The rivalry between two of Japan’s leading carmakers, Toyota and Honda, is renowned, states Iain Robertson. Both are world players. Both have, at times, lead the new car sales charts in North America. Both are serious employers and manufacturers possessing important North American plants. Interestingly, both have experienced varying degrees of success in Formula One, although only Honda can lay claim to greater ‘ownership’ than its key competitor and the fact that it is the Honda Test Track at Suzuka, which plays host, solely, to the annual Japanese GP.
// Every Little Boy's Scalextric
The great invention of Freddie Francis, a British toy innovator of the 1950s, was a guided track-based model car racing system. Initially produced from pressed tin-plate, with wind-up clockwork motors, the racing cars and their rubberised track were marketed as ‘Scalex’. Of course, it was essentially a simple system running on a limited number of track sections that clipped together to produce an oval circuit.
Yet, within a couple of years, Francis had harnessed electricity, running through a step-down transformer, which would introduce power to the in-track guides, now set into plastic moulded sections. The electric motors built into the plastic 1/32-scale cars were tiny and unsophisticated but the system had legs and the demand grew, even though it was far from inexpensive, even in its early days. Strangely, it always managed to bridge a gap between being a toy for children, yet something that older people (parents, usually the male of the house) wanted to play with. The new electrified product was called ‘Scalextric’.
Through various ownership transformations, usually as a result of demand outstripping supply potential, Scalextric survived and it remains one of the most popular of track-based racing systems. One of the earliest, most popular and least costly toy track layouts was a ‘figure-of-eight’, which coincidentally is the primary layout of Suzuka Circuit, the only racing circuit in the modern F1 calendar possessing a crossover element.
Scalextric has been used to recreate model circuit layouts worldwide for many years now. Technology has advanced its development to such a level that racing on the plastic tracks can be exceptionally realistic and innumerable slot-racing clubs exist around the world. Even the wide range of cars is now digitised, can be tuned and gain various tyre compounds to enhance the traction, just like the real thing. Sadly, the original Scalextric USA shop in Tacoma, Washington, was closed in 2007. However, another shop front in Auburn, Washington, is now the North American showcase for Scalextric slot cars, tracks and accessories, of which there are many.
// ORIENTAL ENTHUSIASM
While motor racing fans worldwide can be exceptionally ardent, demonstrating their enthusiastic support for drivers, teams and the entire circus in various ways, the Formula One lot are almost as ‘prestigious’ as the sport of Grand Prix racing itself. They will deign to show up at lesser formulae meetings but their true fascination is directed at F1 predominantly. In Japan, they assume a level of racked-up support that verges on hysteria.
If you had always believed that the Italian ‘tifosi’ were the ultimate supporters, sleeping, eating and working hard to enjoy their vocal and physical hyperactivity, then you would scarcely be able to comprehend the fanaticism that exists in Japan. While a degree of partisan support has always been reserved for Japanese racing stars over the years, were Messrs Hamilton, Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso and the rest to wander along Japanese streets unaccompanied, they would soon be surrounded, nay, swamped by ever-so-polite Japanese people of all ages and all social backgrounds, bowing deferentially, requesting autographs respectfully and wanting to be touched simply, by these gods of the circuits.
In 1990, no less than three million fans entered a national lottery for the 120,000 available tickets for the Grand Prix.
Motorcars have long and illustrious histories in Japan. Of course, the Second World War did create something of a hiatus and it took the impoverished and defeated nation some time before it was able to resurrect its manufacturing businesses, many of which had to be started from scratch. Naturally, the West played its part and, while exports of Japanese cars and pickup trucks to Europe and North America did not commence in earnest until the late-1960s, their respective manufacturers matured and grew their businesses into worldwide success stories.
As mentioned earlier, both Toyota and Honda have played a major role in popularising Japanese products. While Honda owned the fairground park at Suzuka, some 50 miles south-west of Nagoya, within which was a test track for its cars, Toyota had invested in the Fuji Speedway, some 40 miles due west of Yokohama.
Interestingly, it was Fuji that provided the base for the first and second Japanese Grands Prix in 1976 and 1977. However, Japan was removed from the F1 calendar for 1978 and not returned until a decade later, when it made its reappearance at Suzuka Circuit, in 1987. While other smaller venues do exist on the islands, a lesser-known track, the TI Circuit Aida, also known as Okayama International Circuit, did play host to the Pacific Grands Prix of 1994/95, both won by Michael Schumacher. In the process, Japan became one of the six countries to accommodate more than a single F1 race in any given year. However, its remote location at Mimasaka played against it and, while it still holds international events, it is unlikely to see F1 again.
Toyota’s short run of GPs in 2007 and 2008 ended, when the company announced a year later that the global economic downturn dictated that Fuji’s continued use as a Formula One venue had to be curtailed, as its auto business might have suffered. It has been suggested that the Hermann Tilke revisions made to Fuji’s circuit layout never met with the drivers’ accord. Thus, the home to the Japanese Grand Prix is now Suzuka Circuit, where the races have been held predominantly over the past quarter of a century.
// DRIVING THE ‘EIGHT’
Known to be a challenging track, possessing some exceptionally charismatic corners, its place in the F1 calendar is fairly secure, not least because no fewer than thirteen World Champions have received their crowns at Suzuka. When it was the final event of the series, as a place to play out the last points-gathering opportunity of the season, when all of the computations were taken into account, the races were never less than tightly contested, titanic battles, often between just two but occasionally a handful of drivers.
Mansell versus Piquet. Schumacher versus Hakkinen. Yet, the most infamous ‘ding-dong’ sessions occurred between French driver, Alain Prost, and his Brazilian rival, Ayrton Senna. In both the 1989 and 1990 races, this pair managed to crash out in controversial circumstances, despite being team-mates in the Marlboro-McLaren equipe. Both were vying for Championship glory on either occasion, the results of which are exceptionally well-publicised on YouTube and every imaginable on-line record of the period.
The vast majority of today’s drivers love Suzuka. There is invariably a party atmosphere at the venue and the fans, despite their hysteria, are immensely supportive and truly enjoy the annual experience. Offering some interesting gradients and challenging sequences of bends, you can rest assured that this year’s race will be every bit as exciting as most of them have been this season.
The circuit runs clockwise, with the pit-lane on the inside. The start commences on the main straight, with a drag-race down to Turn One, the cars braking hard from around 165mph to take the fast-right. Unlike the Tilke-designed tracks (Suzuka was originally outlined by John Hugenholtz, a circuit designer from Holland), a very tight or hairpin bend does not exist at the end of this straight, although it does course into a second right-hand apex at Turn Two, which is much tighter. This section is often called ‘First’.
Demanding third gear, the cars will accelerate from around 90mph to around 150mph in sixth, in readiness for the S-Curves. This next complex is a left into a right, into a left and another right-hander (Turns 3 to 6, the latter also known as Gyaku Bank) at speeds between 110 to 125mph. If the circuit is wet, care will need to be taken here, as the balance of the car is utterly crucial to negotiating the bends properly and readying the car for the Dunlop Curve (Turn 7) a fast double-apex to the left.
Another short straight allows a minor respite, before reaching the right-hand Degner Curve (Turn 8) at around 110mph, braking gently and shifting down to third gear for Turn 9, which is an even tighter right-hander that opens onto a short straight beneath the crossover of the circuit. The drivers will be experiencing around 2.8g on entry to this section, in the dry, still pulling 2.0g on the exit.
Turn 10 is a right-hand deflection scarcely worth mentioning, before the cars have to endure maximum braking for the left-hand Hairpin at Turn 11, taken in first gear at around 45mph. As you will have gathered, the cornering forces being applied at Suzuka are substantial.
There is a slight downhill from the Hairpin down to the right-hander at Turn 12, also known as 200R, by which point they will have reached almost 180mph in seventh gear, pulling around 2.5g around this lightly cambered corner. Along the short straight-away into the magnificent Spoon, which consists of two left-hand bends (Turns 13 and 14), the second of which is markedly tighter than the first, the cars will top 190mph for the first time, although they will have to shave off almost 60mph in readiness for the 2.5g entry.
Now reaching the fastest part of Suzuka, the cars drift out to the right-hand edge of the circuit from Spoon, as they head towards the crossover and the almost frighteningly fast-left Turn 15, also known as 130R. At this point, most of the cars will top 200mph, as the drivers cling on, in seventh gear, pulling almost 3.0g. The speed trap on the exit of 130R usually records velocities in excess of 195mph, as the cars course back towards the pit straight.
Known as the Casio Triangle, the final deviation is actually no less than three separate bends, Turns 16, 17 and 18, that start with hard braking and a slow right entry to the first of them, before a second gear and 50mph left-hander, from which the cars accelerate through the final right-hand bend and return to the start-finish line. The entry to the pits, off to the right, is just before Turn 16 and drivers returning to the fray take the pit exit just before Turn One on the main grandstand straight.
With just six rounds of the 2012 Formula One Championship remaining and South Korea, India, Abu Dhabi, Texas and Brazil set to follow Japan, ‘silly season’ has already commenced. Hamilton’s salary and conditions dependency, will still rely on Schumacher taking the retirement pill. Perez is linked with everybody from Williams to Ferrari, while Di Resta could make the move from Force India to McLaren, or Ferrari, given half a chance.
However, we should direct our minds, as should the drivers, towards concluding what continues to be one of the most enthralling Grand Prix seasons of the modern era. Japan is among those final steps but there is still so much more to come.