This weekend sees Formula One drivers and teams head east once again, to Japan, Land of the Rising Sun. Round 17 of the 2019 FIA Formula One World Championship will be the 35th running of the Japanese Grand Prix.
The first ever Japanese Grand Prix was held in Fuji in 1976. American Mario Andretti took a commanding victory with Lotus-Ford in the inaugural race by crossing the finish line first with an advantage of a full race lap. However, that race is remembered for the title decider between Niki lauda and James Hunt.
The Austrian had returned to racing in record time after his terrible crash at the Nurburgring and he came to Fuji with a three point lead over McLaren’s James Hunt. However, that 24 October is remembered for the atrocious weather, with rain falling incessantly and the Austrian decided to stop after just two laps. In the end, James Hunt secured a third place which was enough to claim the champioship title by a single point.
In the following year, the field headed to Fuji for the second time. After leading every signle lap of the race, James Hunt took the victory in front of Carlos Reutemann.
Following the first two races, Japan was taken off the Grand Prix calendar. The Land of the Rising Sun returned in 1987 at a new venue, Suzuka, which hosted the Grand Prix exclusively for 20 years and gained a reputation as one of the most challenging F1 circuits. In 1994 and 1995, Japan also hosted the Pacific Grand Prix at the TI Circuit, making Japan one of only seven countries to host more than one Grand Prix in the same season.
In 2007, the race moved back to Fuji after a hiatus of 30 years. Lewis Hamilton won the third race held in Fuji in treacherous conditions in very poor visbility due to heavy thunderstorms. Fernando Alonso was victorious in the following season with Renault. After just two races in Fuji, the owners of the Fuji Speedway, Toyota announced that it would not host a race in the next year due to global econimic problems. The event moved back to Suzuka which has hosted the Japanese Grand Prix every year since 2009.
Schumacher once again
Michael Schumacher holds the record for most wins in the history of the Japanese Grand Prix. The German scored a total of six victories, one for Benetton and five more for Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton is the second most successful driver in Japan with five triumphs. The Briton won the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix in Fuji in his debut year in Formula One and enjoyed a run of success with Mercedes in the hybrid era of the sport. Since 2014, he has only lost out once when his then teammate Nico Rosberg cross the finish line first.
Sebastian Vettel has won on four occasions with scoring all his victories driving for Red Bull. The German recorded a long run of success as well which he started in his first year at the senior team of Red Bull. Between 2009 and 2013, Vettel only failed to win the race in Japan in 2009.
Behind the three most successful drivers in Japan, the list of the other multiple winners consists the likes of Gerhard Berger, Fernando Alonso, Mika Häkkinen, Damon Hill and Ayrton Senna.
Among the team, McLaren is the reigning force in Japan. The Woking-based outfit has scored nine times. Ferrari is the second most successful team with seven triumphs followed by Mercedes with five wins. Red Bull are a four-time winning outfit in Japan while Benetton and Williams have both scored three wins apiece. The only other repeat winning constuctor is Renault which scored both its two wins with Fernando Alonso behind the wheel.
Real test for the aerodynamics of the car
The Suzuka circuit challenges every aspect of F1 car design and set-up, and will expose any weaknesses. Aerodynamic efficiency is crucial in the first half of lap, while the second half puts more emphasis on horsepower. The narrow ribbon of asphalt contains an unusually even distribution of corner types, from very low- to very high-speed turns.
The start-finish line ends in a curvature where drivers have to apply the brakes while turning the steering wheel to the right. With Turn 2, the run of S-shaped bends awaits the car where it is essential to have great aerodynamic downforce in the never-ending, elongated medium-speed corners. This part of the track also tests the cars’ ability how it reacts to the quick change of directions.
The uphill section of Turn 7 taken at full speen leads to the end of the first sector. The duo of Turn 8 and 9 usually present a huge challenge to the drivers. Both Degner corners tempt drivers to brake on the very limit. A slight mistake under these two challenging braking zones can end in tears.
After exiting the second Degner corner, the track goes under a bridge which is part of the back straight. Turn 11 is the famous hairpin where the back of the cars is usually nervous. A good traction out of this slow corner is key as the next long section is taken full throttle before drivers complete the duo of the medium-speed Turn 13 and 14 known as 'Spoon'.
The exit out of Turn 14 is once again critical as drivers arrive to the longest full-throttle section of the 5.807km circuit. The famous R130 corner is also taken without touching the brake pedals in qualifying trim. Turn 16 and 17 form a tricky chicane with high kerbs. Drivers usually travel agressively over the kerbs to spend the least amount of time in this slow section and to carry as much speed as possible onto the start-finish straight.