Suzuka's spectacular farewell

Final outing for controversial circuit with a flair for drama

The world knows that Michael Schumacher, who seems increasingly likely to wear the world champion's crown this year, is heading into retirement at the end of what has been a gripping season.

Less well known is that the Suzuka circuit is also bowing out after a 20-year spell as the home of the Japanese Grand Prix. Politics will see the Honda-owned facility dumped next year in place of yet another anodyne venue, the Toyota-owned Fuji speedway.

So many times this wonderful, demanding track, with its Scalextric crossover and its mind-blowing Esses, Spoon Curve and spectacular corners, has been home to controversy and acrimony. Who could ever forget the famous collision between McLaren team-mates Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at the chicane in 1989, and the frustrated majesty of Senna's comeback to a victory subsequently denied him by the FIA? Or the calculated and cold-blooded manner in which the still-angry Brazilian barged Prost's Ferrari off the road a year later, and thus won his second championship sitting in the gravel bed at the first corner? Or Senna punching upstart rookie Eddie Irvine? Or the race of Damon Hill's life when he beat Schumacher in the rain? Or last year, a cliff-hanger of epic proportions with title aspirant Kimi Raikkonen snatching victory on the penultimate lap from Giancarlo Fisichella, as Fernando Alonso staged a fabulous comeback drive to third place?

The drivers love the track, which is curious given that some talked of boycotts at Monza because of one corner and yet here there are several places in which safety levels fall short. "We put up with it because we know we aren't coming back," one said, but it was an unsatisfactory answer that did not explain the paradox.

"It's very technical, espec-ially through turns two to eight, and we don't have as much torque now with the V8s, but those corners are just crazy and it is non-stop," Jenson Button said. "You need mentally to be pretty strong. It's a fabulous track. I love it."

Whether Fernando Alonso feels that way when things are over this afternoon is a moot point, but wherever the Japanese GP is held next year Button believes he himself will be a serious contender for the championship crown.

"It really doesn't matter to me if I win when Michael has retired," the 26-year-old Englishman said. "I just want to win the championship. The real advantage of our new wind tunnel will come for 2007.

"There are other areas where we are weak, and we know what they are. We started 2006 quite well, but just didn't improve at the same rate as Ferrari, Renault and McLaren. But we pulled through.

"We will be the only top- four team who won't have at least one major change. Renault will have Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen after losing Alonso; Ferrari lose Michael and get Kimi; McLaren lose Kimi and get Fernando. We will be able to hit the ground running, and we need to destroy them. We are preparing for a world championship run."

Button conceded that he had gone into this season with similar hopes. "I thought we would be in a strong position in 2006 and it didn't turn out that way," he said.

Perhaps events in the race will provoke similar sentiments in the beleaguered Fernando Alonso. Bridgestone's towering superiority in tyres metaphorically made him drive with one hand tied behind his back during qualifying, and his disenchantment with his sport was exacerbated by Ferrari's tactics in apparently having Felipe Massa bottle him up early in the final session when rain seemed possible.

Renault's chief, Flavio Briatore, slammed Massa and threatened to complain to the race director, Charlie Whiting, who reported Alonso's alleged impeding of Massa to the stewards at Monza in September.

"Today we will tell Charlie, but nothing will happen," Briatore stormed. "We already know what the answer will be. Fernando on the radio was complaining. If you are fighting with McLaren it is fine, if you fight with these guys [Ferrari] it is impossible."

Controversy and Suzuka, hand in hand to the end.