Coming off the back of one returnee to the Formula One schedule, the field heads to another this weekend, as the heavily revamped Fuji Speedway takes on the mantle of hosting the Japanese Grand Prix for the first time since 1977.

Whereas Spa-Francorchamps was welcomed back to the fold with open arms however, Fuji's return is being greeted with a little more reluctance as the switch means the loss of another of F1's favourite venues, Suzuka. Although the two circuits may share the event from 2009, Fuji has claim on Japan's round for the next two seasons, repaying Toyota's investment in the venue that has seen it heavily transformed from the venue where James Hunt claimed the 1976 world title.

Following McLaren's decision not to appeal the penalties handed down by the World Motor Sport Council prior to Spa, it is hoped that the event - the first of three flyaways to end the 2007 campaign - will pass off without further controversy. The drivers' championship remains finely balanced between the two McLaren pilots after Fernando Alonso got the upper hand on Lewis Hamilton in Belgium, but has Kimi Raikkonen got the momentum to beat them both after his victory at Spa?

As mentioned above, the Formula 1 spy saga could well be at an end after McLaren elected not to appeal against the $100 million fine handed down by the World Motor Sport Council prior to the Spa race weekend. The decision also means that Ferrari has clinched the 2007 constructors championship, with McLaren's exclusion from the standings now being official.

With the transcripts from the two World Motor Sport Council meetings being released into the public domain, the continuing deterioration of the relationship between Fernando Alonso and the McLaren team has been made clear, with Ron Dennis admitting the relationship he has with the Spaniard is now 'extremely cold' - with the two hardly on speaking terms. The transcripts also revealed that Alonso himself had made the decision not to appear at the hearing in Paris. One man who did appear however was Kimi Raikkonen - the Ferrari driver giving evidence regarding his former team.

Raikkonen himself, who missed a three day test at Jerez to rest his neck after his high speed shunt at Monza, could have a new team-mate next season with rumours that Felipe Massa could be on his way out of the Scuderia should Jean Todt be ousted in a management shuffle. Alonso has already been linked with the team, with it appearing ever more likely that he could leave McLaren just a season into his three-year deal.

The Spyker team is set for another change of ownership with the Silverstone-based outfit undergoing due diligence before a sale is completed to a new consortium headed by Michiel Mol and Vijay Mallya, although that hasn't stopped the team signing a new test driver in the shape of Roldan Rodriguez.

Finally, Prodrive chief David Richards escaped uninjured along with his wife after their helicopter crash-landed while returning from the Belgian Grand Prix. The incident came just a day after former World Rally Champion Colin McRae died along with his son and two others in a helicopter accident in Scotland. David Coulthard will wear a helmet in McRae's colours this weekend in Japan.

McLaren - Fernando Alonso (#1), Lewis Hamilton (#2):

Hamilton and Alonso continue to lead the world championship - which has been lead by a McLaren driver since the second race of the season in Malaysia - but Lewis has a reduced cushion of just two points after his Spanish rival claimed the final podium place at Spa.

Although Alonso remains many people's favourite to claim the title, both because he has some momentum on his side and because he knows both two of the three tracks to come and what it feels like to be in the midst of a championship battle, the Spaniard is quick to point out that Fuji is something of a level playing field.

"As this is a new track for all the teams, we are in the same position with regards knowledge of the track," he insists, "In 2006, I did a couple of demonstration laps with passengers on the track and it seemed really good, but it is going to be a challenge to find the optimum set-up for the cars as you have this really long, fast straight and then the rest of the track is much slower. To be honest, we will have to wait until after Friday free practice to tell you more, but I am looking forward to seeing what it is like.

"We are not in any position to make any predictions, but I am sure the championship will continue to swing between all four drivers. Ferrari were strong at Spa, we were strong at Monza, everyone in the team is pushing hard to be strong at Fuji, Shanghai and Interlagos. We can still win races, and will be doing everything to make this happen in Japan."

Hamilton, meanwhile, hasn't even had the opportunity of trying Fuji in McLaren's simulator - something that benefited him at other unfamiliar venues such as Montreal and Indianapolis.

"I am sure it will be a great place to race and, hopefully, there will be some overtaking opportunities because of the really long start-finish straight," he comments, "We will have to wait and see what it is going to be like, as I do not really have a major image in my mind at the moment.

"I have to say when I was first asked about my feelings of Fuji, I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn't be getting to race at Suzuka because everyone goes on about how great it is, but this season I have really enjoyed going to new tracks and learning them. It provides a slightly different challenge, so I am looking forward to it. Everyone will be in the same boat and it should be quite exciting. Everything is so close in the Championship now, so we have to go out there in Fuji and get as many points as possible. It would be great to win."

With the exact nature of Fuji still to be established, opinions are divided as to whether the venue will favour McLaren or Ferrari, and McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh remains unconvinced as to the advantage his team could hold.

"It is always interesting to be racing at a new circuit, it will place more importance on Friday's running and we expect to see a lot of track action as everyone becomes acclimatised to the track and its new layout," he muses, "From what we understand of the track layout, it should lead to some exciting racing. In addition, its characteristics will suit the MP4-22, but not necessarily with the margin we have seen at some tracks such as Monza and Indianapolis. Three races to go, two points separating Lewis and Fernando with the two main rivals both within 20 points, it is going to be an absorbing end to what we feel has been an exciting season for the sport."
Renault - Giancarlo Fisichella (#3), Heikki Kovalainen (#4):

This time last season, Renault travelled to the Japanese GP attempting to keep Fernando Alonso in the world title fight with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. Twelve months on and the team is having to content itself with fourth place in the constructors championship, while fighting for every point it can get.

Rookie Heikki Kovalainen has proven to be the team's motive force in recent races, scoring at six races in a row while veteran team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella struggles to make his mark, and is hoping that previous experience of Fuji - however slight - will allow him to maintain his run.

"Like Monza and Spa, Suzuka was a really challenging circuit, for the drivers and the car, but times change, F1 changes," he says, masking the disappointment of not going to Suzuka, "Fuji is a track I already know a little bit about after doing a promotional event for our partners there last year. I think it will make for good racing, which will be good for all the Japanese supporters, who are always really enthusiastic about F1.

"The circuit includes a long straight of around 1.5km, and I think that the aero level will be a very important thing to calculate well. There are also some sequences of medium- and slow-speed corners, particularly the last five corners which are all in second gear, so we will be working hard to find the right aero compromise, and also to get good mechanical grip in the slow sections. In terms of overtaking opportunities, turn one is probably the most obvious one, with a lot of passing. I am really looking forward to racing there!"

Fisichella, meanwhile, could be facing the start of his Renault - maybe even F1 - swansong, with team boss Fl\vio Briatore continuing to consider his 2008 line-up. The Italian, however, is looking forward to Fuji after a disappointing Belgian GP.

"I think it is always interesting for the teams and drivers when you go to a new place and a new circuit," he says, "It breaks up the routine from year to year and, for the drivers and also the engineers, I think it makes our job a bit more interesting. To be honest, this isn't my first time in Fuji because I raced there back in 1993 in F3, but the circuit has changed a lot since then.

"Japan is a country I like in general, and I have always had a fun time racing here. I have been on the podium both times I have raced for Renault in Japan, and I am hoping for another good race at Fuji this year. Belgium was a complicated weekend, and it was made more frustrating by the fact that the car was working well. My concentration is now on the final three races, where I am looking to have some good battles and score more points."

Despite not being able to test at the new circuit, Renault has attempted to flatten its learning curve by feeding all known data on Fuji through its computer systems.

"The major part of our work has involved completing detailed computer simulations," engineering director Pat Symonds confirms, "It is very clearly a circuit that follows the modern trend, of slow corners and long straights, [and] we have very good circuit maps, and extremely accurate software, but there are still unknown parameters to cope with. We don't know how the drivers can use the kerbs, for example, and we don't have detailed information about the grip level. This means we have to run many different simulations, with different estimated values, in order to be full prepared for every eventuality. But that basic homework gives us a good feeling for what to expect.

"The midfield group has clearly closed up over the last few races, which was to be expected, but I am confident that we still have the performance to lead that group. While our championship position is relatively comfortable, we cannot afford any slip-ups, and especially if we have to deal with unpredictable conditions which are a distinct possibility."
Ferrari - Felipe Massa (#5), Kimi Raikkonen (#6):

There are only a handful of people in the paddock who were at Fuji Speedway the last time it staged a Formula One grand prix, Ferrari's Luca di Montezemolo among them, but for the majority of the Scuderia's 2007 line-up, this weekend will be a step into the unknown.

Kimi Raikkonen arrives in Japan having renewed his challenge for the world title with victory in Belgium and, with Ferrari having secured the constructors' crown - albeit in contentious circumstances - the team can focus on helping the Finn and team-mate Felipe Massa make life difficult for the McLaren duo. Like the majority of his rivals, Raikkonen has not seen teh remodelled Fuji - but, unlike most of the opposition, he has made little effort to discover more about it.

"Honestly, I've seen the track only in the papers," the Finn claims, "I know that some drivers prepare themselves for this race using simulators but, to be honest, that's something I don't like. I've never played with a Playstation, never used simulators and I think that my performance did not suffer at all! I've always been able to get to know a new race track very fast. This hasn't changed since I've been racing in Formula One. With three hours of free practice on Friday and one on Saturday morning I don't think that there will be any problems in the qualifying. I always liked to discover new tracks, I really like that feeling it gives me. It's nice to walk down the track on Thursday to get to know all the corners.

"I've read that our car would not adapt perfectly to this kind of track, but I know that our team has worked very hard, so we can be competitive during the weekend. I'll face this race just like I faced the ones before, which means that I want to win. We're behind, so we don't have any other choice.

"It's difficult to tell who might have an advantage here. We know that McLaren will be very strong, but they know that we will be too. We'll try to go on riding the wave of the 1-2-win at Spa-Francorchamps. The two McLarens are still well ahead and, obviously, they don't want to make any stupid mistake. I have nothing to lose, but they have to be very careful."

Massa's title chances may have receded following his retirement in Italy three weeks ago, but the Brazilian's ambition remains undimmed, although he may soon find himself being asked to support Raikkonen's run at the crown.

"We have three more races and, as usual, I will do my best to get the better result for the team," he stresses, "In Ferrari, our main priority is the interest of the team. However, there is a lot to do, but you never know what might happen. In F1, there can be surprises sometimes and I am hoping for the right sort of surprise!

"The Japanese race will be a new adventure for all of us with a new venue and a new track layout. Like most of the other drivers, I have been using the simulator we have in the factory to learn the Fuji track and at least now I know where the corners are!"
Honda - Jenson Button (#7), Rubens Barrichello (#8):

If anyone will be determined to succeed at Fuji it will be the Honda Racing F1 team, which is forced to ventue onto Toyota territory after years of being comfortable at Suzuka. Sadly, given its current malaise, the only success that Honda is likely to achieve will be beating the hosts.

"This will be the first time that Formula One has visited the 'new' Fuji International Speedway and, as a result, we have limited data on the circuit which makes the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday even more important," confirms senior technical director Shuhei Nakamoto, echoing the 'revelations' of his peers, "The downforce levels required will be very similar to the last race at Spa-Francorchamps, so we are prepared for a challenging weekend."

The difficult weekend in Belgium wiped out the pleasant memories of Jenson Button's point from Monza, but the Briton - who is repeatedly being pushed, by the British media at least, as a potential replacement for Fernando Alonso at McLaren - remains upbeat for Fuji.

"The Japanese Grand Prix is always a very special weekend for the whole Honda team as it is one of our two home races of the year," he explains, "This year will be a new challenge for both myself and the team as the race returns to the Fuji International Speedway, which is an unknown quantity. I will be studying the circuit layout with our engineers in advance of the race, but we will only find out its true characteristics during our track walk on Thursday and the first few laps of practice on Friday. The re-designed circuit is another Herman Tilke 'special' and, after the fantastic job that he did with Istanbul Park, it will be interesting to see how this circuit matches up.

"We are the first to admit that Honda have had a tough season this year, however we approach the final races of the season with continued motivation and will not stop pushing to take the maximum possible performance from the RA107 car to help us move forward next year. Of course, Rubens and I will also be keen to put in a good performance for the thousands of Honda fans who will be cheering us on from the stands."

Veteran team-mate Rubens Barrichello is among those lamenting the loss of Suzuka, but the Brazilian is looking forward to the support of the Japanese fans this weekend.

"The Japanese Grand Prix has always been a favourite of mine and the Suzuka circuit holds some very special memories as I won there from pole position in 2003," he reflects, "My experience last year driving with Honda for the first time was fantastic. The fans are so enthusiastic and really supported us throughout the weekend.

"I last raced at Fuji back in 1991 in F3, but the circuit has been totally modernised since those days. It will be very exciting to race on the new layout and I am sure that
the organisers will have done an excellent job with improving the existing circuit. Our car and performance this year has not been at the level we hoped for at the beginning of the season, however a lot of hard work is still going on back at the factory to improve our situation. We will all keep working very hard right to the end of the season."
BMW Sauber - Nick Heidfeld (#9), Robert Kubica (#10):

Although BMW Sauber is still trying to find a way to topple McLaren and Ferrari from the top step of the podium, it is unlikely that the breakthrough will come at any of the three season-ending 'flyaways'.

Unless there is a remarkable twist of fate, Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica are set to continue to follow the pacesetters as BMW has now switched its attention to the 2008 season. It is already clear that the team will end its second year as the third strongest team - despite being all but handed second in the constructors' table by McLaren's exclusion - and the focus will be on getting Heidfeld and Kubica through to the end of the season without any major advances to the F1.07.

"We are basically ahead of our development," Mario Theissen explains, "Since the season has been going so well, we have already been able to fully concentrate on the new car for the next year. The last step to the absolute top is definitely the most difficult one - Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes are hard nuts to crack."

Although a fan of Suzuka, Heidfeld admits that he is excited to be tackling another new venue this weekend.

"I've never been to Fuji and am always pleased to see a new circuit appear on the calendar," he comments, "A new circuit presents the drivers and engineers with some interesting challenges, and - even in our ever-changing sport - provides an extra dose of variety, as all of us first have to find our bearings in the new surroundings.

"Suzuka is my favourite race track, so I'm pleased that the two circuits will take turns in hosting the GP from 2009, [but] I'm really looking forward to driving the Fuji circuit, and I hope I'll get to see Mount Fuji at least once. I heard that some people have been there any number of times, but the peak has been hidden in a cloud every time."

Like Heidfeld, team-mate Kubica has never driven at Fuji, but still travels to the Japanese Grand Prix full of confidence, having been a fan of the Pole Position video game as a child.

"I think our car this year is behaving similar in all kinds of tracks," he says, "It is not like last year, when we were better in low downforce tracks. This year, it is more consistent, so I think we can achieve what we are achieving everywhere. I am looking forward to the race, but I don't know the Fuji track as a driver I know it only a bit from games when I was younger, but I think it has changed a bit."

For more, see Part 2 of our Japanese Grand Prix preview...



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