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  • Writer's pictureBen Waterworth

Top 5 Japanese Grands Prix

As we move to the next stop in the grueling 2023 F1 calendar, it’s time to visit one of the most popular places of the season: Japan.

First holding an official round of the World Championship in 1976 at the Fuji circuit, Japan has hosted a total of 36 official World Championship rounds, with all but four of those (1976, 1977, 2007 & 2008 in Fuji) taking place at the Suzuka circuit.

Traditionally held as the season finale for many years, in more recent seasons it has taken place a few rounds after the mid-season break. Despite the change in calendar positioning, it generally always delivers an exciting race, making this week’s top five a particularly tricky one.

Before we begin, two quick notes. From an Australian perspective, it is one of the rare races on the calendar never to have been won by an Aussie. Mark Webber twice finished second in the race in 2010 & 2013, the highest finish by an Australian in the country.

Also, as per usual, we will only be counting rounds dubbed the “Japanese Grand Prix”, meaning other races held in Japan (namely the Pacific Grand Prix held at the Aida Circuit in 1994 & 1995) will not be considered for inclusion.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to the list.

5. 2000 – Winner: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari)

The race that every Ferrari fan will remember for delivering the team their first Driver’s Championship in 21 years, it was a tense affair that summed up the 2000 World Championship.

Michael Schumacher went into the round knowing he could secure the Championship with a win, and went one step towards that goal by taking pole on the Saturday. However his main title rival Mika Hakkinen stormed past at the beginning in his McLaren, setting up the tense Sunday showdown.

The pair remained close and rain made things more interesting, with Hakkinen making his final stop from the lead on lap 37 while the rain began to increase. This allowed Schumacher to produce a series of speedy laps before his stop, before Ferrari put together a stunning stop to give Schumacher the lead of the race. It was a position he never relinquished, securing the race win and his third World Championship.

4. 1994 – Winner: Damon Hill (Williams)

One of the most unique races in F1 history, Damon Hill provided his greatest ever drive to give himself a famous victory and keep himself in the hunt for the 1994 World Championship.

A wet race on the Sunday, the race was stopped after 13 laps due to the poor conditions. Michael Schumacher lead the race for Benetton from Damon Hill, and when the race was restarted an hour later, it was decided that the winner would be the driver with the best aggregate time over 37 laps.

To win the race, Hill had to win part two of the race by more than seven seconds. Stopping only once compared to the two-stopping Schumacher, Hill knew he would have track position but Schumacher just needed to be faster and within seven seconds to take the win.

However Hill managed to defend his time and position, finishing the race ten seconds ahead of Schumacher to claim the win and take the title fight down to the wire.

3. 1988 – Winner: Ayrton Senna (McLaren)

While both the 1989 and 1990 Japanese races are infamous for their Senna v Prost incidents (one of which you’ll read about shortly), the 1988 race is often forgotten about.

The penultimate round in a season long battle between both Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in their dominant 1988 season, Senna went into the race knowing a win would seal his first ever title. Securing pole on the Saturday went a long way towards achieving that goal.

However on race day, he stalled at the start and dropped all the way down to 14th. But driving like a man possessed in mixed weather conditions, Senna stormed his way through the field and by lap 27 was right behind his teammate in the lead.

An epic overtaking maneuver followed as Prost attempted to lap the Rial of Andrea de Cesaris, and Senna waltzed to the win and his first of three World Championships.

2. 1989 – Winner: Alessandro Nannini (Benetton)

One of the most iconic races in the history of the sport, everybody remembers THAT incident on lap 47 that saw title rivals Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna come together at the Suzuka chicane that ultimately decided the World Championship.

What is often forgotten however is everything else around it and the race as a whole. Senna claiming pole by an incredible 1.7 seconds. Prost taking the lead at the beginning from Senna. Senna’s absolute determined skill at keeping Prost within sight for 46 laps and trying to find a way to pass his great rival. Everything about this race was incredible.

But, there is a reason why THAT moment on lap 47 is so often talked about on top of all that. As Senna attempted the lunge on the inside of Prost to take the lead, the Frenchman forcefully closed the gap to take both the cars out (albeit less blatantly than Senna a year later). Prost would be the only one to retire, with Senna speeding back from the incident to retake the lead from the Benetton of Alessandro Nannini and send the Championship to the finale in Australia.

At least that would’ve been the case had he not been disqualified for re-joining the circuit illegally, handing the title to Prost and bringing the FIA as enemy number one to every Brazilian and Senna fan on the planet.

The race was won by Nannini, and it went down as one of the most talked about races in the history of the sport.

1. 2005 – Winner: Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren)

While 1989 gets talked about more often, there is no denying just how exciting the 2005 edition of the Japanese Grand Prix was.

By this stage in the Championship, there was nothing at stake, with Fernando Alonso and Renault already claiming both the Drivers and Constructors titles. This however made for a more exciting race, given nothing was on the line.

A wet qualifying on the Saturday mixed up the grid, with Alonso starting down in 17th and his main title rival that year, Kimi Raikkonen, starting in 16th.

Both drivers stormed through the field on a dry race day, with Michael Schumacher also storming his way through the field having started in the mid-pack as well.

This led to some of the most epic overtaking maneuvers ever seen in modern F1, including Alonso’s incredible overtake of Schumacher into 130R.

Raikkonen was able to get ahead of Alonso in the pit stops and only had Alonso’s teammate of Giancarlo Fisichella to chase down for the win. With five seconds to make up with only nine seconds to go, Raikkonen slowly reeled him in, before an epic last lap overtaking move sealed one of the most epic comeback wins of all time.

It was an exciting race filled with old school overtaking and great strategy that would go down in history as an all-time classic.

Do you agree with this list? Which Japanese Grand Prix is your favourite? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below

This article was originally written for The Roar. You can read the published version here


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