Japanese GP – Suzuka Story

The Japanese Grand Prix is a race in the calendar of the FIA  Formula One World Championship. Traditionally one of the last, if not the last race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix has been the venue for many title-deciding races, with 13 World Champions being crowned over the 27 World Championship Japanese Grands Prix that have been hosted.

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The first Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix, in 1976, was held at the Fuji Speedway, 40 miles (64 km) west of Yokohama. The race was to become famous for the title decider between James Hunt and Niki Lauda as it was held during monsoon conditions. Lauda, who had survived a near-fatal crash at the German Grand Prix earlier in the season, withdrew from the race stating that his life was more important than the championship. Hunt scored the 3rd position he needed to win the title by the slender margin of one point. Hunt returned the next year to win the second Japanese Grand Prix, but a collision between Gilles Villeneuve and Ronnie Peterson during the race saw Villeneuve’s Ferrari somersault into a restricted area, killing two spectators. The race did not reappear on the Formula One calendar for another decade.

On Formula 1’s return to Japan in 1987, the Grand Prix found a new venue at Suzuka circuit, 80 kilometres (50 mi) south west of Nagoya. The circuit, set inside a funfair, was designed by Dutchman John Hugenholtz and owned by Honda, who used it as a test track. Most notable initially for its layout—Suzuka is the only figure-eight race track to appear on the F1 calendar—immediately it saw another World Title decided, as Nigel Mansell injured himself when he crashed his Williams-Honda in practice and consequently could not start the race, effectively handing the title to his team-mate Nelson Piquet.

Suzuka will always be chiefly remembered, however, for the legendary feud between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. During the 1989 Grand Prix, Senna tried to overtake Prost to keep his Championship hopes alive, only for Prost to shut the door as he had stated before the race, saying he would not be giving up the position simply for McLaren not to be embarrassed by a double retirement. Prost was beached and got out of his car promptly, knowing he had won the championship whilst Senna got a push from the marshals. It was deemed, however, that he had cut the chicane and eventually disqualified after making his way up to the lead and being first on the track. He was infuriated by the decision, as shown in a video of the pre-race drivers’ briefing the following year, as fellow driver Nelson Piquet argued it was dangerous for a driver to go against the traffic just to make the chicane. At the ensuing 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, Senna mimicked Prost’s statement of the previous year saying he would not move over if Prost attempted to overtake in the first corner — Senna started at pole, with Prost second (albeit on the racing line) —, resulting in the two crashing out and thus handing Senna his second world championship. Both drivers have been accused of crashing into the other deliberately and thus the two situations as well as their comments after both incidents have tainted both driver’s reputations in the eyes of most but die hard fans.

From its return to the Formula One calendar in1987, the Japanese Grand Prix was one of the most popular with spectators. For the 1990 race, three million fans entered a draw for the 120,000 available tickets, due to the popularity of Honda’s world championship successes as an engine supplier to the Williams and McLaren teams, and the fact that the country had produced its first full-time F1 driver in the shape of Satoru Nakajima After Nakajima’s retirement in 1991 and Honda’s withdrawal from competition the following year, interest went into decline despite the addition of the Pacific Grand Prix to the F1 calendar, an event also held in Japan during the 1994 and 1995 seasons. The  1995 Japanese Grand Prix was the first for which the allocated tickets did not sell out. Subsequently, the appearance of new Japanese drivers such as Takuma Sato and the entry of Honda and Toyota as full manufacturer teams has restored the event to its former popularity.

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The late 20th and early 21st century have seen a number of other, rather more sporting duels for the Championship at Suzuka, most memorably those between Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. The most notable of these was at the 2000 race, where Schumacher took advantage of his superior speed in damp conditions during a mid-race rain shower to secure the race win and his first World Title for Ferrari — his third in all.

At the 2003 Japanese Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher endured one of the most trying races in his career — needing to come at least eighth, he started at fourteenth on the grid — but managed to secure the point he needed to take his sixth World Championship, beating the record held by Juan Manuel Fangio. At the 2006 event Michael Schumacher led until an engine failure virtually ended his chances of an eighth championship.

The qualifying session for the 2004 Japanese Grand Prix, due to have been held on 9 October, was postponed until race day after a typhoon hit Suzuka. This led to the idea of holding qualifying sessions on a Sunday morning . The 2005 race was one of the most exciting races of the season after many top drivers started near the back of the grid after the qualifying in variable weather. Kimi Räikkönen won the race after starting from 17th place, overtaking Giancarlo Fisichella at the beginning of the last lap.

It was announced on March 24, 2006 by the FIA that future races will again be held at the redesigned Fuji Speedway in Oyama, Sunto District, Shizuoka Prefecture. The news of the Japanese Grand Prix moving to the circuit redesigned by Hermann Tilke was met with some trepidation, as Suzuka was a favorite of many of the drivers and Hermann Tilke’s tracks have received mixed reviews from the drivers and the fans.

On 8 September 2007, it was announced that Fuji will alternate the Japanese Grand Prix with Suzuka, starting from 2009 onwards.

The 2007 race was held in torrential rain and started behind the safety car. Lewis Hamilton took the victory while his team-mate Fernando Alonso crashed heavily. Heikki Kovalainen finished 2nd, his best result until that date and Kimi Räikkönen 3rd, marking the first time that two Finnish drivers were together on the podium.

In 2008, the first corner brought troubles for the McLarens and the Ferraris, and Fernando Alonso was able to take win in a Renault. Felipe Massa was 7th after a penalty for a collision with title rival Lewis Hamilton, while Hamilton finished outside the points, having also served a penalty for an incident in the first corner.

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In July 2009, Toyota cited a global economic slump as the reason that the Japanese Grand Prix would not return to Fuji Speedway in 2010 and beyond. The speedway argued, according to the Associated Press, that “continuing to host F1 races could threaten the survival of the company.” As a result, the 2010 Grand Prix was held at Suzuka. image

Sebastian Vettelsecured his second World Championship in the 2011 Grand Prix with a third place finish, McLaren’s image

Jenson Button  won the race wearing a special tribute helmet to the people affected by the 2011 Töhoku earthquake and tsunami.The helmet featured a design in the style of the Japanese flag, and he auctioned the helmet off afterwards to raise money for those caught in unfortunate circumstances during the times of the tsunami earlier that year.

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