Honda’s famed Suzuka circuit presents an iconic mix of high-, medium- and low-speed corners, punctuated by a long straight, with its first sector’s relentless Esses the ultimate challenge for drivers and their machinery.

Following the singularly abrasive tarmac of Bahrain and the unique layouts of Jeddah and Melbourne, many engineers expect Suzuka to be the best test yet of where their cars stack up in the pecking order.

“The way the calendar is this year, I think four races in we will have a pretty good idea [of where we are],” said Ferrari veteran Jock Clear.

“Japan is a hell of a circuit to measure a car. At that kind of circuit, you’re going to find out a lot.”

Mercedes technical director James Allison agreed, saying: “It is a track with plenty of fast corners and also some slow-ish hairpins, so a real test of the car.”

This year the Japanese Grand Prix has shifted forward from its usual autumn date. That means that teams can more accurately gauge how their level of competitiveness has shifted compared to the end of last year and evaluate their progress across the winter.

Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-23, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-23, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

It is also the first return track for Pirelli’s latest tyre construction, which was introduced last July in Silverstone to help the tyre manufacturer keep up with the increased downforce levels since the start of 2023, taking away one more variable compared to the opening races.

The calendar switch appears to be good news for Mercedes, with Alisson explaining that the main factor the team has uncovered for its struggles this year is that its W15’s performance dips the hotter it gets.

“If we were trying to draw that pattern together, then probably the strongest correlation that we can make at the moment is that our competitiveness drops when the track is warm, when the day is at its warmest and therefore the tyre temperatures rise with those of the track,” Allison said.

Weather forecasts predict temperatures between 16 and 21 degrees Celsius, which is a full 10 degrees cooler than last year.

Suzuka’s new date is also relevant for Mercedes’ rival McLaren, which started 2023 on the back foot but had already massively overhauled its car by the time it travelled to Japan, taking a double podium with Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri.

Its year-on-year progress in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia was clear to see, but the Woking team now gets the best indication yet of how much it has actually moved forward with its car design over the winter.

McLaren’s biggest question marks aren’t just related to its own MCL38, but more so to the vast race pace improvements made by Ferrari compared to last year.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL38, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“The problem is Ferrari have improved their high-speed [performance] a lot and that’s where they were struggling last year,” said Norris.

“That’s why they’ve been able to take such a good step forward. We can still look forward to it. I would love to say that if we can get two cars on a podium again, it would be a lovely weekend.

“But we have two more cars this year that we’re competing against on these types of circuits, not just Max [Verstappen].”

Ferrari is one of several teams bringing upgrades to Suzuka, but whether it will be enough to defeat Verstappen and Red Bull in back-to-back races is another story.

In Melbourne, on a circuit with high graining, Ferrari was particularly strong, though it did take Verstappen’s brake issues for Carlos Sainz to grab the lead before the Dutchman’s early retirement.

And unlike Albert Park, Suzuka is a circuit where thermal overheating will be the main adversary, putting it more in line with Bahrain.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Verstappen demolished the opposition in Japan last year, taking pole by six tenths over the McLarens and taking the win 19 seconds ahead of Norris and 43 seconds clear of the leading Ferrari of Charles Leclerc.

“I think Max comes back to Suzuka fully motivated and will show on a proper driver’s circuit who’s the king of the whole game here,” Red Bull’s Helmut Marko bluntly said after the Dutchman’s DNF in Australia.

It would be audacious to bet against a third consecutive Japanese Grand Prix win for the triple world champion. But whatever the case may be, a circuit as demanding as Suzuka will offer no more place to hide as the true strengths and weaknesses of the 2024 field are set to emerge.

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