Leaving Melbourne on the midnight meat train (sorry Boeing 777) to Hong Kong had certain Michael Bay overtones to it. As my colleague Peter McGinley (from ABC Radio’s Box of Neutrals) and I taxied along the runway, we were hit by a 120 km/ph wind that would’ve made a circa 1986 Nigel Mansell break into a sweat. Whilst we did get airborne, it did take a good hour to outrun the storm and knowing now what it’s like being at the mercy of Mother Nature, I will never swat a fly again.
A quick stop-over in Hong Kong enabled me to catch up with RichlandF1’s info graphic extraordinaire Peter Leung. Pete and I had organized to catch up at a bar while he interviewed British KCMG driver Dan Wells, but after having lunch with Dan in Singapore I’d conveniently forgotten to mention that I’d be popping by. Judging by his expression, Dan thought he must’ve seen a ghost, but then it’s part and parcel for Australians to trek thousands of miles for a casual beer. Peter, I think I still owe you a round so will be back soon to square that off!
Armed with the knowledge of what can happen to Asiana flights on Korean runways, McGinley and I decided to continue our journey to Seoul on Cathay. Having not snapped in half upon landing served to justify our position and we promptly sought out a fast-train to Mokpo. And yes, there is free wifi on Korean trains… Just a thought while you’re reading this on the loo Tony Abbott!
A Korean Grand Prix virgin walking into the KIC surrounds with unjaded wonderment is probably akin to a never-seen-action private who’s overzealously wandered into a platoon poker game – it’s definitely bound to raise a few dulled eyebrows. But if I appeared slightly jejune on my first day in Korea, it certainly wasn’t fabricated. Don’t worry, I was made acutely aware by journalists who’d gone before me that I could find myself incommunicado in a remote flophouse, fighting off an onslaught of fallen women and wharfies trying to drag me into a Tom Waits potboilers.
What I did find was a brilliant little town with a lot of character giving their very best to embrace what is in reality a very hard event to promote. While the main drag in Mokpo is a slight hike to the Yeongam circuit, the trek is not unlike the kind you might face commuting to a V8 Supercar round in rural Victoria, Australia – an event that engenders massive support and enthusiasm among locals.
Even walking the streets for a meal at night in Mokpo, you notice pockets of F1 people congregating in corner restaurants chewing over the day’s events; an old school racing culture that doesn’t really seem to happen when there are other distractions around. As a consequence I couldn’t help feel a little sheepish about the way the race is portrayed by the media. If you were weighing up going to Mokpo, then the image of being violated by a hollow-horned mammal (as popularized by some journos) wouldn’t exactly encourage you to slap your hard-earned down for a ticket now would it?
Saturday’s press conference was probably the shortest I can remember – albeit in my short career covering live races. When questions were opened up to the floor, RichlandF1’s Abhishek Takle dutifully stepped up to the plate and asked one of his regulation incisive questions. Once his query had been dealt with, master of ceremonies Bob Constanduros asked if there were anymore takers… There were none and Bob now faced the mammoth task of transcribing an exclusive one-on-one qualifying interview with one of Richland’s finest.
Seated back at our desks ten minutes later, Abhishek was confronted by Bob with more conviction than Sean Penn did with Christopher Walken in the film At Close Range. Barrelling towards Mr Takle, Bob extended an accusatory finger and yelled: “Next time! Don’t make so much work for us!”
I’ll admit, for a moment we were all dumbstruck before a wry grin crept across Mr Constanduros’s face.
Up early to catch the train back to Incheon airport and it looked like every man, woman and groupie in F1 had the same idea. With Typhoon Fitow upping stumps and heading to China the chance of a delay was mercifully abated, but with nobody taking a chance on a later train, the Mokpo to Seoul line was a veritable who’s who of F1 media. What I was doing there I’ll never know.
When I arrived in Tokyo some 9 hours later, my worst fears of catching a flu were well and truly confirmed. After dragging myself out of bed and pleading with any chemist who would listen for some “bitaminshi” (vitamin C), I eventually settled on two bowls of chilli soup and liberal servings of whiskey. I haven’t seen The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but it definitely expelled something! A short 3 hr train ride to Suzuka (spent furiously writing questions for Sam Bird) and we were at the greatest track on Earth!… Okay not so short. After oversleeping and having the biggest “oh ****!!!” moment of my life, we managed to get to Tokyo train station with 5 minutes to spare.
Having been to Suzuka three years earlier, I thought I had some idea about fanatical F1 fandom, but this was something different. Arriving Thursday lunchtime, there were hundreds of Japanese enthusiasts in full team-regalia lined-up outside the circuit – most without tickets – just hoping to catch a glimpse of their heroes. Such is the Japanese devotion to Formula One that one suspects had we arrived at Christmas, there would’ve been a similar scene. Later that day, Jenson Button described the Japanese as “proper race fans” as opposed to the retinue that fastens itself to Monaco every year. He couldn’t be more correct.
Mercedes’ air-conditioned hospitality unit was a sweet reprieve from a Suzuka paddock that appeared to find itself situated under the only hole in the Ozone. I introduced myself to Sam Bird, who was transfixed by the televised support race.
“What the hell is this?” Sam remarked, still mesmerized by what looked like Formula Vees with wings. Not one car appeared to have sufficient grip to negotiate the Suzuka circuit, but it didn’t stop the pilots trying – most leaving the track faster than a Scaletrix toy being controlled by an adolescent on a sugar high. With no Japanese Formula 3 or Formula Nippon to speak of, I wonder how much the series promoter forked out to get these guys on the bill!
When night fell, Abhishek, Peter and I took the opportunity to walk the Suzuka circuit and it didn’t disappoint. I’ll admit, we all probably lingered a little too long on the apex of turn one – long enough to realise I wouldn’t find ‘Senna 4 Prost’ scrawled underneath the kerbing paintwork. What did strike me though was the extreme camber change and undulations from turns 3 through to 7. What television doesn’t show is that this section resembles something of a suspension bridge that has flexed during an earthquake. When you consider the variable wind conditions over the weekend, it’s a wonder these cars stay on track at all at this speed.
I took some of my thoughts from the walk into the post-qualifying press conference, with mixed results.
Me: “We’ve seen a lot of drivers lose a lot of time in the chicane over the weekend; have you guys opted for a compromise set-up for that or is it just something in the characteristics of the cars?”
Mark: “The chicane is a normal compromise problem for this circuit. It’s a very slow chicane, it’s from a big speed in terms of braking, there’s also a bit of rise in there if you want to use the kerbs and then the traction is also very important. As usual, we go to we try to compromise the car as best we can. We’re aware there’s a lot of lap time in the chicane but there’s also a lot of lap time in the first sector so we do what we can. The driver sometimes has to fill the pockets in terms of those compromises.”
Sebastian: “Sorry, what was the question again?”
Well one out of three isn’t too bad I guess…
Saturday night rolled around and it looked as though my colleague Abhishek had been stiffed out of a night in his hotel in Nagoya to accommodate some one-day race fans. Naturally Peter and I offered him dwelling, but I think even Abhishek was shocked by the submarine-like dimensions of our hotel room. I’m not saying a John Candy-Steve Martin living arrangement ensued and I’m not saying it didn’t. We will however exchange a knowing nod if we catch each other across the street in thirty year’s time.
What strikes you at the Japanese Grand Prix is that some five hours after the chequered flag has fallen, fans are still lining the grandstands with Mexican waves unfolding under the night sky. It is a special place that will never be replicated by the bright lights and cash-injection of Abu Dahbi. It’s a bucket-list event – even for the non-motorsport fan.
Images copyright RichlandF1 and Trent Price