Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Fuji Speedway: It's been 'Tilked', but it's worthy

Fuji Speedway has played host to Formula One in 1976 and 1977. It did not return to the Formula One calendar until 2007 after it replaced the awesome Suzuka circuit as the home of the Japanese Grand Prix. Although the current GP circuit layout is bland in comparison to its super fast and dangerous younger days, the track is still a worthy challenge to Formula One drivers and sits in the picturesque foothills of Mount Fuji.

Just as the Suzuka circuit, if you have played the video game Pole Position, you know the old Fuji circuit very well as it is the first circuit to be featured in a video game. The circuit has been owed by Toyota since 2000, but interestingly it started life in 1963 as Japan NASCAR Corporation. The circuit was originally intended to be a 2.5 mile high-banked superspeedway in the mold of Daytona and Monza but there was not enough money to complete the project and only one of the dramatic high banks was ever built. Similarly to Monza, the remains of the banking is still visible. In 1965 under new management the Fuji circuit was converted to a road course and began to hold races. Fuji proved to be somewhat dangerous with the banked turn regularly resulting in major accidents. A new section of track was built that bypassed the high banking which provided improved safety; although the circuit was still very fast.

The 2 Formula One races staged at Fuji prior to 2007 proved to be dramatic and tragic. In 1976, James Hunt beat Niki Lauda to the title after Lauda withdrew due to dangerous rainy conditions and in 1977 2 spectators were killed during the race when Gilles Villeneuve crashed. Formula One returned to this scenic venue for the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix and it continues to pose many a technical challenge although its speeds are no longer what they could be on the old circuit.

In a phrase, it has been "Tilked". In other words, the circuit was reconfigured by German architect Hermann Tilke whose general style of circuit re-design has drawn many criticisms ranging from neutering great tracks like Hockenheim to designing glorified karting circuits like Bahrain. There are plenty of people that would consider the current Fuji layout to be one of those instances of a circuit being neutered, especially in light of some of Tilke's recent designs in Istanbul and Valencia.

In its current layout, Fuji is a mix of slow corners with the ever inviting super long main straight where cars will top out around 200mph. Although drivers will be full throttle for only 53% of the lap, it is be a test of reliability given the extremes that the engine will face in the rev range from the afore mentioned long straight to the complex of hairpins and chicanes.

Given the location of the track, weather is always a factor and should be on the teams' minds especially given the championship implications. This old circuit even with its modern face lift, will still provide quality racing.

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