Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on September 2009


It’s getting monotonous, isn’t it? As the Japan Grand Prix rolls around again, once again a British driver is the favorite to clinch the Formula 1 title. For the past couple of years, it’s been Lewis Hamilton; this year, it’s Jenson Button. Hamilton won the race in 2007 but lost the championship by one point, while last year he finished out of the points in 12th position but went on to win the title. At the time of writing, Button is leading the standings, but after winning six of the first seven races, his performances have slipped and the competition is wide open again.

This year’s Japan Grand Prix will be held at Suzuka Circuit in Mie Prefecture on Sunday, October 4, with free practice on the Friday and official practice on Saturday. The figure-eight track, regarded as a classic by fans and drivers alike, looks set to provide a permanent home for the race now that the rival Toyota-owned Fuji Speedway in Shizuoka has withdrawn from hosting F1 events.

Fuji had been specially renovated for its return to Formula 1 two years ago, but it wasn’t a happy homecoming. Massive traffic problems soured fans on the experience, and the event turned into a major embarrassment for Toyota. The company cited financial reasons for pulling the plug, but few were convinced.

Honda, which owns both Suzuka and Twin Ring Motegi in Tochigi Prefecture, has had financial problems of its own to deal with, of course. Hosting a single grand prix costs a lot less than running a Formula 1 team, and last December it was the latter that got the axe. Despite having made a fantastic contribution to motor racing over the years, Honda found it hard to justify continuing to do so with a recession eating into its profits—and a team that was performing so badly.

The company’s team was taken over by a new outfit, Brawn GP, which had to work hard to find funds and unceremoniously dumped Honda’s engines for Mercedes-Benz units. Ironically, after tweaking the car a bit, Brawn has emerged as the fastest team in the pack.

It’s also got two of the fastest drivers: former Honda teammates Button and Rubens Barrichello. Button has always been regarded as a potential star, but it wasn’t until he traded his Japanese car for a Japanese girlfriend—lingerie model Jessica Michibata—that his career really took off. While he did pick up his first F1 win with Honda in Hungary in 2006, his career has generally been one of unfulfilled potential. It always seemed like he was having problems of some sort or other, but in a competitive car, he’s a hard guy to beat—as he proved in the first seven races of this season.

However, he’s not the only guy who can drive fast in a top-notch car. Fellow Brawn team member Barrichello is second in the standings, and he’s followed by the Red Bull pair of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. World champion Hamilton is sixth (behind Nico Rosberg), but starting to find his feet after some dismal results.

There are only two other events in the season after Suzuka—in Brazil and Abu Dhabi—meaning that the Japan Grand Prix will be a crucial race. And, what with British drivers being so fantastic and all, Suzuka is even going to have a special British corner this year, where there may or may not be a supply of fish and chips, Union Jacks, warm beer and lingerie models.

Formula 1
Japan Grand Prix. Oct 4. Suzuka Circuit, Mie Prefecture. Tel: 059-378-1111.