SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team will be looking for lost speed as Formula One wraps up its Asian leg in Japan this weekend.
The championship leader is thankful to have extended his advantage over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to 34 points with five races remaining but he is also conscious that there is work to be done.
Mercedes were slower than Ferrari and Red Bull for the second successive race in Malaysia after similarly struggling for pace in Singapore.
That represented unfamiliar territory for the reigning champions, even if they came away with a tidy points haul as Ferrari self-destructed.
Hamilton has won twice before at Suzuka, and three times in Japan when Fuji is included in the reckoning, while Mercedes are unbeaten there in three years.
On paper it should suit them again, but there is also an air of uncertainty with Red Bull very much in the mix after Max Verstappen’s victory at Sepang.
”There are a lot of question marks generally which we need to assess,“ said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. ”I think we should have been quicker than we were (in Malaysia) but Suzuka should be much more in the window.
“I‘m very much looking forward to Suzuka to see how the car behaves there because it should be completely different.”
Last year, Hamilton arrived in Japan ill at ease and still feeling the agony of an engine failure at Sepang while leading from pole position -- a blow that ultimately cost him the championship.
He played around on Snapchat and then moodily refused questions from ‘disrespectful’ media who criticized his behavior.
This time he is riding a run of good fortune, with an opening lap crash for Vettel in Singapore dealing the German a significant setback in a race that the Briton went on to win.
In Malaysia he finished second after his rival raced to fourth place from last on the grid due to a power unit problem in qualifying.
Vettel had a new engine for Sepang and the four times winner in Japan will expect to be quick on Sunday, with fears for his car’s gearbox subsiding since he and Canadian Lance Stroll collided on the post-race slowing down lap.
“It’s been a difficult weekend, but nevertheless the speed is there,” said the four-time champion, who has four wins this year to Hamilton’s seven.
But both he and Hamilton also have to contend with a resurgent Red Bull.
“The Red Bulls are right in it now,” said former racer and television commentator Martin Brundle.
“You think of Suzuka, it’s just one corner after another. You always want power but they should be mighty in Suzuka, the Red Bulls.”
Sunday’s race will also be Honda’s last home grand prix as power unit suppliers to McLaren, with the Japanese manufacturer set to tie up with Toro Rosso next year.
The Woking-based team head into the weekend having chalked up their first consecutive points finishes of the season.
A third race in the points this weekend, at a track owned by Honda, will see McLaren, who are switching to Renault power next year, equal their best successive run of top-10 finishes since joining forces with the Japanese firm.
Editing by Alan Baldwin