The Ascent of Suzuka
While in his helicopter flying over the rice fields south west of Nagoya, the Japanese industrialist and Honda Motor Company founder, Soichiro Honda, found what he was looking for: a new location for the latest Honda factory and test track. Honda purchased it and the company set about planning a track that would allow the company’s latest cars and bikes to be put through their paces. A telegram was subsequently dispatched to Dutch race track designer John Hugenholtz with the simple words: “Please come to Tokyo. Soichiro Honda.” The result was probably one the most easily recognisable circuit layouts in the World – yet it could have all turned out very differently…
Initially, the company laid out designs for a fast and very flat layout dominated by two long straights (layout 1 below). As a test track, it delivered everything the company could need but it failed to inspire Soichiro Honda. Therefore he turned to the circuit-designer-of-the-moment, John Hugenholtz. Circuit director at Zandvoort, Hugenholtz was responsible for Jarama, Zolder, Nivelles and Hockenheim’s stadium section among other projects but it would be Suzuka that he would be best remembered for.
“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,” recalled his son, GT racer Hans Hugenholtz. “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.”
Not only did the cross-over appear in Hugenholtz’s thoughts from his very first plans but there were in fact no less than three of them, with the track coiling around itself through a complex series of hairpin bends where the now the famous ‘Esses’ would eventually reside.
From left to right: Original design proposal; Hugenholtz’s first design of 26 August 1960; Modified plan after an inspection tour of Europe, 16 January 1961; Hugenholtz’s design of 29 January 1961; survey map from 29 May 1961; the finalised design of 15 January 1962. Layouts not to same scale.
The twisting, opening complex was soon dropped from the plans, initially in favour of a tight hairpin complex before the sweeping ‘Esses’ began to take shape. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the track, the ‘Spoon Curve’ evolved out of a series of tight radius bends while the curving fly-over was progressively tightened until the iconic corner with a radius of 130 metres arose.
The final design was completed in January 1962. From it’s early beginnings, with three crossovers, the circuit had evolved into a flowing design that looks as right in the ‘flesh’ as it does on paper. It had intense turns, fast straights and dramatic changes of elevation – in short it was just too good to restrict to the company’s testing programme. Honda opened up the track to racing, with the first race being won by future Lotus team manager, Peter Warr.
It would be 1987 before the circuit would finally join the Formula One calendar, Gerhard Berger taking victory and Nelson Piquet the World Championship – the latter before the race had even begun after Nigel Mansell crashed out during practice. By then, minor changes had already taken place with the chicane, famous as the scene of the Prost/Senna collision, now added. The really fast Degner Curve had also become two corners, to produce a safer but, in many ways, more challenging section. Later, 130R would be modified into a double apex bend in the name of safety, while there would be tweaks to the chicane and the ‘Esses’.
However, Suzuka still remains one of the most breathtaking circuits to grace Formula One.