The Japanese Grand Prix has been held at two tracks in its history ; the figure-of-eight Suzuka Circuit we visit this year and the Fuji Motor Speedway named after Japan’s most famous mountain. However a third Japanese track has also hosted a round of the championship.
Aida, a twisty, remote track close to Kobe hosted the Pacific Grand Prix in 1994 and 1995. The ‘94 race was held early in the season, but the 1995 event was third to last, having been moved to the end of the year following the Kobe earthquake. The season shuffle saw Aida play a decisive role in the title race, as Christian Blum, a Renault engine engineer dedicated to the Benetton team at the time, remembers:
‘Aida was one of the last rounds of the season in 1995. We went there with Michael (Schumacher) in a position to win the drivers’ championship for the second time, but the first with the Renault engine. Damon Hill still had a mathematical chance of taking the title, but we knew it would take a lot of bad luck for us to lose.
‘The race weekend turned out to be a microcosm of the season. Williams were always strong in qualifying, but we were stronger in the race. Yet again the Williams locked out the front row of the grid, with David Coulthard outqualifying Damon Hill this time. Michael was third, then the two Ferraris, the Jordan of Eddie Irvine and finally the sister Benetton of Johnny Herbert in seventh. To win the race we needed a good strategy, particularly as Aida was a notoriously difficult track to overtake on.
‘This was one of the advantages of the Benetton team. Remember this was the days of mid-race refueling so there was everything to gain by being creative. Ross Brawn was an excellent strategist and had developed sophisticated programmes that took into account tyre degradation, fuel consumption, track position and other variables. It is standard stuff now, but at the time it was very, very clever. We knew that Williams had the same engine as us, and arguably a more technically advanced chassis, but they were very conservative in their pit strategies. Ross knew this, and saw an opportunity to take advantage.
‘The race got underway. Coulthard led from pole, but Michael tried a move on Hill. It didn’t stick and he dropped back down to fifth behind Hill and the two Ferraris. We needed a good strategy to move up; Michael had already tried a move on Damon but it hadn’t worked. Then Hill, Alesi in the Ferrari and Michael came in on the same lap. They came in with Michael last of the three, but rejoined with Michael in front!.Michael was now fourth behind Coulthard, Berger and Herbert. He started to put in the fastest laps, closing the gap, and made his second stop. Knowing Coulthard was on a two stop strategy, and that he had a third stop to make, Michael went faster still. When he made his third and final stop he was over 20secs ahead and able to exit in the lead.
‘It really was a testament to how Benetton worked as a team. Ross Brawn knew when to take risks, but he also knew when to push Michael to go faster. They probably could take credit for inventing the undercut we use today: stop early, take track position and then put the hammer down. Michael knew when to respond, how to conserve his tyres and wait for the right time, but he was a very willing contributor to the strategy too. They had a real dialogue about the calls and, very often, made the right ones. The calmness with which they made them was impressive – when you listened on the radio, it was as though they were talking in their lounge about sport!
‘Michael held on to take the win, and his second title. We were absolutely delighted. The competition between the engine teams at Williams and Benetton was extremely fierce and sometimes got quite heated! Everyone knew that Williams had the best car and other teams, such as McLaren and Ferrari, had better budgets. But Benetton knew where to make a difference. Where they could compensate. For example, there was no point spending more millions on aero when you could make up the time in pitstops. So they trained and trained and invested in the best equipment. As a result it was very gratifying to take the title as everyone in the team, Renault included, had worked exceptionally hard.
‘For Renault, taking a second title justified our investment. The decision to supply Benetton had not been an easy one and there was certainly a lot of resistance to it from Williams. It wasn’t easy as the teams were essentially each other’s main opponent. But they could not have been more different – on the one hand Williams was the traditional British team, on the other Benetton was run by a flash Italian with a penchant for fashion, polo, girls, music...
‘But we made it work in both cultures. In 1995 we won 16 of 17 races between Williams and Benetton and took 16 of 17 poles. The following race in Suzuka we went on to win the constructors’ title and the satisfaction was complete. But my overriding memory of that season is the party after the drivers’ title in Aida. The track was in a remote location and everyone was staying in guest houses some way from the track. There was the drivers’ hotel at the circuit though so Flavio reserved the entire restaurant straight after the race. On one table you had Flavio, Michael and the Renault bosses. On another table there was Johnny’s crew. We finished in the early hours of the morning, still in our team kit. It’s still my best-ever memory from the sport. We had worked hard, as a team, and got the result we wanted.’