The Suzuka circuit demands precision but rewards speed, a skill Red Bull’s German driver has in spades
Wrapping up the season with four races to go may be galling for fans of Formula One but if Sebastian Vettel wins here at Suzuka on Sunday, and he needs but one point to do so, there are few more appropriate places for him to take the title. Japan has crowned champions 12 times in the 26 races held here and Suzuka, beloved of drivers yet unforgiving of errors, with its testing corners and crushing gradients, has hosted more title celebrations than any other circuit in the world.
Vettel has both been on pole and won in Japan for the previous two years – betting against a hat-trick would be unwise. Suzuka demands precision but rewards speed, a skill the German has in spades and shares with the greats who have won here. Hit the ‘S’ bends correctly and four turns can be gone in a blur with barely a squeeze of the brake pedal. That he has mastered the intricacies of this testing course can be seen in those two wins, leading from the off to put in nerveless, flawless wins in both – relatively uncomplicated victories that belie much of the history, rivalry and drama in which the circuit is steeped and which make it such a fantastic venue.
For many years scheduled as the penultimate or final race of the season, Japan held its first grand prix in 1976 to the huge appreciation of a motor sport hungry public. The fans here are every inch as passionate as their Italian, British and German counterparts. Witness hundreds who turned up on Thursday with no cars on track, just to watch the activity in the pits and the sheer numbers when Honda (who built Suzuka as a test track in 1962) were riding high supplying engines to Williams and McLaren in 1990 – three million people applied for the 120,000 tickets on offer. The same year Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost yet again went head to head here to decide the title.
Yet one of the most memorable of the these title-clinching races, certainly to many British fans – James Hunt’s sole championship win at that inaugural Japanese Grand Prix in 76 – was at the Fuji Speedway. Title rival Niki Lauda had suffered a horrific accident at the German GP on the Nordschleife circuit at the Nurburgring but made an incredible return to take the fight to the wire, with Lauda leading by three points when they reached Japan. Sadly it was not decided on track, torrential rain flooded the circuit and Lauda withdrew on the second lap saying the conditions were too dangerous. But the race went on and Hunt took the third place he needed – it had not been delivered with wheel-to-wheel action but Japan had offered a taste of some of the memorable drama that was to follow.
Fuji held one more race in 1977 and when F1 returned again to Japan it was to Suzuka in 1987, which would host the event exclusively for another 20 years, and it is the grand battles here that really stand out, most notably those of Senna and Prost.
Senna took his first title at Suzuka in 1988, which was a thriller. Having stalled his McLaren from pole position, the Brazilian chased down the leaders. As rain started to fall he caught Prost and demonstrated his mastery of the wet by taking the lead as the pair went through backmarkers on lap 27. “I told myself that it was over,” he said. “But I started to find my rhythm and was going quicker and quicker. From then on it was a big fight.” A fight the pair would soon resume.
The penultimate race of the season in 1989 saw Senna needing to beat Prost at Suzuka to stay in the title fight. Prost closed the door on Senna, the pair went off and although the Brazilian went on to take a remarkable win after fighting back into the lead, he was disqualified for having not made the chicane where the incident occurred. Alessandro Nannini won the race and Prost the title. Their rivalry was now bitter and Senna was convinced he was the victim of a conspiracy to ensure Prost took the championship, undoubtedly influencing their meeting in Japan a year later.
Already angry that pole position had been placed on the dirty side of the track, Senna’s complaints in 1990 changed nothing and as Prost took advantage heading down the hill into turn one, the Brazilian ploughed into a non-existent gap to take both cars out, their retirements guaranteeing his second title. For Prost, who had been cynical himself two years before, it was too much: “If this is how the championship is going to be concluded, the sport is dead,” he said. “I’m not ready to fight against irresponsible people on the track who are not afraid to die.” Their meetings at Suzuka remain an integral part of the drivers’ place in motor racing history.
But the track’s significance was by no means over, Michael and Mika played their part as well. In 1998 Mika Hakinnen led Michael Schumacher by four points at the final round in Suzuka and held his nerve to take the title. Two years later at the circuit the pair fought all race long before Schumacher took the win and his third title by two seconds. In 2003, Schumacher fought back from 14th on the grid to take the eighth place he needed while Hakinnen could not secure the win he required as Rubens Barrichello took the chequered flag. Suzuka was host to Shumacher’s sixth world championship.
Vettel managed only third fastest in practice on Friday but showed excellent pace on long runs, although not without incident, a reminder that, even for champions, a win here is truly earned. The German went off in the first session at the Degner curve, coming to a rest at the barrier: “I wasn’t 100% awake,” he said. “And mistakes round here can be quite costly.”
It is a lesson all the greats have learned and he will be in their exalted company on Sunday but while this drive to become the youngest ever double world champion is unlikely to throw up similar drama, that it is taking place here, at one of the finest circuits in the world, will be lost neither on him nor the legions of Japanese fans who have come to see it all happen again, at Suzuka.