car will run well this weekend that he went out anyway.

The downforce here isn't quite the way Force India would like it but they feel it is still suited to their car's strengths.

Williams were greatly encouraged by Nico Rosberg's showing in Singapore, despite his pit-lane penalty, and they have brought a new front wing and diffuser to Japan. Rosberg is also driving with the pressure off, if speculation that he is set for a move to a front-running team is to be believed.

alonsomedia595.jpgHaving survived 'crash-gate', Fernando Alonso will be driving for Ferrari next season

Fernando Alonso is also in a similar frame of mind now his Ferrari deal is signed and out in the open. A Renault team insider told me he had never experienced such an atmosphere in the team following Alonso's third place in Singapore. There was such a sense of achievement in getting back on the podium after all the pressure of "crash-gate".

There is not a single driver who fails to be inspired by Suzuka's fantastic figure-of-eight track, which returns after a two-year absence. Its high-speed corners, variable gradients and wonderful S's snaking up the hill in sector one are all part of its magnificent challenge

And how ironic would it be if the Brawn team captured one or both of the championships on offer this weekend at Honda's home track, just 10 months after the Japanese giant pulled the plug on the team and Ross Brawn came to its rescue.


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