What is that makes Suzuka special? It’s the contrasts, the conditions and the unforgiving nature of this 3.6 miles of asphalt
“Suzuka is probably the best circuit in the world,” explains Jonathan Rea. “It’s got everything! It’s technical and its physical. It’s a complete test.” If this 3.6 miles circuit is good enough for a four times world champion to think so highly of it the Japanese venue must be special.
And it is. Suzuka is a never ending roller coaster and like all good coasters it has its peaks and troughs. The lap begins with the Suzuka Snake. A technical section of the lap that links the first seven corners. Make a mistake anywhere here and you’ve cost yourself the laptime. In the Top 10 Shootout this section separates the fast from the fastest. It’s so easy to run a metre offline in one corner and then be pushed an extra couple of metres off for the next corner.
“The track is tough because it’s such a long lap,” says three-time defending champion Alex Lowes. “It’s a lap of two halves with each corner leading into the next on the opening half of the lap. If you make a mistake it impacts the next corners. It’s very technical in that opening section.
“The middle of the lap is more stop-and-start, with a first gear hairpin and a chicane where you need to be very precise. The end of the lap is tough too because you come into the final chicane carrying speed from the fast left hander and it’s difficult to find the braking marker into the chicane. Bike setup is difficult because you have two very contrasting halves of the lap.”
Compromise is key with the setting and also with riding style. You need to be aggressive through the snake but you have to be sure to hit your markers throughout the slalom.
The bike is heavier than a regular Superbike to take into account the bigger fuel tank. Getting it to turn smoothly is a challenge because the bike is setup for three riders than just your own preferences. It creates an additional challenge for teams and riders.
“Being patient is key and the biggest factor for success at Suzuka is that you need to be consistent,” continues Lowes. “The bike is heavier, there’s some differences to the bike because it’s an endurance race but the feeling is quite similar. I’ve always loved the team nature of Suzuka. In a normal weekend you’re trying to beat your teammate but here you want to work together. I’ve always enjoyed being teammates with Michael [van der Mark] because he’s very fast and it makes me rider at my best. We’ve a lot of respect for each other and we’ve had a lot of battles on track but at Suzuka it’s great to be able to work together fully.”
From the technical nature of the opening sector Suzuka then starts to open out into the Dunlop Curve and the Degners. This section is all about pushing hard. Sliding the rear through the ever lasting right hander than is the Dunlop Curve riders are as aggressive as they dare but also know that it’s easy to cook a tyre by pushing too hard. Spinning it up looks cool but you need to make sure that you’re still making forward progress on the run to the Degners.
Named after the East German defector this is where he suffered horrendous burns quite early during his time in Japan. After living through the incident the corners were named in his honour but these are crucial. If you can clear traffic through the first of these it can save you seconds during the race. From the exit of the second Degner riders are getting as much weight over the front to control the wheelie and then it’s a flat out blast to one of the best overtaking opportunities of the lap at The Hairpin.
Being smooth through The Hairpin is key. You don’t want to lose time in this corner but the exit is crucial because from this you come to the Turn 12 chicane. The right-left-right chicane leads into the Spoon Curve and riders will try and straight line it as much as possible to be in the right position for the long right hand curve that acts as the entry to Spoon.
Like the earlier Dunlop Curve, Spoon is all about being on the left side of the tyre for what seems like an age. The temperature in the tyre can rise as quickly as the speed but to counteract this most riders break Spoon into two parts. Third gear through the corner but getting the bike upright as early as possible is key because from this point onwards you’re accelerating towards the back straight.
130R is the most famous corner at Suzuka and while it was re-profiled for Formula 1 and lost some of its lustre for single seater car racing it still gets the attention of every rider in the field.
Fourth gear corner and hard on the gas early 130R still makes an impression on everyone and lap after lap riders try and find some extra time through here before braking into the Triangle Chicane. As Lowes said the brake point can be tricky to find and as you hook back to first gear the bike slides on the entry and if you run in too hot you can be a sitting duck on the entry to the chicane. Flip flopping from right to left, the riders will now exit the chicane and get on the gas with the rear sliding through the final corner, a long right hander, as the bike accelerate through the gears.
Suzuka is an action packed set in the middle of a cauldron. There’s no greater test on the motorcycle calender than trying to put together an hour long stint in stifling conditions around this circuit.