Suzuka is one of F1’s finest circuits, a far-eastern gem with stunning corners, a ferris-wheel backdrop and passionate fans aplenty. It’s hosted some great races down the years. including several title-deciders, and Badger has picked out a few to cast an eye back over.
When F1 arrived in Japan Fernando Alonso was already world champion, having sewn up the title a fortnight earlier in Brazil. Kimi Räikkönen was guaranteed the second runner-up trophy of his career, having a strong enough points advantage over third place Michael Schumacher to keep second.
A wet qualifying session produced an unusual grid: Ralf Schumacher was on pole with Jenson Button alongside him, whilst pacesetters Alonso and Räikkönen were 16th and 17th respectively. Giancarlo Fisichella was 3rd in the Renault, the only frontrunner to have grabbed a decent grid slot.
So it was going to be easy for Fisi: with the season’s big guns so far back he’d just have to pass Ralf and Jenson (surely not too tough) and remain out front for the win. Alonso and Räikkönen couldn’t carve their way to the front and have time to catch him – could they?
Ralf lead away from Fisi, who passed Button at the start. Meanwhile Alonso had somehow leapt to eighth by the end of the lap one, when a safety car was deployed. Jacques Villeneuve had stuck Juan Pablo Montoya in the wall at the final turn, a crime he’d eventually be hit with a 25-second penalty for.
Following the first round of pitstops Ralf dropped out of contention, and Fisichella took the lead he must have felt was destined to be his. Alonso and Räikkönen were now catching Michael Schumacher, but the gap to Fisi was, shall we say, comfortable for the Italian.
Alonso then put a stunning pass on Schumacher through 130R before pitting, with Schumacher and Räikkönen following suit soon after. They both jumped the Spaniard, and Kimi wasted little time in disposing of Schumacher. He then cruised up on Button and Mark Webber – who ran second and third respectively – but the McLaren couldn’t find a way past. With Fisichella a whopping 20-seconds up the road victory seemed to be heading Giancarlo’s away.
But the Renault driver’s day was about to begin a nosedive. He pitted, only to exit behind the Button-Webber-Räikkönen battle. Suddenly Fisi had no pace, and dropped back from this trio. When Button and Webber pitted Räikkönen was in clean air: new fastest lap; gloves very much off; cue grandstand finish.
Kimi then pitted, exiting just five seconds behind Fisichella. He quickly hunted him down and began to loom large in the Renault’s mirrors. Fisi went defensive – perhaps too soon – and allowed Kimi to get a run on him on the pit straight. The Renault driver kept him out as they began the penultimate lap, but this just showed Räikkönen it should be done next time around. As they crossed the line to begin the last tour of Suzuka Kimi made the move stick. He went on to win from a totally dejected Fisichella and a slightly disinterested Alonso, neither of whom had an answer for the McLaren that day.