Suzuka, current home of the Nihon guran-puri, or Japanese Grand Prix, is one of the greatest F1 circuits – ‘the best track in the world’ in the recently expressed opinion of Sebastian Vettel – and one of my personal favourites, although this partly because the figure of eight layout reminds me of my first Scalectrix set from my childhood.
It has hosted all but four of the twenty-eight championship Grand Prix held in Japan, and it was the scene of some of the most memorable moments in the stormy on track relationship between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
However, the other four Japanese Grand Prix also had their fair share of incidents and rivalries, which took place at the foot of Japan’s most famous and most painted mountain at the Fuji Speedway.
The first championship race to be held in Japan was held at the Fuji circuit, famed for its fast sweeping curves and long start/finish straight and being one of the longest in motorsport at 1.5 km (or just under a mile) in length. It was the final race of the 1976 season and it was the race where the world championship was finally decided.
1976 was the year of the James Hunt and Niki Lauda rivalry and also the subject of Ron Howard’s recent movie ‘Rush’. By the Italian Grand Prix of that year, Lauda’s lead in the drivers’ world championship standings had been reduced to just two points after his terrible crash at the Nürburgring and it looked as though the championship would go to Hunt easily. Incredibly Lauda, who had been lucky to survive his accident, made motor racing’s most incredible comeback and returned to the competition having missed just two races.
At Monza Lauda came home in fourth place for Ferrari, while Hunt did not finish. The championship was now no longer a foregone conclusion. The news that Hunt had been disqualified from the British GP came through just before the next race in Canada, leaving Hunt now seventeen points behind Lauda. This just seemed to fire up the British driver and wins in Canada and the USA meant that by the time they reached Fuji, Hunt was just three points behind.
Mario Andretti took pole position for the race, with Hunt in second place on the grid and Lauda one place behind him in third. On the day of the race the weather conditions were not good – fog and rain with water flowing across the track in places. There was debate as to whether the race should even go ahead, but it did, more due to pressure from the presence of TV cameras than anything else.
Hunt took the lead immediately and after one lap Lauda withdrew from the race, considering it too dangerous to continue. Several other drivers, including Emerson Fittipaldi, also took this decision, but Hunt continued, maintaining his lead for most of the race.
However as the track began to dry out he started to lose places, being overtaken by Patrick Depailler and Mario Andretti, leaving him in third, but only needing fourth to take the title now that Lauda had retired. Tyre problems caused Hunt to pit which dropped him to fifth place. When he returned to the circuit he chased down Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni managing to overtake them both on lap 71, taking him up to third place and two laps later James Hunt became world champion, behind Depailler in second (driving the Tyrell P34 six wheeler) and Mario Andretti in the black Lotus 77 in first, winning his second ever race.
The following year Hunt won the Japanese Grand Prix, his tenth and final race win, although the title had already been decided two races before in America, where Lauda won drivers’ championship and then decided not to compete in the last two events as a result of his declining relationship with Ferrari. Hunt led the race from start to finish and won easily, with a lead of over a minute at the chequered flag, but the race was marred by the collision between Gilles Villeneuve and Ronnie Peterson on the fifth lap which caused Villeneuve’s Ferrari to somersault off the track, killing a photographer and a marshal with the debris.
The Japanese Grand Prix was not held for another ten years until 1987, but it did not return to the Fuji Speedway for another two decades until the 2007 season. When it did the circuit had been redesigned with a few extra kinks and curves by Hermann Tilke.
The race saw three Japanese teams and two Japanese drivers compete in their home GP – Toyota, who owned the circuit as well, Honda, who owned the Suzuka circuit, and Super-Aguri, who were in many ways the Honda B team. Takuma Sato drove for Super-Aguri and Sakon Yamamoto drove for Spyker. The two Japanese drivers started the race at the back of the grid, while Toro Rosso achieved their highest grid placing so far as a young Sebastian Vettel qualified in ninth.
The weather conditions for the return to Fuji were similar to the conditions at its F1 debut, with persistent heavy rain and the race itself starting behind the safety car for the first 19 laps. There was a second safety car period later in the race after Fernando Alonso crashed his MP4-22, the first time a McLaren had failed to finish that season.
David Coulthard changed his helmet for the race from his usual blue and white saltire design to wear one in tribute to his fellow Scot Colin McRae, the rally driver who had been killed in a helicopter crash two weeks before the race. The other Red Bull driver, Mark Webber also redecorated his helmet, but on the inside as, still suffering the after effects of a bout of food poisoning, he threw up inside it during the first safety car period.
The second spell behind the safety car didn’t go well for Webber either as Sebastian Vettel crashed into the back of him for the first time in their relationship, causing them both to retire from the race. Prior to that Vettel had become the youngest driver ever to lead a lap in an F1 race, breaking a record held previously by Fernando Alonso and Bruce McLaren.
Lewis Hamilton won the race and, with his nearest title rival and team mate Alonso not finishing, he extended his lead in the drivers’ championship by another ten points. However third place was taken by Kimi Räikkönen for Ferrari, which brought him to within seventeen points of Hamilton, a gap which two wins in the last two races closed, helped by a retirement and seventh place for Hamilton, and Räikkönen went on to take that year’s championship in the final race in Brazil by just one point.
The final race at Fuji, which took place the following season, once again saw Hamilton competing for the championship, although this time his rival was Räikkönen’s Ferrari team mate Filipe Massa. Hamilton was on pole, but following a first corner incident with Räikkönen and Heikki Kovalainnen he had slipped back to fifth behind Massa.
On lap two he managed briefly to get past Massa at the turn 10 chicane, when Massa braked late and went over the kerbs, but the Brazilian then hit the back of Hamilton’s McLaren, causing it to spin and lose places. After pitting for new tyres and fuel at the end of the lap, he returned to the race in eighteenth place, a position he found it hard to climb back out of and he finished the race out of the points in twelfth, while Massa had managed to finish in seventh. This narrowed the Brit’s lead to five points, preparing the way for the championship deciding Brazilian GP in two races later where this time it was Lewis who won the championship by just a single point.
It was planned that the Japanese Grand Prix would alternate between Fuji and Suzuka, but in 2009 circuit owners Toyota announced that due to the world economic downturn, they would not be hosting the 2010 Grand Prix, later announcing the withdrawal of their works team for the following season as well. As a result the race will be taking place at Suzuka for the foreseeable future.
Although you won’t find many people complaining about that, the four races at Fuji have played a vital role in the history of the sport and it may be that it won’t be sayonara to the Fuji Speedway circuit forever and F1 may return there, when Toyota feel that the global economy has picked up again.