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Welcome to Suzuka: the home of the Japanese grand prix

A look ahead to the Japanese Grand Prix.

Preview 25 Sep 2015, 15:17 IST
What does the Suzuka circuit have in store for us?

It is that time of the year when Formula One’s starry contingent heads further east to the Island paradise of Japan to contest the much awaited Japanese Grand Prix. This is the 14th race of the calendar year and there couldn’t more excitement on the cards.

Ferrari, who hitherto had managed to surprise the strongest contenders for the constructor’s title; Mercedes only here and there managed to completely dominate the silver arrows at Singapore. Looking still very strong to collect his third world championship crown, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes’ top draw didn’t manage to secure a race finish at his highly forgettable race weekend at Singapore, last Sunday.

The only saving grace for Mercedes was Nico’s hard fought 4th place finish in a race weekend that completely belonged to Ferrari and especially, four-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel. Vettel who stood on the top of the podium secured a comfortable lead over Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo (2nd) who led from Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen (3rd). This was the only race finish in the year that featured both Ferrari drivers on top of the podium, justifying the hoopla and jubilation from the Maranello based camp.

While Sebastian was his usual jovial self, finding it hard to hide his excitement in a race that he ably dominated from the word go, the ever smiling Daniel (Red Bull) was his cheerful self, who despite trying his best to extract the maximum from a car which visibly was suffering from tyre degradation in the final few laps managed to earn a valuable second place finish.

Arguably, the reticent Finn Kimi’s third place finish made for an ideal Ferrari dominated race weekend and has risen new hopes of the prancing horse dominating again at Suzuka, come September 27.

But, this is Japan and here at Suzuka, things only seem different as the plans and ideas concocted on the piece of paper. The Suzuka circuit is one of the last hard bound track circuits remaining in F1’s calendar year and with the 53 lap competition, 8 less than Singapore’s 61 will induce upon drivers tremendous work pressure, arduously long drive and one may even concede- a testing race weekend, considering Japan’s mostly unpredictable weather.

A testing challenge for any driver rookie to the world champion

 The Suzuka circuit is spread across a challenging distance of 307 kilometers; the grand prix more often than not only produces unexpected and utterly challenging race finishes, expecting nothing but the best from the drivers. There are in all 14 turns, most being heavy breaking zones where a lateral shift between downforce and bringing immediate straight line speed into play rests with the capabilities of the most capable race drivers. The first race that was held here was way back in the 60s. The inaugural Japanese grand prix of 1963 was a non-formula one race, contested south-west of the prominent city of Nagoya but even then, the unpredictable weather marked by surprise showers and a penetrating depth of challenge at the main race track indicated that Formula One was going to have one of the most potent forms of driver-to-driver battle amidst intense competition in the years to come.

A checkered history for Japan’s challenging circuit

The Japanese Grand Prix has been held around 40 times before the race kicks off on Sunday which shall take the overall tally to 41, having been incorporated into the calendar year since 1963. Historically speaking, the Island fortress of Japan didn’t always contend with the track at Suzuka. Prior to bringing Suzuka into play since 1987, when the Senna and Prost rivalry was finding its pitch fever, there were 2 other tracks that Japan held its racing fests at.

The Fuji Speedway was one of the most prominent aspects of the F1 championship that reached its peak of fame during the height of the Hunt-Lauda rivalry. But, F1 back in the days of these stellar stars of 1976 and 1977 season boasted of a plain albeit highly intense competition that didn’t have the stellar commercial appeal or the financial extractions of the modern day sport that fans have got used to seeing today.

The Japanese Grand prix, always the home race of the Honda team, was also the home race for the former F1 team Toyota. It is here amidst its contrasting appeal of “on-circuit” racing and unexpectedly changing weather conditions that a star like Hollywood’s Keanu Reeves tried their hands on the race track behind Toyota’s F1 car, circa 2005. Before bringing Suzuka back into the thick of the action, the Japanese Grand Prix used to also feature 2 separate race tracks.

The Tanaka and the Okamaya race tracks have hosted the Pacific Grand Prix, held previously at the TI circuit. This was to be an exciting race venue at the heart of Japan where former world champion Michael Schumacher would stamp his authority. Perennial rivals Honda and Toyota would often be seen contesting in intense battles with the credibility of two of the powerhouse Japanese car’s coming into the forefront of frequent battles on the concrete race track.

The Prost versus Senna Battle

It isn’t a surprise that earlier, much before the 2000s the Japanese Grand Prix would often be used to hold the title deciding races. The intensity, passion and heavily anticipated results would most often reveal that driver as the winner who could keep his cool under the heat of the humid sun, as only a Japan can produce, when sparing drivers with the customary typhoon threat and sudden showers.

The dominant era of the 90s belonged to Senna’s stellar show and the “Professor” Alain Prost’s calculative approach to his race. Theirs would be the rivalry that would ultimately go down in F1’s history as the most exciting and yet, bitter at the consequence of the duo’s undoing of each other, which resulted in many a controversy that ultimately helped F1 rule the media shows and news headlines world-over.

And, it was here in Japan where the duo contested in many amazing race contests, outing each other surprisingly and more occasions that none, with utter dominance. The Japanese grand prix of the late 80s and early 90s was a signature show-off between Senna’s McLaren’s tectonic march against Alain Prost’s McLaren. Ayrton’s invincibility reached its most dominant height here at the rain-affected Suzuka contest of 1988. Starting poorly, despite being the pole sitter, Senna who dropped back to 14th, came out of nowhere and overtook Gerhard Berger and arch-rival Prost,whose McLaren’s gearbox failure allowed the volatile Brazilian to go flat out toward the checkered flag. In the end, Senna’s great win at Japan helped him claim the intense battle that marked the 1988 championship. Rain has always inspired something special out of Ayrton and Suzuka in its glorious contests of both 1988, 1989 fancied amazing triumphs from both Senna and Prost, two of the greatest drivers of their generation.

What can we expect on Race day

It is quite a startling fact that of all the top draws of Formula One here at Suzuka grand prix, none have claimed Suzuka as their first race win , including Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), Fernando Alonso, driving for home team (Honda) and Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari). James Hunt recorded his last ever win here at Suzuka way back in 1977, while former Italian driver Alessandro Nannini scored his first and only win in a rather short F1 career here at Japan.

The 53 lap challenge has been accomplished by superior will and brilliance by Michael Schumacher who is presently recuperating from his threatening ski accident in 2013. He has won the most number of races here at Suzuka, claiming 6 victories in total, and the maximum from the Ferrari banner.

It will be a poor sight to see none of the Ferrari’s finish at the top of the line by the time lap number 53 rounds up given the newfound confidence at the Maranello based outfit thanks to a starry Vettel- Raikkonen show at Singapore, the previous race. What one can certainly expect is Mercedes to bounce back at the top of the grid considering their less than glorious outing at Singapore, last race weekend.

One is sure of the Nico versus Lewis saga to spring back into action and it remains to be seen who can exude more pressure over the other between Ferrari’s red charge and Mercedes silvery show.

The race weekend may also mark what could very well be 2009 world champion Jenson Button’s final race here at Japan, as the mounting suspicion at the moment points to the gentle giant from England’s would be retirement announcement. This may just also bring more sadness to the mind since it was here in 2014 that one of F1’s most talented lives was lost under extreme weather conditions. 

Jules, who raced for Marussia and to this point, remains the only driver to have ever scored points for his former team Marrusia (scoring 9 of those at Monaco in 2014) sustained severe head injuries when his car collided with a trailer parked outside of the kerb in the middle of the race. He would slip into a coma from which he would never return and the black thundery skies of Suzuka thus brought upon curtains to what could have been a sensational racing talent.

Perhaps away from the intense battle that will certainly see many a top driver lining up against another in a 53 lap contest to win the prized Suzuka crown, one is reminded of what Niki Lauda said way back in 1976. Is life more important or racing under extreme and tricky weather? We will budge from this important question for now and return to the place where the action is soon to unfold: the Japanese Grand Prix of 2015. 

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