Mercedes can move a step closer to becoming the first team in Formula 1 history to win six successive world championship doubles at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.

Heading to Suzuka, the German manufacturer has its first opportunity of 2019 to seal its sixth constructors’ crown. Mercedes holds a 162-point lead over its nearest rival, with 220 points up for grabs.

It means for Mercedes to match the Scuderia’s feat of six constructors’ titles in a row (1999-2004) and continue its all-conquering dominance of the V6 hybrid era, it must outscore Ferrari by 14 points on Sunday to clinch the championship with four races to spare.

Mercedes got back to winning ways last time out in Russia, but the somewhat fortuitous circumstances surrounding its first victory in four races has left team boss Toto Wolff insisting that Ferrari remain favourites at a circuit Mercedes holds a 100 percent record at since 2014. Mercedes is set to bring “minor upgrades” to Japan in a bid to close in on Ferrari.

“The win in Sochi doesn't change the fact that Ferrari had a stronger start to the second part of the season than we did," Wolff said. 

“We have a strong track record [in Japan], having won every Japanese Grand Prix in the hybrid era, but we expect this year to be challenging given the strength of our opponents.

“It will be a very close battle on track - and one that we very much look forward to. Our targets for the final quarter of the season is clear and it's up to us to make sure we achieve them.”

Lewis Hamilton can move a step closer to claiming his sixth world title by knocking Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen out of mathematical contention.

The Briton needs to avoid being outscored by Leclerc by four points and a seven-point swing in Verstappen’s favour in order to make it a two-way, Mercedes-exclusive duel for the crown in Mexico.

Can Ferrari return to winning ways?

Ferrari’s resurgence since F1’s summer break resulted in three consecutive victories in Belgium, Italy and Singapore, though its winning run was halted by an unlikely Mercedes 1-2 finish in Sochi after an ill-timed Virtual Safety Car period swung the race in the Silver Arrows’ favour.

A major aerodynamic upgrade in Singapore has helped Ferrari find more speed through the slow corners, an area that has consistently proved the Achilles’ Heel of its SF90 challenger. But the fast-flowing Suzuka circuit with its long straights should favour Ferrari’s 2019 package.

“Our performance level was good in Sochi, which is how we managed to take our fourth straight pole position, but we know that in order to be at the front in Japan, every aspect of our work must be perfect,” said Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto.

“That’s the way we are going to approach the race in Suzuka, trying to extract all the available performance from the car package. If we can do that, then we hope to be able to be as competitive as we have been in recent races.”

There will be increased attention on the intra-team rivalry brewing between Sebastian Vettel and Leclerc after the German defied team orders in Russia, causing tensions to rise, despite both drivers and Ferrari’s best efforts to play down an awkward scenario the Italian squad created all by itself.

High hopes for Honda on home soil

Red Bull and Honda have hopes of a strong performance at the Japanese manufacturer’s home race at Suzuka.

There is no better time for Red Bull to notch up its third victory of the year than this weekend, though it will be in for a tough fight against Ferrari and Mercedes.

Red Bull had emerged as Mercedes’ nearest challengers amid a brilliant run of form prior to the summer break, but since Hungary, Ferrari has made impressive steps forward, with Red Bull consigned to having the third-fastest car at each of the last four races.

Honda will be pinning much of its hopes of a big result on its latest engine upgrade, which all four Honda-powered cars took at the last race in Russia, each picking up grid penalties in Sochi in the process.

But will a fresher, slightly more powerful V6 be enough to see a Red Bull driver stand on the top step of the podium on Sunday?

Verstappen is optimistic about his team’s prospects, saying: “Looking at last year in Suzuka I think Ferrari were also very fast. Of course we had our moments in the race together, but I should expect we can have a very strong weekend there.

“But there’s still quite a long straight at the back, without DRS, that can be may be painful but let’s see. We have a fresh engine there, so let’s see how we’re going to compare against Ferrari and Mercedes.”

Rain is likely to affect proceedings throughout the weekend with Typhoon Hagibis forecast to reach Japan by Saturday, which could add another element of intrigue into a fascinating battle at the iconic figure-of-eight track.

 

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