The Japanese GP holds many a memory for me, both in terms of the event itself, but also the annual visit to a country so incredibly different to my own.
The people of Japan in general are probably the most polite of any nation I’ve visited and in the world of the Formula One pit lane, a world vastly dominated by boisterous, western alpha-males, that’s quite a breath of fresh air.
At McLaren, the two Japanese resident Kenwood representatives looking after the teams’ communication equipment, were transformed into possibly the rudest two Japanese people I’ve met after spending a couple of seasons amongst mechanics at the team. Initially with very limited spoken English, of course they were quickly introduced to some of the most vulgar aspects of our language and the most inappropriate times at which to use it, much to our amusement.
Most hotels I’ve stayed in there have the smallest rooms in the world, with space for nothing more than a bed. Even the chair squeezed into the corner normally had to be removed into the corridor upon arrival in order to accommodate an average sized bag. Bathrooms are equally tiny and often formed, in an incredible feat of engineering, from a single plastic mould to include four walls, floor, ceiling, shower, basin and W.C. The toilet, by the way, appears to need a laptop to operate it, with so many buttons controlling things like flush mode, ‘bum and bits’ cleaning jet intensity and pulsation frequency, heated seat temperature and so on. Quite an experience.
That, I guess, is what a visit to Japan is for most people from elsewhere in the world, an experience. A strange one at first, but on reflection a great one.
As for Grand Prix racing in the country, there’s some history. Not so much in terms of the length of time F1’s been going there, aside from two races in the seventies, 1987 was when things really got going. A twenty year stint at Suzuka followed which has brought the number of world champions crowned to thirteen in it’s traditional spot as either the last, or one of the last races on the calendar.
I’ve been lucky enough to play a part in some terrific events both there and at Fuji Speedway, but if we’re honest it’s Suzuka we all think of when talking of the Japanese GP.
For most of my years racing, the schedule kindly threw this event and that of my birthday into the same week of October which, apart from the obvious difficulties of being away from family, posed some challenges in finding somewhere suitable to celebrate.
I’m no singer, however pretty much every year my recognition of another years’ passing ended with traditional karaoke and my team mates and I murdering a series of musical classics.
With the race often bringing the season and championship to a close, anyone in the sport during those years will remember, or not as the case may be, the end of season parties at ‘The Log Cabin’. In reality a fairly low key venue for a party of Formula One’s extravagance, the circuit hotel at Suzuka provided perhaps the only venue large enough and willing to be invaded for what was inevitably always a messy night. That too, ended with karaoke and I’ve a number of vague recollections of ‘performing’ alongside Norbert Haug, Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher etc. in the small wooden huts around the grounds.
On track, the circuit’s hosted some classics. It’s another place the drivers love to go with a good mix of high speed corners, a unique figure of eight layout and fans like nowhere else in the world.
In 2000, Schuey pipped Mika Hakkinen to the championship on the last day at Suzuka as he did again to Kimi in 2003. In 2004 we, as mechanics, were delighted to be told we couldn’t attend the circuit on Saturday due to a potentially dangerous typhoon hitting town and qualifying was delayed until Sunday morning. A rare day off over a Grand Prix weekend.
My most memorable race in Japan though, came in 2005. During the days of the single lap qualifying Kimi’s lap, affected by rain, had left him 17th on the grid. In a year when he was fighting for the championship, it could have been disastrous for the campaign. As it turned out, with the bit between his teeth, he fought his way brilliantly through the field and on the very last lap of the race caught and overtook Giancarlo Fisichella for an awesome victory and a moment I should think I’ll never forget
When you work on a car in championship contention, even though we eventually lost out to Fernando in the end, moments like that give you an incredible outpouring of emotion and bring the crew and driver close together. In typical Kimi style, the victory prompted a crazy two day celebration which took in Sunday night in Japan through a flight to China and a mad couple of days in Shanghai!
If we say that the British Grand Prix may have the most knowledgeable fans, the Italian Grand Prix the most passionate and the German Grand Prix in my experience the most inebriated, I don’t think many would argue that the Japanese event provides some of the most enthusiastic.
Fans line the streets approaching the track early each morning, waving and shouting support at anyone wearing team kit, not just the drivers. I’ve been given gifts ranging from homemade teddy bears dressed in miniature McLaren uniform to chocolate spanners, ceramic rice bowls, t-shirts and most bizarrely of all on one occasion, a pair of white socks with individual toes, like gloves for feet.
At the end of the day, fans would stay late into the evening to show their support and I remember packing up the garage late one Sunday night after a race, it was pitch black and approaching midnight. Other than teams busily working away in the pit lane, the place appeared deserted, as you might expect. At the end of the night, with the cars covered in their protective travel kits, we rolled them out of the garage and up pit lane to deliver them to FOM for their journey home.
At that moment, the main grandstand opposite came alive with noise and camera flashes, revealing hundreds and hundreds of fans who’d sat patiently for hours just waiting for one more glimpse of their beloved Formula One cars, even if they were now barely recognisable from the ones they’d watched racing around their track earlier that day, and with that they were happy.
This years’ race may not be the title decider, but with the championship so finely balanced, it’ll undoubtedly play a key part. We’re at a stage where a good result can keep you in genuine contention, but a bad one could spell the realistic end of your championship challenge. The drivers relish the chance to be let loose around this track, most of the teams love going there too and I’ve no doubt that the many thousands of local enthusiasts will be getting incredibly excited about the weekend drawing nearer. Let’s hope it lives up to expectation and provides more amazing memories for us all.