- The Inside Line
Japanese for passionKate Walker October 3, 2014
One of my favourite first lines in literature comes from LP Hartley's The Go-Between: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
Of all the places we travel in Formula One, Japan is the place most different to anywhere else I've been. The 24-hour flight to Melbourne drops you in a country not dissimilar to parts of the States, or a particularly sunny part of Europe. Shanghai sure ain't London, but it reminds me of both Seoul and Moscow.
Japan, on the other hand, could only ever be Japan. And within what is already my favourite country one finds the Suzuka Circuit, a tiny pocket of passion and joyful madness that has to be experienced in order to be believed.
It may be a cliche to talk up the atmosphere here in Mie prefecture, to describe the legions of fans who spend the year between races handcrafting fabulous costumes designed to declare team allegiances while attracting the photographers' lenses, but cliches exist because they're true.
In a year when we have seen surprisingly low spectator figures at traditional heartland races such as Hockenheim and Monza, it was heartening to see the main grandstand occupied on a rainy Thursday when there was little more to see in the pit lane than teams organising their domains. It brought to mind the rained off qualifying session of 2010 - my first time at Suzuka - when leaving the track under cover of darkness I left behind a main grandstand still heaving with people watching an empty pitlane.
This year there is all manner of speculation about a potentially rained off grand prix, thanks to the unpredictable path of Typhoon Phanphone. And however unlikely it is that the race will be delayed until Monday (the logistics of getting all the equipment to Sochi in time for next weekend's debut Russian Grand Prix makes a Monday race impossible), should the unexpected occur this is the only venue on the calendar that would see a weekday grand prix play to sell-out crowds.
One of my personal highlights of the Japanese weekend is the buffet breakfast at the Suzuka Circuit Hotel, which is open even to those of us too poor to pay their rates at the weekend. Not only do the massive windows give an excellent view of the fans and autograph hunters as they spot their driver prey each morning, but the walk to the paddock through the theme park (officially called Mobility Land…) is a sight to behold.
At first, the park is empty, and even in the brightest daylight there are few things creepier than an empty theme park. But then the loudspeakers erupt in force, playing a jingle that means nothing to me other than duck and cover! The fans are in the building!
And while the Japanese fans are unfailingly polite and brilliant company, the last thing you want to do is get in their way as they run full tilt for the grandstands, all wanting to be the first person to get a bird's eye view of the pit lane from the top tier of the monolithic main grandstand. Swimming downstream against salmon answering the call to mate would be a far easier affair than standing in the way of the human tide of F1 passion as it sweeps past the ferris wheel and adventure rides.
But if you can find a safe place away from the human traffic, there are few sights in Formula One more able to stir the heartstrings than the parade of passion that is the sprint from the Suzuka Circuit gates. If only we could find a way to bottle that Japanese enthusiasm and sprinkle it over the sport's lesser loved white elephants...