FORMULA 1

Suzuka’s F1 sparkle remains as it gears up for a 30th Japanese Grand Prix | Giles Richards | Sport

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Few Formula One circuits stir the spirit like the magnificent 3.6-mile tour de force nestling near the seaside of Japan’s Mie prefecture. Fewer still are held in such high regard by drivers that their enthusiasm is positively infectious. The venue for so much drama and a challenge like no other, Suzuka, with its unique figure‑of‑eight design, is one of the jewels in F1’s crown and hosts its 30th Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday.

There is an atmosphere here that can be perceived almost from the moment the iconic ferris wheel comes into view. Some of Formula One’s most thrilling encounters have taken place here in the 29 meetings since 1987. Suzuka is where the best are tested and success is held in the highest regard.

The circuit combines a requirement for inch-perfect judgment with a reward for pushing to the limit and a fearsome risk for anyone found wanting. This is the sort of challenge drivers relish. From heading down the hill into the right-hander of turn one, the uphill esses swiftly follow, an exercise in threading the needle at high speed. A lap can be made or lost taking the curves.

That sequence is only the beginning. Dunlop, the Degners, the Hairpin and Spoon each present their own tests before the glorious sweep through 130R. Stand at the latter and it is impossible not to hold your breath as cars spear across the left-hander at speeds that seem to defy a direction change taking place at all.

The track was designed as a test circuit for Honda by the Dutchman John Hugenholtz in 1962. His creation puts every aspect of driver and car under the spotlight and has fittingly gone on to provide the backdrop to some of the grandest of F1 theatre.

The title has been decided here 12 times and the sport’s greats have all made their mark. There have been gripping battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen. There was Fernando Alonso taking Schumacher through 130R in 2005, a race where Kimi Räikkönen came back from 17th for the win by passing Giancarlo Fisichella on the final lap. Damon Hill showed his mastery in the wet in 1994 and, emotionally, there was the sheer ecstasy of the crowd when Kamui Kobayashi claimed a podium spot at home in 2012.

1989 Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna’s increasingly bitter rivalry as McLaren teammates comes to a head as they clash at the chicane. Prost is out but Senna is push-started and wins, only to be excluded post-race for cutting the chicane. Prost takes the title.

1990 The two again face off in Japan. Prost takes advantage going down the hill into turn one. Senna is ruthless, ploughing into a nonexistent gap that takes both of them out and ensures the Brazilian takes his second drivers’ title.

1994 Damon Hill would win the title at Suzuka in 1996 but he ranks beating Michael Schumacher in wet conditions so bad the race is held in two parts as his finest achievement. He is exceptional in conquering the regenmeister.

2000 Mika Häkkinen and Schumacher vie with one another across the weekend. They yo-yo in qualifying before the Finn takes pole but in the race itself Schumacher leapfrogs him in the stops before taking Ferrari’s first title for 21 years.

2005 Wet qualifying mixes up the grid and newly crowned champion Fernando Alonso celebrates by passing Schumacher at 130R. The race is defined however by Kimi Räikkönen’s win from 17th, sealed on the final lap by his bold move on Giancarlo Fisichella at turn one.

Hill remembers Suzuka as demanding and terrifying, a circuit that would bite you and thus all the more rewarding. “That was probably the toughest race of my life,” he said of the win in 1994. “It was hugely special, the race where I drove to my highest level ever. It was more satisfying because it was at Suzuka. To beat Michael in those conditions – I think I could hold my head up and say I reached the top.”

Sebastian Vettel echoed his words on Thursday. “It’s my favourite track,” he said. “It’s one of the original tracks that haven’t been messed with. The feeling you get in the car is probably the best all season.”

The fans bring this heady mix to the boil. Walking the circuit is to be embroiled in a carnival atmosphere of celebratory enthusiasm that F1 would surely love to bottle and export. Three million people applied for tickets for the Prost-Senna rematch in 1990 and the sight of them filing out in almost complete silence after Jules Bianchi’s accident in 2014 was moving and unforgettable. The track has recently signed a contract for three more years. It deserves another 30.

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