it up

Michael Schumacher is champion again, but the unpredictable Suzuka circuit is still set to offer up a surprise-packed Japan Grand Prix on October 14. Stuart Braun goes trackside.

In the wake of last year’s nail-biting finish, Japan Grand Prix victor Michael Schumacher gave Italians cause to celebrate Ferrari’s first victory for 21 years, having wrested the trophy from McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen. The site of the final race of the Formula One season, Japan’s Suzuka circuit has, on eight previous occasions, been the scene of the climactic, end-of-season decider, but this year Ferrari, with Schumacher again at the helm, has made it a clear-cut, and early, finish to the season.

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That shouldn’t take the luster away from a race that promises to bring out the best in drivers who revel in the oblique contours of the Suzuka track. Famous for its unique figure-eight layout, chicane and hairpin bends, Suzuka is arguably the world’s most formidable Formula One circuit. Encircling the Motopia amusement park, with its fairground, swimming pools, hotels, golf courses and restaurants, Suzuka first hosted a Formula One race in 1987-Gerhard Berger won in a Ferrari-and has become an important venue for the resolution of the world drivers’ championship. In 2000, Ferrari was able to reverse the fortunes of 1999, when McLaren-Mercedes driver Mika Hakkinen seized the Formula One championship from Schumacher. Pundits argue that since Suzuka is the only track on the Formula One calendar that utilizes a figure-eight course, Ferrari, whose private test track at Fiorano shares that unusual configuration, will again have an advantage. This might give Ferrari’s second driver, Rubens Barrichello, currently 3rd in the championship, the edge to make it one and two for Ferrari in 2001.

There have only been 15 Japanese Formula One Grand Prix, but most have been firmly etched in F1 folklore. In 1976, Japan’s first grand prix was held at the perilous and now defunct Mt Fuji circuit-a race marred by the death of two onlookers, hit by Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari. the race was held in appalling conditions, and Niki Lauda, who was making a miraculous comeback from shocking injuries sustained in a fire at the German Grand Prix, was forced to retire, ending his heroic championship bid. The following year James Hunt won at Fuji but that was the last anyone saw of Japan until 1987, when the race came to its present home.

Suzuka has been the site of some of the most controversial scenes in Formula One history. In 1989, Ayrton Senna had to beat McLaren teammate Alain Prost to retain his championship crown, but the Frenchman had other ideas, locking out Senna as he tried to pass him at the tight chicane-Senna was disqualified and vowed never to talk to Prost again. In a spectacular, and retributive move, Senna drove Prost off the road the following year, and in 1993 Senna’s wrath was again unleashed when he punched F1 debutant Eddie Irvine for not showing enough respect after being lapped. But for all his bravado, Senna, along with Schumacher, has been one of the few to tame the unpredictable Suzuka track-the Brazilian and German are only two drivers to have won the Japanese Grand Prix after starting from pole position.

Be there

The sanitized strains of cable television coverage can’t compare to the sweet smell of burning rubber and the deafening roar of a live race. And off the track, visitors can take in the buzz of thousands of red- and yellow-clad Ferrari fans, some of the world’s richest and most beautiful people (and cigarette girls), and gushing magnums of top-shelf champagne. Located between Osaka and Nagoya, Suzuka is still easily accessible via shinkansen from Tokyo-Nozomi (1hr 56min), Hikari and Kodama (both 2hr 11min) shinkansen run from Tokyo stn and costJY6090 one-way. Ticket prices range fromJY9000 for general admission toJY60,000 for seats in the best grandstand and are valid for all three days (Fri-Sun, Oct 12-14). For full details of prices, seating locations and discounts (for groups, children, etc.) check out or call Ticket Pia (03-5237-9977) or the Suzuka Circuit (0593-78-1111).

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General admission ticket holders with no seat allocation should remember to take a ground sheet and something to pin it down with. Since it’s possible to reserve your place by leaving the groundsheet on the terrace overnight, you won’t have to get up early the next day to stake out a prime position. Apart from the stands, one of the best points to view the race is directly opposite the checkered flag-known as the “anti-banked curve.” From there you can see most of the track along with the score/position board. The live commentary, broadcast over loud speakers, is in Japanese and is difficult to hear over the roar of the engines, so take a portable radio to listen to the simultaneous radio report. While food and beer are readily available around the track, cover and protection from the elements is not, so come prepared with hats, sunblock, and in the eventuality of rain, warm gear and an umbrella.

Anything can happen

The Suzuka track is fast and requires enormous powers of concentration around corners, such as the “Spoon” and “130R.” Jordan’s managing director, Trevor Foster, has been quoted as saying that “most of the drivers love Suzuka, the track undulates and has several demanding corners that the drivers really enjoy.” Experience is key with this track, so watch out for any driver who has raced for a season in Japan-they often know the shortcuts. At 5.864km (3.644 miles), the circuit’s unique figure-eight pattern, with numerous turns and straights, provides both clockwise and anti-clockwise movement for the cars. Cars normally opt for medium to soft settings with stiff suspension to take in the various bumps in what is otherwise a smooth surface.

Built in 1962 as a test track for Honda motorcycles, Suzuka was conceived by John Hugenholz, the Dutch engineer who was also responsible for the circuit design at Zandvoort and Jarama. Its mixture of long, fast corners, power straights and short testing curves is much favored by drivers who can demonstrate their abilities of maintaining maximum momentum while holding off the nausea caused by the incessantly winding track. Many drivers rate the track highly and believe it’s a perfect circuit on which to wind up the season. Ayrton Senna’s two victories, two 2nd places, three pole positions and two fastest race laps at Suzuka were bettered by Michael Schumacher when he won in Japan for the third time last year. Gerhard Berger, Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen have each won it twice.

In the wake of Brazilian Luciano Burti’s horrific crash in the Belgian Grand Prix, the big question at this year’s Japan leg of the championship will be safety. Speaking on his personal website, Schumacher said that “There’s no 100 percent safety in Formula One, but we must do everything to reduce the risk as much as possible… it is important to draw findings from the analysis of the (Burti) crash and to translate them into measures.” Burti escaped serious injury when his Prost car hit the tire wall at an estimated 240kph after clipping the rear of Eddie Irvine’s Jaguar. After winning his record 52nd Grand Prix at Spa, Schumacher said he did not celebrate properly because of Burti’s accident. The incident was followed a week later with a devastating CART race accident in Germany that saw former Williams driver Alex Zanardi lose both his legs.

With only two weeks until the big one in Japan, there have been reports that Schumacher plans to pull out of the US and Japan Grand Prix. The rumors have since been rejected. “I'm not thinking at all about not driving in the USA and Japan,” motoring master said in a statement issued by Ferrari. Still, the real race at Suzuka will be for the 2nd place in the championship, with David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher all vying for the runners-up title.



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