F1’s Suzuka circuit is a challenge straight out of Japanese folklore

SUZUKA, Japan — The distinctive Jorō spider, which is common across much of Japan, can grow to the size of the palm of your hand. The female of the species is much larger than the male and is immediately identifiable by the red and yellow markings on her bulbous body — a warning to predators of her venomous bite.

By this time of year in mid-September, a female Jorō spider will be nearing the end of her year-long life and will be ready to spin a cocoon of golden silk to protect her eggs. All being well, they will hatch the following spring, giving life to hundreds of spiderlings, starting the lifecycle all over again.

So prevalent are the spiders in central Japan that the infield of the Suzuka circuit, home to this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, has a narrow path nicknamed ‘Spider Alley’. The overgrown walkway is the only route from Suzuka’s final chicane to its famous crossover point, making it a necessary evil for photographers hoping to move from one end of the circuit to the other while cars on track.

Vegetation, knotweed and catch fencing interweave along one side of the path, creating a habitat in which Jorō spiders can thrive metres away from one of the world’s finest sections of racetrack. Thankfully, a Jorō spider’s fangs are barely long enough to pierce human skin, meaning clumsy encounters between members of the media and arachnids rarely result in a venomous bite.

According to Japanese folklore, however, the species is linked to a deceptive shape-shifting Yokai (a mythical apparition) called Jorōgumo. The legend says that if a Jorō spider lives in excess of 400 years it will develop supernatural powers, allowing it to take on a female human form at will. Described as an exceptionally cunning creature with a cold heart, it uses its beauty and charm to wreak destruction on the lives of young men foolish enough to engage with it.

Therefore, the analogy with Suzuka, which is in equal measure one the most alluring and fearsome circuits in F1, writes itself.

The reward for braving ‘Spider Alley’ is a short walk in the open to one of the highest points of Suzuka’s infield. As the only track on the F1 calendar with a figure-of-eight layout, several points around the circuit afford incredible views but none are as breathtaking as this one.

From the top of a grassy mound, F1 action is visible in all directions, with the two Degner corners 15 metres below on one side and 130R, the fastest corner on the circuit, on the other. Between those two points the cars will run under the crossover, complete half a lap of the circuit (roughly 1.8 miles) and return back over the crossover in less than 40 seconds.

From the onboard cameras of current generation F1 cars, 130R, so called because its original metric radius was 130 degrees, looks somewhat benign — reduced to a kink in a straight from the proceeding Spoon corner to the final chicane. But from trackside the forces at play are more obvious, with sparks flying from the underside of the car at 190mph as it loads up with more than 4G of lateral force.

The layout was revised in 2003 to allow for more run-off area on the exit of the corner, meaning it no longer has a 130-metre radius nor a nasty bump in the middle. But even with its smoother surface and easier angle of attack, a wheel on the grass or the slightest mistake could still spell disaster for driver and team.

The Degners are much more of a challenge for a modern F1 car, and arguably more rewarding to watch from trackside. The first of the two corners is taken in excess of 160 mph, daring drivers to leave their braking until they have passed the 50-metre warning board on entry. The camber of the right-hand corner loads up the left-hand side of the car, to the point that a well-timed photograph has been known to capture ripples in the tyre’s sidewall as it deforms under pressure.

The exit kerb is all that stands between making it as far as the second Degner and a huge accident in the gravel, but treated with a modicum of respect it has the tendency to keep the car locked on the correct racing line. The whole corner requires the driver to place serious faith in the car, which in turn is shown little mercy as the underside is dragged along the serrated concrete of the kerbing.

Less than a couple of seconds pass before the braking point for Degner 2 hits, which requires a further 60 mph to be shed before turning in. Again, there’s a temptation to get greedy, but the narrowness of the circuit and the presence of the barrier on the exit means even the slightest misjudgement will be punished.

Pierre Gasly found that out the hard way at the end of Friday’s second practice session when he snapped the front left suspension of his Alpine A523 against the barrier on the exit of the corner. He later said he locked a tyre under braking and simply couldn’t get the car slowed down in time. A reminder to all 20 drivers ahead of Saturday’s qualifying session that the margins are exceptionally small at Suzuka.

Much like the legend of Jorōgumo, which tells a cautionary tale about hidden dangers and the perils of yielding to temptation, Suzuka is a circuit that must be treated with respect.

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