F1 drivers' favourite circuit: why they love racing at Suzuka


Suzuka is an F1 driver's dream, with high-speed twists, technical corners and an exhilarating 200mph sweep. Here's why the Japanese Grand Prix is so popular — in the drivers' own words


Norris heads into the S Curves

Clive Rose/Getty Images

For Lewis Hamilton, it features “the best rollercoaster ride that I’ve felt in a Formula 1 car”, while for Carlos Sainz it is “officially” his favourite track.

Max Verstappen admitted being intimidated on his first lap; Charles Leclerc loves the high-speed challenge of the first sector and, for George Russell, “the circuit itself is one of the greats that is always a real joy to drive.”

Ask drivers for their favourite track on the F1 calendar and the answers would be almost unanimous: Suzuka.


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Returning to the unique figure-of-eight circuit in 2022 after a two-year Covid-enforced absence, it was hard to tell whether they or the fever-pitched crowd of 200,000 were most thrilled.

“I am really, really excited,” Leclerc said last year. “I love the track, especially the first sector. For me, it’s really, really special. And it has something that you never find anywhere else. Also the passion of fans, it’s incredible.”

Built as a test track by Honda, Suzuka first appeared on the F1 calendar in 1987, and quickly made headlines, whether it was for Ayrton Senna‘s sensational comeback drive from 14th to win the 1988 race or the explosive 1989 and 1990 title-deciding clashes between Senna and Alain Prost.

But at least the warring pair could agree on a shared appreciation for Suzuka. In the words of current and recent drivers, this is why they love visiting the circuit so much.


The corners

Suzuka F1 'S Curves'

The iconic ‘S Curves’ provide a unique challenge

Grand Prix Photos

“Since I’ve known the track and seen it on TV, it’s one that hasn’t changed,” said Sebastian Vettel last year. The-then Aston Martin driver who witnessed first-hand the transformation of many modern tracks with the laudable goal of improving safety. “It’s a very fast track, a lot of fast corners. I think sector one is just the best part of track that I can imagine.”

Of course, Vettel is referring to the S curves. Coming after the tricky, tightening sequence of Turns 1 and 2, they consist of four fast and flowing corners with a slight banking, surrounded on each side by unforgiving bunker-like gravel traps.

This is what Hamilton refers to as a rollercoaster ride. And it bites hard if drivers get it wrong.

“It’s such an incredible challenge,” said Charles Leclerc last year, shortly before qualifying one hundredth of a second off Max Verstappen‘s pole time. “It’s such a high speed section and also corner after corner. If you miss one, then you miss the whole section. That’s what makes it so exciting to me, driving-wise.”

Nailing the S Curves in qualifying is key to setting up the perfect lap, but these can be more of an ordeal in the race when following leading cars through turbulent air.

“We really missed it,” added Verstappen. “It’s one of these last old-school tracks that when you make a mistake, and you go off, you are really off!”

Kimi Raikkonen, Japanese GP, 2013

130R at Suzuka is regarded as one of the best corners still on the F1 calendar

Grand Prix Photo

Sector two consists of more technical corners: “It’s a very high speed in Turn 8 [Degner] and then you try to brake as straight as possible four for Turn 9,” says Leclerc. Once through the hairpin (Turn 11), where locking the brakes is an ever-present hazard, drivers race towards Spoon (Turns 13 and 14) — named after the shape of the long 180-degree curve.

“Turn 13 and 14 are very tricky,” said Leclerc. “You never really know when to hit the apex in Turn 14, because it’s such a long corner and you’ve got so many different lines to take.”

Choose the right line, and you’ll have the perfect slingshot to perhaps the most exhilarating point of the circuit: 130R.

Despite the mundane name, referring to its 130 degree radius, the corner is taken flat out at more than 200mph. Few have dared to repeat Fernando Alonso‘s audacious pass on Michael Schumacher at the 2005 Japanese GP where he went side by side with the Ferrari driver, going past on his way to third in the race.

“130R is a bit of an Eau Rouge where the car is easy flat,” said Carlos Sainz. “But still gives you goosebumps every time you go through there.”

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost come together at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix

The championship decider at the final chicane: Senna and Prost clash at the Casio chicane in 1989


Within seconds of navigating the eyeball-popping 130R, drivers are braking down to just 40mph for the Casio Chicane, allowing for one final overtaking opportunity or a chance to close up to the car in front before heading back down to Turn 1.

A charging Kimi Räikkönen provided a brilliant example of the latter in 2005: the Flying Finn forcing Giancarlo Fisichella‘s leading Renault off line through the final sequence of corners and getting a better run down into Turn 1 — sweeping around the outside to capture a brilliant victory.

It has also been the site of great controversy and critical error. No more so than in 1989 when both Senna and Prost had a shot at the title and it was the latter who took the lead and the start and kept his McLaren team-mate behind for most of the race.

With six laps left, the pair darted towards the chicane; Senna around two car-lengths behind and Prost feeling comfortable, leaving the door wide open. Senna lunged, and got his front wheels alongside. Prost, the championship points leader, simply turned in early, locked wheels with Senna and took both out of the race…. or so it appeared.

As Prost climbed out of the car, apparently the world champion, Senna cajoled marshals into giving him an illegal bump start and then rejoined, crucially cutting the chicane. He crossed the line first but was later disqualified on the technicality that he missed the corner, and ceded the title to Prost.

The corner played host to the most recent championship decider too, when Leclerc locked up on the final lap in 2022 while battling Sergio Perez for second. He too cut the chicane and was handed a five-second penalty that dropped him behind Perez in the classification, leaving Verstappen with a championship lead that couldn’t be overhauled.

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The fans

Suzuka Japanese GP

Japan is home to some of the most enthusiastic fans the F1 calendar has to offer

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If you’re not racing at Suzuka, then the next best thing is to soak up the atmosphere from the grandstands, surrounded by the energetic and creative fans.

“The attention the sport gets when we come here is crazy,” said Vettel last year. “I got a little horse this morning! Not a real horse. They are very attentive, and they come up with very thoughtful gifts as well. Nice letters and nice messages.”

“I feel like every driver has some loyal fans here,” added Daniel Ricciardo. “They come out in full force with the apparel and costumes — there’s like a full size Sebastian Vettel race suit helmet already ready to go in the paddock earlier, so it’s fun.”

While attendance figures across the weekend are dwarfed by other venues — 200,000 people attended in 2022 compared to 400,000+ at Silverstone and COTA — the levels of enthusiasm more than compensate, particularly now that there is a Japanese driver to root for in Yuki Tsunoda.

“It’s a very cool thing” he said ahead of his first F1 home race last year. “But it’s really hard to imagine I’m driving here. Just four years ago I was one of the spectators watching these guys! I really didn’t expect this much support to be honest: there’s like huge pictures [of me] in the grandstand!”


The weather

Aston Martin of Lance Stroll in spray and rain at 2022 Japanese Grand Prix

A curtain of spray hangs in the air at Suzuka as a line of cars go through

Aston Martin

The rain in Suzuka can fall fast and heavy, bringing a fresh challenge to the already taxing track.

While the forecast for 2023 is currently dry, drivers will be wary of clouds after last year’s washout where curtains of rainfall created almost undriveable conditions: Vettel, Sainz and Alex Albon failed to make it past lap one, and the race was declared after just 28 laps, at which point Verstappen had pulled out a 25sec lead.

“It’s great for the fans but for us it can be a bit tricky,” said the Dutchman. “On my first lap I think was really the limit on an intermediate, but it can become too wet even for an extreme tyre here. In those conditions it’s impossible to drive and that’s when I’m in the lead, you know, the cars behind can’t see anything!”