Suzuka is a bit special for everyone

Not all the drivers may like the Japanese food, and even fewer the mammoth 15-hour plane journey away from the comforts of home in Europe, but every single one of them agrees that Suzuka is one of the best circuits of the season. Jonathan Noble investigates

Suzuka is a bit special for everyone

While the home of the Japanese Grand Prix lacks the terror-inducing claustrophobia of Monaco, or the single focal point like Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps, it does provide a sequence of challenges and technical difficulties unrivalled by many other facilities on the calendar.

As world champion Michael Schumacher declared shortly before getting on-board his plane to Japan: "Suzuka is one of those circuits that you look forward to, because you know that it's challenging to drive there.

"Even with the alterations made there last year the course is still demanding for us drivers, and it's no secret that I really like that. I'm really eager to find out what it will be like driving there this year - last year, for example, the 130R-corner that we had wanted to slow down a bit was quite uneven after the modifications, and therefore ended up being even more difficult to drive.

"And the chicane was a little fast, which made the braking-distance very short, and so the possibilities to overtake weren't really improved as we had planned. Still, the circuit in Suzuka is one of my all-time favourites. I've experienced a lot there, good and bad, so driving there is always really special for me."

So what is it about Suzuka that makes it universally liked? The answer probably lies in the fact that the track throws up so many unique challenges - meaning those drivers that love high-speed ballsy corners are satisfied, those who prefer technical intricacy love the Esses and those who love late-braking overtaking opportunities adore the chicane.

It is a track that demands respect - and where local knowledge of its finer points can often pay dividends. It was no coincidence that Eddie Irvine proved so competitive in his F1 debut at the track in 1993, having clocked up thousands of miles there racing in Japan beforehand.

In terms of getting to see a Formula 1 car up-close and on the edge there are few better places to watch than 130R - even if the corner is not as spectacular as it once was following safety modifications made after Allan McNish's terrifying crash there in 2002. In fact, the corner no longer has the 130-degree radius that gave it its name!

Standing from the bank on the inside of the circuit it is possible to get within a couple of metres of the cars as they hit nearly 200mph on the long run out of Spoon Curve and turn at unabated speed through the long left-hander. It is hard to describe just how easily and swiftly the cars change direction, apparently on rails, as they head off towards the chicane.

Last year, however, even though the turn was less of an angle the corner was exceptionally difficult because of bumps on the track surface just on the racing line. For a car like the 2003 Williams, McLaren or a Ferrari it was not too much of a handful - but for the poor guys in a Minardi you could sense them hanging on for dear life every time through.

Spectacular as 130R is, it is not key to a lap at Suzuka. That, instead, is mostly dictated by form through the Esses that make up the opening sequence of corners on the lap. The endlessly flowing left-right-left-right-left combination demands a well-balanced car and extreme precision from the drivers.

Nigel Mansell famously paid a heavy price in 1987 when he got it all wrong through the Esses and threw away his world championship hopes as he smashed into the barriers - but even the smallest of mistakes on any of the corners can prove expensive.

Renault's director of engineering Pat Symonds claims that the Esses is perhaps unique in F1 in that mistakes tend to be compounded through the sequence - meaning a small error in the first left-hander (Turn 3) will throw a driver off-kilter until four corners later, because mistakes tends to get exaggerated with each change of direction.

"The Esses, from turn three to turn seven, represent approximately 20% of the lap distance, but 27% of the lap time," says Symonds. "Indeed, if the grip of the cars was increased by 5% for the entire lap, 44% of the improvement in lap-time would be generated through this series of corners.

"It is a critical section of the circuit, and made all the more difficult because a small error early in the sequence of five corners can be compounded throughout the turns that follow to become a large time loss at the end of the sector. For the rest of the lap, Suzuka consists of discrete corners where a mistake only penalises you in one corner. The Esses are a different challenge entirely."

Suzuka has it all - and has been a worthy place to settle many world championship fights in the past. This year the battle for title glory may be over, but 20 men still cannot wait to get out and prove just who is best on a track where they know they can make a difference.

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