Tiff's Top Tracks – Suzuka Circuit
Japan's finest track is the first of Tiff's favourite places to race
Tiff Needell is a television presenter and former racing driver who competed in Formula 1, British Touring Cars and at Le Mans.
After two rather frustrating seasons of British F3, driving for the Unipart Team – and managing to prove quite conclusively that the Dolomite Sprint engine didn’t adapt to the air-restricted Formula as well as the Toyota Twin Cam – 1979 saw me out on my own, trying to further my career wherever I could.
I had half a dozen races in the British-based Aurora F1 championship thanks to a Durex Scholarship drive (yes, that Durex), but it was European Formula 2 I really wanted to get into. Unfortunately, despite running third in the last round of ’78 before engine failure ruined my day, there were no doors open without sponsorship.
Suzuka's layout between 1987 and 2002
I had, however, been doing some testing for the March factory and they set me up for a one-off drive in their new 792 model for a round of the Japanese F2 series at Suzuka. It was my first introduction to the magical East, which would play a big part in my later career.
Not that the trip to Tokyo was that exotic. The cheapest way to get there was in the back of an Aeroflot Ilyushin VC10 copy via Moscow. There was no onboard entertainment and the main fun was to see who could actually get a hostess to smile. The circuit itself though definitely didn’t disappoint.
The overall layout was as it is now, but at least six corners have been reprofiled to allow extra run-off since my debut and none have made it a better track. And, of course there was no Chicane back then.
Tiff makes his debut in a March at Suzuka
You’d come out of 130R – which no one could take flat – and every extra mile an hour you could squeeze out of your exit speed would be carried all the way through the nerve-tingling, flat-out right over the crest, where the Chicane is now, and then on down to the first corner, with overtakes aplenty as we streamed past the pits.
Of course, 130R has since been reprofiled to make it a much easier corner – no longer having the tighter 130 degree angle it’s named after – and so have the first and second corners, which used to run much deeper.
The pit straight
The fabulous flowing ‘Snake’ back up the hill is still as it was and is so satisfying when you got it right. You had to try to keep as much to the right as possible when exiting the right-hander at the top, and that opened up the entry to the long, long 180-degree Dunlop left that tested even the strongest of neck muscles.
Once again, this was a much deeper corner than it is now and, getting a good exit meant you had a chance to overtake on the straight down to Degner. Downhill braking into a medium-speed long right with the barriers no more than ten feet from the track… Nowadays there’s a ‘Degner Bypass’ that kinks right much earlier, followed by the long ride along the kerb before a very tight second element. I think there have been way more accidents caused by this arrangement than there ever were before!
The Hairpin at Suzuka
The kink right before the tight Hairpin was as it is now and so was the long curving right afterwards but there was a longer straight before the first of the Spoon curves. You occasionally see an overtake now but you had a better chance back then.
The second Spoon curve is the trickier of the two, with an off-camber exit. Again, a good exit was crucial for the long run up to 130R, giving you plenty of time to contemplate how much you were going to lift off on the way in this time.
After only two hours of practice on this track that I’d never seen before, and in a car I’d never driven before, I was pretty pleased to qualify sixth in the 17-car field and fight my way through to finish fourth. There was also the little extra bonus of decent prize money, which was rarely seen in Europe. They paid in cash in those ceremonial envelopes you see in sumo wrestling.
I’d never won so much in my life and actually threw it the air back in my hotel room. I can still recognise the smell of a new 10,000 Yen note whenever I get near one! My nomadic life as a professional racing driver had just begun.
I’d be back to this spellbinding, four-mile figure of eight on many more occasions. One included surviving a wild 720-degree spin out of 130R, having tried to take it flat while qualifying a Formula 2 Ralt-Honda. There were also exhausting stints in Group C Toyotas and Porsches that remain as magical memories.
Tune in tomorrow for the next instalment of Tiff's Top Tracks!