Travelling in Japan is never dull, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes: you know where to go, and what to expect. For many in the F1 world, travelling in Japan means taking a train because it is more efficient (and cheaper) than chauffeurs or hire cars. This often means that one visits the station at Shiroko, close to Suzuka, which is on the Kintetsu Line, between Nagoya and Osaka. You then take the train in whichever direction you require, changing to the Tokaido Shinkansen at Nagoya if you want to go to Tokyo.
The trick at Shiroko is to buy a ticket on a Limited Express. When you first hear that you think that the Limited Express may not be as fast as an Express. The reality is the opposite, a Limited Express is faster because the number of stops is limited.
It is one of those funny quirks one has to learn…
Your ticket tells you all you need to know: exactly where you should sit, the departure and arrival times and the price. Japanese trains are never late and so you can get off with confidence at the station you want, based on the time on the ticket. In 37 years of visiting the country I’ve only ever been on one train that was late, which is something that railway workers in other countries really ought to consider.
Anyway, 90 minutes after the Kintetsu Limited Express for Osaka leaves Shiroko, it pulls into Namba station. The tannoy plays some soothing music and a female voice says: “Namba desu”, which translates as “This is Namba”.
What she does not tell you is that Namba is not one station, but rather six, all linked by underground tunnels, escalators and stairways, with a multi-storey department store called Takashimaya and shopping malls called Namba Parks, Namba City and Namba SkyO, each of which has multiple levels. The result is a labyrinth that would warm the heart of even the most cold-hearted of moles. Somewhere in these tunnels you can find almost everything that a modern urban dweller could possibly want. Of course, for a gaijin (the word that the Japanese use for “foreigners” – although I have also seen it translated as “alien”, which I much prefer) it can be a little overwhelming. This is to be expected if one comes from a world where stations are two-dimensional and trains line up side-by-side from Platform 1 to Platform 9 ¾.
Japan is not like that.
Perhaps you have heard of the Dutch artist MC Escher, who made the initials MC cool long before Mr Hammer (aka Stanley Burrell) rapped on the door of Celebrityville and they let him in. Escher created drawings of buildings that were impossible but looked right, using tricks with perspective. Escher may have designed Namba Station. The weird thing about it is that it becomes more complex the more you know about it.
It is often flooded with streams of busy people, who all seem to know where they are going and who all seem to be travelling without any luggage. However, if one follows the signs and keeps calm it is not so bad. Trying to explain it to others is more complicated than teaching a German to understand the rules of cricket, but when you get to know Namba, you realise that it is quite brilliant. In Japan they don’t have grimy railway arches, with lock-up garages inhabited by dubious folk. They have shiny shopping malls.
The goal when navigating Osaka Namba is usually to get to the Nankai Railway’s Rapi:t service, which is an evil-looking train, which goes from Namba to Kansai International Airport (otherwise known as KIX). It is retro and at the same time futuristic. In fact, it looks like Darth Vader after he has fallen into a pot of dark metallic blue paint (which looks a little purple in some lights). It is fast and very convenient, although perhaps I should add that the name is pronounced “rapido” not “rapit” for reasons that were probably logical to Japanese people 30 years ago when Darth Train first rolled his wheels.
It has been three years since we were last in Japan and it seemed initially that a great deal had changed. The rush hour no longer seemed very rushed. Trains were half-empty. People were staying at home more. The whole place seemed a little unkempt and run down. Everyone was wearing masks, even if they are no longer compulsory. Without the bustle, Osaka seemed to be lacking energy, and I felt the same way when I got to Suzuka. There were still the eccentric fans (of course) but the Paddock did not have the zing one is used to. I couldn’t work out why this was until a chance remark from someone in the F1 group came like a bolt of lightning. The problem at Suzuka was that Suzuka hasn’t changed from three year ago. And F1 has. There are times when the endless throbbing music in the Paddock can get on your nerves, but it is energising. Suzuka had none of that energy.
The other point I discovered is that Suzuka may not feel like a small event, but it is.
The media who attended the race were few in number, because of restrictions entering the country, but there was nothing to stop the Japanese fans buying tickets. The place seemed pretty full, but then you realise that the grandstands are concentrated in the same area and so it feels crowded, but the numbers do not bear out that impression. To give you an idea, the three-day attendance figures in recent months have been Canada (338,000), Silverstone (401,000), Austria (303,000), France (200,000), Hungary (290,000), Belgium (360,000), the Netherlands (305,000), Italy (336,000) and Singapore (302,000)
In Japan, with no reduced capacity and no requirement to wear masks outdoors, the total was only 190,000 over three days. Despite this there were some pretty awful traffic jams during the weekend. It probably did not help that during the three pandemic years Suzuka Circuit Motopia, the amusement park alongside the track was closed. In an effort to cut down costs, the hotel at the track closed many of its facilities and quite a lot of rooms were demolished, which meant that people had to find alternative accommodation.
The whole complex is owned by Honda and while they are keen on F1 – particularly as they are winning the championship this year with Red Bull, it is clear that Suzuka is a pretty rural place. There are paddy fields between the houses and even stretches of open land, which is rare indeed on the flat in Japan.
Anyway, access to Suzuka is difficult and even if everyone loves it, the track is not keeping up with the way F1 is developing and while there are no serious rivals among the other Japanese circuits, there may soon be rivals because Japanese cities are waking up to the idea of hosting F1 races as a way of reviving visitor numbers (as noted in the last Green Notebook). It seems like Osaka is not the only city interested, and outside Japan there are a string of projects across Asia, all hoping to become part of the F1 circus – and willing to buy a stacks of gambling chips to be allowed to sit at the F1 table. In many ways this is a good thing because it means that F1 can be a little bit more choosy and more demanding. They can get more money and facilities they want to fit requirements, such as public transportation, which is now something essential for F1 as it seeks to be carbon neutral. The biggest problem for any sporting event these days is how people get to the venue. The crowd numbers mentioned above are only impressive if the fans all travel on mass transportation systems (or bicycles). F1 may be designed to sell cars, but it does not want people to use them…
In any case, the great circuits of old, the classic venues, are not really fit-for-purpose these days. Monaco, Montreal, Albert Park, Singapore, Mexico, Zandvoort and even Baku are good. Monza, Suzuka and Barcelona do have railways that pass nearby (although the capacity is small in all cases). The Middle East tracks do not attract many spectators, but places like Silverstone, Austria, Paul Ricard, Spa, Hockenheim, the Hungaroring and the Nurburgring are not much good. Such places can survive (perhaps) if they buy great chunks of Amazonia and do not cut down the trees, or they can do what Le Mans did and convince the local authorities to put in mass transit systems, but they need to do a lot in other respects to remain interesting.
One of the big talking points after the Japanese GP was that of recovery vehicles. It is not really surprising given that in 2014 Jules Bianchi died after colliding with a tractor at Suzuka. Recovery vehicles frequently share the track with racing cars when a race is running behind a Safety Car (as was the case in Suzuka) but this also requires the drivers to act in a responsible manner if they are not in the peloton behind the Safety Car. So, normally this would not be a problem. But if conditions are difficult and visibility poor it is not a good idea to send out tractors until everyone is moving slowly. After Bianchi’s accident the FIA appointed a panel to look at how to avoid the problem again. This was chaired by former F1 engineer Peter Wright, then the President of the Safety Commission. The panel, which produced a 396-page report, included Ross Brawn, Stefano Domenicali, Eduardo de Freitas and GPDA President Alex Wurz. They concluded that “it is imperative” to prevent a car ever hitting a service vehicle and made a number of recommendations, including avoiding races taking place during local rainy seasons. Their ultimate conclusion, however, was that the blame for the accident rested with Bianchi because he was driving too fast. There were many changes made after that crash, including the introduction of the Virtual Safety Car, but it was only good fortune that avoided a similar scenario in Suzuka this year.
So, it was correct to punish Pierre Gasly for exceeding 125 mph on “multiple occasions” and 155 on one occasion, but it is clear that other solutions must be found to stop any possibility of it happening again. The use of the red flag has increased in F1 (and it is not always popular) but the drivers have said that there should be no risk of such a thing happening in the future, which could increase the number of red flags. One understands why drivers want to minimise risk, but then watching them racing in those early laps after the restart (when they could see almost nothing) does make you wonder about their self-preservation instincts. It is a thorny question. However, it is safe to say that using big heavy tractors in such conditions is not smart. Using cranes is not really the solution because that adds to the risks for circuit workers and one might argue that perhaps the best idea is to not race at Suzuka in October. Still, there is little we can do to control the weather, unless we have indoor Grands Prix.
Now there’s an idea…
It is, of course, easy to blame the FIA for everything. This is the usual fall back position for folk who don’t really understand the federation. To be fair, this attitude betrays a basic ignorance of what the FIA is and why things are happening. People do not understand how much work goes into trying to ensure that everything is safe, balanced, easy-to-understand and consistent. It is a real Sisyphean task and some might even suggest that anyone wanting to do it has masochistic tendencies (let’s not dwell on that too much…), but it is a job that needs to be done, and it is not easy. Could it be done better? Of course, one can always improve things. That concept is at the very heart of F1 thinking, but so much depends on the people involved. Those who say that F1 should break away from the FIA and regulate itself (and few intelligent people in the teams do) simply do not understand what it takes. There are lots of people who think they know the answers, but many of their solutions have been tried before and are not used because they do not work. The idea of having a permanent steward is one such concept. That was tried and within a year teams were complaining about bias. Having a lot of different stewards meant that few knew all the rules and few had experience which is why the system of having a small pool of stewards in constant discussion is the best idea. There are of course differences of opinion, but that is normal among any group of referees.
Quite often those who criticise do not even know the difference between the Race Director and the Stewards. They are not the same thing and have very different roles.
There was enormous confusion at the end of the Japanese Grand Prix about whether or not Max Verstappen has done enough to win the World Championship. Neither he, nor the Red Bull Racing team, was certain and for around 15 minutes after the chequered flag was waved no-one really knew. There were a string of different issues that caused this to happen. The first point is that new regulations were introduced this year, following the Belgian Grand Prix debacle last season. However these changes were not included in the 2022 FIA Formula 1 Sporting Regulations at the start of the year, and did not appear until the end of April when “Issue 6 “of the rules was published. So you needed the right rulebook…
Secondly, you needed to remember that there were points awarded for the last four races, (thus a maximum of 104 points for four wins and four fastest laps) but a lot of folk forgot that one can also score points this year in the one remaining Sprint race…
And then there was the question of how many points should be awarded for the Suzuka race. Logically, there was a new sliding scale to cover various lengths of race. But these were ultimately irrelevant because the wording meant that if a race was red-flagged and then restarted, the event would be for full points – even if it lasted for only three laps without a Safety Car. So, the scales of points in the later version of the rulebook were all irrelevant because the race ended under a chequered flag (as opposed to a red one) because the time limit was reached. The Japanese GP ran to only 52 percent of the planned distance, but the wording meant that full points had to be awarded because the race had resumed after a red flag and had not ENDED under a red flag. This makes no sense at all, but it is what the rules say. How did that happen? Well, writing rules is not easy because one needs to imagine every possible scenario and if you miss something that could happen, you can be left with your trousers round your ankles. One must consider not only what the rules say, but also what they do not say.
So, yes, one can blame the FIA for a rule that did not cover what happened in Suzuka, although it should perhaps be added that the person who wrote the rule (whoever it was) has probably already gone from the federation because there has been a great deal of change since Mohammed Ben Sulayem was elected to the post of FIA President in December last year. Matters were not helped by the fallout from Abu Dhabi 2021, then the Ukraine Crisis, not to mention some fairly serious internal political battles within the FIA, not just between the old and the new. The new people who have been brought in since the change are still finding their feet, and not every call they have made has been right, nor has the federation communicated things well.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and you cannot rebuild Rome in a day. Change is afoot but in the interim there is a state of flux that needs time to calm down. The signs are that there will be a new more egalitarian and sensible FIA in a year or so, but there must first be a vigorous flushing out of bureaucrats that Jean Todt loved to have around him. In my experience most of the people who work for the federation in F1 (with a few exceptions) are very competent and work hard. They care about what they do. The stewards do it for free, but they are always working amongst themselves to make things better. They are constantly slighted and disrespected by almost everyone. They are an easy target.
When it comes to decisions about the F1 rules these days, most of them are made in close consultation with the teams. The budget cap rules took an age to finalise with all the legal people from the teams involved at every stage. The reason that the penalties are vague is that this is what it took to get the agreement through. The cost cap is an essential element for F1 and one which will bear fruit for the teams in the years ahead, but it is an agreement that still has some sharp edges that need to be rounded off. Like most things in life, a little time and work is required to get a perfect fit. And in case you wish to fire off accusations that I am defending the governing body because I am worried about keeping my permanent F1 pass, you can get lost. I’m simply trying to explain why things are difficult and how they came to be as they are.
The key point about the financial regulations is that they are doing what they were intended to do. Yes, there are some discussions about how Red Bull has defined certain things – and these have been creative. But if you look at the Mercedes AMG Petronas financial returns for 2021 which show that revenues rose from £355 million to £388 million, from additional F1 “prize money” and from additional sponsorship, which comes because the sport is growing. The team dropped its spending from £325 million to just under £300 million, reflecting the new budget cap rules despite an increase in the number of races. This meant that the design and engineering staff had to drop from 906 to 831 as the team sought to be more efficient. Some were redeployed in other parts of the empire, some took early-retirement, I believe.
This meant that not only did Mercedes not have to put any money into the team, which makes it a slam dunk to keep going because of the value F1 brings (internally and externally) for the team. It also meant that the team made a profit of £68 million, a big hike. This meant that there was money to buy the land on which the factory is located from previous owner Adrian Reynard, thus removing rental costs in the future. This is why teams now have huge valuations and that the sport is so healthy. Anyone who is serious about getting into F1 needs to make an offer to an existing team that is impossible to refuse. There are a few teams that are overly laden with debt and need more cash, others where circumstances are changing. There is very little logic in starting a new team because it will cost more to get it to a competitive state than it will if one buys an existing team. There is a lot of delusional thinking going on amongst those who think they should be allowed to have entries. In many ways they are being protected from themselves, just as the super licence rules exist as they do to stop people who are unqualified for the role of being an F1 driver being allowed to come in an embarrassing themselves.
Anyway, the driver market is all but done now and attention is beginning to turn to what could happen in 2024.
Alpine has taken the plunge with two French drivers who have not always got on in the past. Time will tell if this is wise but I am told that in an effort to keep friction to a minimum both drivers have been informed that they can have family at only two events a year, and that the two families cannot attend the same races…
We have just two drives to settle (for now): the second Williams (which must wait until Abu Dhabi because of licence questions) and the second Haas, which will probably be announced in Austin, where Haas has a big event planned to reveal a new sponsor. It would be logical to name the second driver then…