CIRCUITS: NIPPON AUTOPOLIS

Name: Nippon Autopolis

There have been many strange stories around the world of motor racing but the adventures of Japanese businessman Tomonori Tsurumaki must rank as one of the most bizarre. Tsurumaki announced plans to build a vast $400m sports complex, including a Grand Prix-standard racing circuit, at the top of a mountain in a remote part of Japan.

It was a mad idea but Tsurumaki found vast sums of money from somewhere and began work. The logic behind the idea was that people could escape from the fraught existence of Japanese cities and sit in a hilltop retreat, surrounded by natural forests, look at glorious works of art and watch motor races. Tsurumaki purchased a string of artworks by artists such as van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Renoir. To draw attention to his scheme he sent a very large check to the Benetton Formula 1 team which was only too happy to put Autopolis stickers on its cars.

The 2.94-mile track was built in the middle of the Aso Kujiyu National Park in the center of Kyushu, the most southerly of the major islands of Japan. The design of the circuit was done by former Honda F1 project leader Yoshitoshi Sakurai and Tsurumaki talked about a membership scheme for wealthy car owners to use the track.

Having Benetton on his side helped Tsurumaki and when the track was launched in 1990 Nelson Piquet, Sandro Nannini and team boss Flavio Briatore were all present for the celebrations. The following year Tsurumaki turned up at the Monaco Grand Prix trying to convince F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone that there ought to be a Grand Prix at the facility.

At the end of that year Autopolis hosted a round of the World Sportscar Championship which was won by Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger in a Mercedes. Visitors reported that the track was so remote that hotels were hours away on buses and that there was no way that it could support a Formula 1 race.

Tsurumaki decided to try again and turned up at the Portuguese GP in 1992. It was later reported that while staying in Estoril he was robbed of $250,000 of cash and jewels which he had left in his hotel room.

The downturn in the Japanese economy torpedoed all Tsurumaki's plans and he eventually ran into trouble with the Japanese authorities. In October 1995 Autopolis had passed into the hands of the construction company which built it and was trying to sell it for a tenth of what it had cost to build. It has not be heard of since.

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