Since I'm a huge fan of Japan another trip to the land of the rising sun clearly had to be made this year, and the main thought behind it was why not combine it with another passion and visit Formula 1 in Suzuka?
It has been in my mind for a long time, the timeframe also worked, plus a friend could join in. So, the decision was made to fulfil a dream and visit that legendary venue for this year's grand prix!
Getting the flights, F1 tickets, and figuring out the train connections was kind of easy, but finding nearby accommodation turned out to be the true challenge. Maybe looking in September was a bit too late for that!
Hotels in Suzuka itself were rare to find and nearby cities like Nagoya, Tsu or Yokkaichi were either fully booked out or ridiculously overpriced. Through multiple checks day by day I found an Airbnb place in Suzuka City for the first two days and a hotel in Kanie, which is close to Nagoya and a one-hour train ride away, for Saturday and Sunday night. The latter was expensive compared to what I am used to, but still better than sleeping on the streets outside the circuit!
Arriving in Japan through Kansai International Airport, and after two nights in Osaka my friend and I took the Kintetsu Line train with two changes to arrive in Suzuka at Chiyozaki Station on Thursday evening. Unfortunately, our place had neither nearby a train nor bus connection to the circuit therefore we took the 80-minute walk to get to the track with stops at local convenience stores to be well stocked with food and drinks for the long day.
Friday at the Suzuka Circuit
As we arrived at the circuit, we followed the so-called 'Circuit Road', already seeing more and more fans getting to the track. After passing a few merchandising stores we saw a few fans waiting for the drivers to arrive at around 08:20. Near a junction close to the main gate it became more obvious since fans ran to a car standing there waiting for green lights - it was Esteban Ocon. Once we were close, a girl was about to get a selfie with the Frenchman but the Force India driver had to drive as the lights turned green.
So we waited there for a few more minutes; The fans really seemed to know from which directions the drivers were going to come from, and they kept waiting patiently on the sidewalks at that street. In a moment of not paying proper attention Sebastian Vettel passed by and unlucky for us the lights were green, but we could clearly see it was him, even just for a moment.
We went to the main gate afterwards which was about to open at 08:30, the same as the ticket counter. The thing is, if you book a ticket on the official F1 website, you don't get the tickets directly, just a piece of paper that you exchange for your ticket at the counter next to the main entrance. While a really long queue waited to get in (which looked to me similar to the big queue in Spa on Sunday, but not for a Friday) I got the tickets and we went in.
Here's where you see the passion and the biggest difference to European F1 races I've seen: Way more merchandising stores, so many food stands and a little amusement park you go through to arrive at the main grandstand.
We had bought 'General Admission Tickets' for around for 80 euros ($95/£71) for the weekend, with most of our accessible viewing areas at the western parts of the track, including 130R. On Friday though the rules are different: You can also go to every other grandstand except the main grandstand.
So for the first free practice session we went to the grandstand just next to the main grandstand to see drivers leaving the pits, but decided shortly afterwards to go the grandstand at turn one and we were stunned: A view of the main straight, the first corner and the following S corners. Really, that view was exceptional!
I can really recommend this view, next time I will really consider getting a ticket for that spot! Especially for the start of the race, it's a spectacular view.
After it began to rain at the end of the first free practice session, we followed the track to the S corners as the weather got worse and worse. The Porsche Cup was running and not everyone could make around the circuit without a few errors. Following that we waited in the merchandising area behind the main grandstand for the second free practice session and weren't sure when, or even if, the drivers were going to go out at all.
We went the final corner on the other side of the pit entry but the session was delayed a few more times as the session time counted down. Once the drivers were allowed to go out just a few drivers did so, most of them just doing one lap and going straight back into the pits again. But it was definitely worth waiting to see the drivers go out in the wet. Although we were surprised that Max Verstappen did not even do a lap...
Once the session was over, we went back to our accommodation since it was definitely too wet and we forget to bring appropriate clothes. Also, while watching the session we met a Japanese family who we agreed to meet again the next day in the 130R area.
Saturday: Qualifying and driver interview show
On Saturday morning we had to face the same walking path again, but after around 20 minutes we met a man in front of a convenience store who asked us if we wanted to go to the circuit. We agreed, and he drove us to the track along with his young daughter. While driving and waiting at red lights he gave each of us a present, a little key chain with a frog head, and shortly before letting us out at the track, two umbrellas, in case the rain would be as bad as the day before. Interesting how selfless and helpful the people in Japan are, something I experienced in other situations there as well.
Arriving at the track we first went to Spoon corner to check out the view while watching the Super FJ support race. Following that we walked to the final part of 130R to see the third free practice session where the drivers where approaching the final chicane. It really is stunning to see the drivers going through there at full speed!
For qualifying we met the Japanese family again near the bridge where you see the drivers approaching 130R on the long straight, and then on to the straight after the Degner corners into the hairpin. The downside was that there was no screen to follow the lap times, but our Japanese friends were prepared: Mobile WiFi + a tablet with a live stream which helped us follow the session.
Once the session was done, we all went to the main straight to get into the queue for the driver interview show which was about to start at 5:30 PM. First I thought that it was only for ticket holders of that grandstand, but everyone could go as most of the fans having a ticket for there left. Once the gates were opened, we managed to secure good seats to watch the interviews. It all started with Damon Hill who got the chance to drive the Williams FW11 from 1986 that weekend, followed by Takuma Sato and Kamui Kobayashi, Japan's most successful F1 drivers of the past two decades.
Six drivers from three teams were also selected to be interviewed on the red carpet at the bottom of the main grandstand. Toro Rosso drivers Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly were followed by Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean for Haas F1, with the final pair being the Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. The questions were asked in Japanese, the drivers had the English translation relayed by a man sitting next to them and they answered in English. Most of it was about what drivers love about Suzuka and Japan, with Vettel saying that he made it to Kyoto for the first time this year and was quite impressed by it. The German also said that he could never see somewhere else that the fans are still in such high numbers at the grandstand after 6PM when it's already dark.
Once the interviews were over the main straight was opened for a night walk which we sadly couldn't take part in as we had to move our stuff to another hotel near Nagoya and it was getting late, but we were told that the Haas mechanics were giving away signed caps in the pitlane!
Sunday: Finally, race day!
After moving to a hotel, we took the train to Shiroko Station the next day, which is the one the organisers wanted visitors to take. And it was clear why: Once we left the station we could see multiple shuttle buses picking up fans to bring them to the circuit. In the street next to the bus station you could see banners of every winner in Suzuka, just a great welcome for race day! Costs: 400 Yen per ride.
The day started with the Super FJ race followed by a Porsche race. Some show runs by old Formula 1 car followed, including an old Honda formula car from the 60s which was quite loud and amazing to watch.
For the driver's parade we were in the lucky position to see the driver's passing us twice since we got a similar seating position as the day before, near the bridge. About an hour later at 1:30 PM the drivers went out of the pits to the grid and we became really hyped for the race. We were hoping that Vettel could challenge Hamilton for the win, but we got more and more information that the German's Ferrari might have issues.
For the race start they seemed solved, but they weren't! You could see many fans including us being disappointed that the German title contender first lost a few places and was then forced to retire the car.
In terms of action we were close to the Marcus Ericsson's crash at the second Degner. The moment it happened I ran near the next best position to take a picture. Interestingly, they only used Virtual Safety Car to carry the Sauber away. Moreover, it was also interesting to follow as Raikkonen had to progress through the field again after being pushed off by Hulkenberg in the first lap.
With Hamilton in the lead and his only real challenger for the title retired, we were cheering for Max Verstappen, and many fans felt the same. Every time the Dutch Red Bull driver decreased the gap to Hamilton you could also hear the excitement of the local Japanese commentator! Especially at the end as Verstappen got really close and we had the feeling that a late attack could have actually happened!
It didn't though, and Hamilton secured another victory. We went back in the direction of the main straight and were allowed to go to the main grandstand again. On the monitors a replay of the race was broadcasted while the teams were preparing to leave the circuit.
Shortly after we also left the circuit, had a last drink with our new Japanese friends, and returned via the bus shuttles to Shiroku Station from where we could return to our hotel and prepare and continue on for the rest of our Japanese holiday.
An exceptional weekend came to an end and I can only recommend to any Formula 1 fan to do the same one day. A special venue, amazing people and a fantastic track - a dream come true! If you plan to go there, just prepare for it better than I did and look for a suitable accommodation early enough!
Do you have any F1 stories to share? Let us know in the comments below!