Japanese Grand Prix
One of the most popular events on the F1 calendar, the presence of Honda and Toyota on the grid ensures the Japanese Grand Prix is also one of the most important. Hosting 23 races over a period 32 years, the Fuji Speedway and the Suzuka Circuit will share the event on an alternate basis from 2009 onwards, and with its position at the foot of the calendar often leading to the resolution of many title disputes, its glowing reputation for classic races is destined to continue for years to come.
Although it is the Suzuka Circuit, with its unique figure-of-eight layout, that often springs to mind when speaking about the Japanese Grand Prix, it is the Fuji Speedway that actually had the honour of hosting the first-ever event back in 1976.
Situated 40 miles from Yokohama, the original high-speed circuit, defined by its huge home straight, lies beneath the magnificent Mount Fuji, providing arguably the finest backdrop of any event.
Nonetheless, its proximity to one of the world’s largest volcanoes was a defining factor in that inaugural event, the micro-climate effect of the surroundings often resulting in extreme weather conditions, in this case monsoon rain.
Always promising to be a race to remember when it set the scene for the resolution of that year’s World Championship between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, the atrocious weather conditions served to throw another significant element into the mix.
Indeed, Lauda, who was still recovering from his horrific smash at the German Grand Prix just months before, chose to withdraw from the flooded race, placing his life above that of the championship. Hunt raced on, knowing he only needed a third place finish to snatch the title, a feat he duly achieved to take his one and only championship by a single point.
A year later and Hunt returned to win this time, but the race was marred by a collision between Gilles Villeneuve and Ronnie Peterson, one that saw the Canadian’s Ferrari vault the barriers and kill two spectators.
Formula 1 didn’t return to Japan until 1987, following the creation of Suzuka, a Honda-owned circuit set in the midst of a fun-fair. Thrilling drivers with its challenging layout, its role as a title decider returned from the first event with the resolution of the feud between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell determined, when the latter crashed in practice and withdrew from the remainder of the weekend.
Perhaps Suzuka will be best remembered though for the 1989 and 1990 spats between arch-rivals, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. In ’89, Prost famously said before the race, that he would risk retirement in the race if it meant he secured the title, a claim he would live up to when he shut the door on Senna, putting them both off the circuit.
While Prost retired, assuming he was champion, Senna continued but was later disqualified – from the lead – when he was deemed to have cut the chicane whilst recovering from the collision with his McLaren team-mate. A year later, Senna duly returned the favour, the two crashing into one another at the start, ensuring the Brazilian would secure his second world title.
The season-ending slot would go on to make Suzuka the focus of attention on many occasions, with Damon Hill, Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher all triumphing when it went down to the wire.
It meant that there was much trepidation when it was announced the race was switching to Fuji from 2007. Bank-rolled by Honda’s rivals, Toyota, and featuring a revised layout, Fuji with its more up to date facilities had a lot to live up to when it welcomed back Formula 1 for the first time in 30 years.
Although arguably lacking the atmosphere of Suzuka, the race was relatively well received, even if it very nearly descended into farce when fog and rain threatened to see the race called off.
Nonetheless, with Lewis Hamilton winning an exciting, if shorter, race, Fuji has already produced some memorable moments in the three races it has hosted so far. Even so, the controversial loss of Suzuka will see it back on the calendar in 2009, when the Japanese Grand Prix begins a race rotation system, much like Germany.
Japanese Grand Prix II (Pacific Grand Prix)
Fuji and Suzuka aren’t the only Japanese circuits to have hosted a Grand Prix. Indeed, the popularity of Suzuka and the growing importance of the Japanese market helped the country get a second event at the TI Aida track, under the moniker of the Pacific Grand Prix.
An unusual setting for a race, the circuit was situated close to Kobe, but could only be accessed by slow and twisting mountain roads, a matter made more difficult in 1995 when the city was devastated by an earthquake. Still, despite the circuit itself being poorly received, thanks to its tight layout that didn’t make overtaking particularly easy, more than 100,000 people attended over the two years it ran. Those two races, in 1994 and 1995, were both won by Michael Schumacher.
Nonetheless, after an absence of more than a decade on the motorsport scene, TI Aida will actually host its first global event this year, welcoming the World Touring Car Championship for the first time, albeit under the new name of the Okayama Circuit.
Originally designed to be an American-style oval when it was commissioned in the 1960s, the Fuji Speedway was eventually completed as a 2.7-mile road course ahead of its F1 debut in 1976. After two events, the race was culled from the calendar, but the high-speed layout was still popular for world championship events in touring cars and sports cars up until the 1990s.
Slipping into merely hosting domestic championships, the circuit was consumed by motoring giants, Toyota, in 2000 and they set about redesigning and renovating it. Although the basic design isn’t all that different to the original, a more technical final sector is the most recent update and it has been extended to 2.9miles.
Starting off with the 1,475m home straight, it is the longest in the F1 calendar, with modern-day F1 cars on full-throttle for almost twenty seconds. Leading to a tight right-hander to promote overtaking, a drop down the hill takes the drivers to Coca-Cola, a tricky left-hander that is important as it leads to a loop that takes drivers back uphill and then downhill again.
Hairpin Corner follows as a tight left-hander, ahead of a long drive to the tight final sector, kicked off by a chicane and followed by a sweeping right, left and right again to take you back onto the straight. A good time here is key to a strong overall lap and was the scene of most of the action in the 2007 race.
Event of significance
Japanese Grand Prix 2007
Winner – Lewis Hamilton
Even though Fuji itself has only hosted three events over a period of 32 years, it remains remarkably difficult to pin-point exactly which one holds the most significance. On the one hand, the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix will go down in history for the way in which James Hunt overcame terrible weather conditions to claim the title, but it is Lewis Hamilton’s victory in 2007, in similar conditions, that will potentially be remembered as an all-time classic in years to come.
There was something quite dull about the move to Fuji from Suzuka, a fact exacerbated by the equally grey weather that threatened the weekend from the first day of practice. Indeed, rain first made its presence felt in qualifying, but with the circuit drying before its conclusion, Hamilton’s pole position was richly deserved nonetheless.
The next day was a more extreme matter though. When fog – which had already seen Saturday practice postponed a day earlier – descended from the mountains, the hope that the blanket would lift in time for the race looked less and less likely as the countdown to the race began. With persistent rain adding to the main gripe over visibility, the race still got underway, albeit behind the safety car.
Low-speeds were unable to shift the standing water and with drivers complaining of zero-visibility even behind the safety car, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the race would be annulled.
And yet, almost without warning, and after 19 laps at barely any speed, the race finally got underway. What ensued was a surprisingly settled affair, particularly in the opening laps, with damaged wings rather than full-blown accidents emerging from the cluttered first few bends. Hamilton was not troubled up front though, his clear road ahead allowing him to forge ahead.
With the rain, which was still falling, allowing those more confident behind the wheel in slippery conditions up the field, an unusual order emerged, with Hamilton leading Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, the latter of whom was competing in just his fifth event for Toro Rosso. His star-billing was ruined, though, when he hit the back of his Red Bull counterpart behind the safety car, eliminating both from the race and ending both his and the team’s fairytale story.
This was all behind Hamilton, though, and with title contending team-mate, Fernando Alonso, having already crashed out, the Brit made his fourth victory of the season look relatively easy (save for his clash with Robert Kubica), on his way to the title in this, his first season.
Further behind, Renault’s Heikki Kovalainen got his first ever podium in second, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn produced arguably his most significant drive of the season when he fought his way up the order, after a tyre blunder from his Ferrari crew set him and team-mate Felipe Massa back in the early stages. Had he not passed David Coulthard in the closing stages, he would not have been crowned champion.
A bizarre fact…
The rather unusually muted atmosphere of the Fuji Speedway, especially compared to the fun-fair surroundings of Suzuka, has been put partly down to a bizarre decision not to allow fans to take flags and banners into the circuit – unless they were supporting Toyota that is.
An ode to the manufacturer that bought and renovated Fuji, it was reported that there was confusion between circuit officials and marshals, with the former claiming it was their intention to ban all flags and banners regardless and the latter believing only Toyota paraphernalia were allowed.
In addition, several spectators in ‘Stand C’ at the first corner were given their money back, after it was discovered that they couldn’t see much of the action due to the weather conditions, while a chaotic paralysing of the shuttle systems meant access to and from the circuit was atrocious throughout the weekend. At least the racing was good!
Year; Driver (Nat); Team; Location
1976 – Mario Andretti (USA) – Lotus-Ford – Fuji
1977 – James Hunt (GBR) – McLaren-Ford – Fuji
1987 – Gerhard Berger (AUT) – Ferrari – Suzuka
1988 – Ayrton Senna (BRZ) – McLaren-Honda – Suzuka
1989 – Alessandro Nannini (ITA) – Benetton-Ford – Suzuka
1990 – Nelson Piquet (BRZ) – Benetton-Ford – Suzuka
1991 – Gerhard Berger (AUT) – McLaren-Honda – Suzuka
1992 – Riccardo Patrese (BRZ) – Williams-Renault – Suzuka
1993 – Ayrton Senna (BRZ) – McLaren-Ford – Suzuka
1994 – Damon Hill (GBR) – Williams-Renault – Suzuka
1995 – Michael Schumacher (GER) – Benetton-Renault – Suzuka
1996 – Damon Hill (GBR) – Williams-Renault – Suzuka
1997 – Michael Schumacher (GER) – Ferrari – Suzuka
1998 – Mika Hakkinen (FIN) – McLaren-Mercedes – Suzuka
1999 – Mika Hakkinen (FIN) – McLaren-Mercedes – Suzuka
2000 – Michael Schumacher (GER) – Ferrari – Suzuka
2001 – Michael Schumacher (GER) – Ferrari – Suzuka
2002 – Michael Schumacher (GER) – Ferrari – Suzuka
2003 – Rubens Barrichello (BRZ) – Ferrari – Suzuka
2004 – Michael Schumacher (GER) – Ferrari – Suzuka
2005 – Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) – McLaren-Mercedes – Suzuka
2006 – Fernando Alonso (ESP) – Renault – Suzuka
2007 – Lewis Hamilton (GBR) – McLaren-Mercedes – Fuji
Lap Record (Fuji) 1min 28.193secs – Lewis Hamilton (McLaren-Mercedes)
Lap Record (Suzuka) 1min 31.540secs – Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren – Mercedes)
2008 Race Information
Race Date – 12th October 2008
Number of Laps – 67
Circuit Length – 4.563km
Race Distance – 305.416km
Lap Record – 1min 28.193secs – Lewis Hamilton (2007)
The Fuji Speedway can be accessed with flights to Narita Airport, Central Japan International Airport and Kansai International Airport. Onward travel to the circuit from here is by train, followed by a 20min taxi ride.
From Tokyo metropolitan area – About 65 minutes on the Tomei Expressway, followed by 15mins from Gotenba
From Shizuoka/Nagoya – About 65 minutes on Chuo Expressway to Kawaguchiko, followed by 15mins on Fuji-goko road. Change roads at Subashiri and travel for another 10mins
From Kofu – About 45mins on Chuo Expressway to Kawaguchiko, followed by 15mins on Fuji-goko road. Change roads at Subashiri and travel for another 10mins
Get the bus to Gotenba Station, which is a 20min taxi ride from the circuit. Taxis cost approximately 3,500yen.
Get the train to Gotenba Station, which is a 20min taxi ride from the circuit. Taxis cost approximately 3,500yen.
Fuji International Speedway Co.,Ltd.
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