Japanese GP: preview

The problem for the Fuji Speedway is that Suzuka is in the same country. For as long as that magnificent track exists, Fuji will remain in Suzuka’s shadow. It was with great reluctance that F1 moved last year but it’s fair to say that Fuji has not been as bad as everyone expected.

The last visits by F1 to Fuji had been in 1976 (when James Hunt won that memorable championship) and 1977. A lot has changed since then.

Toyota, understandably a bit miffed at everyone waxing lyrical about the Honda-owned Suzuka track, did the obvious thing, bought the Fuji Speedway and spent a zillion Yen bringing it up to speed. They did an excellent job. The facilities are first rate, the paddock has a nice feel to it and the track itself, while being relatively straightforward, has enough tricky bits – particularly the final uphill section – to keep a driver’s
attention.

But it’s not Suzuka, arguably one of the world’s greatest race tracks.

Where Fuji does score is location. Last year, we saw very little of the surroundings thanks to mist and rain visiting all three days of practice and the race. They told us Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, was
overlooking the track, but we had to take their word for it.

This year, the imposing profile of the extinct volcano has been clearly visible thanks to sunny skies and mild weather on Thursday and Friday. Yet, despite the magnificent surroundings and a situation just 70 miles from Tokyo, Fuji fails to attract spectators in great numbers. I spoke to the owner of a concession stall and he said Fuji does a sixth of the business generated at Suzuka.

Suzuka may be attached to an elaborate fairground but, otherwise, the circuit is set in an unappetising industrial area which is a two hour Bullet train ride from Tokyo and an impossibly tricky drive by road. Yet
the place buzzes with atmosphere for four days, the fans queuing for hours to get in and then strip the concession stands (despite outrageous prices) on a daily basis.

The sales area behind the main grandstand at Fuji today had all the atmosphere of a Silverstone car park on a wet Wednesday. For Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, all that matters is the ten points for the winner on
Sunday. For many, though, the return to an upgraded Suzuka in 2009 cannot come quickly enough.

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