FEATURE

Why I look forward to ... the Japanese Grand Prix

If you've been fanatically interested in motor racing for more than a couple of years, as I have, then I'm sure that some of your most vivid memories of great races will involve the Japanese GP. Suzuka, the current home of the event, has long been regarded as one of the three most demanding (read difficult and dangerous) circuits on the F1 calendar. This means that anyone who has won there deserves the extra respect enjoyed by those who've won at other great venues like Monaco or Spa-Francorchamps.

Although this year's World Championship can't be settled until the final round in Brazil later this month, let's not forget that Michael Schumacher is a six-times winner at Suzuka. Of course, Fernando Alonso left him with a moment he won't have forgotten from last year, when he drove his Renault round the number 1 Ferrari at the knee-tremblingly quick 130R corner. It's true, too, that some of Michael's success at Suzuka is attributable to the circuit being Bridgestone's home ground. But with Alonso's Renault evidently back on form, this weekend's don't-miss confrontation will surely be one to relish.

In the past, perhaps because the Japanese race has sometimes been the one which decided the title, Suzuka also has a tendency to bring out the worst in even the greatest drivers. It was here, in 1989, that Alain Prost famously nerfed Ayrton Senna (his McLaren-Honda team mate at the time) off the road at the chicane while they were contesting the lead. One year later, employing considerably less subtlety, Senna returned the favour by barging Prost's Ferrari into the gravel at the first corner.

The 1989 incident was far more political than it had originally appeared to be, involving an act of blatant favouritism on the part of the then FIA President, Jean-Marie Balestre, who unjustly singled out Senna as the guilty party. Indeed, Max Mosley later identified that unforgivable instance of pro-French partiality as one of the reasons why he felt compelled to make his successful stand against Balestre for the FIA presidency in 1991.

As a footnote to those two incidents of sporting thuggishness, I have to point out that while Prost never admitted his guilt for what he did in 1989, at least Senna (eventually) owned up to having acted deliberately in the incident which he triggered one year later. The Brazilian's confession helped me make up my mind about which of those two champions was the greater sportsman. While on the subject, I suspect that many of us would feel a little less uneasy about the sort of legacy which Michael Schumacher is about to leave the sport if he, too, chose to speak openly and honestly about some of the incidents which have cast a shadow over his achievements.

It was 30 years ago that I first attended the Japanese Grand Prix. It was still a big adventure to be going to Japan, and I was thrilled to be making the trip for Motor magazine, Britain's biggest selling car weekly, where I was Sports Editor. My job had already taken me to Canada, the US, Brazil and Argentina, though I had never imagined I would be going to the Far East. But this was 1976, James Hunt was locked in battle for the title with Niki Lauda, the deciding round would be Japan's debut F1 event - so I was told to pack my bag for Tokyo.

The grandly named Fuji International Speedway was a decent enough track, much of it in a depression overlooked by the grandstands, but it was about as remote as you can get on a crowded island, a good two-hour drive from Tokyo in normal traffic. There can't have been more than a couple of dozen pressmen assigned to the race from publications outside Japan, and despite a desperate shortage of accommodation, we were treated like royalty.

My digs were to be in the Fuji View hotel, a small but luxurious wooden country house attached to a golf course. On being shown to the room I would be sharing with a colleague, I sat down at the writing desk, with a view of ... Mont Fuji. Bathed in sunshine and capped with snow, the old volcano was so breathtakingly beautiful that I wanted to record the moment. So, despite the jet-lag (or perhaps because of it), I fished out some of the hotel's headed writing paper and fired off a letter to my mum. It was the first time I'd written to her since I'd been forced to write letters home as a prep school boarder ...

That view of Fuji would be the last of the weekend, for that night the weather closed in on the area. By lunchtime on Sunday it was raining so heavily that the start of the race was being repeatedly postponed in the hope that the track would become a little less water-logged. Finally, Bernie Ecclestone had to point out that it would be dark at the finish unless the race got under way immediately. The reluctant drivers started gingerly, but one of the first retirements was Lauda, who stopped and climbed out of his Ferrari. Still suffering from his Nurburgring burns, he judged that the conditions were too dangerous to continue. To his chagrin, they almost immediately cleared up.

Although the winner was Lotus driver Mario Andretti (his second victory in F1, at the age of 36), the spotlight fell on James Hunt, whose third place for McLaren gave him the world title. But the scenes at the finish were ugly as James screamed insults at team boss Teddy Mayer, whose lap chart had blown up early in the proceedings. James refused to believe he was champion until he got official confirmation.

With darkness all around, I started work on my race report. But I was uneasy about the communication facilities, which hinged on a new device which would transmit our stories to a telex office in Tokyo, where they would be transcribed and despatched. The device, we were told, was a telefax machine, then almost unknown in Europe. For some reason I didn't trust the thing, so I accepted the offer of a ride back to the main telex office in Tokyo, where I typed out my report and saw it safely off to London.

No sooner had I got back to my hotel at 3am than London phoned to say that someone had failed to put any paper in the telex machine and I would have to re-send the whole thing. I got a taxi back to the telex office, where I retrieved the telex tapes from a waste bin and re-sent them at enormous cost. I never did get to sleep that night and went straight to the airport. Sadly, I was much too tired to join in the monumental booze-up on the British Airways flight which poured a seriously disheveled Hunt into the embrace of his family and a dozen TV interviewers at Heathrow.

A couple of years later I was invited to help out the BBC television F1 broadcasts by keeping a lap chart for Murray Walker and acting as his spotter. It was a job which I was to do for 17 years, and eventually Murray was joined in the booth by James Hunt. The combination sparked right from the start, often violently. Murray's assiduous but innocuous paddock gleanings clashed with the spontaneous vitriol from James, who did not hide his many prejudices.

There were only two Japanese GPs at Fuji (in 1976 and 1977), and the race was not revived in Japan until 1987. To Hunt's fury, the BBC decided not to send any commentators to the new venue, Suzuka, but instead asked me to sit in the luxurious commentary box allocated to us, complete with its own telephone link to the studio in Shepherds Bush. A couple of years later, I invited an upstart young reporter named Joe Saward to join me, and together we made a fine double act.

It infuriated James Hunt that the Beeb was too mean to send him to Japan. Having been forced to rise at 3am, he would express his annoyance with heavy handed remarks ("unfortunately, our commentary point is too far away for us to see the pits"), while Murray got his revenge by taking over the microphone for long periods whenever James took a break for one of his special cigarettes ("James has left the commentary box to take a look at the far side of the circuit").

Today, ITV's coverage is immensely expanded, with extra cameras, pit lane commentators and Martin Brundle doing what is, let's face it, a far better job of spotting the action than James (or I, or even Joe) ever did for the Beeb. Unfortunately the show is constantly interrupted by advertising, a fate which curiously does not befall any football match. Naturally, I strongly advise any readers not to respond to this insulting behaviour by keeping a list of the products being advertised so that they can be boycotted later.

This, it is said, will be the last year that Suzuka hosts the Japanese GP before the event returns to Fuji. I look forward to returning to the old track, which is now owned by car giant Toyota, although something tells me it is unlikely that I will be invited back to the Fuji View hotel. Instead, as at Suzuka, I expect to find myself allocated to a shoe box with a kennel for a bathroom.

Rather than spoil some happy memories from the past, perhaps I will leave Japan off my schedule altogether and watch the race on TV. I just hope that a world championship isn't settled while someone's busy trying to sell me deodorant.

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