The “Land of the Rising Sun” enjoys full-throttle motorsport, with Formula One being no exception, as the Japanese Grand Prix could be the place where a man really takes his legacy to another level this coming weekend. Cultural facets such as the way of the samurai, sushi, manga comics and sumo wrestling have to sometimes step to one side when the roar of engines come to town, as the fans flock to the track in their droves day and night.
The first Japanese Grand Prix was held at Suzuka in May of 1963, just 80 kilometres south west of Nagoya, but was a non-championship Formula One event, but signalled the start of the Japanese populace’s interest in racing.
Fuji Speedway was then the venue for the next 11 years, which saw many fatalities during its use, before the venue was used as a championship event, with the monsoon-hit 1976 title decider between James Hunt and Niki Lauda seeing the Brit win by a solitary point over his Austrian rival, who withdrew from the race due to the conditions.
Since its inception into the Formula One calendar in 1986, Suzuka has seen its fair share of title-deciding moments, which could also be happening come Sunday, especially with Nigel Mansell’s crash at the Snake Esses, when he suffered a back injury relapse in 1987, along with the likes of the intense dueling between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost for the title between 1988 and 1990.
Bravery can reward the very best of drivers, like the outside overtake Fernando Alonso did on Michael Schumacher around 130R in 2005, but if the spirits are not in complete harmony between car and driver around the track, then Suzuka can bite back hard as Jaime Alguersuari found out in 2009.
Laps – 53
First appearance – 1963
Track Length – 5.807km
Race first held – 1963
Most wins – Michael Schumacher (6 – 1995, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004)
2012 Pole Position – Sebastian Vettel (1:30.839)
2012 Winner – Sebastian Vettel
2012 Fastest Lap – Sebastian Vettel (1:35.774)
Flying Lap of Suzuka
The track has a unique figure-of-eight configuration that is the ultimate test for man and machine, as it is one of the tracks that still has that old-school feel about it, with all needing to keep their nerve and full concentration on every single lap. Coming out of the Casio Triangle, the drivers accelerate to just one of the points where the cars will exceed 300 km/h and more during the only designated DRS zone on the track. This is before Turn 1 is taken at near full-throttle in 7th gear, which is a key corner to get right on the run to the first corner, where we have seen two title-deciding moments between Senna and Prost, as well as the site of Alonso’s DNF last year.
Turn 2 sees the start of the most technically demanding section of the track, where the drivers will experience up to four times the force of gravity, as it leads into the ‘S’ Curves complex. With an entry speed into the first one at around 250 km/h, it tests the neck strength of all the drivers, with its continuing momentum and flowing change of direction, leading into Dunlop Curve which is a sweeping left hander. A good combination of downforce and grip will be key, along with a driver making smooth corrections along the way.
The Degner Curves are the next challenge for the drivers, as the slightest mistake can potentially send a driver of the highest calibre off track into the gravel traps, as the corners may not look like much, but a true challenge no matter whether that driver is a champion or a hopeful. The hairpin (turn 11) comes after the slight right-hander, 110R, which is taken in first gear at around 65km/h, with traction and acceleration needing to work in harmony for the driver.
This is where some drivers may attempt to try their luck, as Sergio Perez found out to both his benefit and detriment for Sauber last year, before the long right-hand sweeper, 200R, sees the drivers again go towards full-throttle, which is used for around 60% of the track before Spoon Curve is a tightening left-hand combination that then leads onto the one of the longest full-throttle sections of them all.
130R is Suzuka’s signature corner that really tests the drivers when it comes to full commitment, as the corner was being taken at full-throttle in top gear at around 315 km/h last year, which really puts the engine under stress, along with it being one of the highest g-force corners during the year along with Eau Rouge at Spa. Then it’s hard on the brakes as the Casio Triangle is a second gear corner at around 90 km/h, where the braking point after 130R is crucial to get a good entry, before powering out towards the finish line, heading into another fully-focused lap.
So come Sunday, could it be another win for Sebastian Vettel, leading to his fourth successive title? The weather could prove to be a factor, as it has done in previous years, but with sunshine forecasted for both Qualifying and the Race, it could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for all other title contenders. Don’t forget that since 2009, every race has had at least one Safety Car period, so that could be another factor to keep the drivers under pressure.
But the tyres will also be another telling point, especially with the asphalt composition being abrasive, coupled with the high-speed cornering configuration Suzuka has. This may put the Pirelli tyres under severe duress, but crucial management and strategies will be key to keeping a cool head under the Asian sun.