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 years
nail-biting finish, Japan Grand Prix victor Michael Schumacher gave Italians cause to
celebrate Ferraris first victory for 21 years, having wrested the trophy from
McLarens Mika Hakkinen. The site of the final race of the Formula One season,
Japans 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.
That shouldnt 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 worlds 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 Ferraris 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, Japans 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
Villeneuves 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 Sennas 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.
The sanitized strains of cable television coverage cant 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
worlds 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 www.suzuka.co.jp or call Ticket Pia
(03-5237-9977) or the Suzuka Circuit (0593-78-1111).
General admission ticket holders with no seat allocation should remember to take a ground
sheet and something to pin it down with. Since its possible to reserve your place by
leaving the groundsheet on the terrace overnight, you wont 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. Jordans 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 circuits
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 its a perfect circuit on which to wind up
the season. Ayrton Sennas 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
In the wake of Brazilian Luciano Burtis horrific crash in the Belgian Grand Prix,
the big question at this years Japan leg of the championship will be safety.
Speaking on his personal website, Schumacher said that Theres no 100 percent
safety in Formula One, but we must do everything to reduce the risk as much as
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 Irvines
Jaguar. After winning his record 52nd Grand Prix at Spa, Schumacher said he did not
celebrate properly because of Burtis 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.