Autosport (UK) - - RACE CENTRE - EDD STRAW

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

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