Evolution of Japan's finest
Ralf Schumacher powers around Suzuka, which could have looked very different if the original proposals were developed.
Picture: Toyota F1
Undoubtedly one of the world's finest circuits, Suzuka remains one of the most recognised too, thanks to its figure-of-eight design. But it could all have been very different...
When Honda decided it needed a test track to fine tune its motorcycles and racing cars, plans were laid out on rice fields. Based around a lake complex, the circuit was flat but likely to have been fast, thanks to several long straights. Yet somehow, it didn't seem quite right.
The solution was to get in some outside help. And who better than Europe's most prominent circuit designer, Dutchman John Hugenholtz.
How Suzuka could have looked if the original plans had been developed instead.
"My father designed Suzuka at the request of Mr Honda. I believe it was in 1961 that he received a telegram stating simply:'Please come to Tokyo, Soichiro Honda'," recalls his son, GT racer Hans Hugenholtz.
Gradient would be the key to the new track layout, with a potential site earmarked on a hillside near Suzuka City.
"My father went there and had a number of staff to help him and was given the plans of a large site. There was a 3D model of the site as well. As there were quite a number of hills and existing roads between the rice fields, he made a design that would give the least amount of earth to be moved, including the cross-over which was, and is, very unusual for a circuit.
"However, my father's opinion always was that a racing circuit must have a combination of different corners and challenges, so a cross-over was certainly possible."
Indeed the first plans included not one crossover, but three, with the track zig-zagging around itself after the first few corners, with a complex of hairpin bends on the site of what is now the famous 'Esses'.
"After the first sketches were made, they went to inspect the site with Mr Honda by helicopter," says Hans, taking up the story once more. "Once over the site, my father's first thought was that almost any design in that area would be impossible because of the many rice fields. But Mr Honda said: 'Tell me where you want the track, and we'll sort it out'.
Circuit evolution, from top:
1. 26 August 1960. First design.
2. 16 January 1961. Modified plan after an inspection tour of Europe.
3. 29 January 1961. John Hugenholtz designed plan.
4. 29 May 1961. Survey map.
5. 15 January 1962. Final design.
"So my father went back to the Honda office, made some changes and two or three days later they had another visit to the site. Where the new track was planned, all the rice fields had been buldozered away! The local farmers had been paid off by Honda and been given other sites for their fields."
Final designs were completed after the land survey - with only one cross-over in place - and the finished design was completed in January 1962. The first race was for sportscars and known as the Suzuka GP, being won by Peter Warr in a Lotus 23. Warr would later achieve more success as Lotus team manager.
The Grand Prix was confined to sportscars until 1969 and between 1971 and 1975 it was run for Formula 2 cars. But when the Japanese Grand Prix switched to Fuji, Suzuka resolved to get it back.
It took ten years - and a lot of Honda money - but in 1987 Gerhard Berger took an unexpected win on a modified circuit. The Degner Curve was modified to provide more run-off and the chicane - scene of the Prost/Senna collision - was added in 1983.
Today, Suzuka is much-loved by drivers as one of the most spectacular and challenging circuits.
"I went to Suzuka in 1998, racing the Viper, and was given the Royal treatment by the Suzuka Director, Mr Yamada, and Mr Kawashima who worked with my father on the plans," says Hans.
"Everybody remembered my father which made me feel very proud! Most F1 drivers still say it is one of the best circuits around, even though the chicane has been put in and one of the really fast corners (Degner) has been modified. But I can tell you from experience that it is a fantastic and challenging circuit!"
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