A HACK LOOKS BACK

Japan and China

There can be little doubt that the Fuji circuit, helped along with many millions of Toyota investment, will make a good fist of staging this weekend's 15th round of the world championship out in the countryside overlooked by that venerated snow-draped volcano. Nevertheless, I'm a little uneasy about the change of venue for the Japanese GP. After 20 years at Suzuka, the race had found its home at one of the world's greatest tracks, in front of huge, appreciative crowds. Its history of close-fought racing, not to mention several memorably won titles, gave it the sort of aura which only a handful of circuits can claim. Not that the sport's rulers pay much attention to sentimental values like that. At least we have the comfort of knowing that Bernie has agreed to alternate the circuits and that the race will be back at Suzuka in 2009.

Unlike all the Johnny-come-lately races on shiny new Tilke-tracks in Asia and the Middle East, the Japanese GP at Suzuka stands firmly on its own feet, both commercially and in terms of sporting sustainability. You can't say the same about the Chinese GP, which follows one week after Fuji. What with the trickery that went on over tickets last year (many thousand were sold at giveaway prices, possibly to stimulate Shanghai's stubbornly lukewarm interest in F1) and the recent revelations of corruption inside the circuit manager's office, this is not a race which appears to have a bright future. Perhaps next week's attendance figures will be boosted if the authorities announce that it has been decided to mete out the traditional method of Chinese justice to the guilty parties, on the start line, just before the 'off.'

Somehow I've contrived to miss the Chinese race since it was given championship status, and I won't be there this year, so I hope I will be excused for concentrating in this piece on my memories of Japan. I had the great good fortune to be present at the first running of the race, in 1976, at what was then rather grandly called the Fuji International Speedway. It was there that I met a keen young reporter named Kuni Akai, soon to become a valued colleague and close friend. Kuni's halting English resolved many awkward moments in that first year, and while his language skills have improved enormously, I am ashamed to have to admit that my command of Japanese is still limited to a handful of those phrases essential to greeting friends and keeping myself fed and watered.

The first year of the race at Suzuka, in 1987, Kuni-san generously drove all the way out to Narita airport to pick me up off the London flight when it arrived in the late afternoon. He knew that I had acquired a taste for Japanese food, so he took me directly to one of his favourite local sushi restaurants, situated in a part of town where tourists rarely venture. The big man behind the counter had never had a European customer before, and I was too good an opportunity to miss. Soon he was soon plying me with things that I wouldn't have recognised, even if I had been able to read the menu.

Fighting off jet lag, I knew that British honour rested on my willingness to consume the increasingly unfamiliar dishes as they landed in front of me. They all went down fine. The final challenge was 'Drunken Shrimp,' translucent shellfish which were dunked in sake (which set them dancing vigorously) then had their heads removed before being peeled and set down, raw, on my plate. Having scoffed them, I managed a smile - and Mine Host pronounced me a Good Sport (or the Japanese alternative). At last I was free to go to my hotel, where rather surprisingly I had a good night's sleep without any alimentary disturbances.

After a couple of days looking after business in Tokyo, Kuni drove me down to Suzuka. In order to persuade drivers to observe the speed limit on Japanese motorways, all cars are fitted with an irritating electronic gong which sounds continuously if the driver exceeds the limit. I hope that all this happened so long ago that it won't get Kuni into trouble to recount that he regarded it as his duty as an F1 correspondent to keep the gong sounding for as long as possible without interruption. I think our record was over 20 kilometres.

It was fun to go by car, and to see the countryside, but the train is much quicker. In later years almost everyone who was going to the race from Tokyo went on the world famous high-speed Shinkan-sen, which is fast, comfortable and punctual. There is a splendid rule that passengers on Japanese trains may not make or receive mobile phone calls from their seats. If a call comes through, it must be taken in the lobby section at the end of the carriage, outside the toilet. Passengers are thus entertained by the sight of suited businessmen rushing down the corridor with their phones vibrating, unanswered, in their hands.

I simply cannot imagine how any society can call itself civilised without imposing similar restrictions on all rail-using phone pests. Introduce this simple measure to any western country and it would have an undeniably beneficial effect on the great majority of passengers who just want to travel peacefully. Yet now certain airlines are proposing to allow mobiles on their planes. Join the campaign to boycott them, say I!

One year, switching from the main line to the branch service in Osaka, I was amazed to find all the top Benetton personnel - including Messrs Briatore and Schumacher - waiting on the platform like the rest of us. It turned out that they'd been at a sponsor's function in Tokyo and had been expecting a helicopter ride to the circuit. When the chopper was grounded by low cloud, the only alternative was the train. So now you know how the little people live, Michael. Bet you didn't have the smoked eel lunch box like I did, though ...

Japanese food seems to frighten a lot of visitors. I can't imagine why, because there's a tremendous variety and almost all of it is delicious. On that 1987 trip I will never forget going out to look for somewhere to have dinner on the first night down at the circuit, near the hotel where most of the European journalists had been billeted. The town centre had dozens of little family-run restaurants, all serving great food. You don't even need to read the menu because they have realistic plastic models of the dishes displayed in the window.

Yet the first faces I recognised (Brits, I'm ashamed to say) were patronising a rather seedy McDonald's. 'Isn't there a decent place to eat in this town?' I was asked by a senior British writer for whom I normally have a deep respect. He's flown halfway across the world to a country with culinary expertise dating back thousands of years and he's got his face buried in a MacMuffin. My journo friend's normal finely-honed sense of irony had obviously abandoned him.

That first year at Suzuka was certainly memorable. A serious mistake by Nigel Mansell eliminated him and his Williams-Honda on the day before the race, leaving his team mate Nelson Piquet - still feeling the after-effects of a monster crash at Imola six months earlier - to pick up his third and final title without having to duke it out with the Englishman. The race itself was dominated by Gerhard Berger in the latest turbo-Ferrari, scoring what was surely the most effortless victory of his entire career. Winning so insolently on Honda's home ground would have far-reaching consequences for Ferrari, because the Japanese company's design wizards immediately got down over the winter to create an all-new engine which was such an effective combination of power, reliability and economy that McLaren walked off with every race but one in 1988.

Engines have always been Honda's strong point, of course, and I suspect the company would still excel in that department of racing if it hadn't attempted to expand its F1 expertise into chassis design, aerodynamics and team management. When you examine the areas in which the current Honda F1 team is so sadly deficient, you might agree with me that it would be well advised to go back to what it does best. Engines, guys, engines.

It is Honda's regular practice to produce something extra-special in the engine line for the Japanese GP, and I know that Messrs Button and Barrichello will be glad to have anything extra which they can get. But because Fuji is now Toyota territory, it would seem reasonable to expect that company's engineers to be pulling rabbits out of hats for Messrs Trulli and Schumacher ... even if the engines are designed and built in Germany by a team under a clever ex-Ferrari man with the distinctly un-Japanese name of Luca Marmorini.

By the end of the weekend, though, the spotlight should be firmly focussed on this year's captivating duel between the sworn enemies whose cars are made in Woking and Maranello. I fervently hope that the spiteful accusations and muck-raking which have sullied the atmosphere at the last few races in Europe can be set aside so that we can concentrate on the best world championship battle since ... well, since the Japanese GP last year.

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