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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Built in 1962 as a test track for Honda Motors, Suzuka Circuit has evolved into one of the more challenging tracks on the Formula 1 calendar. It held its first F1 race in 1987 and for 20 years it was the site of either the penultimate or final race of the season, so the world championship was often decided here. Enthusiasts particularly remember the crashes between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost that decided the titles in 1989 (Prost) and 1990 (Senna), and Senna took the 1991 title here as well, his third and last world championship.
In 2006 and 2007, the Japanese Grand Prix moved to Fuji as part of an agreement that was to annually alternate the race between the two venues, but this never transpired. Since 2008, the race has been held at Suzuka every year with no sign of leaving anytime soon. It takes place over three days in early October and during that time, Suzuka becomes the center of the racing world.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
You will not be lacking for choice when looking to eat and drink at Suzuka. Outside the main grandstand is a huge area known as the GP Square with well over a dozen concessions offering all sorts of Japanese and Western fare. Even better, prices are the same as you would pay outside the circuit.
I tried a number of different items, with the nikuman stand offering very tasty pork buns and gyoza. Yakitori, curry, noodles, rice bowls, even pineapple slices on a stick are also available. Definitely spend some time walking around to check all the options.
If you have several people in your group and want to share a few dishes, you should choose separate concessions and line up at the same time as it can take a while to place your order. Due to the crowds, there is a very organized system for queuing. On the ground you will see white lines tracing a back-and-forth path in front of each concession; simply line up behind the last person here and follow the lines on the ground. Even if you don't understand, there is somebody there to kindly explain it to you. However, this very organized system is not very fast, and you can expect to wait about a minute for each person in front of you to get his or her food. Thus, if you are in a rush, get each of your group to choose one concession and save time that way.
Beer is available on tap for 500 yen, or you can visit the Lawson convenience store underneath the main grandstand, which sells chilled cans without any markup, and no limit as far as I could tell. There are tables that are safely hidden from the afternoon sun where you can stand and eat in a comfortable setting, and perhaps engage with some people watching as well.
Formula 1 does not release attendance figures, but with grandstand capacity at 100,000 and thousands more on berm seating, this is definitely an event with more fans than most. Atmosphere at such a large circuit is difficult to measure; I can only speak for the area in which I sat, which was the main grandstand. From here you can see pit lane and the start and finish lines, but very little racing occurs down this stretch. Still, the hour or so before the race is one in which the buzz grows by the minute as fans watch the cars being assembled in their garages before being wheeled out to the track. Then the drivers suit up as the mechanics make their last second adjustments leading to the warm-up lap and then finally the race.
By the time 24 cars roar towards Turn 1, the entire grandstand is awash with anticipation, and only after the cars disappear between the pit building do fans finally relax, only to be brought to their feet again a minute later as the leaders emerge from the final turn to race down the main straightaway, the first of 53 laps on the day.
Atmosphere is not limited to just the seating area though. From the moment you enter the circuit, the excitement is obvious. Simply walking around will give you a feeling that cannot be duplicated at typical sporting events, which are usually held in limited confines. Get to the track early and soak up as much of this unique atmosphere as you can.
As with most large racetracks, there is little nearby to see or do. Suzuka is a 15-minute walk from the nearest train station, which is itself at least 45 minutes away from Nagoya, the closest big city. After the race, you will head straight back here, or south to Kansai, in order to enjoy some libations. Frankly, using the word neighborhood is a stretch as the track sits alone amongst fields; a not entirely unsurprising location given the lack of space in Japan.
Formula 1 is truly unique in the sporting world for the passion that its fans bring to the venue, with the Japanese perhaps leading the way. I'd estimate that 80% of fans were sporting some sort of F1 merchandise, with some clad from head to toe in their favorite car's colors. Others had flags that they had personally made, cheering on a particular driver, with local favorite Kamui Kobayashi naturally garnering much of the attention. I met several of the local "petrolheads" and was impressed with their knowledge of the sport and dedication to this race in particular. Some fans have been attending for 15 consecutive years or more and were not the least bit jaded; for them this stadium journey was the annual highlight of their travels.
During the race there were no issues with obnoxious or overbearing fans, everybody sat and cheered during the entire 90 minutes. When Kobayashi finished 3rd, thus grabbing his first podium, the locals stood and applauded with great enthusiasm and nearly everybody stayed to watch the trophy presentation. To me, this is the way fans should be: enthusiastic and enjoying themselves without taking away from the experience of others.
The track is far from civilization. From Nagoya, you need to take a Japan Rail train to Suzuka Circuit Iino station, which costs 1,040 yen each way. If you are travelling with a friend though, you can get "kaisuken", which are essentially commuter tickets that can be used at any time and run you 4 for 3,000 yen, a nice savings. I only found out about these tickets through asking one of the JR staff in Japanese about our options, so if you are not very capable in Japanese, they might be tough to find.
Once you reach the Suzuka Circuit Iino station, you will need to walk about 15 minutes to reach the 1st corner gate. The path is along a very narrow sidewalk for such a large crowd, but there is little point in rushing, just follow everybody and you will be fine.
Inside the circuit there is plenty of space, but many fans sit outside the grandstand, using groundsheets to mark their territory. This is because the sun shines into the main grandstand for most of the day, so to avoid getting a nasty burn, most fans relax near the eating area until the festivities begin. This does make walking through here a bit frustrating as there is no pattern determining where people choose to sit, so you have to pick your way around, being careful not to kick over any beers or young kids.
The seating area is well designed and presented no difficulties in terms of legroom or other issues. Every seat also came with a drink holder; very useful for those cans of beer you may have bought earlier.
After the race, returning to Nagoya was easier and faster than expected. Again, brilliant organization was the key. As you approach the station, you are forced into a queue depending on which direction you are going. For those going south, there is no waiting, but for those heading north to Nagoya, each queue is dedicated to one regular train. Before the next train approaches, everybody in the queue for that particular train is allowed onto the platform. The train arrives, everybody boards, and the train departs, all in an orderly fashion. Then the next queue is allowed onto the platform for the next train, just like clockwork. If you are in a hurry, there are also express trains that save a few minutes but for which special tickets are required. These can be booked in advance, but you then need to take that specific train. Therefore, you must avoid the regular queue and move into the special "express" queue. It might sound confusing, but once you get there, it is easy to figure out what to do and if you are stuck, somebody will be glad to help.
I should mention that many fans drive, with parking around 2,000 yen. If you have a car, this might be the best option, although you will have to deal with thousands of pedestrians when the race is over, and getting back to a highway may take over an hour.
I was fortunate to have been given a free ticket with a face value of 68,000 yen ($850). This is exorbitant, even for all 3 days, but there are many other seating options available for those with realistic budget constraints, with the cheapest at 11,000 yen. If you keep in mind that this event is almost like Japan's Super Bowl: an annual extravaganza that is watched around the world, then the high prices become more understandable. Formula 1 delivers on much of its hype, but the race itself is often anticlimactic as there is little passing at the front after the first lap or two. However, when you attend an F1 event, you go there for the entire experience and for that reason, I consider the ROI here to be average assuming you attend all three days and enjoy the relatively inexpensive food and beverage options mentioned above.
There is a Ferris wheel that marks the track from afar and was part of a large theme park that was constructed alongside with the track. I did not bother to ride it but it did seem quite popular.
There are dozens of events other than the race itself that take place over the three days. One example is the display of old F1 cars that was held at the GP Square during the entire weekend.
Pit FM is a radio broadcast over two frequencies that reaches the entire racetrack and provides insight and analysis in Japanese. There is also an English language broadcast that starts well before the race. Bring a set of radio headphones if you can, they save your ears and allow you to listen to what's going on around the circuit.
Despite its remote location and high cost, Suzuka is a great place to watch a race, with the fans really adding a lot to the experience. I would definitely recommend that you spend at least two if not all three days there to enjoy every aspect of this world-class racetrack.
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