Formula 1 returns to Suzuka this weekend for the Japanese Grand Prix – a race that has seen its fair share of title battles, of incredible racing, and incredible tragedy.
Set next to the East Philippine Sea, the Suzuka International Racing Course is a 3.609 mile-long, eighteen-turn track that snakes up and down the Japanese hills. It’s one of the few tracks with a bridge, and is the only one where drivers will be racing both above and below the bridge (discounting Abu Dhabi’s pit-lane bridge).
It held its first Formula 1 race in 1987, and this will be the twenty-ninth time it’s held a Grand Prix (the Japanese Grand Prix having moved to Fuji for 2007 and ’08).
It’s a fearsome track that’s caused drama and upset in the past, seeing champions crash, titles torn and heroes humiliated. Will we see it again this year? With the way the title race is shaping up, it’s likely.
Who Does it Suit?
Scuderia Ferrari have time and again favoured the fast, high-downforce tracks this season – their last win coming from the fast, compact Hungarian Grand Prix.
They were expected to do well at the Malaysian Grand Prix as well but, due to some technical issues, were unable to perform to their full potential. Suzuka should suit their car, with its fast turns and flowing nature. And the current driver with the most wins? Sebastian Vettel. Assuming they’re able to fix the recurring issues, Ferrari should be the team to watch.
Who Should you Watch Out For?
Last weekend’s surprise winners Red Bull Racing are on the ascendency, and following their win in Malaysia, could be a team to keep an eye on.
Daniel Ricciardo’s best result is a fourth whilst teammate Max Verstappen took the second step of the podium at last year’s race, showing the team have the experience needed for a good weekend. Assuming more Ferrari issues, they could shock again.
The History – Prost-Senna Suzuka Slams
1989 and 1990 saw two of the sport’s greats – Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna – have two very controversial collisions, with a title-deciding crash in 1990 still argued over to this day.
1989 – Senna Clashes with Prost
Senna and Prost were locked in a titanic battle for the lead, with Prost just about keeping in front of the Brazilian – until lap 46 of 53 that is.
Sensing a weakness, Senna launched himself down the inside of Prost coming into the final chicane, colliding with the Frenchman and taking both of them out.
Prost unbuckled and got out of the car whilst Senna, having been pushed forwards by the marshals, used the forward momentum to restart his car and continue down the escape road. He then went on to win the race though, controversially, was disqualified for missing the chicane. Prost won the title.
1990 – Senna Clashes with Prost (Again)
Controversy surrounded Suzuka again just one year later, with the two title contenders once again colliding.
Senna qualified on pole, with Prost on second. With pole position being on the dirty side of the track, it was widely believed that Prost, starting on the cleaner side, would get the better start.
Senna, fighting for the title and unhappy with starting on the dirtier side, vowed that should Prost pass him into the first corner, Senna would attempt to retake the lead regardless of the consequences.
The two collided, sending both drivers out at the first corner and handing Senna the title.
Whilst it’s unlikely to happen this year, could you imagine the fallout from the fans if it happened between this year’s title contenders? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Tragedy in 2014
For all Suzuka’s history, one incident stands out above the rest – the ultimately fatal crash involving Jules Bianchi.
Bianchi lost control of his car during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix in the tricky first sector under yellow flags, colliding with a crane and receiving devastating head injuries.
Bianchi’s was the first death during a Grand Prix since those of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna ten years earlier. The two deaths on that fateful weekend in Imola caused a raft of safety improvements to the sport and, following Bianchi’s death, more are on the way.
Formula 1 is implementing the Halo device as of next year in response to the crash, providing drivers with more head protection. Whilst it’s not designed to withstand a crane strike, more a loose wheel, it’s a lasting legacy for the impeccably talented Bianchi.
Who’s Where in the Championship?
As is no surprise for anyone who’s been keeping up with the sport, the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team are top of the table, with last week’s result pushing them over the 500 championship point mark. Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton extended his lead over the beleaguered Sebastian Vettel for the fourth consecutive race, leading the Championship by thirty-four points. Teammate Valtteri Bottas sits nearly sixty points behind in third.
Scuderia Ferrari will be hoping to put their Malaysia maladies behind them this weekend, having seen Kimi Raikkonen fail to start and Sebastian Vettel start from the back. Vettel is second whilst Raikkonen is a distant fifth in the Championship, over 100 points behind his teammate and on less than half of Hamilton.
Red Bull Racing’s surprise strong weekend may have been a boost for the team, but doesn’t change much in the standings. Daniel Ricciardo is still fourth, some twenty-five points behind Vettel, whilst Max Verstappen is still sixth, some thirty-nine points back from Raikkonen.
Sahara Force India F1 Team largely flew under the radar in Malaysia, only picking up real airtime when Sergio Perez scared Esteban Ocon into colliding with another car. Still, they’re in a secure-looking fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship, with drivers Perez and Ocon in seventh and eighth respectively.
Williams Martini Racing are extending their lead for fifth place, with drivers Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll residing in eleventh and twelfth place in the table. Whilst Stroll might have had a rough start (and an unfortunate, ultimately un-penalised incident last time out) he seems to be coming of age in the sport, and is now just one point behind the vastly experienced Massa. Could he overtake the Brazilian in his rookie year?
Scuderia Toro Rosso sit sixth in the Championship, unable to add any points to their tally in Malaysia. The team has drafted in Pierre Gasly in place of Russian Daniil Kvyat – as Gasly has been racing in the Japanese Super Formula for the season, will the added track knowledge help him this weekend?
Renault Sport Formula 1 Team sit seventh in the Constructors’ Championship, with drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer in tenth and seventeenth respectively in the Driver’s Championship.
Haas F1 Team had a torrid time in the heat of Malaysia, seeing Romain Grosjean taken out by a renegade drain cover and Kevin Magnussen insulted over team radio. They’ll be looking to atone for their poor performances this weekend.
McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team see Suzuka as their home track, which made driver Fernando Alonso’s “GP2 engine!” comments two years ago even harder to take. Alonso has, for the first time this season, dropped behind teammate Stoffel Vandoorne in the Driver’s Championship, so expect a punchy performance from the Spaniard.
Sauber F1 Team are at the bottom of the Constructors’ Championship, with drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson in eighteenth and twentieth respectively. Ericsson is so far the only driver to have not scored points this season, so he’ll be hoping to not become the new Esteban Gutierrez this weekend.
Should you Watch It?
Suzuka is a circuit about courage. Especially with this year’s cars providing so much downforce, the entire track will be a test of each driver’s mettle. Who will fight for every tenth, and who will lift and suffer? The race is stacking up to be a good one, and if it’s anything like the last one, we’re in for a treat. If not, then at least the fans are incredibly passionate and make cool hats.