Jake Michaels is attending his third Japanese Grand Prix this weekend and spent first practice watching trackside in the famous sector one.
SUZUKA, Japan -- For a moment, just a brief moment, it's eerily silent. The only sound you hear is the light wind rustling against your shirt and tickling the back of your ears. It's overcast with no sun in sight, but it's warm. Warm and humid. In the distance, trucks are laboring by, occasionally poking out from behind the trees as they make their way north toward the city of Nagoya. You can't hear them at all.
Then the PA system springs to life. An energetic Japanese man's voice is blasted through speakers perched high on wooden poles, and the Suzuka crowd -- one that has become famous over the years for its unparalleled enthusiasm for motor racing -- comes alive. They break into applause and begin cheering and dancing in the grandstands. It's official: The glorious Formula One-Suzuka pairing is back after the annual 12-month hiatus. It's time for opening practice.
I had stationed myself on the outside of Turn 3, smack bang in the middle of Suzuka's breathtaking first sector. Sure, Monaco has the charm, and Monza has the history, but this piece of racetrack might just be the most exhilarating sequence of corners Formula One has to offer both drivers and fans.
Standing trackside certainly does not disappoint.
One by one, cars roll out of the pit lane, and the sound that bellows across the southern side of Suzuka can be likened to a jet plane taking off in the distance. It isn't necessarily loud, but you definitely know it's powerful and heading in your direction.
You first catch a glimpse of the cars as drivers approach the 100-metre brake-marker boards on the run into Turn 1. From that moment, you can fix your eyes on a car for about 14-and-a-half seconds and watch a driver earn a ludicrous salary. Just close your eyes, and count those seconds. Now imagine watching a Formula One car, unobstructed, racing around at blistering speeds, for that amount of time. It's a one-of-a-kind experience.
The Suzuka roller-coaster ride begins the moment drivers cross the start line and plunge down the main straight into Turn 1. Watching on television doesn't do it justice, but the tarmac seriously falls away into the opening corner -- the lowest point (in terms of sea level, not quality) of the track. Still, it doesn't stop drivers approaching the corner at speeds of close to 300 km/h.
By getting up close to the circuit, you realise that the first two corners act almost like a skateboarding bowl. Carry speed into Turn 1, ride the curve, and enjoy the slingshot effect out of Turn 2. It might be listed as two separate corners, but it's essentially one long right-hander encased by a grandstand of photo-snapping locals who took up their place just moments after the Suzuka gates opened earlier that morning.
Something else that becomes apparent when watching trackside is that from the exit of Turn 2, a driver cannot see the stretch of track that runs between Turns 3 and 4. All that is visible on the right is a section of lush, green grass. Drivers have to rely purely on feel and experience, and any adjustments have to be made in a split second with no second-guessing.
Watching the cars exit Turn 2, take a chunk of kerb before switching back across to the right hand side and open up Turn 3 is pure poetry. The change of direction these new-generation cars have in their arsenal is mind-boggling, and Suzuka demonstrates it perfectly, as the cars pivot seamlessly while managing to stay planted to the tarmac, almost on a rail. If you so much as blink when a car begins taking Turn 3, you'll open your eyes and see it heading straight for you. At that moment, which lasts barely a quarter of a second, you'll struggle to not flinch ever so slightly.
All of this is made more dramatic by the rumbling noise of the V6 turbo engines bouncing off the concrete barriers and echoing through the section, through your bones, long after the cars have disappeared. Shut your eyes again, and it's as if you're standing on the track itself. This is peak Formula One, and we haven't even reached the famed Esses.
At top speed, it takes around six seconds for a driver to round the five corners between Turn 3 and Turn 7, a high-speed, beautifully flowing section of racetrack aptly named the Esses in honor of its double S shape. Just like the main straight, the incline here can be deceptive, and it's difficult to get a sense of just how steep it is by watching on television.
After I reluctantly dragged myself away from Turn 3 and headed toward Turn 6, it didn't take long for me to start wiping sweat from my brow. They really are climbing a hill -- 50.4 metres, to be exact. As you track a car through the section, one moment you feel as though you're looking down at your toes; the next, up at the sky.
The snaking tarmac narrows upon entry into the Esses, and each S curve is flanked by slippery grass and gravel. It isn't a place where you can afford to make a mistake, particularly as the steel barriers get closer and closer to the edge of the circuit the farther up the hill you climb.
But what really makes this first sector so enjoyable is how you can view a car from almost every angle: the front, the back, the left side and the right side. It's also a sector where there's no mistaking a driver who is on a flying lap. You just know when a car is on the limit and working in these corners. You don't miss a thing as they dance around the tarmac, perilously close to the gravel, before shooting off into the distance.
At some points, when track activity is high, you can't even count how many cars are in front of you. 14? 15? 16? You can almost capture all 20 Formula One cars in one magical photograph.
It's easy to get lost in a trance as cars whizz by you at remarkable speeds. If that happens, just look at the dated power lines hanging on the northern side of the circuit. They're sure to shock you out of your temporary F1 coma and back into reality.
In all seriousness, roaming around the first few corners at Suzuka is a mind-blowing experience, and any Formula One fan with a bucket list that doesn't feature a trip to Japan in the top three needs to rewrite that list. Get to Suzuka, park yourself somewhere in the first sector, and enjoy. You can thank me later.
What do drivers think about Suzuka's first sector?
If you're ever hoping to see a smile flash across the face of a Formula One driver, just ask them to describe the sheer pleasure of hurtling through sector one at Suzuka.
"It's probably the best sector we have," a giddy Valtteri Bottas proclaimed when asked Thursday what makes it so special. That might be a concise answer, but it's a popular answer and one that is echoed all the way down the paddock. Drivers genuinely love their annual trip to Japan, and the roller-coaster, heart-in-mouth first sector at Suzuka is one of the reasons for that.
In qualifying trim, it takes approximately half a minute for a Formula One car to complete the seven corners in the opening sector, a stretch of racetrack that poses a great, multifaceted challenge for all drivers.
"It's like you're having to do quick math," Renault's Daniel Ricciardo said. "In the first sector, you're never really looking at the corner you're in. You're always looking at the next one. It's like, you're in the corner, but how does that position me for the next corner? And then how does that position me for the exit? There is some real calculation going on because there is so many corners to put together.
"What's cool is that it allows different lines, at least on one lap. You'll see guys go flat-out through Turn 3 and carry a lot of speed through 4, but then it tightens them up for 5 and 6. Gaining a bit here and sacrificing a bit there."
The mental aspect is just one obstacle drivers must overcome in Japan. The physical challenge the opening sector poses is one of the greatest on the current calendar.
Facing extreme lateral G-forces, drivers are literally thrown from one side of the cockpit to the other, and through that, they must ensure they hit their braking spots and apexes with pin-point precision.
"There's lots of load [when driving through the Esses], and you definitely feel it in your body and in your neck," Bottas said.
Given how majestically free flowing the first sector in Japan is, any early mistake can be catastrophic, particularly on a qualifying run. Missing the apex into Turn 1, even by a whisker, can put a driver on the back foot for the next 20 seconds. It's yet another challenge of racing around Suzuka.
"I've always been a fan of corner combinations, so left-right, left-right. It's cool," Ricciardo told media in Japan. "But if you mess up Turn 3, then it rumbles into 4 and into 5. By the time you recover, you've lost two corners of perfect lap time. You can also be too conservative and set up the next corner too much, and then you lose out in the current corner."
While a mistake can be costly, getting it right is one of the most satisfying feelings a race driver will ever experience, "particularly when you have a headwind," championship leader Lewis Hamilton said.
The headwind plants the car on the tarmac and allows for increased grip and, as a result, higher speeds. This is when the roller-coaster comparison really rings true.
"You generally have two different directions here," Hamilton said. "If there's a headwind into [Turn 1] and a tailwind into [the Esses], it's a little less exciting because the car is not so planted. But if there's a tailwind into Turn 1 with the headwind through that section, it's just unbelievable. It's crazy. I wish you guys could feel it."
Suzuka is certainly a drivers' track and one that has managed to maintain its stunning character for half a century. Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, who previously labelled Suzuka his favourite Formula One circuit of all time, believes it's so special because "it's not a carpark."
Other drivers want to see more Suzuka-style circuits added to the calendar, as opposed to some of the less challenging tracks that have become mainstays in F1.
"Many Formula One drivers miss these kinds of tracks," McLaren's Carlos Sainz said ahead of the weekend. "I wish, in the future, we can go towards designing these kind of tracks instead of others. There's a lot of things that make it very special."
"Special" might be the understatement of the year. It doesn't matter whether you're a driver or a fan. Suzuka, particularly sector one, defies belief and will leave you breathless, wanting more.