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F1 drivers relish their greatest challenge

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Sarah Holt | 02:45 UK time, Saturday, 9 October 2010

Lewis Hamilton found out during practice why taming Suzuka, the home of the Japanese Grand Prix, remains one of Formula 1's greatest challenges.

The 2008 champion's efforts to squeeze more out of his McLaren on this demanding track saw him bucked by the kerb at Degner Curve and thrown into the wall.

Almost 50 years after the track was designed by Dutchman John Hugenholtz, the location of the Japanese Grand Prix is still revered by the drivers as the definitive driving test.

Michael Schumacher - a six-time winner at Suzuka - broke into a smile as he said it was his 'highlight of the year', while Red Bull's championship leader Mark Webber called it 'a sensational, classic circuit'.

And the list of accolades being uttered by the drivers in Suzuka went on.

Suzuka's mass appeal lies in its high speeds and physical curves, which blend into a series of sweeping corners from the first turn through to the eighth - a section of the track known as 'the snake'.

After the two tricky Degner corners - where a number of drivers, including Webber, crashed last year - the cars dip under an overpass where F1's only figure-of-eight circuit crosses itself.

After a hairpin, it is then head for the famous 130R - the fastest corner of the circuit and similar in stature to Spa's Eau Rouge - at nearly 200mph.

"I'd say it's my favourite circuit because of the rush you get through the Esses and through 130R," says world champion Jenson Button.

"There are only two low-speed corners which is also very, very unusual.

"This circuit really flows. The change of direction is so fast from the start that you don't really breathe until you get through Turn Eight.

"Your heartbeat is definitely higher than at most other circuits. It is very unforgiving."

Suzuka's merciless nature is why hooking up the perfect lap in qualifying and over 53 laps on race day is so difficult, even for world champions such as Hamilton. Get the racing line wrong through the first sector and it affects the driver's whole lap.

Webber adds: "It's not often these days that you can take a Formula 1 car to a circuit and feel like the track is in charge of the car, usually it's the other way around.

"But that's how Suzuka feels when you're in the cockpit."

Learning to master the Japanese track, which has been on the F1 calendar since 1988, is a case of trial and error for the drivers, as Jaime Alguersuari found out last year.

The Toro Rosso driver, then aged 19 and in his rookie season, lost control at 130R during the race and spun into the tyre wall.

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Now, the Spaniard believes he knows the secret to taming Suzuka.

"If you don't have the confidence forget it - you are never going to go fast," Alguersuari explained, swaying in his chair to demonstrate the pendulous, flowing movement Suzuka demands.

"On this type of track you really need to go for it and push at high speed otherwise you will be slow.

"I couldn't make it [last season] because I was not good enough for that speed. I tried and I crashed.

"I was not capable to drive the car at that speed - now I am."

It is not only Suzuka's unique driving demands that make it a special place stop on the F1 calendar - its history and atmosphere also play a part in its allure.

Suzuka has had a hand in deciding world championships, most famously in 1989 when Alain Prost wrestled the title from his rival and McLaren team-mate Ayrton Senna and in 1990 when the Brazilian returned the favour.

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To add further spice, both Prost and Senna settled those scores by colliding with each other on the track.

Englishman Damon Hill also snuffed out the challenge of his Williams team-mate Jacques Villeneuve on Suzuka's asphalt in 1996 as he wrapped up his first and only title.

Inevitably, it is Senna's memory that lingers on in Suzuka.

The local cornershop close to where we are staying even has a picture of the Brazilian three-time world champion pinned up on its noticeboard and the circuit store is packed with Senna memorabilia.

Kazuhito Kawai, presenter for Japanese broadcaster Fuji TV, says: "Senna was so popular because his mentality was so close to that of the Japanese.

"In Japan people tend to stick to one company and are very loyal and he demonstrated a similar dedication to one thing - racing. At the same time he was also racing with a Honda engine.

"People here recognise baseball players and sumo wrestlers and that's about it - but they always recognised Senna.

"He went to Toyko once and was surrounded by so many fans. I don't think that is every going to happen again, even for somebody like Michael Schumacher, Hamilton or Button.

"Button is popular now because of his long relationship with Honda and he has been on Japanese commercials but Kamui Kobayashi is getting popular too."

The fans still flock to Suzuka, though. Even when there aren't any cars on track, the spectators still pack into the grandstands and wait patiently for a glimpse of the drivers. Schumacher was greeted with frenzied cheers when he appeared just to walk the track with his race engineers.

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, who won from pole in Suzuka last year, says: "The atmosphere is different to anywhere else.

"People sit watching the teams and the mechanics preparing the cars. They are really passionate and probably know more about the cars, drivers and set-up than we do ourselves!

"The circuit is really beautiful and I was walking it thinking: 'Why can't it be like this at every race we go to?'"

With five drivers still locked in contention for the drivers' crown after 15 races, it will need something special to separate them - and that something could be Suzuka.

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