Anyone taking a cursory glance at the sports pages will have seen that Red Bull’s Max Verstappen recently won his second Formula 1 title under slightly bizarre circumstances. A late penalty for Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc at the Japanese Grand Prix deprived the Monegasque of enough points to remain in championship contention, so Verstappen sealed the title on what was home territory for his engine supplier Honda.
In fact, it couldn’t have been anything more of a home race for Honda, as the Japanese giant owns the Suzuka circuit – the home of the Japanese Grand Prix – which was originally built in the 1960s as a Honda test track. Despite the wet conditions, hundreds of thousands of Japanese fans turned out to see their Honda home hero in action.
But that’s no surprise, as Japanese fans are the best in the world: well-known for their inventive costumes and exuberant enthusiasm. Some even like to dress up as their favourite drivers and watch the entire race wearing a crash helmet.
This could only happen in Japan. And what happened this year is no surprise, as it’s a country that has a habit of throwing up some memorable Formula 1 finales. The very first F1 race in Japan took place in 1976, but most people remember just one thing about it: James Hunt versus Niki Lauda. The Japanese finale to that season was as action-packed as any film. And that’s probably exactly why they made a film about it: Rush.
Just like this year, the rain back then seemed to suggest that there wouldn’t be any racing to decide the title in Japan. But then the surprising decision was taken to start – just like this year – and the rest is chronicled in history. Lauda stopped quite soon, feeling the fear. A few more drivers stopped as well. But not Hunt, who reached the finish line in a position to score enough points to secure the title.
Another Japanese drama occurred 11 years later. In 1987, the Japanese Grand Prix made its debut in the current venue of Suzuka. This was the penultimate round of a season that had been characterised by an intense feud between the two Williams drivers, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. The Englishman was behind and gave it absolutely everything but during practice on Friday he had an accident that broke a bone in his back, ending his championship hopes on the spot.
So, Piquet won his third title but not before Honda suffered the ignominy of the Brazilian’s engine blowing up in the pits, in stark contrast to this year. It happened live on television, on Honda’s home territory, and the company’s bosses didn’t know whether to celebrate or apologise. Several key figures in the engine department were removed from their positions, and Honda then split from Williams to join McLaren and embark on the Senna era.
But that gave rise to the biggest controversy of all – and another film was made about that: Senna. McLaren teammates Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna collided at the Suzuka hairpin to decide the 1989 title in Prost’s favour, resulting in one of the greatest headlines (courtesy of Autosport magazine) in the history of Formula 1 journalism: Malice in Hondaland. Following that incident, the battle between the teammates went from sporting to something even more personal. Japan marked the start of the biggest rivalry in Formula 1.
By the end of 1990 Prost had moved to Ferrari while Senna stayed at McLaren, but unbelievably Japan would decide the title once more. The Ferrari made a better start but there was contact with Senna at the first corner. With both drivers scoring no points, Senna was champion this time.
At the end of 1991, having won the title once more (yes, in Japan…) the Brazilian made a remarkable confession. “A year ago, I did it on purpose. I decided that if he got away first, I would take him out. I had God’s permission to do it.”
While Verstappen may feel bemused by the manner of his latest title, it’s absolutely nothing compared to what came at Suzuka before him. And that’s why, rain or shine, Japan is hands-down the best grand prix of the year.
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs by Anthony Peacock