You’ve been quoted as saying that Suzuka is your most favorite track in the world. Why?
“It’s always difficult to say exactly why. I think it’s the flow, the corners, the high-speed nature of the track. There’s a risk as well with all the gravel and the narrow parts of the circuit. Overall though, it’s not one thing, and sometimes you don’t know why you like something, you just do.”
You led 26 laps in the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka before finishing third. That is the most laps you’ve led at any Formula One venue. Talk about that race and how you were able to run out front for so long.
“I was fourth on the grid and made a really good start. I led from the first corner. Then Red Bull played its strategy. They put one car on a two-stop (strategy) and the other on a three-stop strategy. We led 26 laps, but we lost position to them. It was great, though. I remember telling myself to not go out as all the world’s TVs were on me. It was a great feeling to be leading. I loved it. I remember going to the train station after the race and it was packed with all the fans. It was hectic, but memorable.”
There seems to be a delicate balance at Suzuka in regard to downforce. Too much and you go slowly down the straights. Too little and you won’t have the confidence to attack the track’s twists and turns. Obviously, the level of downforce is predicated on how comfortable you are at speed. How do you achieve this balance?
“It’s one of those tracks where you need quite a lot of downforce and a really good car in the high-speed corners. There are some important low-speed ones as well. It’s about getting the right confidence in being able to push to the limit in those tricky sector-one turns. It’s not an easy track to set up the car, but definitely a really good one to be on.”
Understeer through the esses between turns three and seven is often at the top of the to-do list at Suzuka. How do you address understeer and at what point does a change to help the car in one section of the track hurt it in another section?
“It’s a fine line. If you start getting understeer too early, you’re out of the phase quite early onto turns three, four, five, six, seven and eight. If you start with oversteer, it’s bad as well. There’s a fine line in having the right balance there, and to not be too far off what you should have in the low-speed corners as well.”
Would you call Suzuka a driver’s track?
Can the driver make more of a difference at Suzuka than at some other tracks?
“Not really, unfortunately. It’s about finding the right balance with the car. Your car’s performance dictates your performance at the end. It’s more or less the same everywhere. You can try to drive around and be quite consistent more easily than at other tracks.”
Where are the overtaking opportunities at Suzuka?
“Definitely at turn one with the DRS. There’s also big braking at the chicane at the last corner. There’s the middle hairpin too where you can have a go on the braking.”
What is your favorite part about Suzuka?
“Very difficult to pick just one, but I’ll go for sector one.”
Describe a lap around Suzuka.
“Turns one and two are very high-speed on entry. They’re long corners with a tricky exit. Sector one has a flow of corners where you really want to keep the perfect line all the way through, with the tricky one being turn seven and eight going up the hill on traction. Then you have a double right-hand corner, very high-speed one, very tricky exit curb in between. Then you go underneath the bridge with big braking into the hairpin. Traction is always important in going to Spoon corners. Same stuff here as turn one – very high-speed entry, going down to the second part with a very important exit which then leads to the big back straight. Then its 130R flat out followed by big braking for the last chicane with a very tricky throttle application.”
Beyond the racetrack, what is most often talked about at Suzuka is the passion its fans have. Can you describe the atmosphere at the track and the fervency Japanese fans have for Formula One?
“It’s a pretty crazy atmosphere from Thursday onward. All the grandstands are full. After the race, they’re still there watching the replays of the grand prix on the big screens. They always have really cool fashions on display, with some crazy accessories. They love Formula One and they’re very passionate. It’s a very electric atmosphere. It’s great to see that passion and so many people cheering for teams like us.”
After Malaysia you had some downtime before you needed to be in Suzuka. Where did you go and what did you do?
“I went to Tokyo. I love that city. I did plenty of running around and ate some good sushi. I also bought some geek stuff.”
Japan has some fantastic and unique cuisine. What is your favorite?
“When we speak about Japan, everyone brings up sushi first. There’s much more to the country than just that. There’s some great meat, great fish. The techniques there are very different than French gastronomy. It’s very delicate. I love it.”
When you leave Japan you’ll be gearing up for Haas F1 Team’s home race – the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. Where do you want Haas F1 Team to be heading into that event?
“I’d love us to be on the top step of the podium in Austin. That would be the dream. I’m just looking forward to being there. It’s going to be great. I hope we’ll have a lot of support. I really can’t wait to get to the U.S. On track, we’re obviously still in a development stage. We need to check all our updates, make sure they work well and start looking at the direction we’re going in for next year.”