Some races just have a feel good factor; Suzuka is top of that list.
It doesn’t really matter who you talk to, it’s virtually impossible to find anyone working in Formula One who doesn’t look forward to the Japanese Grand Prix. The drivers all like the circuit; the crews enjoy working in front of the crowd who cheer every practice pitstop; it’s good for photographers, and TV gets great action shots. It is, pretty much, the perfect circuit.
Which goes to show, planning isn’t everything. Suzuka was designed as a test track, rather than a race track. The famous Dutch designer Johannes ‘John’ Hugenholtz created the figure-eight layout for Honda in the 1960s, and it’s lacking some of the usual traits of modern racing as a result. It’s very narrow, for example, which makes passing very difficult.
Not that overtaking is essential for excitement. Suzuka is one of those circuits where a car driving in free air generates excitement simply by being on track. The Esses and Dunlop at the start of the lap are one of the best places on the calendar to watch F1 cars extracting maximum performance (Maggotts-Becketts-Chapel at Silverstone is another), while the Degner Curves demand absolutely perfect car positioning every lap, and the slightest lapse in concentration means a visit to the wall. As for the other corners, every one is a challenge. There’s at least half a dozen that would be the signature turn at any other track – but at Suzuka they just keep on coming in a relentless onslaught in every shape and size. Suzuka tests everything: if your car isn’t good in high-speed, low-speed, medium-speed, long corners, short corners, on straights and in chicanes, forget it.
The wildcard tends to be the weather. It’s an unavoidable reality that, having the Japanese Grand Prix so late in the season means bad weather is a regular factor in the race. In recent seasons, we’ve been running a wet race about one year in every two. Happily, the pitlane is contoured so the water runs down the slope towards the pond at Turn One – rather than off the wall and into the garages, which seems to be the norm at most circuits.
It does not, however, dampen the spirits of the crowd, who are some of F1’s most ardent and loyal followers. The grandstands – particularly the one opposite the pits – are full from early morning until late in the evening – and on Sunday it’s not uncommon to have a crowd watching pack-down, with the sealing of each cargo container greeted with applause and a cheer. You don’t get that anywhere else. Suzuka really is special.
And it’s been good to us over the years. We’ve had four victories at Suzuka, all courtesy of Sebastian Vettel, in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013, though it’s the one he didn’t win, finishing third in 2011 that possibly gave Seb the most joy, as it sealed his second Drivers’ World Championship. We also had five pole positions in a row, with Seb taking P1 from 2009-2012, and Mark Webber adding 2013. Aside from the victories, we’ve had seven other podium finishes in Suzuka, including a double podium last year, with Max second and Daniel third. Max was second the year before as well – and he’d absolutely love to go one better this time out.