Ah, the championship showdown. Forget your Ashes tests and your penalty shoot-outs – this is the supreme sporting spectacle. Two of the world’s finest drivers in two of the fastest cars, one hunting down the other for a place in the pantheon of motor racing greats. And what magnificent venues this battle will be fought at.
Monza, Spa-Francorchamps, Interlagos, Suzuka, Shanghai. From historic to exotic: if you had to condense the F1 calendar into a handful of venues, these five (Monaco and Silverstone aside) would surely be among the top picks.
First, ancient Monza – you could almost go on a Formula One archaeological dig here. The vast start line area and acres of tarmac is visibly little different today from the days of Juan Manuel Fangio. Yes, it may be emasculated with chicanes, but though its essence is diluted the spirit of Monza – pure, unfettered speed – remains. Even in 2005 a driver can catch the slipstream of a rival down the main straight and scream alongside in a 350 kph wheel-to-wheel dive for glory.
Spa-Francorchamps, too, is a classic venue from Formula One’s European roots. Chopped back from nearly nine miles to 4.5 in 1983, the new incarnation is a mini-version of the original, yet still the longest circuit on the calendar. Eau Rouge, Pouhon, Stavelot, Blanchimont – a driver will attack most of the greatest challenges F1 has to offer in just one lap of this majestic venue.
Interlagos is in much the same vein – drastically shorter than it used to be, but no less impressive. This kind of effortless combination of a high-speed beginning, flowing fast bends and a few technical twists can apparently only be formed by following the natural contours of the land, which is exactly what Interlagos – literally situated ‘between the lakes’ – does.
The Brazilian round is the first of three flyaway races that conclude the season. Next, to Suzuka in Japan and, if you’ll indulge me, a brief plea:
The Toyota motor company are keen to the Japanese Grand Prix switched from Suzuka – Honda’s track and its home since 1987 – to the Fuji Speedway. Fuji, holder of the first two Japanese Grands Prix in 1976 and 1977, has been chopped into a far tighter and slower circuit than its 1970s/80s heyday (as players of Gran Turismo 4 will testify).
The Japanese Grand Prix must stay at Suzuka. The opening sequence of left-right bends is a supreme test of driver skill. Not to mention some of the breathtaking high-speed corners: Degner, Spoon and 130R (even if it has been made easier since Allan McNish’s shunt in 2002).
Next, Shanghai, which I am well aware draws criticism for being yet another bland Tilke-drome – perhaps it has no place in a eulogy of F1’s best tracks? Perhaps. But the sheer immensity of the venue cannot fail to impress. Nor can the supremely unorthodox turn one which, we should not forget, even caught out Michael Schumacher last year. As a celebration of Formula One’s bold new frontiers, you can’t do much better than China.
The terms of combat are set and the title beckons. Let’s hope, after a dismal 2004, that these great tracks give us a fitting conclusion to the season.