By Adam Tate, Associate Editor
The Japanese Grand Prix was first held all the way back in 1963 as a sports car race, it did not become an official Formula One Grand Prix until 1976 on and has been held 30 times since. The first two grands prix were at Fuji speedway near Tokyo, including the dramatic 1977 title decider where James Hunt won the World Championship over Niki Lauda. The race then dropped off the calendar for 10 years before it moved to its spiritual home of Suzuka Circuit in 1987 where it was held every year until 2006, before Fuji had another two race run in 2007 and 2008. The race returned to Suzuka in 2009 and has been held there every year since.
Suzuka was built in 1962 to serve as a test track for Honda Motor Company and encircles a popular fair ground, hence the famous Ferris wheel. Designed by the legendary John Hugenholtz who also created famous tracks such as Zolder, Jarama, and a redesign of the Hockenheimring. Suzuka however, turned out to be his masterpiece. The flowing, high speed track has been a perennial driver’s favorite and has seen more than its fair share of controversy and great racing, including the infamous title showdowns of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989 and 1990. The track features 18 turns over 3.6 miles and is unique in the fact that it is one of a very few tracks that has a figure eight layout in which one part of the track goes over another on a bridge. The current lap record, a blistering 1:31.540 was set by an inspired Kimi Raikkonen behind the wheel of the fast, but flawed McLaren MP4-20 when he chased down Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella to win the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix.
While the track holds distant, fond memories for Raikkonen, it has been a very happy, very consistent hunting ground for his Ferrari team mate Sebastian Vettel. Vettel has four poles, four wins, and seven podiums at the circuit in eight races. He relishes in the challenge of the track and has stated numerous times that it is one of his favorites. His friend and mentor Michael Schumacher is the all time leader at Suzuka with five poles and six wins. Title rival and championship leader Lewis Hamilton has surprisingly never set the pole position at the track and has only won there twice, in 2014 and 2015. Despite their history Hamilton still has the advantage going into the weekend due to his 34 point lead in the championship. All the Mercedes man needs is a strong points finish to keep his German rival at bay on Sunday.
However, going into the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix, Vettel was 29 points behind Fernando Alonso in the championship, before he won the race and went on to claim the championship. Hamilton cannot simply rest on his points advantage, if he can fight Vettel at the front he will need to. If the Malaysian Grand Prix is any indicator this weekend could be another three horse race between Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull. If Vettel can win and Hamilton gets stuck behind the Red Bulls, the championship fight will close back up and likely go to the final round in Abu Dhabi. Conversely, if Ferrari slips up again and Hamilton wins, it is highly unlikely that Vettel will be able to catch back up and win the championship.
Like many times this season, last year’s winner; 2016 World Champion Nico Rosberg will not be able to claim a repeat victory.
McLaren-Honda however are desperately hoping to improve upon last year’s performance that saw Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button both finish a lap down. Though the McLaren, Honda partnership is set to end in little over a month’s time, the Honda execs present at the home track would relish in a face saving performance by Alonso or Stoffel Vandoorne.
The Japanese Grand Prix has been the title decider 13 times in its 30 races, and though it is too close for that to be the case this weekend, Sunday’s race could still be a pivotal moment of a very unpredictable season. Can Ferrari clean up their act and get a strong finish? Will Hamilton, who has not had a DNF yet this season run into misfortune? Can Red Bull keep pace with Mercedes and Ferrari again, or will they fall back to third in the pecking order? There is a lot to play for this weekend, and Suzuka Circuit always has a surprise or two up its sleeve.