Allan McNish has never had much success at Suzuka. The Scot, who has competed in just three races at the 3.608-mile circuit, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, was withdrawn on medical advice from the 2002 Japanese Grand Prix after a crash in qualifying at 280km/h and achieved a best third place with Porsche in the FIA GT Championship on his previous two visits.
But his love for Honda’s own circuit runs deep, having spent many days testing McLaren to develop its Honda V12 engine for the 1991 Formula One season. When Motorsport.com asks about his favorite circuit, there’s no hesitation in preferring Suzuka Le Mans – the scene of three 24-hour victories – or Sebring, where he won the 12-hour four times.
“I loved it from the moment I sat on the track,” says Suzuka’s McNish. “It felt natural. It was challenging, lots of elevation changes.
“And there was grass right at the edge of the track, it was pretty narrow so it really bit your ass when you made a mistake. You had to respect the track and it was a challenge to get it right. But when you did it, it was a great feeling.”
McNish concedes that visiting the route also had “a romantic side” before signs had English translations for place names.
“It was all Japanese, the writing was everywhere, so going to Suzuka was a bit of a challenge,” he says. “It brought out that romantic kind of adventure side and the track itself was a bit of an adventure too. I loved it then, I love it now.
“And one of the main things that I love about it the most is that it hasn’t changed fundamentally, it hasn’t been sanitized since it was actually built.”
McNish’s Toyota TF102 jumped the 130R barrier in a massive crash in qualifying in 2002 that disqualified him from the Japanese Grand Prix
Photo by: Motorsport Images
McNish points out that his 69g impact with the 130R tire barrier in 2002, before his last race with Toyota, didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the track one bit, and he returned the following year to join Renault’s third car ride in Friday practice.
“I was disappointed that they changed the curve, it took away a bit,” he says of the reprofiled 130R, which hasn’t changed since 2003.
“I know it tried to make me 1m20[cm] instead of 1:65, but the corner wasn’t to blame. The Toyota’s lack of aerodynamics and not catching it fast enough were the problems, not the corner itself. But it didn’t necessarily take away from the whole circuit.”
“It could have been a sports car or a Formula 1 car, every corner was still the same challenge. At Spa, Eau Rouge just became a non-challenge because F1 car downforce got so high. But Suzuka has always maintained that” Alan McNish
This meant McNish’s only racing stints at Suzuka were in 1997 and 1998, when the radical Porsche challenger, introduced in 1996, had been usurped by Mercedes and was also generally falling behind the McLaren-BMW in 1997.
The Porsche 911 GT1 McNish, which he shared with Yannick Dalmas and Pedro Lamy, was on course for a top six finish at Suzuka in 1997 before losing 10 minutes in the fifth hour to a broken gearbox linkage.
But in 1998 it looked like McNish would give the Mercedes CLK-LM his first real challenge since moving the goal posts even further on his arrival at Hockenheim and McNish, now Le Mans 24 Jour winner, set the fastest lap drove. Had it not been for Mercedes driver Ricardo Zonta tossing it into the Degner gravel on lap eight of a later 171 during the 1000km race, costing three laps, the Michelin-tyred 911 could have presented a tough challenge to the Bridgestone Mercedes.
McNish scathingly suggested at the time he wouldn’t let F1 hopeful Zonta ride his bike and now believes “we should have won, we had the speed to do it”.
McNish didn’t have much luck at Suzuka. It is pictured during the 1997 FIA GT 1000km round which was delayed by a gearbox problem
Photo by: Motorsport Images
That much is supported by Autosport’s Gary Watkins, who wrote in his report that “from the moment McNish emerged from the litter box the car lost no time on the leader”. Of course, runaway leaders Bernd Schneider and Mark Webber didn’t have to go all out as Zonta was kicked out of the lead fight due to the punishment he suffered for the incident. But McNish firmly believes Suzuka was “one of the few times” Mercedes could be beaten in 1998.
McNish says his enjoyment of the track was not diminished by the car he drove.
“It could have been a sports car or a Formula 1 car, every corner was still the same challenge,” he says. “At Spa, Eau Rouge just became a non-challenge because the downforce of F1 cars got so high. But Suzuka has always stuck to that.
“When you dropped into the first corner and tried to brake and turn and tighten it up for the second part or through the esses it took a little lift to get the front of the car in, it wasn’t just flat – out of.”
McNish contested two more races in Japan as part of the World Endurance Championship in 2012 and 2013 before retiring at the end of last season, albeit both times at Toyota-owned Fuji, where he finished second twice.
McNish was previously Team Principal of Audi’s Formula E squad and still holds Suzuka in high esteem
Photo: Audi Motorsport Communication