Japanese Grand Prix history 04 Oct 2004
Formula One racing first arrived in Japan in 1976 at the Fuji International Speedway. The track was originally conceived as an American-style superspeedway, with a road course inside it.
However, funding ran out before the banking could be completed, leaving a 5.95 kilometre (3.7 mile) circuit with one very long straight and one banked turn. By the time the first Japanese Grand Prix took place, the layout had been shortened and the banking bypassed. The inaugural race was still a memorable one though. It saw James Hunt finish third in atrociously wet conditions to clinch the 1976 title from Niki Lauda, who, like several others, decided the lack of visibility was just too dangerous and pulled out in the early stages. Lotus's Mario Andretti won, over a lap ahead of the second-placed Tyrrell of Patrick Depailler.
In 1977 it was Hunt first past the flag, this time in sunny conditions. However, the result was overshadowed by an accident in which a marshal and a spectator lost their lives. Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari somersaulted into a prohibited area after colliding with the rear of Ronnie Peterson's Tyrrell. The Japanese Grand Prix never came back to Fuji, though a young Michael Schumacher did win the Euro-Fuji-Macau Formula Three challenge there in 1990.
In fact it was to be another decade before Formula One racing returned to the country, this time at the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit, 30 miles outside Nagoya. With its unusual figure-of-eight layout, and ultra-challenging corners such as the 130R, the track was a big hit with the drivers.
The first event there in 1987 saw Nigel Mansell pull out after a practice accident, effectively handing that year's drivers' title to Williams team mate Nelson Piquet. The race itself saw victory for Ferrari's Gerhard Berger, from the Lotus of Ayrton Senna and the McLaren of Stefan Johansson.
Senna went one better in 1988, winning from McLaren team mate Alain Prost. The following year saw the first infamous clash between the pair as Senna, who had to win to keep his title hopes alive, tried to pass leader Prost into the chicane. Their McLarens ran off track, locked together. Only Senna managed to rejoin the circuit and the Brazilian went on to win. However, he was subsequently disqualified, handing the championship to Prost and the Japanese victory to Benetton's Alessandro Nannini.
The two rivals collided again in 1990. Senna started on pole, with Prost's Ferrari alongside, but by the first corner both were in the gravel. The incident meant Senna was champion, though he was later to admit that he had intentionally driven his opponent off the track. Nelson Piquet went on to lead home a Benetton one-two ahead of Roberto Moreno.
Gerhard Berger was victorious again in 1991, after McLaren team mate Senna moved over to gift the Austrian the win. In 1992 it was Williams and Ricardo Patrese, who scored the last of his six Grand Prix wins after team mate and pole-position man Mansell retired. Senna was back on top in 1993, making the most of his under-powered McLaren-Ford to triumph in changeable weather, ahead of the Williams of Prost.
The 1994 race came down to a straight fight between the Williams of Damon Hill and the Benetton of Michael Schumacher. The German had the upper hand before rain led to a series of accidents and the race being stopped. After the restart, Hill fought back to win, setting up that year's title decider in Australia.
The following season though, it was Schumacher on top of the Japanese podium. Starting from pole position, he won by almost 20 seconds from the McLaren of Mika Hakkinen, with Benetton team mate Johnny Herbert a distant third.
For 1996, the Australian Grand Prix was moved to the start of the calendar, making Japan the season finale. Both Williams drivers arrived at Suzuka with a chance of the title, but it was Hill who triumphed, fending off the close attentions of Schumacher for victory after team mate Jacques Villeneuves hopes had ended in the gravel.
The 1997 race was another Schumacher-Williams battle, but this time it was the German who came from 13th on the grid to take the chequered flag, just over a second clear of compatriot Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Villeneuve, who had qualified his Williams on pole, finished fifth, but the Canadian, racing under appeal, was disqualified for a yellow-flag offence in practice.
Suzuka hosted another title decider in 1998, this time between Hakkinen and Schumacher. The pair started on the front row, with the Ferrari on pole. However, a puncture for Schumacher 20 laps in ended his chances and Hakkinen went on to win from the second Ferrari of Eddie Irvine, wrapping up his first world crown.
An imperious Japanese win for Hakkinen the following year saw him secure back-to-back championships, with the Ferrari pair of Schumacher and Irvine joining him on the Suzuka podium.
Schumacher took revenge in 2000, winning by under two seconds from his Finnish rival. The duo had qualified on the front row and proceeded to clear off into the distance in the race. David Coulthard finished third in the second McLaren, well over a minute down on the leaders. Schumacher's success brought Ferrari their first drivers' title in 21 years.
A fourth Japanese victory for Schumacher in 2001, this time from the Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya, saw him become the highest points scorer in the history of Formula One racing. He took yet another record 11 wins in a season with his 2002 victory, leading home a dominant Ferrari one-two, while in 2003, a scrappy eighth place for Schumacher was enough to secure that Fangio-beating sixth drivers title, as Ferrari team mate Barrichello took the chequered flag.