Saturday, 2 October 2010

Looking back: F1's first visit to Suzuka

Next weekend the F1 circus visits Suzuka for this season's Japanese Grand Prix - a track that all true fans of F1 eagerly anticipate seeing the cars on.

Such is the classic and challenging nature of Suzuka's fast sweeps, and its lack of modern sterility, it's easy to assume that the likes of Moss, Clark and Lauda pounded round the circuit in years past. In fact, the track was only used as a World Championship venue for the first time in 1987.

Indeed, the date of the track's opening stretches even further back - to 1962 (no gleaming new Tilke facility being brought onto the calendar here). It was designed by John Hugenholtz, who also gave Zandvoort to the world (he designed Jarama, Nivelles and Zolder as well - but for the sake of the point I'll ignore those!). But despite the staging of a couple of 'Japanese GPs' in its early years, Suzuka remained criminally undiscovered by much of international motor racing for the first quarter century of its existence.

The history of bringing an F1 race to Japan was equally haphazard. The track at Fuji, who were always more proactive than Suzuka in bringing international motorsport to Japan, held the first two F1 World Championship events in the country in 1976 and 1977. The first visit has gone down in folklore as the scene of James Hunt and Niki Lauda's championship showdown, held initially in monsoon conditions that resulted in Lauda quitting a couple of laps in on safety (or sanity) grounds. This left Hunt to dramatically claim the crown by taking third, having to pass cars frantically in the late laps, after a pit stop to replace a blown tyre.

The first visit to Japan was broadly considered a success, despite the inclement weather, though the second visit a year later was considered less so (even though the weather had improved). Without a championship battle to focus minds, travelling such a long distance at the end of a long season to what to them seemed a strange country suddenly seemed a chore to the F1 fraternity. The 1977 race was characterised by a small grid (only 20 cars had come from Europe - championship winner Lauda was among the absentees having fallen out with Ferrari before the previous race), and what Autocourse called something of a 'non-championship feel'. Indeed, first and second placed finishers Hunt and Carlos Reutemann caused embarrassment to all concerned by not even bothering to turn up to the podium ceremony, and first practice on Friday was delayed by several hours due to the absence of a doctor at the track. Difficulties in getting the event financially viable didn't help, and neither did two spectators being killed tragically, having, while standing in a prohibited area, been hit by debris from Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari which had vaulted the barriers after tangling with Ronnie Peterson's Tyrrell. These all conspired to ensure that the Japanese race was dropped from the F1 calendar.

The catalyst for Suzuka's debut as an F1 world championship event was Honda's return to F1 in 1983, which stimulated greatly increased interest in F1 in Japan. Honda, Suzuka's owners, brought the track up to the required F1 standards and the venue's first grand prix was included in the 1987 calendar, as the season's penultimate race.

After sampling Suzuka for the first time, drivers were soon gushing in their praise for the challenging 'new' track. Ferrari's Gerhard Berger said: 'I don't think I've ever enjoyed a new circuit so much in my life', while Benetton driver Thierry Boutsen likened it to Spa, another driver's favourite, calling the track: 'superb, but, also like Spa, it has one absurdly slow chicane!'

As in 1976, there was a championship battle to keep everyone occupied. It was a private Williams affair by now, between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. Mansell's chances did represent something of a long shot, having to win the final two races to have a chance (Piquet had a firm points lead, almost in spite of himself). Still, in a season where Mansell had achieved eight poles, six wins and had been fastest virtually everywhere, it seemed, winning the final two rounds was not entirely out of the question if everything held together.

Unfortunately, it became out of the question in the first qualifying session on Friday. On a reconnaissance lap, astonishingly, Mansell ran wide at one of the esses and spun. Having managed to brake and take off some speed, he hit the barriers backwards, which launched his car into the air before coming to rest. It looked at first glance the sort of impact that any driver would easily be able to hop out from, but Mansell had sustained back injuries as the car hit the ground. By Saturday night he was on his way back to Europe, thus handing the title to Piquet.

This was just the start of Suzuka's amazing knack of staging championship resolutions. And as it transpired, it wasn't to be the most unsatisfactory title resolution that the track would see...

To everyone's amazement after qualifying, and on Honda's back yard of all places, there was no Honda engine, the dominant power unit in that and subsequent seasons, and in 1987 supplying Williams and Lotus, on the first two rows of the starting grid. To quote Nigel Roebuck: 'In Japan Honda had had to confront what was no doubt unpalatable to them: without Mansell they didn't have true front runner, a likely pole man or race winner'. Indeed, post Mansell's crash Piquet's efforts for the rest of the weekend seemed even more underwhelming than usual - qualifying fifth, not being much of a factor in the race before retiring late on when his engine went pop. Berger, true to form, cheekily chipped into the debate: 'I don't think there's any pressure for Piquet to push hard now'. And while Ayrton Senna was up to the task, the lemon-like characteristics of the Lotus meant that seventh(!) on the grid was the best that the qualifying master could do.  Given Honda's unceremonious dumping of Williams for 1988, announced a few races earlier, there was some schadenfreude at all of this among the F1 press pack and elsewhere.

This left two big stories in the race itself, which was watched by a large and enthusiastic crowd of over 100,000 spectators, who had filled the grandstands by the early hours of Sunday morning. The first story was a red revival, with Gerhard Berger qualifying on pole and winning the race commandingly, which was Ferrari's first win for over two years (seems unthinkable these days, doesn't it?). Indeed, this was a culmination of a second half of the season in which Ferrari, inspired by designer John Barnard, had returned to competitiveness. From Hungary (race nine) onwards, Berger never qualified outside of the top three. He should have won two races already, having led at Portugal and Mexico, being denied victories by a late spin and an engine failure respectively. For all of the cynicism that Ferrari attract both now and at various points in history, it was difficult to not feel pleasure seeing the Ferrari mechanics' eager anticipation in the closing laps being replaced by an outpouring of joy as Berger took the flag.

As it transpired, it was something of a false dawn for the Prancing Horse, for while Berger was also to win the final race of the 1987 season, in Australia, in 1988 they were blown away by the McLaren-Honda MP4/4, much as everyone else was.

The other big story was the performance of Alain Prost. While coming in seventh a lap down looks underwhelming, it disguises what was among the top performances of even Prost's stellar career. Having started second, on the second lap Prost unfathomably picked up a puncture. This left him to complete almost a whole (long) lap at much reduced pace on three wheels, followed by a fairly tardy pit stop. The two conspired to put him almost two laps adrift. What followed was the sort of performance that is much more associated with Gilles Villeneuve than 'the professor', wherein he went fast for the sake of it, consistently lapping over a second faster than even Berger at the front (and he made up almost a lap on the Ferrari). His fastest lap was fully 1.7 seconds faster than the best from anyone else.

It's a reminder that, for all we associate Alain Prost with calculation, consistency and smoothness, it's a much less recorded fact that he was bloody quick as well.

In the meantime, Senna managed to salvage something from the weekend for Honda by dragging his Lotus around (on his back most probably) to come second, pinching the place from Stefan Johansson's fuel-starved McLaren on the last lap. Despite this relatively modest home success, thankfully Suzuka was here to stay.

Race results (among other things) on Wikipedia


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  2. Thanks very much for the kind words! Glad you liked the post - I had good fun putting it together! Thanks again.