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Race Day : October 12th 1997

McLaren and Bridgestone could be Schumacher’s last chance of championship hopes.

The unfortunate incident at Luxembourg involving the brothers Schumacher, has spoiled what might have been a thrilling finale to the 1997 season as yet again drawing the short straw, Suzuka brings the simmering cauldron of Formula 1 to the boil. Williams have shot to the front in the constructor’s chase in the past two races and their position looks unassailable with a mere six points needed out of the forty remaining, the mould has gradually formed in the latter half of the season, and, in Japan, it is about to be set in stone. Those same two races have taken Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, from ten points down, to nine ahead, leaving Michael Schumacher the nigh-on impossible task of re-establishing Ferrari’s early season dominance.

Most doubt that it will happen but, Schumacher is Schumacher and his end of race sentiments in Luxembourg echo the utterances of every driver who has ever been nine seconds down on a count of ten in the ring with only two rounds to go. "We’ll fight to the end." He said. "You never give up whilst it’s mathematically possible to win." As the man standing above him, set to raise Villeneuve’s hand aloft when the bell clangs, pauses at his calculator to prove him wrong, the diminutive Williams driver cannot help but show his competitive fangs in a mild gloat. "We’ve put 19 points on Michael in two races and I’m sure he’ll remember that going to Suzuka." Indeed, that will certainly be at the top of Michael’s agenda. But a focused Schumacher is an extremely dangerous adversary and as the Japanese grand prix has proved over and over again, there will be drama, there will be outrage and there probably will be a Champion.

Amid the razzmatazz of Ferris wheels, swimming pools, hotels, golf courses and restaurants at the Motopia amusement park, lies the fast and sweeping figure of eight circuit of Suzuka. Although only a recent host to Formula 1 it has become an important venue for the resolution of the drivers’ world championship.

Built in 1962 as a test track for Honda motorcycles, it was Conceived by John Hugenholz, the Dutch engineer who was also responsible for the circuit design at Zandvoort and Jarama. Suzuka is a mixture of long fast corners, power straights and short testing curves and is much favoured by drivers who can demonstrate their abilities of maintaining maximum momentum whilst keeping at bay the nausea caused by the winding nature of the track, reversing as it does, its clock-wise direction at the tight left hand Hairpin, after passing under itself at roughly half distance.

Gary Anderson, Jordan Peugeot’s technical director explains it thus. "It’s a real drivers circuit, like Spa, with corners that flow into each other." He said. "Drivers enjoy this and it will be a pleasant change from the ‘stop start’ of the last couple of circuits. The balance of the car is very important. The track is demanding because you have to keep the momentum going throughout the lap. Grip levels are reasonable and the downforce is medium to high."

Previously held at Mount Fuji on two occasions, the third F1 Grand Prix In 1987 witnessed the culmination of a battle for the Championship between Mansell and Piquet with a close following Senna. A bad crash in Qualifying put Mansell out of the race and while Piquet only finished in 15th position, the points gap was enough to make it impossible for Mansell to challenge at the Final race in Adelaide.

Honda took a one - two with McLaren in 1988, Senna narrowly pipping Prost not only to the flag but also, by three points, to the title. The president of the engine empire, Saichiro Honda was there to acknowledge the honours for Japan.

1989 saw the disintegration of all niceties between Championship contenders Prost and Senna. Speculation was rife that Prost took Senna out on Lap 46 so clinching his third Crown and, adding insult to injury, even though Senna won the race he was disqualified for taking a short cut after his coming together with Prost. Therefore in a reversal of roles in 1990, he took what was possibly a suicidal inside line on the first corner and wiped out the Prost’s chances of clinching the title.

Another ‘need to win’ race by Mansell in 1991was curtailed with a spin, so giving Senna his third title also, but in a rather vehement post race criticism of out-going FIA president, Jean Marie Balestre, he openly admitted to running Prost of the road the year before to settle the championship. Suzuka had once again lived up to its reputation for controversy.

A magnanimous if rather public gesture by Mansell in 1992, to give the winning honours to team mate Patrese - by practically stopping on the track in an obviously orchestrated manoeuvre to allow the Italian through - ended embarrassingly a few laps later with a blown engine. The Irony being that Patrese would therefore have won anyway.

Violence erupted at Suzuka in 1993, with Ayrton Senna striking New boy Eddie Irvine for ‘blocking’ tactics and, as the 1994 season reached its penultimate race, Damon Hill drove magnificently in torrential rain to take the win and the battle for the World Championship title on to Australia.

The downhill race to the first corner will be a heart stopper and if the Williams or the Ferrari are anywhere near each other then it will be the finest of lines between tragedy and defeat as one tries to close the door on the other.

Rumour has it that Ferrari have hastily put together a new electronic throttle control system that first made its appearance - under protest ironically, from the Scuderia itself - with McLaren. If it fails and it’s reliability is in question, then Schumacher has nothing to lose. David Coulthard and more recently, Mika Hakinnen have been putting in lightening quick getaways and Schumacher’s only hope is the speed of the similarly equipped McLarens. If they can provide a buffer between the two rivals, then there is a chance that Spain will see the outcome of the title.

Bridgestone have performed well in recent testing at their home circuit and could prove to be a helpful hindrance to the Williams duo by putting their slower runners amongst the points. Also, a few damp minutes before the start, or a rainy race could be all the incentive Schumacher would need to take those awe inspiring risks. The race at Suzuka has been won before by drivers putting their bravado to the test where others have taken the softer option as Damon Hill will recall in 1994.

Sadness too, for the currant champion, who has watched all his records for last year underwritten by his successors. A year like 1996 will probably not come his way again and it has been an inglorious season in which to bathe in his well deserved achievement.

As the Ferris wheel spins and the monorails speed their thrill-seekers to points all over the vast amusement park, the irony will not be lost on Villeneuve that last year he also came to the circuit 9 points down on Champion elect Damon Hill. A last chance to capture the crown by winning the race was scuppered by a loose nut causing a wheel to travel further in the race than he did. Williams will not be making that mistake again and, if also like last year Schumacher finishes second to the Canadian, he will be congratulating a champion from the podium for a second year in a row.

It is however all conjecture. The wonderful thing about Formula 1 this year, has been the unexpected, and there are so many permutations and twists of fate as to make this race result as diverse as the rest have been. Schumacher has to keep the points difference at 9 or under to take the title to Spain but as they commence their final battle, like the Samurais on who’s ancient soil they participate, Spain will not be in their thoughts. Neither driver has wanted, or needed, a win as much and it will be interesting to see which of the Warriors, both deserving of Formula 1’s grand prize, falls first.



Chris Richardson




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