Few tracks are as popular with Formula 1 drivers as Suzuka, Japan, which has hosted the Japanese Grand Prix virtually every year since 1987. It stands as a unique circuit, being the only figure of 8 track in F1, and it has been a lot of title-deciding drama, owing to its place as one of the last races of the season (at one point it was the penultimate race, so it’s importance in the destiny of the championship was high).
In F1 drivers usually complete 53 laps of the circuit, covering a distance of just over 307km. There are a number of challenging, sweeping corners for drivers to sink their teeth into, such as the ‘S’ curves (forming turns 3-through-7), whilst the run down to the Casio Triangle has seen a fair few moments of excitement and intrigue. Turn 15 (also known as 130R) is a quick snap to the left that has been plagued with safety concerns and tragedy – MotoGP rider Daijiro Kato was killed in a crash at that corner in 2003, and other racers have been both killed and hurt at that corner. Nor is it the only area of the track to have claimed lives. As far back as 1963 Suzuka has seen fatal accidents across different forms of motorsport, including F1 – young Jules Bianchi sustained fatal head injuries at the 2014 race, when his car left the track in inclement conditions and he struck a crane that was retrieving another car. His death is the most recent at the track. I would love to say it would be the last, but Suzuka is high-speed and, in any form of motorsport, there is always risk.
Where to begin? When Suzuka began hosting F1 races in 1987, it immediately crowned a champion – Williams driver Nelson Piquet picked up his third title when his teammate Nigel Mansell crashed heavily in practice, injuring his back and being ruled out of the final two races. In 1988 teammates were once again vying for the title, this time the McLaren duo of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and though Senna had a poor start, dropping to 14th, he surged back through the pack (it started to rain, and Senna was often superb in the wet), took the lead, won the race, and claimed his first world championship.
1989 saw the two McLaren drivers once again vying for the title, but this time Prost led the championship and Senna had to win both at Suzuka and at the season finale in Australia, if he was to have any chance of winning the title. He qualified on pole by 1.5 seconds to his teammate but Prost took the lead at the start and Senna trailed him for 47 laps. By this point the relationship between the pair had deteriorated, and neither felt any particular need to yield or to avoid an accident. An accident would in fact work in Prost’s favour and that was exactly what happened – as they ran up to the Casio chicane Senna thought there was a gap to exploit but though he had begun to get his car alongside Prost’s, Prost turned in to take the corner and the two cars bumped into each other. Prost got out of his car as it appeared the race and title battle were over, but Senna had marshals give him a push and he was able to bump-start his car, continuing to race and eventually winning. However the FIA deemed the manner in which he had re-joined the track illegal (he had used a run-off area to re-join) and to Senna’s fury he was disqualified.
This incident stuck in Senna’s craw and when the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix rolled around, he remained angry about it, as well as annoyed that Jean-Marie Balestre (the FIA president and one of the men responsible for Senna’s disqualification the previous year) had gone back on an agreement to have the pole side of the grid be on the clean part of the track. He had qualified 1st in his McLaren but Prost (now at Ferrari) would line up on the grippier side of the grid as a result of Balestre’s decision. Senna made it clear he would absolutely not yield the corner to Prost, in reference to what he felt Prost had done last year, and in disgust at the FIA’s decision regarding the starting grid. The rest is history, and infamous in Formula 1.
Senna was true to his word. As the cars accelerated to high speeds Prost got away better and took the lead. Senna dove down the inside and barely lifted (if at all), colliding with the Ferrari and sending both cars spinning off into the gravel. The crash was deemed a racing incident and Senna was world champion for a second time. Afterwards Prost described Senna as ‘a man without value’ and neither would check to see the other was okay in the wake of the crash.
In 1991 Senna, still at McLaren, could once again secure the world championship, and this time he was fending off a challenge from the Williams of Nigel Mansell, who had to win to have any remote chance of taking the prize. Senna led from the start with Mansell in pursuit, but on lap 10 the Englishman span off at the first corner and beached his car, meaning Senna had won his third (and final) title in four seasons, all of them coming at Suzuka.
There have been other title-deciding races at Suzuka. Damon Hill won the 1996 event and in doing so won the title. Mika Hakkinen won the race and the title at the 1998 event. Michael Schumacher won his first title with Ferrari at the 2000 race. I could list others but this page would get far too big! Suffice to say, Suzuka is rich with history, loved by the drivers and adored by the fans. It is easily one of the best tracks in Formula 1.