Suzuka set to become land of the rising son

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP SHOWDOWN: When Damon Hill sets out on his quest for the Formula One drivers' title tomorrow he will be aware of the Japanese Grand Prix's rich history of drama and controversy. Derick Allsop recalls some of the highlights
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The Independent Online
History offers Damon Hill mixed portents as he seeks to rise among the legends in Japan tomorrow. He will become Britain's eighth world champion and the first son of a title winner to reach the pinnacle of motor racing if he finishes in the top six or his Williams-Renault team-mate and only rival, Jacques Villeneuve, fails to win the Japanese Grand Prix.

The odds, therefore, are overwhelmingly in Hill's favour, but Japan has staged some of Formula One's more dramatic and controversial deciders and Hill will be acutely conscious of the possible vagaries.

Circumstances conspired to bestow the championship on another Briton, James Hunt, in the wet and gloom beneath Mount Fuji 20 years ago. Niki Lauda, his eyes and nerves still vulnerable after that horrific crash at the Nurburgring, withdrew his car early in the race and with it any control over the destiny of the crown.

Hunt, having forced a contest out of a seemingly lost cause - much as Villeneuve has this season - still feared he had not done enough amid scenes of extreme tension and confusion at the end. Eventually he was persuaded he had finished third, and won the championship.

Formula One returned to Japan after a 10-year absence in 1987, but at a different circuit. Suzuka, with its distinctly figure of eight lay-out, has been on the grand prix calendar ever since.

That inaugural race marked the end of another title bid by Nigel Mansell, who had been thwarted by a spectacular tyre blow-out at Adelaide the previous season. This time he was trailing his Williams team-mate, Nelson Piquet, and sought victory at Suzuka to sustain his hopes.

During practice, however, he crashed heavily and, as he was lifted from the car and taken to hospital, the watching Piquet knew the challenge had gone with him. Mansell missed the race, and the final grand prix, in Australia, and the Brazilian was confirmed as champion.

The following season McLaren dominated Formula One, another Brazilian, Ayrton Senna, taking on the maestro, Alain Prost. Senna's tardy start appeared to have yielded the initiative at Suzuka, yet his brilliance in slippery conditions brought him through to claim his first title in style.

Twelve months on, the relationship between the two great drivers had deteriorated to the point of open conflict and when they locked horns at the chicane Senna's critics instantly condemned his impetuosity. The onus had been on the Brazilian to stay out of trouble and finish the race. Prost climbed from his stricken car, his innocent countenance camouflaging deep satisfaction. With both of them out of the race, the Frenchman would have his third championship.

That expression changed to one of bemusement and alarm as Senna, far from abandoning the fight, frantically enlisted help to get going again and steered his damaged McLaren back to the pits.

Repairs completed, Senna returned to the track and carved his way through the field with the passion and commitment of a crusader rather than a racing driver. He duly crossed the line first, but to no avail. He was disqualified for receiving outside assistance and missing the chicane.

Alessandro Nannini, of Italy, driving a Benetton, was awarded the only win of his Formula One career and Prost was acclaimed champion.

Time altered the perspective on that crucial incident, most observers coming to the conclusion that Prost had cunningly lured his team-mate into the trap. Senna always saw it that way and denounced Prost as a "cheat".

Senna carried a sense of injustice through the following season when Prost, now at Ferrari, was again his rival. This time Senna had the advantage arriving at Suzuka, and this time he would win the championship if neither completed the race. No one discounted such a scenario because all were aware, as Senna was, that if the Ferrari went clear the McLaren might not be capable of catching it.

Prost sprinted ahead at the start and Senna, as if convinced he had a divine right to exact revenge in anyway he saw fit, continued accelerating towards the first corner, spearing into Prost's car. Both machines were whirled into the gravel trap. Senna made his way back to muted, almost embarrassed celebration, Prost to declare that his former partner was welcome to the championship if it meant that much to him.

Senna had far more to say another year on, after reclaiming the title in more genteel circumstances. He took the opportunity to tell the world he had deliberately driven Prost off the road in 1990 because he felt the governing body, and more significantly its president, Jean-Marie Balestre, had assisted his countryman's cause.

Hill, who inherited the mantle of Williams' senior driver after Senna's death in 1994, produced the finest performance of his life at Suzuka that season to beat Michael Schumacher and take him to what proved another controversial decider, in Australia.

Last year, having seen Schumacher retain his title in the Pacific Grand Prix, at the Japanese circuit of Aida, Hill came back to Suzuka and plunged to the low point of his career. He spun out of the race and admitted: "I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up."

Those will doubtless be his sentiments again tomorrow if he does not accomplish his championship mission.

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