Just like sailing
Monaco, because all the clichés are true, and to witness first hand racing cars travelling at speeds of 190-plus mph on streets that are as narrow as the ones we live on is an experience of which one never, ever tires. The plastic yachts, look-at-me sports cars and the overly preened and pampered people are a side show of course, but all add to the unique atmosphere of this glittering grand prix weekend.
Monza. Wonderful Monza. I know it sounds excessively romantic and rather misty-eyed in tone, but there is no other racetrack on the planet where one is so aware of what has gone before. Our knowledge of the men who’ve raced at terrifying speeds on the royal park’s tree-lined Tarmac, and the heroes who paid the ultimate price, seems to give one a very real sense of how unique this place is. Warm, autumnal light always adds to the ‘special’ F1 grand prix weekend feeling, and I defy anyone to stand at the bottom of the old banking, look up, and not shudder at the thought of racing cars going wheel-to-wheel high on its precipitous edge.
For the European Formula 1 fan the Monaco and Italian Grands Prix are the two that – when asked – I always suggest enjoying at least once. For the diehard fan with maybe a little – actually a lot! – more money to spend, you can do the above two if you like, but if you’re really serious you’ll know where you should be heading for your ‘special’ F1 fix. The greatest grand prix racetrack of them all: Suzuka International Circuit.
Sure it’s not the oldest venue we visit, it’s certainly not the most glamorous – you won’t find stiletto-heel-wearing gals on super-yachts here!
What you will find is a unique track layout, challenging corners, gradients that rise and fall, enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans who have a devotion to their heroes like no others, and an almost calm atmosphere that one doesn’t get at other circuits. Perhaps the unending politeness, incredible order and spotless cleanliness of the Japanese people have an effect on the mood. Whatever it is, Suzuka is the sum of all its distinctive parts, and I love the place.
When the cars are on track the 130R corner gets so much of the attention. A little puzzling given that this flat out left-hander isn't quite the challenge it used to be, but I guess understandable given that so many media-room-inhabiting ‘opinion formers’ almost never venture farther than the cosy F1 paddock confines.
130R is OK but really the magic of Suzuka's layout is about so much more. It begins with the wickedly fast downhill plunge into Turn 1, a tricky late-corner braking into Turn 2, feeding into the majestic sweeps of the five varying-radius turns that make up the left, right, left, right and left of the esses, a complex of corners that rewards precise placement of the car and the tricky art of left foot braking. Exiting Dunlop, the final ‘s’, the cars approach the viciously fast Degner 1 corner. As they enter at almost 180mph, a violent bump on the apex pitches the flat out cars towards red-and-white-painted kerbs and slippery bright green astro turf beyond. This right-handed corner is one of the finest of the year to see just which cars work and which don’t. Negotiate Degner 1 in a rapid and smooth fashion and a good lap time will likely ensue. Make a mess of it, compromising your entry to the immediately following – and much slower – Degner 2, and the lap is lost. A few corners on and the oh-so-aptly named Spoon Corner (’cause that's what it looks like on the map!) awaits.
As I stood – last Saturday afternoon– with a view of the corner’s entry, such was the Mercedes W06 Hybrid’s awesome speed and perfectly placed kerb-kissing line – for the first of Spoon’s two apexes – during Qualifying ‘3’, I would have put my house on Nico Rosberg’s lap being a pole time. Rarely have I seen a car so hooked-up and fast through a corner. Rosberg’s competitors looked pedestrian by comparison.
The Suzuka circuit rewards a smooth and flowing driving style, important at every track of course, but seemingly amplified here. Lewis Hamilton’s perfect post-race description that racing around Suzuka is ‘like sailing’ summed it up precisely.
Post-race and watching the bright green lights of the ferris wheel flicker into life against a cloudless sky rapidly changing from orange, through red to an iridescent tone of purple, the Japanese fans all around me began their journeys home.
If you’re deciding where to watch your next ‘live’ F1 grand prix consider the best one of them all. Consider Suzuka.
You’ll never regret it…