“Suzuka should be one of the top three racetracks in anyone’s book.” So wrote former Grand Prix driver turned expert commentator Martin Brundle in his fine book Working the Wheel, published in 2004.
For Mark Webber Suzuka certainly is – or at least one-third of it, which kind of matches Brundle’s analysis! Giving fans an insight into his F1 preferences, Webber recently described the composite track which would be his favourite, and the first of his three sectors comes from the famous Japanese circuit.
“What a lot of people don’t appreciate,” says Mark, “is the very steep downhill entrance to Turn 1 which makes the first right-hander very fast. Then you start to climb into Turn 2 and you are generally climbing all the way up to Turn 7, the long left-hander. I have to choose it because of the accuracy required, the sensational undulations and its very technical nature.”
Accuracy was certainly required by Ayrton Senna at the start of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, not to get his McLaren Honda round the Ferrari of arch-rival Alain Prost but to drive it deliberately into the side of the Italian car, thus eliminating both men on the spot. The image of the two drivers silently climbing the Armco barriers remains one of the most famous in recent F1 history.
It’s a sad fact that Suzuka, one of the ultimate drivers’ circuits, should burn brightly in people’s memories as the scene of not one but two infamous incidents in which Prost and Senna brought the sport into disrepute.
The first had come in 1989. Both men were driving for McLaren; the ‘Dream Team’ had unravelled as both pursued the title; it fell apart completely when they collided at the Suzuka chicane. Senna restarted and went on to ‘win’, only to be disqualified – handing the World Championship to Prost.
The Frenchman’s outstretched hand was brusquely waved away as their enmity reached new depths of bitterness. “His problem,” said Prost, “is that he can neither accept the possibility of not winning, nor that somebody will resist one of his overtaking manoeuvres. But before the race here, I said that I was not going to leave the door open any longer.” A year later, on October 21, 1990, two men who would accumulate seven titles between them were unable to do anything other than drive each other off the Suzuka Circuit. How sad, then, to see Prost as one of the pall-bearers at Senna’s funeral less than five years later…
But Suzuka deserves a place in our memories for more than those unhappy reasons. Designed by Dutchman John Hugenholtz – the man behind Zandvoort, among other places – it dates back as far as 1962 but first came on to the World Championship calendar only in 1987.
The first winner was a Ferrari in the capable hands of pole-sitter Gerhard Berger, who enjoyed a big following in Japan, at the tail-end of the turbo era in Formula 1. Senna’s Lotus Honda was second, with Stefan Johansson third for McLaren while Prost’s sister McLaren-TAG Turbo took fastest lap.
The challenge Suzuka posed to drivers was painfully obvious to Nigel Mansell, whose Williams-Honda Turbo crashed heavily on the uphill section in practice and ruled the Englishman out of the race and the World Championship that year.
The Prost-Senna shenanigans left the door open for others, of course, and in 1989 it was Alessandro Nannini who took advantage. The popular Italian stepped in to claim his first and, sadly, his only Grand Prix victory for Benetton before having his right arm severed in a helicopter accident soon after.
A year later Prost-Senna Part Two left the way clear for another Benetton success, this time a 1-2 finish for Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno, while Japanese driver Aguri Suzuki had the home fans in ecstasy when he brought his Lola Lamborghini home third.
Not for another 12 years would the home crowd have another home hero to cheer for when Kamui Kobayashi scored the only podium of his own colourful F1 career for Sauber behind Vettel’s Red Bull and Massa’s Ferrari.
Suzuka, which will stage its 25th World Championship Grand Prix this month, is famous as the only ‘figure-of-eight’ track, where the homeward section crosses over the outward part. It is equally famous for the challenge of the Turn called 130R, which is in fact a sweeping left-hander, and for the Degner Curves, named after the notorious figure from the motorcycle racing world who first brought East German secrets to Japanese two-wheeled manufacturers Suzuki more than half a century ago.
Mention of two-wheeled racing brings back another unhappy Suzuka memory, for it was here on April 6 2003 that the popular, spectacular motorcycle racer Daijiro Kato suffered the injuries that eventually cost him his life two weeks later. MotoGP has not returned to Suzuka since then.
Until the sudden rush of fly-away races which now overcrowd the late-season calendar, Suzuka was often the last or close to the last race on the F1 calendar. Hence the fact that no fewer than 11 times has it been the place where the World Championship was decided, most recently in 2011 when third place was enough for Sebastian Vettel to retain the crown.
Back in 2003, on an uncharacteristically slipshod day, Michael Schumacher clashed with his brother Ralf’s Williams BMW, was hit by Takuma Sato’s BAR Honda, went off at the Spoon Curve and more or less stumbled across the line in eighth place to claim his sixth title – the one that finally took him past the peerless Fangio’s record of five. No wonder he said “I just cannot think for the moment…”
There was dismay among drivers and fans alike when Suzuka lost its place on the calendar to Fuji (owned by Toyota, while Suzuka is Honda’s) for 2007-08, and equal pleasure when the circuit 50 kilometres south of Nagoya returned in 2009.
It may not be the easiest track in the world to get to, but once there the carnival atmosphere provided by the motor sport fun-park Motopia, the atmosphere generated by the passionate Japanese fans and, not least of all, the exhilarating layout make Suzuka one of the best stops on anyone’s global Grand Prix journey.