Suzuka Circuit celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was built in 1962 as a test track for the Honda Motor Company and the organisers of the Japanese Grand Prix laid on lots of celebrations today.
Three-time world champion Niki Lauda kicked off proceedings with a presentation from the drivers to the circuit organisers, and then four iconic F1 cars completed some demonstration laps. As follows: the Honda RA272 in which Richie Ginther scored the company’s first F1 success in 1965; a Lotus-Judd from ’89 driven by Satoru Nakajima; a Larrousse-Lamborghini from ’90 driven by Aguri Suzuki and Shinji Nakano drove Ferrari’s F2003 from ’03.
“What a fantastic collection of cars for a very special birthday,” said Suzuki, who was the first Japanese driver to stand on an F1 podium, at Suzuka in 1990.
However, the celebrations got even bigger after the Japanese Grand Prix. Local hero Kamui Kobayashi drove brilliantly to finish third for Sauber, driving the crowd wild. As he crossed the finish line four seconds behind second-placed Felipe Massa, the noise of the fans on the start-finish straight drowned out the noise of his Ferrari V8!
It was the perfect end to a special day for Suzuka Circuit.
As podiums go, this one was perfect for all three drivers on it. Sebastian Vettel’s victory took him to within four points of world championship leader Fernando Alonso; Felipe Massa’s second place was his first podium finish for two years and might go some way towards securing his F1 future and, of course, Kamui endeared himself to the fans with his third place.
There was a podium of a different kind on Saturday evening, following a group run around Suzuka. A total of 139 team members and journalists took to the start line and the run ended up being a sprint between two ‘third’ drivers. Valtteri Bottas (Williams) and Jules Bianchi (Force India) ran nose-to-tail around the 5.8km track and they finished two seconds apart. Bottas pipped his rival, completing the lap in 21m37s, which was 27 minutes faster than the slowest person…
There was no time for running on Sunday evening. The teams’ freight was due to leave the Suzuka pitlane at 2am on Monday morning, which meant the mechanics had to pack up their 40 tonnes of freight in double-quick time.
That done, the personnel will fly to Mokpo in southwest Korea tomorrow morning. They’ll then get tomorrow afternoon off, before heading into the Korean International Circuit on Tuesday morning to start preparing for next weekend’s Korean Grand Prix. Busy times…
The drivers’ briefing took place in the press conference room on Friday, adjacent to the media centre. Race director Charlie Whiting talked to the drivers about safety and any issues that had arisen over the course of the opening practice sessions.
At the end of the briefing, 23 of the 24 drivers left through the door that led straight into the F1 paddock. But Mercedes AMG Petronas star Nico Rosberg thought he’d take a stroll through the media centre, something that has never happened before. He walked through the throng of journalists, joking with them and signing autographs for Japanese scribblers.
“There’s a lot of you,” said Nico, in reference to the 350 journalists in the room. “Is there that much to write about F1?”
Yes, Nico, there is more than enough to write – and your team has received its fair share of publicity over the past few days! Despite this jokey comment, the five minutes that Nico spent in the media centre did more for his relationship with the press than any number of one-on-one interviews. F1 journalists like drivers who do things differently, and Nico is that man.
“What a good bloke,” said the man from Bild in Germany. “Funny too,” added the man from the Daily Mirror in the UK.
Nico looked fresher than most people in the press room, having been in Japan since last weekend. Not all of the drivers have overcome their jetlag, however. Williams star Pastor Maldonado got just one hour’s sleep on Wednesday night, which wasn’t ideal preparation ahead of driving the fastest cars in the world. “I was absolutely hanging yesterday,” said Pastor on Friday. “But I slept like a baby last night, so I’m feeling a bit better.”
No mention of Suzuka is complete without mentioning the fans. The grandstands were bulging during practice and there were some pretty exotic outfits being worn by the fans. A couple of guys wore Michael Schumacher helmets all day, while there was a lady wrapped in an Asturias flag in deference to Fernando Alonso.
“The fans are great here,” said Jenson Button. “They are really passionate about the sport and they give all of the drivers support, not only Kamui [Kobayashi] or the guys at the front. But they do like to get close to you and you have to be careful not to trample on them if you’re in a hurry!”
Michael Schumacher has found a novel way around the problem. He travels by scooter, so that he can’t be stopped…
The change of time is what raised people’s suspicions. Michael Schumacher’s media time had been scheduled for 1700 on Thursday, but the Mercedes AMG Petronas press office sent a memo around asking the international press corps at Suzuka to turn up 15 minutes early. Clearly, Michael had a lot to say.
When the time came, every major television station had a camera present in the Mercedes AMG Petronas hospitality unit. Journalists were crammed in around them and there were even a few quizzical team members present. There wasn’t enough room to swing a proverbial cat, not even a paddock cat.
As soon as Michael walked into the room clutching a speech in his right hand, with Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug and team principal Ross Brawn at his side, the sense of expectation was palpable. You could hear a pin drop. “Fifteen minutes in English, five minutes in German” we were told.
What came next was an emotional, uncomplicated message of intent. “I have decided to retire at the end of the season,” said Michael, before going on to say it was a relief to have made the decision to move on from racing in F1. Immediately, the ‘Twittersphere’ went into overdrive as people raced to spread the sensational news around the world. There was then a round of applause. The seven-time champ, winner of 91 races (and counting) will be gone from the F1 grid for good at the end of the year.
Brawn claimed that Michael was the best driver “this century”, and he should know because he’s been on the pitwall for all but three of Michael’s wins. Norbert Haug, meanwhile, thanked Michael for his efforts in helping to mould Mercedes AMG Petronas into the front-running outfit it has become.
For the Japanese fans waiting outside the F1 paddock gates, news of Michael’s impending retirement was almost too much. They screamed at the sight of him and held up photographs and memorabilia for him to sign. Clearly, the fans in Japan are as obsessed with F1 as they’ve ever been, although crowd numbers are not at the levels of Ayrton Senna’s best years in the early ’90s, when he was forced to fly by helicopter from the circuit hotel to the pitlane.
“The fans are passionate and knowledgeable,” says Mark Webber. “They like to put their heroes on a pedestal and they think us drivers can do things that they can’t, when, in reality, we just do different jobs.”
Schumacher will be seeking a different job at the end of the year and everyone who worked with him and knew him in F1 will sorely miss him. Good luck, Michael.