THE HACK LOOKS BACK

...on Suzuka

The F1 travelling circus briefly makes its home this weekend at Suzuka, a rather weird mini-Disneyland out in the sticks but unquestionably one of the three most important temples of international motor racing, whether on two wheels or four. Like the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex at Spa, Suzuka's more prosaically named 130R corner has shown itself to be the ultimate test for a driver. Only a handful of racing memories have lingered for long in the Hack's admittedly befuddled subconscious, but one that will remain there forever took place in 2005, when Alonso went round the outside of Schumacher at a speed that Renault later certified to have been just over 200mph. What made it even more spine-chilling was the in-car camera glimpse of the little nudge on the Ferrari's steering wheel which indicated that Michael was at least considering a bully-boy move that could have sent both drivers somersaulting to oblivion. In my opinion, that was the exact moment when the "world's best" crown passed from him to Fernando.

Because the Japanese GP got side-tracked to Fuji in 2007 and 2008, the circuit planners at Suzuka have had two years to update the old place. Not before time, too, I suspect, although we can only hope that they've managed to retain the essence of a circuit that is loved by all. It's possible, of course -- on slick tyres, and regardless of this year's comparatively ineffective aerodynamic cutbacks -- that the young gentlemen will be taking 130R flat out with enough in hand to be changing tracks on the on-board MP3 player. Regardless of that reservation, Suzuka remains a marvellous showcase for precision driving and I wish I was there this weekend. At least the race will be staying there for at least another two years. Hooray!

With Renault nursing the wounds left by the hurtful departure of several big-money sponsors and its Teflon Spanish driver, and with Flavio Briatore safely banged up behind the sporting equivalent of bars, I suppose we're all now supposed to "move on" (ghastly expression) from the Crashgate scandal. Nevertheless, it would be wrong not to let the Suzuka weekend pass without a little reminder that the FIA, for all its current God fearing righteousness, was once prone to the scumbaggery of a partial and unscrupulous President. I refer, of course, to the events in 1989 involving Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and the late Jean-Marie Balestre, a man who came to office with stacks of good intentions, provided of course that they could be put to good use in favour of drivers whose passports had been issued in the same country as his.

Suzuka 1989 wasn't the first time that Balestre would demonstrate how he must have acquired his principles of sportsmanship and fair play while still wearing jackboots in his role (double agent, of course) as a member of the hateful SS-mimicking French Milice under wartime Nazi occupation. His first victim as FIA President, in 1979, was our own John Watson, who found himself landed with the blame for a first-corner kerfuffle in Buenos Aires. Not for Balestre a stewards' enquiry and a rerun of the video evidence, oh no: having taking upon himself the powers of prosecutor, judge and jury, JMB came right out and blamed Wattie, who was hit with a 6000 pound fine and the threat of having his Superlicence withdrawn.

Ten years later, little had changed. Just to remind you, that 1989 Japanese GP was a captivating duel between the McLaren drivers, with Prost responding to Senna's admittedly rather optimistic overtaking attempt at the chicane by gently nerfing the Brazilian off the road. Joe Saward and I were viewing things from the air-conditioned comfort of the BBC's television commentary box (Muzza and an unhappy James were back in the Beeb's Shepherd's Bush studio), and although we were only able to view the chicane collision on our TV screen like everyone else, we had our own view of what followed.

Although Prost's car was too badly damaged to continue, Senna did some shuffling with the help of the marshals and continued. So intense had been the fight with Prost that he had enough time in hand to stop in the pits for a fresh nose cone, pick off a couple of rivals and win the race comfortably. Meanwhile, Prost walked the short distance down the track to the paddock. Instead of returning to his team's garage, he went to the control tower and walked up the stairs to the top floor, where Balestre had an office. Joe and I know this because the sun was sinking directly behind the building and we could everything going on inside in perfect silhouette. We didn't know what Balestre and Prost discussed, but we could guess.

Sure enough, after an outrageous scene when the podium ceremony was delayed by a purple-faced President, Alessandro Nannini somewhat reluctantly got the trophy. Dismissed out of hand, Senna was informed that the stewards had denied him his victory on a series of specious accusations, none of which could be substantiated by Balestre. The following day, when Fuji Television released some video taken from a helicopter stationed directly above the chicane, the world could see that it was Prost who had provoked the collision with a deliberate flick of the wheel to the left. Senna was completely vindicated. Not that Balestre was prepared to revise his judgment or instruct the stewards to accept an appeal.

The following week in Adelaide, at a tense press conference organised by Marlboro and McLaren, Senna made an impassioned speech about his feelings at being denied a victory and what would have been a good shot at a second consecutive world championship. In light of what I had seen in the Suzuka, I asked him if Mr Balestre had been present when (eventually) he was interviewed by the stewards. It is, of course, forbidden for anyone other than the stewards to be present when they reach their decisions. Senna simply replied, "Sorry, Mike, but I cannot tell you that." By framing his response in that way, he had, of course, told me everything.

Ron Dennis then had the delicate task of explaining how McLaren would handle the case, which would involve putting the interests of one of his drivers in conflict with the other's. The look on his face was stern and he informed us that he had sought, and received, the support of all his team's partners. "This," he solemnly promised, "will not be swept under the carpet."

History records, however, that the matter was indeed swept under the Axminster. Senna wouldn't have won the title anyway (three days later he crashed out in the torrential Adelaide rain) and it was clear that Balestre would never budge. Perhaps Ron hadn't got as many sponsors on board as he needed for a long fight, and he must have realised that he wouldn't be able to give all his attention to the 1990 season if he was still fighting the 1989 championship. In any case, Senna duly got his revenge on Prost -- and pocketed the 1990 title -- when he took it upon himself to do the barging as they headed down to the first corner at Suzuka 12 months later.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of that shameful day at Suzuka 20 years ago was the response of Max Mosley, who has said that it was Balestre's interference in the sporting process at Suzuka which finally decided him to stand for President in 1991. I have seen it argued that in recent years Mosley has become an even more manipulative President than Balestre ever was, and he has certainly got into the habit of ensuring that the FIA's judicial processes are resolved the way he wishes. But at least he has installed better procedures than ever existed before he came to office, and most of the federation's decisions have been reached after due process, however flawed. On balance, I believe that Mosley leaves the sport in better shape than Balestre did. But I also submit that the office of President of the FIA -- as of the United States of America -- should be limited to no more than two four-year terms.

On to last week's Singapore GP, about which I make no excuses for raising despite this column being late. On BBC television, the event was a visual treat. Although casual viewers probably thought the race itself was getting a bit processional behind Lewis Hamilton, hard-bitten F1 fans like you and me will have found it an absorbing contest. But I defy anybody not to have been impressed, if not gobsmacked, by the spectacular camera work, aided by the 3 million watts of lighting. Last year was good but this year was even better. Some of the overhead helicopter shots, especially the ones that showed the traffic on the overpasses above the circuit, were almost dream-like, certainly as good as anything that the Hollywood studios can produce from computer graphics. Surely no other sport can claim to look as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as this, and what a terrific boost it must have been for Singapore itself. Good publicity, too, for the Korean company LG which not only spends its advertising money on F1 but also pumps a lot of its high-tech electronic skills into the show. Thank you very much, gentlemen: if anything's going to push me into changing my mind about splashing out on a new HD telly, it was this. Feel free to send me a catalogue!

Like many other frequent travellers to Asia and beyond, I don't need to be sold on the delights of Singapore. With great shopping and some of the best food to be found anywhere, it's easy to overlook the rather authoritarian way the place is ruled. Come to think of it, I spent parts of both my honeymoons there. Perhaps next year I will accept the offer from some friends who currently live in the city-state of the use of their spare bedroom for the weekend of the GP, although I am not sure just how friendly they will still be after four days of their guest working late and letting himself in just before dawn.

Rather grudgingly, I have to admit that my admiration for the Singapore GP runs counter to the campaign I've been running here in protest against the move by Bernie and all those greedy bankers who are taking F1 away from its traditional stamping ground in Europe and thrusting it on unwilling audiences further to the east. The official word from Singapore was that ticket sales were a bit down on last year, which is the same story we always hear from all of Mr E's other fair-weather race-promoting friends. For once from a race organiser, though, it seems that the weekend's estimates were correct, for the grandstands looked gratifyingly full to me. It was also noticeable that the charismatic young Hamilton mentioned several times how heartened he was by the sheer enthusiasm of the fans, which makes a nice change from Shanghai or Turkey. In fact Lewis went so far as to say it was second only to Silverstone.

If Singapore has genuinely taken F1 to its heart -- and let's assume here that its government officials don't choke when the bills arrive for Bernie's ten-percent-extra-per-year fee and all that electricity -- then Marina Bay could become a permanent fixture. I still can't help wondering, though, what solution will be dreamed up when (and mark my words, it WILL happen) the start has to be delayed because rain has flooded the track. Race on Monday? Sorry, mate, we don't do that in F1 ...

Relying on TV coverage for the last five races of the season has been no pain at all for me. To judge from the comments which get posted in remote corners of cyber-space, TV commentators are despised almost as much as politicians, so I should probably be careful what I say here. Having worked alongside Murray Walker for the best part of 20 years, however, I can not only confess to having a soft spot for the BBC but also claim to know a bit about the difficulties of the job. So here's my assessment of the blokes on whose opinions and observations we rely to get the big picture on F1.

It goes without saying that no broadcaster could claim to be doing the job right if it didn't have someone who knows what he's talking about and does it with easy-going passion. Martin Brundle fills that role perfectly, combining articulacy with unchallengeable authority. He was actually "discovered" by the BBC before the long, dark period when ITV condemned us to the pain of intermittently cutting off the picture so that we could learn more about new, improved toilet paper or be exposed to the fascinating spectacle of chickens selling car insurance. Martin survived all that (though I'm not sure that ITV will) and sails on magnificently. What a great moment it must have been for him two years ago when Max Mosley threatened him with legal action for using the phrase "witch hunt" in relation to the McLaren affair, if only because it provided such firm affirmation that he was barking up the right tree.

Martin also happens to be utterly ruthless when he sets off on his hair-raising grid walk. One suspects that he's been warned never again to try to collar the Little Big Man when he's escorting local politicians (presumably the ones who sign the cheques), and instead he has to remember their names and sound excited to meet them. I'll treasure the moment, though, when Martin managed to cop an interview with Sebastian Vettel by jumping in on some lady commentator who had evidently been waiting for some time and wanted to fight back. In Singapore last week, Martin may also have made himself unpopular with my photographer chum Steven Tee, who was literally manhandled out of the way as the Beeb steamrollered its way into another Bernie encounter.

Another crossover from ITV is Ted Kravitz, the utterly unflappable pitlane commentator who somehow manages to stay in touch with what's happening in the race while also extracting juicy plums of information from his contacts inside the teams. I cannot remember a single instance when a driver arrived unexpectedly in the pits and Ted wasn't there either with an engineer's explanation or at least a well-informed bit of conjecture. The only complaint I have about Ted is the difficulty I have in finding his stuff on the BBC website. Actually, the Beeb's F1 website is still a horrid mess, certainly less useful than the one served up by ITV who, for reasons unknown, still provide a good variety of news and views of F1 despite having given up the contract at the end of last year.

Brundle's mate in the commentary box is reliable Jonathan Legard, who seems to know the names of all the drivers' engineers, girlfriends and managers while keeping us up to date with changes in the points table. I still think of Jonathan in his FiveLive radio days, most notably at the 1999 British GP for which Stirling Moss was rather ill-advisedly invited to join the team. As soon as word came from the hospital that the injuries suffered by Michael Schumacher, who had crashed on lap 2, were limited to a broken left leg, dear old Stirl started banging on about how relieved Ferrari would be that it wasn't his right leg, because declutching was much less strenuous than braking, etc. Somehow, Jonathan and the crew managed not to point out to their guest that things have changed a bit in the F1 pedal department since 1962, but you could almost hear them biting their lips in frustration.

When ITV started broadcasting F1 races 12 years ago, they used to construct a great big studio in the paddock where all the talking heads could relax without getting too hot or too cold. These days, the BBC more frugally sticks its equivalent guys in the paddock -- come rain or shine -- and makes them get on with it regardless of the look-at-me johnnies who insist on being on camera in the background. I'm not sure that David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan are the ideal pair for the job, the one being strangely hesitant at times and the other the complete opposite. Nevertheless, to judge from the number of occasions when they try to catch each other out, it's becoming increasingly obvious that DC and EJ are not bosom buddies. I suppose the Beeb will be able to claim that they got the mix right when the two of them start knocking six bells out of each other right there on screen.

Actually, with Jenson Button in a strong position to wrap up the drivers' championship at Suzuka, the TV coverage could do with a bit of spice in the final two rounds. Who's your money on if DC and EJ actually get it on? I favour DC, not only because he's taller and fitter but because he's got an advantage. Not giving too much away, I think Eddie would flee rather than take a single shot to the head.

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