- Japan’s legendary Suzuka Circuit easily ranks as the country’s most dangerous race track.
- The figure eight-shaped course features high-speed corners only meant for the world’s top racers.
- We had several of the champion superbike racers explain what makes Suzuka such a difficult track to master.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Erratic blind corners, limited run-off areas, speeds upwards of 200 mph. These are just a few of the features that make Japan’s legendary Suzuka Circuit the country’s most dangerous race track. In its 58-year history, the 3.6-mile track has claimed the lives of 17 professional racers. But competitors continue flocking there, for some of the world’s biggest motor sport events. Between the track’s overly complicated design, famously high risk corners and unpredictable weather, Suzuka can make for some terrifying races.
The first thing race car drivers and motorcyclists notice about the track is its design. Take a bird’s-eye view of the track and you’ll notice its hard-to-follow figure 8 layout. Compared to the simple ovals and basic road courses most racers are used to, Suzuka’s design is one of utter chaos. Complicating the track further are a total of 18 different corners. Most of which are blind.
Alex Lowes: It’s a figure-of-8 track, but when you ride it, it’s so complicated and technical, it doesn’t feel like just a nice and simple figure-of-8 track, so it’s really hard to get your bearings. The first, maybe two, three, four days that I was riding there, I couldn’t really work out where I was. I couldn’t work it out, cause there just seemed to be corners everywhere.
Narrator: The corners vary in speeds from as slow as 40 mph to as fast as 190. They cause the track to change at a moment’s notice. Like the intense Degner Curves, that include a sudden 90 degree right-hander at Turn 9. Or the abrupt chicane following the fastest section of the track that racers frequently prepare for too late. These intense corners lead to drivers encountering a high level of lateral g-forces on their body, the highest being up to 3.5 at the notorious 130 R turn.
Lateral g-force, is the gravitational force applied to a vehicle as it rounds a curve. It’s the push you feel while turning, that tries to force you off the road. But Suzuka also has a total elevation change of over 40 meters, forcing racers to struggle with both lateral and vertical g-forces pressing on their bodies throughout. On a course with a limited number of tarmac runoff areas, this means one wrong move with your car or bike can send you sliding into a patch of gravel or worse, a wall.
Niccolò Canepa: I’m inside of the FIM safety board. This is one of the most dangerous in the championship. It’s kind of a roller coaster. When I ride there, I have huge respect for the track and sometimes some extra attention. Some corners you feel like the walls are really close because of the speed. You go so fast in some corners, I don’t wanna think about what can happen, you know.
Narrator: Suzuka was originally built as a Honda test track back in 1962, which explains its harrowing layout that most likely couldn’t pass today’s standards. And because it’s older, the pavement is, well old, making it rougher than more refined modern tracks. This can lead to quicker degradation and overheating of the tires.
Alex: So, it’s obviously fantastic cause you got a lot of grip, and you can really push the bike. The problem is if you have to do a lot of laps, the tires wear a lot, and then you start to slide, and the bike starts to move and becomes difficult to ride.
Narrator: Suzuka also has some incredibly tight sections, some of the tightest being only 10 meters wide. On par with Belgium’s Spa-Francorpchamps, and Germany’s Nürburgring, these tight stretches make it tough for one driver to pass another.
Niccolò: If you want to fight for the victory, if you want to fight for the top five, you have to overtake all the time somebody. Every lap you have to overtake somebody, and sometimes it’s really challenging because the track is narrow and it’s not so easy. So, you have to take some bigger risks sometimes.
Narrator: But while the track’s overall design causes enough problems for racers, Suzuka is most famous for the previously mentioned 130 R corner. Originally named for it’s 130-meter radius, the infamous turn takes place on the bridge that overlaps the course. Racers take this intense left corner as fast as 190 mph. Statistics like that have placed it amongst racing’s most intimidating corners. And if you’re racing in the annual eight hours of Suzuka superbike race, you’re encountering that corner over and over and over again.
Niccolò: That corner is an amazing corner, and it’s really difficult to find actually a good braking point at 300 kph. So it’s really something that you hold your breath during that corner, at every lap for eight hours.
Narrator: Over the years, the turn has been forced to undergo a number of changes to its layout. After Formula 1 driver Allan McNish’s violent crash in 2002 at the turn’s approaching bump, 130 R was redesigned as a double-apex, one with an 85-meter radius and a second featuring a 340-meter radius. However, this led to 130 R’s following Casio triangle chicane, being closer. This closer chicane would be the site of motorcycle rider Daijiro Kato’s fatal accident in 2003, at the Casio’s more sudden braking zone. Since then, the MotoGP racing series has not returned to Suzuka.
As intense as 130 R is though, Suzuka is a roller coaster from the start, as the track’s first turn leads directly into a section known as the Snake curves, a series of back-to-back winding corners that makes up Turns 3 to 6, and allowing racers to reach speeds as much as 130 mph while twisting through. But it’s the technical racing required for this section that is most challenging. Just last year, it was the scene of a very embarrassing crash for racer Tetsuta Nagashima during only a warmup lap.
The section calls for four perfectly rhythmic turns, one after the other. Too much speed or failing to stay on line going into your first turn, and you destroy your following three, either losing significant lap time or flying of the track.
Niccolò: With the Formula 1 car, they almost go flat out around there, but with a motorcycle it’s really really difficult and you have to be really precise.
Jonathan Rea: It’s physically demanding because you need your bike to be quick turning. Physically you have to manhandle the bike from your left to right to left to right. It just goes past in the blink of an eye because you’re just focused on apex to apex.
Alex: After Turn 1 all the way to Turn 6, you need to be really patient if you’re behind somebody cause it’s pretty much one line. So, if you’re gonna try and pass there, you need to make sure you’re really aggressive. Probably wouldn’t recommend it.
Narrator: One of Suzuka’s biggest dangers though, is the weather. The track is in the Mie Prefecture, located on Japan’s southeast coastline, well known for seeing unpredictable heavy rain. Just last year, the Japanese Grand Prix was nearly canceled due to Typhoon Hagibis, the largest tropical storm of the year. But even when a torrential downpour leads to red flags and postponements of a race, the asphalt is still left slick wet. On a fast track, it makes for a bad combination.
Niccolò: We have to be really careful in case of rain because the track is different from any other track. It’s really fast and it’s so grippy that we can touch our elbows in some corners with rain tires. But of course, when you crash in the rain, it’s like, you start sliding and you never stop. So, the feeling is not amazing.
Alex: The mental concentration you need, because every little movement you do on the bike in the rain is transferred to the tires and it could cause the bike to slip and slide.
Narrator: Summers is Suzuka can be scorching hot as well, with temperatures frequently reaching a high of at least 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. For a superbike race like the Suzuka eight hours that takes place in July, this is especially brutal due to the intense heat motorcycle racers already experience.
Alex: It’s not just the temperature outside. When you’re on a bike down the straight, you got all the engine temperature, all the temperature of the brakes and everything. So, just imagine being in a sauna and you getting uncomfortable and your eyes start to get salty sweat going in your eyes. Imagine putting a helmet on. During your hour stint you could use maybe two and a half kilos or three kilos of fluid from your body.
Narrator: Between a confusingly tangled design, its infamously challenging corners and frequently unbearable weather, Suzuka remains Japan’s most difficult and hazardous track. And despite numerous safety changes, including added barriers, additional tarmac runoff areas, and adjustments to the notorious 130 R corner, Suzuka is an old-school track that will always rank among the world’s most dangerous. But it’s the thrill ride it provides that encourages competitors to continue flocking in groves, and makes Suzuka a favorite amongst professionals.
Jonathan: Honestly, it’s one of the best tracks in the world. It’s got so many cool elements as a track, and when you string them together and do a good lap time, there’s no better buzz. There’s no atmosphere like Suzuka when you come out of that last chicane and the grandstand from the chicane to Turn 1 is completely full.
Aj Caldwell: Hey, I’m AJ. Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed that episode of Turn by Turn, don’t forget to hit the subscribe button so you don’t miss the next installment of Turn by Turn. And let us know what race track you want us to cover next in the comments below.