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Cherry blossoms and champions: Suzuka still sets F1 pulses racing
F1 Sport

Cherry blossoms and champions: Suzuka still sets F1 pulses racing

Suzuka, the host of Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix that has long been considered one of Formula One’s greatest circuits, beloved of drivers and fans alike, simply has it all. A storied history of high drama and thrilling racing on a majestic challenge that sweeps and undulates with the landscape of the Mie prefecture where it is built. It is the perfect combination of risk and reward, where the bold and exacting shine but which has retained its fearsome reputation of being unforgiving of error. A classic and in the modern era, an old-school circuit indeed.

Suzuka recently extended its contract with F1 until 2029, a decision widely welcomed given the recent proliferation of anodyne street circuits. Max Verstappen made his F1 debut in practice here in 2014 having just turned 17. The world champion’s admiration is informed by there still being genuine jeopardy at Suzuka.

“It’s definitely one of my favourites,” he says. “It’s quite intimidating the first time you actually drive around the track, that’s how I found it. Because it’s so narrow, if you make a small mistake, you can go off in the grass or gravel. It just adds a bit more to it than some other tracks where you can run wide. So you definitely need to be really aware. If you push a bit more, you risk a bit more that you can really go off and crash the car. That makes it very special for me.”

This season has felt like something of a rebirth for the revered figure-of-eight track, which held its first Japanese GP in 1987, as it is the first time it has been used so early in the campaign. If it is not to be the season’s concluding meeting as it was on so many memorable occasions, with that honour now seemingly forever in the iron grip of the petrodollars of the soulless Abu Dhabi, then an early spot in the spring, with all to play for still in the championship and teams still feeling their way into a new season, is a worthy place for this formidable and fascinating venue.

As if to mark the occasion, Sunday’s race has coincided with cherry blossom – the Sakura – season, so along with the usual throngs of enthusiastic fans flooding into the track, pink and white flowers have peppered the surrounding countryside of this largely rural, seaside area overlooking the Ise bay, visible on a clear day looking down the slope into turns one and two.

McLaren driver Oscar Piastri in action with a view of cherry blossom in the background.View image in fullscreen

A place of great beauty, then, but where there has been tragedy too, it should not be forgotten. It is a decade since Jules Bianchi suffered the accident that would ultimately cost him his life. He went off in heavy rain and poor visibility at the quick Dunlop curve and hit the recovery vehicle that was removing another car from the track. Bianchi would die from his injuries the following year.

Fortunately F1 learned lessons from the tragedy and Sunday’s race promises much because Suzuka is a circuit defined by its glorious corners. The Esses, a sweeping uphill sequence of four undulating bends with a slight banking that can make or break a lap, the Degners, the Hairpin, Spoon and the fearsome 130R, a left-hander taken with full commitment to test a car like perhaps no other, although turn one at Sebring is similarly gripping.

Nowadays it is perhaps easy to assume drivers enjoy the purpose‑built enormodromes with state-of-the-art facilities, but the reality is they are thrill junkies, as ever they have been, and those corners make for one hell of a ride.

Damon Hill (right) claimed a glorious victory in the wet against Michael Schumacher in 1994.View image in fullscreen

“There’s undulations, cambers, all things which race tracks have and city tracks don’t really have any more,” says Williams’ Alex Albon. “Suzuka is just uncompromising. There’s really not much run-off, it’s white lines and grass. So you enjoy that as a driver to be able to feel that adrenaline when you’re driving and to know that to go quicker, you need to put a bit more on the line.”

Little wonder, then, that the 3.6‑mile track has returned so many classic moments. It was designed as a test circuit for Honda by the Dutchman John Hugenholtz in 1962. His creation puts every aspect of driver and car under the spotlight and has fittingly gone on to provide the backdrop to some of the grandest of F1 theatre.

Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna go head to head during 1988’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.View image in fullscreen

There was Ayrton Senna’s comeback from 14th in 1988 after a stall at the start, reeling Alain Prost back in to take the win and his first title. Then subsequently their epic confrontations in 1989 and 1990, the latter attracting three million entries for a draw for the 120,000 tickets on offer. Damon Hill’s win in the wet in 1994, a race he cites as his favourite, driving in terrible conditions on instinct alone to beat Michael Schumacher in the rain at one of the world’s most demanding circuits.

Then there was Kimi Räikkönen’s charge from 17th to victory in 2005. The Finn’s finest moment? Well, it certainly is high on the list. The track simply seems to inspire more from the drivers. Long may it maintain its deserved place as a jewel in Formula One’s crown.

Source: theguardian.com