THE SNAKE IS A NEVER-ENDING, slithering strip of asphalt that comprises much of the first sector of Suzuka. From Turn 3 to Turn 7, wending its way left and right, left and right, then finally left before spitting drivers into the precipitous double Degner right-handers, it’s a piece of track only the best master.
Watching FP1 overlooking
Turns 3 to 5 gives an up-close perspective of this section of track. It was through the snake in 2000 that rookie Jenson Button excelled for Williams, but it’s not easy. Charles Leclerc immediately catches the eye on his first experience of Suzuka. He is able to carry decent speed through the left/right/left without getting out of shape. That translates to a pace advantage in the first sector of almost a tenth of a second over Sauber team-mate Marcus Ericsson on the first runs in FP1, which grows to 0.118s on the second runs.
That may not sound like much, but Ericsson is an underrated driver and one who hadn’t been outqualified by any of his team-mates – Kamui Kobayashi, Felipe Nasr and Pascal Wehrlein – in his previous four Japanese Grands Prix. And Leclerc is, along with Sergey Sirotkin and Brendon Hartley, one of only three Suzuka F1 rookies on the 2018 grid.
“It’s probably the first track where I struggled a bit to find the rhythm because there are a lot of corners where you need to compromise one to go quicker in the other,” says Leclerc. “Being a new driver to this track, you never know which one you need to compromise on to go quicker in the other. I struggled a bit but from Saturday morning I found the right compromise.
“You need to be extremely precise and as soon as you lose the line a little bit you’re late for the other corners, then you lose a lot.
It’s very interesting and also a very high-speed part.”
On one lap he attacks Turn 3 a bit more aggressively, but the rear isn’t quite stable enough for the transition for Turn 4. On another, a little too much kerb also disturbs the Sauber. Leclerc is literally feeling his way here, and learning fast.
Sirotkin, by contrast, is struggling, all corrections and adjustments both on the steering wheel and the throttle as he harries the car through. But there are mitigating circumstances, not just that he’s in a Williams that is inferior to the ever-improving Sauber, but also because he’s using a set of supersofts for the whole session thanks to a team tyre mix-up.
So very different to a certain future world champion who qualified fifth for the team here 18 years ago…
The Esses at Suzuka is among Formula 1’s most exquisite sections