Takuma Sato, Japanese GP 2002

Takuma Sato, Japanese GP 2002 

 © The Cahier Archive

When business was done in Indiana, the Formula 1 circus exploded in all directions as it is wont to do when returning to Europe is not the logical thing between races. There are always some who will rush back to kith and kin or their desks but most folk headed off for a few days of rest and recuperation. There were some who went for the beaches of California or of Hawaii. There were some who went to Vegas to blow their money and others who went to Miami because their love of racing machines knows no bounds.

After a period reflecting on a trip to Miami, I decided that, with autumn coming on, the place to go was New England where the leaves are turning, where the pumpkin festivals are in full swings and where Halloween is just around the corner.

And so we set off down Long Island and, as we passed by Westbury, Jericho and Hicksville I tried not to talk about the old days of the Vanderbilt Cup. Nor of Roosevelt Raceway. And when we finally wound our way on the back roads to Sag Harbor, we passed by the turning to Bridgehampton without me even whispering: "Let's go and have a look".

There are times when one needs a holiday and this has been a long hard season. And so a few lazy mornings, clam chowder lunches and trips to look at lighthouses and white clapboard towns with green lawns seemed like a fine idea.

And then it was across to New London on the ferry boat, being battered by the winds and the rolling waves, and the chance to potter along the Connecticut coast, leaving a trail of gutted lobsters behind us.

It was the best of times.

By the time we had passed through New Haven and disappeared into the backwaters of Connecticut (looking at autumnal leaves and covered bridges) I had quite forgotten the world of Formula 1. Once a day I would log on to the Internet to see if there was anything that I needed to know about.

Nothing much came up that seemed more exciting than the view across an autumnal lake and an evening barbecuing large bits of cow. It was a reminder that there is more to life than fast cars going around in circles.

And then, with a heavy heart, it was on to Japan to finish the season. Japan is not an easy place for Europeans to operate and this was a weekend to get through rather than one that was going to be fun. They say that when in Rome one should do as the Romans do, but when it comes to Japan the F1 people adopt a modified version of that rule. When in Japan they say do as the Romans do and so there is a tendency to find Italian restaurants and pizzerias rather than struggling with incomprehensible menus and unidentifiable lumps of food.

"I think it's chicken," one of my colleagues muttered one day. "But it could be monkey brains for all I know."

Getting back to speed with F1 things seemed like a steep mountain to climb but the sight of the Suzuka circuit always gives one a little lift for it is a place with some high-speed corners. A place where one can see the drivers at their best.

We were reminded on Saturday and then again on Sunday that motor racing is a dangerous business. Allan McNish's shunt in the middle of qualifying was a massive one. The biggest for several years and the wiseacres in the paddock nodded quietly in corners that Formula 1 had been lucky to get away with that one without McNish being dead. Driving through steel barriers at 160mph is not known to be good for a long life.

And then on Sunday we were all idly watching the Formula Dream race, trying to avoid doing our real work when we witnessed a quite terrifying crash when two youngsters collided on the high-speed run down towards The Spoon Curve. Hirokazu Nagaya's car was launched into the air and went end over end, seemingly gathering speed as it whirled through the air until it finally reached the debris fencing, narrowly missing one of Bernie Ecclestone's TV cameramen (it took down the canopy above the camera) and hit the debris fence which separates the track from the public area. It was a monstrous accident and a reminder that F1 is all about pushing back the barriers of physics. Formula Dream cars are capable of speeds around 150mph but a similar shunt in an F1 car would be even worse.

Formula 1 does not like to think about such things. Nagaya's crash showed just what safety technology can do. Although he was badly hurt the 22-year-old from Tokyo lived to tell the tale which was an amazing thing.

The action in Suzuka was not really on the race track, at least not until Sunday afternoon when Takuma Sato took center stage with an impressive performance for Jordan. The crowds went wild (really wild) for it has been a long time that Japan has waited to see one of its own doing great things in F1.

"You should have seen the Honda merchandising stands," said one of the TV people after the race. "People were queuing 50 deep to buy something, anything with Takuma Sato written on it."

Earlier in the weekend I had bumped into Sato's manager Andrew Gilbert-Scott sporting a Takuma Sato cap with "Japanese GP 2002" embroidered on it.

"I hope you haven't made too many of those," I quipped meanly.

"I think we have made a thousand,' he said. "I hope we can sell them. You want one?"

I declined. By Sunday night those caps were, no doubt, like gold dust.

"I nearly cried," said the Honda Press Officer as she explained what it was like to be out in front of the grandstands with Sato after the race. "It was just amazing."

It is this kind of thing that deep down most of the people in F1 love. Too often the passion of the sport is forgotten by those who seek to turn it into something clinical and corporate and by those who live the sport only for the money and the ego. For many of us, the idea of recession is not such a bad thing because we know that it will clear out some of the people who ruin the fun of motor racing. It will leave the racers behind and that cleansing process has got to be good thing for the sport once in a while.

From the eye of a writer, Sato's fifth place was also the perfect way to end the story of 2002 for the sport had come full circle. We were back to where we started in Melbourne nine months ago. Ferrari has scored a 1-2 and, against the odds, the local hero had come home fifth amid wild scenes of celebration.

Oh, the team bosses were still arguing over the Prost money...

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