Designed for Honda as a test track in the 1960’s by the legendary John Hugenholz (the man also responsible for the once much-loved Zandvoort circuit in Holland), Suzuka is instantly recognisable by the Ferris wheel that marks the fun-fair at the heart of the vast motorsports and entertainment complex some 50 kilometres south of Nagoya.
Equally well-known is its figure-of-eight configuration, the 5.807km track passing over itself as it rises and falls dramatically and presents drivers – who all love it, to a man – with constant challenges like the uphill Esses, the hairpin and the quick 130R.
Taking over from Mt Fuji and briefly losing the race to that same circuit in 2007-08, Suzuka has now staged the Japanese round on 24 occasions. Gerhard Berger won the first Grand Prix at Suzuka for Ferrari in 1987; a year later Ayrton Senna clinched the first of his three world titles there – in fact for its first five years on the calendar Suzuka was lucky enough to be the deciding venue in the title race.
In 1989 Suzuka gave us Prost versus Senna round one, when the McLaren teammates took each other off at the chicane. Senna continued and ‘won’ but was disqualified for an illegal re-start and the victory was given to Alessandro Nannini in a Benetton Ford, the Italian’s lone F1 success before his F1 career was ended by a helicopter accident in which his right arm was severed. Prost versus Senna round two came in 1990 when the Frenchman, now at Ferrari, and the Brazilian clashed on the very first corner as their rivalry reached its nadir.
On the positive side Suzuka is remembered for what some people called ‘the race of the century’ in 2005. Tricky weather had relegated some major players – Schumacher, Alonso and McLaren’s Raïkkönen and Montoya – to the lower end of the grid but Kimi made a breathtaking round-the-outside pass on Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault at Turn 1 on the last lap to take one of his most famous wins.
In 2011 Suzuka was one of the few circuits where Sebastian Vettel didn’t win. Jenson Button came home for McLaren on a wave of Japanese emotion as the F1 fraternity paid tribute to those lost in the country’s natural disasters, but third place was more than enough to make Vettel the youngest-ever double World Champion.
Last year Vettel backed up from pole position in the midst of the winning surge that carried him to his third straight title. Felipe Massa was second for Ferrari but the hero of the day was Kamui Kobayashi, taking third place for Sauber Ferrari – his first podium, the first in Japan by a local driver for over 20 years, and still not enough to keep him in F1 for 2013.