Sioux City, Maglev, and the buzz of F1

700 Series Shinkansen bullet train

700 Series Shinkansen bullet train 

 © Inside F1, Inc.

It was very early in the morning on the media bus that winds its way from the hotels of Shiroko, Yokkaichi and Tsu City (pronounced as in Sioux City, Idaho). The journalists and photographers onboard are weary because Europeans in Japan tend to wake up in the early hours of the morning as a result of time differences or problems with Japanese telephone systems which cannot keep pace with computer technology. This means that electronic communication out of the Suzuka area can sometimes be rather difficult. There is always a lot of looking into other people's Windows at Suzuka, trying to work out communications settings.

"How do I switch this thing from Tone to Pulse," you will hear them say.

I had a lot of those problems this year for no obvious reason at all beyond the fact that I have a new computer. The man from the Internet Service Provider - who sounded like a very American person from Kansas - had said blithely in the middle of the night that "there are sometimes problems in some of the smaller countries" when I asked him how to fix a particular glitch.

One can only laugh at such things. Perhaps I should have pointed out that the computer screen into which he was gawping had probably been made in Japan, a small country in Asia which, for the last half century has been the powerhouse of Asia and which now owns a number of important organizations within corporate America.

I wondered briefly if he knew where Japan was on the map.

One of the downsides in travelling as much as one does in Formula 1 is that one can lose the magic of travelling. You end up not being impressed by anything because you think you have seen it all before. It is a very dangerous situation because if one is not careful, it becomes a long stream of complaints. And Japan is where you hear them most from European journalists because nothing in Japan is ever easy for them.

One of the nicest things about Japan is that people try very hard to make foreigners feel welcome. It is not easy to understand what is going on when you do not speak a word of Japanese and all the writing is impossible to decipher. Everything is more difficult whether you are ordering meals in restaurants or catching trains.

But there are many wonderful things about Japan as well and one of the great pleasures for me is to go round the shops in Tokyo and see all the latest technological gizmos available. In general, Japan is about two years ahead of the rest of the world in technology.

After a night on the town in Tokyo it is time to navigate your way through the organized chaos of Tokyo Central Station, where if you stand still long enough the whole of Japanese life will pass you by in the ebbs and flows of people. It is marvellous to watch the organization in action. The trains come and go on time and pink-frocked cleaning ladies descend on the carriages like locust at harvest time. Everything is planned to the minute and it runs like clockwork. The Shinkansen bullet trains, which have always been marvels of technology, are developed each year. The latest 700 series Superexpresses have been in the windtunnel and as a result are uglier than ducklings. But they whisk you across Japan at impressive velocity. It is all very practical.

On the run down to Suzuka this year I was reading in THE JAPAN TIMES newspaper about a rather less practical mode of transport called the Maglev, which is the next generation of ultra high-speed train, a superconducting magnetically-levitated machine which has been developed by applying a lot of aerospace ideas to the construction of trains. For the last three years Maglev development has been centered on a 10 mile section of concrete "guideway" near Yamanashi, which is about 90 minutes outside Tokyo (depending on the traffic on the roads). Travelling at 350mph, the Maglev train would do the same trip in 10 minutes. The problem is that it would be obscenely expensive because of the costs of building the guideway through the never-ending towns that make Japan's coastal plains.

Great technology is not always practical and one of the great secrets of success in F1 is the ability to make things work and to do it quickly. Otherwise you end up with such great racing disasters as the BRM H16 engine or the Life W12. Both were interesting ideas but neither ever worked very well.

The other day I heard about a small airfield in Gloucestershire (for people from Kansas this is in England, a small country off the coast of Europe) where they have had problems with birds colliding with aircraft. In order to scare away these little flocks of fluttery things, airports usually employ nasty big birds but brilliant boffins dictated that tape recording bird distress calls was much more effective. In practice the airport officials found that it was more effective to play Tina Turner songs very loudly.

When I got to the paddock in Suzuka I was soon discussing practicality versus technology with an F1 engineer from a team that had best remain nameless.

"The trouble with these research and development guys is that they talk a good game but after four years we have yet to see any results," he said. "We have been having the same meeting over and over again. It is a waste of time. They do not understand that we need to develop things with which to go racing."

Formula 1 likes to think of itself as a sport which pushes back the boundaries of technology but the reality is that the sport is more about the application of aviation technology to the automobile. Some of this will later spill over into production cars but most of the ideas are too expensive for mass production engineering. Automobile industry people say that the value of Formula 1 is not in advertising nor in the technology involved, but rather in the sport's ability to solve problems quickly. F1 has a very unusual culture which can be translated into road car development programs. The sport helps to develop the minds of the young engineers. In the real world it takes weeks and even months to get thing fixed. F1 teams get things done in a matter of hours. You take your chances because if one does not grab at an opportunity, someone else will have made the same move.

The thing that gives Formula 1 people such a buzz is this urge to seize the moment. Almost everyone involved in F1 is a risk-taker of some form or another. At one point along the way most of those involved have risked all in the hope that they will get to F1 and they have been successful. Sometimes one wonders how many make such leaps of faith and fall short of their targets and fall back into normal life. There are times when we all think we would like to do such a thing but living in the real world soon begins to feel like a pretty dull lifetsyle.

And suddenly being on a bus in the early morning winding its way from the hotels of Shiroko, Yokkaichi and Tsu City up to the race track in Suzuka seems like an infinitely sensible thing to be doing.

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