We interrupt Scuderia Toro Rosso's chief engineer Laurent Mekies at work to ask him to describe the challenges facing the Italian team as they take on the legendary Suzuka circuit.
Driver Jaime Alguersuari is very excited: “This is the best circuit of the year! It’s better even than Spa. It’s a real driver’s track. It’s so fast, but it’s technical; you really have to push as hard as you can but you have to be perfect too and get the lines precisely right. It’s really difficult to do, but if you get it right it’s brilliant. Of course, if you get it wrong…”
Last year Toro Rosso had an eventful weekend as F1 returned to Suzuka for the first time since 2006. Their cars were consistently competitive throughout practice and qualification – but the team had a series of sleepless nights after a few excursions into the barriers required a lot of rebuilding.
Chief Engineer Laurent Mekies remembers it well: “We didn’t quite have to work three consecutive 24-hour shifts, but is was intense for sure. And that’s good; it’s the essence of our work to be absolutely on the limit – and doing that means occasionally going beyond the limit.
'If you do have a crash here, it’s going to be a high-speed crash' – Laurent Mekies
“We’ve just watched last year’s race with the drivers, and everybody has great memories from that weekend. OK, we didn’t do anything in the race for a variety of reasons, but we performed well from every point of view: team, car and drivers – and probably the reason we were good was because we were very close to the limit and that made our performances good.
“Sometimes there’s a price to pay for that, but that’s the way our job should be, so it’s always good and never bad. And as for working long hours last year, we were happy to put the hours in if it meant getting more out of the car.
Mekies’ cars have come direct to Suzuka from Singapore, though the two tracks could not be more different: after the slow-speed, right-angle corners of a street race in the equatorial City-State, Suzuka is all about long, flowing bends and a heavy right foot.
“It’s part of the family of high-speed tracks, along with Silverstone and Spa. They all feature very high-speed corners, and Suzuka has the most, especially in the first sector of the track, where we have the combination known as ‘The Esses’.
“It means we have to set up our car to deal with the high speed stuff and compromise everywhere else. To do that we make the car very, very stiff; stiffer than anywhere else.
“Singapore was the opposite. At that circuit we ran the car very ‘soft’. To change the settings we alter the springs, the anti-roll bars and as a consequence the car will run at a different ride-height.
”While the car will feel very different, I don’t think the drivers will have a problem adapting to it because the two tracks are so dissimilar it automatically cancels out any feeling they developed in Singapore. I think the recent experience disappears and they go back to how they felt driving in Spa or Silverstone.”
'This is the best circuit of the year! It’s better even than Spa' – Jaime Alguersuari
Just as Silverstone has Copse Corner and Spa has Eau Rouge, Suzuka has the mighty 130R, though while still fearsome, Mekies argues it isn’t the beast it once was.
“We put quite a lot of downforce on the car to cope with the high speed corners – but there are a couple of long straights too, and now 130R is taken flat-out, it’s effectively like a straight line. It means we need less downforce than we did a few years ago when that corner was the limiting factor. Now it’s just like a very long straight.”
Toro Rosso were also hoping to unpack their F-Duct here, but after testing it at Monza and Singapore, the team decided it is not yet the finished article. “We’re not using it here,” confirms Mekies, “We were planning to have it on the car, but we’re a bit too late getting it into racing condition. It’s been good in the tests, but there is a gap between having it right for testing and having it right for racing.
“But we’re trying to have it ready as soon as we can, even though it is very late in the year. We now hope to be able to use it in Korea. Obviously, as a power circuit, Suzuka would be a really good circuit for an F-Duct, but it isn’t quite ready yet.”
Despite the threat of rain in qualifying, Toro Rosso’s chief engineer is in an upbeat mood for the weekend. “We were very competitive in Singapore even though we were not expecting to be quite so fast. All I can really say is that we were very competitive here last year and there’s every chance we will be again.”
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