The Japanese Grand Prix may not decide the drivers’ championship this year, but it has done on many past occasions. Even without the thrill of the showdown the challenging Suzuka circuit is an exceptional venue, which is more than can be said for its rumoured replacement in Fuji.
Fernando Alonso may be on a post-championship high but he will need fortune to go with it if he is to beat the mighty McLarens at a circuit where aerodynamic efficiency is essential. Especially as, following their first one-two, both McLaren drivers will run at the optimal moment in qualifying – unless the weather has a few tricks up its sleeve. Alonso’s best hope is that Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen get in each other’s way, which would surely cause Ron Dennis, with the constructors’ title in his sights, to do his nut.
The battle for this among the teams may well be more intriguing. Ferrari had one of their better outings of 2005 in Brazil by using a Bridgestone compound more closely related to their all-conquering 2004 tyre. Michael Schumacher employed it to great effect, leading home Renault driver Giancarlo Fisichella.
BAR will enjoy one of Honda’s famed ‘Suzuka special’ engines, though it didn’t seem to do much for Takuma Sato, who ran it in Interlagos. Toyota, keen to beat rivals Honda, are bringing an updated TF-105b chassis for Ralf Schumacher but not Jarno Trulli – for although the latter is usually the faster of the two, he is not convinced by the new chassis just yet.
The race could well be Sato’s home Grand Prix swansong, which would be a shame given the huge support for him since he emotionally scored his first points for Jordan there in 2002.
Japanese Grand Prix history
Suzuka has been the home of the Japanese Grand Prix since 1987, but the race was first held at Fuji Speedway on two occasions in the 1970s. In 1976 James Hunt claimed his championship in foul weather that caused title rival Niki Lauda to retire, unable to clear his eyelids of water due to the facial injuries he sustained at the Nurburgring that year.
Tragedy struck the following year when Gilles Villeneuve crashed into Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell and somersaulted over the barriers, killing two spectators who were standing in a restricted area. Formula One did not return to Japan for ten years.
When it did it became renowned for deciding championship battles. The first, in 1987, went to Nelson Piquet after Nigel Mansell injured his back in a practice crash. The next three years were all about Prost and Senna, the first going to Senna after an epic drive having slumped to 14th on lap one.
The next year Prost had had enough of Senna’s bullying tactics, and rammed him out of the race at the slow chicane with a handful of laps to go. Senna resumed to win on the road, but was disqualified for cutting the chicane on his return to the track. So, in 1990, Senna replied in kind, hurling his McLaren into Prost’s Ferrari at 160mph, fully aware that the FIA could do nothing to stop him. Senna won again in 1991, this time at Mansell’s expense.
Damon Hill scored a fine win over Michael Schumacher in 1994 in terrible weather that saw a marshal injured when he was struck by Martin Brundle’s spinning McLaren. Hill won again in 1996, and took the title with it. The 1997 race degenerated into an unedifying spectacle, as Jacques Villeneuve, racing under a ban after an incident in practice, first contrived to block the Ferraris, then Eddie Irvine pulled over to let Michael Schumacher win in the late stages.
Another three championship-deciders followed. Mika Hakkinen triumphed in 1998 when Schumacher first stalled, then collected a puncture. It was Hakkinen’s again in 1999 as Irvine could offer only token resistance. Schumacher finally got his first Ferrari title in 2000, and three years later sealed his sixth championship despite an erratic drive to eighth that almost saw him crash into his brother.
Regardless of the championship, Suzuka is one of those circuits where even a processional race is spellbinding. The opening S-bends are a terrific test of a driver’s skill and an illuminating vantage point in qualifying. The mighty Degner curves, Spoon and 130R offer high-speed thrills.
Yet, lamentably, moves are afoot to take the Japanese Grand Prix from Suzuka back to Fuji. Fuji, never a great track, is now a shadow of what little it once was, emasculated into a series of slow, unchallenging bends. Yet Fuji is backed to the hilt by Toyota who are desperate to outgun Honda, owners of Suzuka.
The loss of Suzuka would be a great shame for Formula One and would be greeted with disgust by the fans. Fuji does not possess a drop of the charisma or challenge that Suzuka has, and the race should stay where it belongs.