Japanese GP Preview
Despite its status as the spiritual home of Japanese motorsport, its been three decades since Formula One last visited the Fuji Raceway. Most of the current crop of F1 drivers weren't even born the last time the circuit saw world championship action back in 1977. On that occasion, Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari cartwheeled off the track and killed two spectators, and the Japanese Grand Prix hasn't been back there since.Toyota took control of the track seven years ago and since then a cool ¥20 billion (some £86 million) has been pumped in to realise the corporate dream of hosting an F1 race at its very own facility. The once dilapidated circuit has been turned into a world class facility with new pits, grandstands and greatly improved access. Serious speed is guaranteed. Fuji possesses what has now become the longest straight on the Formula One calendar: 1.475km or 0.9 of a mile in length. Back in the 1980s a Group C Nissan managed to pull 250 mph down it: the F1 pack should top out at around the same 218 mph they achieve at Monza.Parts of the track have been subjected to the seemingly mandatory Hermann Tilke makeover, with F1's unofficial designer-in-chief remodeling parts of the former back straight with a serious of slow, technical second and third gear bends. Despite its spectacular location, Mount Fuji itself clearly visible on a clear day, the Raceway isn't nearly as dramatic or interesting a track as Suzuka. The weather will also be a gamble, with storms and heavy rain likely in late September. It was here in 1976 that James Hunt was crowned World Champion after Niki Lauda, still recovering from the fiery crash at the Nurburgring that nearly cost him his life, opted to retire in the monsoon-like conditions rather than race to the flag. One area that hasn't been improved since the 1970s is access, with the narrow country lanes leading to the circuit likely to be clogged with the vast amounts of traffic the race will attract, especially as Tokyo is just an hour and 20 minutes away on a good day.Not that Japan's other international circuit, Suzuka, is giving up: Fuji's great rival is being refurbished with a vast injection of Honda cash and will get the Japanese round of the championship again in 2009, with the race then scheduled to alternate between the two tracks. As a completely unknown quantity being introduced so late in the season, Fuji could have a profound effect on one of the closest-run championships in years. In any event, a capacity crowd is guaranteed.