Suzuka. The mere mention of one of the most iconic tracks on the calendar brings many memories flooding back to ardent Formula One fans. Indeed, in the 29-year history of Grand Prix racing at this circuit, many world championships have been decided.
Blast down the start/finish straight into Turn 1 and the camera situated there has failed to capture a moment quite as dramatic as the coming together of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in 1990. Pole position man Senna started on the inside, dirtier line and his Mclaren was quickly overtaken around the outside by Prost’s Ferrari as the track dipped and cambered to the right. Both title contenders collided at high speed, settling the championship in the Brazilian’s favour.
The track narrows as we approach the first corners of the lap, narrow enough for one car but barely two – as Jenson Button found out at the start of the 2011 race when he was squeezed on to the grass by Sebastian Vettel.
Turns 1 and 2 are better known as First Turn, which is a double apex right hander that turns 180 degrees on itself. Get either corner wrong and you could suffer oversteer into the unforgiving gravel traps situated to the left hand side of the track. Two championships of note have been settled amongst the stones at this point; the Williams cars of Nigel Mansell and Jacques Villeneuve nestled here after driver error and the loss of a wheel in 1991 and 1996 respectively.
Survive these initial challenges and you’re presented with another in the shape of The Esses. Turns 3-7 are a fast paced complex of left-right-left-right-left that, although slowing gradually, present a challenge to driver and car alike. The grip comes to you as the set of sweeps come to you, but get it slightly wrong and the error can affect you throughout the sequence.
Mansell threw his Williams-Honda into here with much aplomb during the inaugural Suzuka weekend in 1987, spinning into the barriers at such a force that it launched his car into the air, crashing down, injuring his back and ending his title hopes, in one fell swoop.
And in 1994, at the height of a monsoon, Martin Brundle lost control of his McLaren to bring out the red flag. Michael Schumacher led the race comfortably at the time, but at the restart the race was declared to finish under aggregate timing, which title rival Damon Hill won to set up their now infamous title decider in Adelaide.
Coming out of the Esses and there’s no respite as Suzuka continues to unfold. Dunlop Curve, the scene of Eddie Irvine outrageous decision to unlap himself by overtaking Ayrton Senna, of all people, in ’93, is a fast left that snaps immediately right into Degner 1 and 2. This pair of right-handers lead into the underpass section of the circuit.
Degner 1 is on the crest of a hill so can be slightly unsighted, and missing the apex here can upset the car moving into the short burst of a straight into Degner 2, which is slower and has the added danger of the circuit wall to the left. Mark Webber had to have his chassis rebuilt after getting it wrong here – a single mistake can cost a driver a weekend.
Emerge from the underpass and you’re immediately presented with one of the best spots for overtaking on the whole track; Turns 10 and 11, otherwise known as The Hairpin.
As the nature of the track deviates to the right, the slower entry into the tight left-hander and then into another uphill acceleration offers several different lines of entry and exit. No driver mastered this chance as much as Kamui Kobayashi in 2010. The Japanese native passed five cars at this spot thanks to his confidence on the brakes and years of lapping Suzuka, thrilling the crowd and TV viewers alike.
The exit of the hairpin is also where Robert Kubica’s challenge to Red Bull ended at the same race. The Pole’s performance on the ‘drivers’ circuits’ of Monaco, Spa and Suzuka that season are testament to just how much potential his curtailed Formula One career had.
Whether you’re the overtaker, or the overtakee, the next challenge is to build your speed back up on the slight kink of a straight before the ominous double-left hander named Spoon Curve. While the first half of the lap, bar Degner, was all about adjusting to uphill gradients, Spoon adds the downhill gradient mid-apex. It’s the ultimate test of aerodynamic might and driver skill – get it right and it’s near to perfection in an F1 car as you can possibly be. Get it wrong – and the Williams pair of Damon Hill and David Coulthard did in 1995, albeit in changeable conditions – then your lap is ruined.
The track then gives you a chance to open the throttle up once more with the largest straight on the circuit. This lulls you into a false sense of security as it’s merely a way to generate speed for one of the biggest challenges on the Formula One calendar; the flat-out Turn 15 left-hander, otherwise known as 130R.
It may have been neutered by tarmac run-off, but it can still be a fearsome foe. Just ask Allan McNish, Jaime Aguersauri and Lucas Di Grassi, who all had massive accidents here in ’02, ’09 and ’10 respectively. For McNish it was a bitter pill to swallow, as the injuries he sustained kept him from competing in what would have been his last career Grand Prix.
But, get it right, and it can he quite special. Fernando Alonso added an early snippet to his career highlight reel by overtaking Michael Schumacher at this corner in 2006 – around the outside – in a heroic piece of racecraft.
On the exit of 130R the pace changes from one of the fastest points to one of the slowest, as drivers hit the brakes ready for the right-left, tight chicane known as Casio Triangle.
It was the site of the culmination of the 1989 World Championship, and the implosion of the Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s relationship at McLaren, when the Brazilian tried to overtake and Prost defended as close to he was allowed. Eliminated on the spot, the Frenchman trudged back to the pits while Senna got the marshals to bump start him back into the race. He eventually won, thought he’d rescued his title challenge, but was brought down to earth with a bump with a disqualification for using the chicane’s escape road.
In 1993 it also saw an opening shot in the Hill-Schumacher rivalry that would unfold over the next few seasons, when the German caught the back wheel of Hill’s Williams, forcing the Brit out on the spot.
Exiting this last challenge and you’re rewarded with the sight of the famous ferris wheel, a landmark that seems out of place, yet oddly apt for a circuit full of excitement and entertainment. Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, and Sebastian Vettel are all drivers who have left Casio Triangle as mere mortals and crossed the line to become World Champions.
Make no mistake, Suzuka is a racetrack rich in history, one with a story around every corner. This weekend’s event could possibly only add more to that long and storied tapestry.