GLOBETROTTER

Mother Nature, Barbie, Donkey and unidentified frying objects

Barbie, Donkey

Barbie, Donkey 

 © 2004, Grandprix.com

As I think back now, it seems that there is a black hole in my memory about the flight I am currently on. I have no memory at all of the plane taking off. I remember finishing my work at about two o'clock on Monday morning; I remember falling into bed, my fingers stumbling to set the alarm for four. I remember climbing into a bus in the dark and I would have watched the dawn rise in the hills above Osaka if I had not been reading, while all around me were sleeping. I remember chatting to various pale members of the F1 circus as they came stumbling into Kansai Airport in various states of disrepair after a very long weekend, topped off by a night at the Log Cabin. And then all the memories stop. I remember a stewardess with a face of an angel, asking me what I wanted to drink but for an indeterminate period I was gone. I have no idea of the time. I guess I am somewhere over Russia.

But what I do know is that it has been quite a week. I had planned for a nice easy Suzuka weekend, a five-day in-and-out trip because as we get towards the end of the first ever 18-race season, everyone who does the races is tired.

However, a couple of days before departure the Japanese magazine for which I have worked for 15 years asked me to go to a meeting in Tokyo. Alas, I had booked a flight to Osaka, Japan's second city, which is several hundred miles to the west of Tokyo. Changing flights would mean taking out a new mortgage. But I had no desire to ignore the hand that feeds me and so concluded that the best thing to do was to arrive and then jump on a Shinkanen (the bullet train) to Tokyo for an evening and then go back to Suzuka to following day. It was a bit like going from New York to Washington for a half hour meeting but it was the least I could do. Japanese interest in F1 is rising a bit, they said, but we need Takuma Sato to start winning races if we want to get back to the glory days of Ayrton Senna when we were selling 300,000 copies a month. Nowadays the number is only about 60,000. The pay-rise, they said, will have to wait until then.

Still, they took me out for a very pleasant dinner and paid for my hotel that night. Then it was back to the hotel and I was just putting my head on my pillow when the earthquake hit. It was a pretty big one (a 5.8 on the Richter Scale) and things in the hotel rooms were moving around - notably the walls. Instead of scrambling under the desk as one is supposed to do, I lay there watching it happen and wondered if that was it or whether a bigger tremor was coming. I wasn't really frightened. Perhaps I should of been.

A few hours later I was back on the Shinkansen to Nagoya and from there, switched to the Kintetsu Line to get to Shiroko Station. Before rushing off to the circuit I decided to have a quick lunch in Shiroko, a small town where English is not widely spoken, and so I pointed at a picture on the menu and spent the rest of the meal trying to work out what unidentified frying objects I was eating. Then it was off to the track to catch up on the latest F1 politics. F1 is going through a bad phase at the moment. It has lost its grip on reality and does not see the damage it is doing to itself. The thing that irks me is that while the supposed decision-makers break all the toys, they are playing with the lives of thousands of people in the motor racing industry. It is not easy right to be an employee of Jaguar, Jordan or Minardi. But F1 people have a way with dealing with things and the boys at Jaguar have come up with a great way of keeping up morale, taking a blow-up rubber donkey from the Shrek movie with them to every race and amusing themselves by taking pictures of Donkey trying out F1 life. The resulting www.donkeydoesf1.co.uk is wonderfully amusing and has kept up morale both with the racing team and back at the factory in Milton Keynes.

At Jordan the misery is the same and the team's press officer confessed the other day that she has a rather bizarre habit as well, taking a Barbie doll to each race and sending home digital snaps of Barbie in glamorous locations. One day, she figures, if Jordan goes out of business, she can sell the idea to a publisher.

The silliest stories of all at Suzuka, however, came each evening from Britain where the fight for the British Grand Prix became more bizarre with each passing day.

But then Mother Nature demanded attention. All day Friday it rained and rained. And by the early afternoon it became clear that Typhoon Ma-on was serious. The local authorities asked F1 to cancel Saturday activity. Ma-on was the biggest typhoon for 10 years and there were going to be 20 inches of rain. This was not what I wanted to hear and the fact that 10 days earlier the first corner had been four feet under water with one quarter of the rainfall, led me to the decision to take a little pre-emptive action. My journalistic curiousity wanted me to experience a typhoon but the practical side of my character pointed out that if the typhon hit Suzuka there would be no Grand Prix and worse than that, all tranportation would be disrupted by floods, fallen trees, wrecked houses, washed-away roads and mudslides that come with 85mph winds and 20 inches of rain. I remembered the two huge storms that hit France in December 1999 and decided that I wanted to keep my options open. I would go to Osaka and get a hotel room there. If the typhoon missed I would go back to Suzuka, if it hit I would be near the airport and able to get home on Monday to do important things like sign contracts for houses. It was a brilliant plan although I concluded as I sat in the taxi on the way to Shiroko Station that I wanted to see the storm hit and see team bosses wading around their garages with their trousers rolled up, realizing (if such a thing is possible) that there are things in this world that are bigger than Grand Prix racing.

It was irrelevant really because Suzuka traffic jams are such that I missed the last train to Osaka on Friday night. With my options thus closed again I donned a plasic mac and set off from the hotel to have dinner, a walk of only 300 metres. I was not an expert of pre-typhoon rainfall when I left the hotel, but by the time I got to the restaurant I knew a lot more. Even the money in my wallet was damp. But I didn't care. This was adventure and I knew that on Saturday I would get a lie-in AND see a proper typhoon. Next morning I became a meterologist, using the usual tools of the trade: the TV, the Internet and looking out of the window. It was exciting to watch the storm approach but then at the last minute it turned slightly and I watched it go by, a few miles out at sea. That evening Tokyo took the full brunt of the storm and it made a big mess.

Up at Suzuka on Sunday everyone had a good laugh at my expense for running off to Osaka but I didn't care.

I was rather more worried about fitting two days work in 24 hours - which I suppose is why I have this strange black hole in my memory.

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