Everybody in the team has a race they really look forward to – and for a great many, that race is Suzuka. The Japanese Grand Prix is just the best.
Suzuka itself is perhaps not the Japan people are expecting at first instance. It isn’t the busy urban Japan complete with the Bladerunner neon. Mie Prefecture, on the shores of Ise Bay, is a little gentler than this: it’s a mix of industry and agriculture, dotted with small, often sleepy, towns – but when the grand prix arrives, it becomes the centre of the racing world.
The Japanese Grand Prix is special for many reasons – but first and foremost has to be the circuit. In the 1960s Suzuka began life as a Honda test track and, as is proper for such a venue, it provides a thorough examination for car and driver. This it does very well indeed. It’s not uncommon for an F1 circuit to have a famous corner or two but at Suzuka they’re all famous: the Esses; Dunlop; Degner; the Hairpin; Spoon; 130R…
It makes for one of those circuits that drivers love attacking – but perhaps more so on Saturday than Sunday. The looping, dropping, rising figure-8 track is very narrow, and with the current generation of cars it’s become a difficult place of which to launch an overtaking move. This has, however, not diminished the passion shown in the grandstands. Suzuka is one of the best-attended grands prix in F1, with certainly the most enthusiastic spectators. It’s a great place to go to work.
Suzuka really does test a car to its limits, and the four-and-a-half years in which we had the best car are well represented with pole position five years in a row between 2009 and 2013 (Sebastian Vettel 2009-2012, Mark Webber 2013), of which 2010, 2012 and 2013 were front row lock-outs. Seb went on to win the race on four of those occasions. And while he missed out in 2011, he perhaps gets a free pass, driving a careful race to third and picking up the Drivers’ Championship as perhaps the ultimate consolation prize.
That is one of the eight other podiums we’ve scored in Japan. 2010 and 2013 were 1-2 finishes, with Mark following Seb over the line. Mark was unlucky to never get a Suzuka win. He bagged fastest lap in 2009, 2010 and 2013, while Seb managed another in 2012. More recently, Max has been on the podium in each of the last three seasons, with second in 2016 and 2017 and third last year. With Honda power this year, and a legion of fans urging him on, he’ll hope to stand on the top step this time around.