The Inside Line #75: The gold standard

TILI Logo PrintFor whatever reason, things just happen at the Japanese Grand Prix. And I’m not even going as far back as its early days as a permanent fixture in the world championship, when the Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost rivalry was at its peak. As it’s a race that I’ve covered more than any other besides my home Grand Prix in Australia, I’m very thankful for that.

My second Japanese Grand Prix in the old Suzuka press room (up the steep metal stairs in the rain was a challenge, as was negotiating the one toilet on offer for the world’s hacks) was spent watching a race that became known as one of the best Grands Prix ever, the 2005 GP which featured Kimi Raikkonen’s last-lap pass of Giancarlo Fisichella for the lead and the win. I can still picture Ron Dennis’ exuberant reaction in parc ferme and Kimi’s complete indifference to it all [1]. At the time, I wondered if a Japanese GP could rival 2005 for drama, but most of them since have come mightily close.

2006: A Michael Schumacher retirement all but hands the title to Fernando Alonso. I remember being struck by Schumacher’s walking around the garage shaking hands with every team member and having a quiet word. Sure, he knew the cameras were on him, but it was impressive. In 2007 at Fuji, it rained and rained and rained [2]. I saw Mt Fuji once for about 10 minutes on the Friday. And then this happened. 2008, and championship protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa clashed on the first lap, opening the door for Alonso to win his second consecutive race (as the press room ruminated on whether the first, Singapore, was achieved under slightly dodgy circumstances). Back at Suzuka in ’09, qualifying lasted two-and-a-half hours, featured three red flags, and saw eight drivers hit with grid penalties. At least we had qualifying in 2009; a year later, the rain was so crazy that I spent the qualifying hour under an umbrella talking cricket with Mark Webber, we all came back the next day to have qualifying and the race, and Webber memorably hijacked the post-race presser so he could get to his helicopter on time to make his flight back to Australia. Sebastian Vettel won his second world title at Suzuka in 2011, Romain Grosjean was officially branded a “first-lap nutcase” by Webber in 2012, and last year the same nutcase led for three-quarters of the race before succumbing to the Suzuka standard of Newey/Red Bull/Vettel, in order of importance.

Yes, things just happen at the Japanese Grand Prix, and I hope that’s the case this weekend as I head to, in my opinion, the very best track in Formula One. Suzuka makes Formula One cars look alive, whether it’s the high-speed slalom through the Esses, the first Degner corner that invariably claims a victim or three across the weekend, the entry to Spoon and the fence waiting to catch out even the best of drivers, and 130R. Sure, it’s not what it once was (and Allan McNish’s accident there in 2002 still makes me wince), but 130R is still a great place to watch a Formula One car – I have vivid memories of seeing a crossed-up Takuma Sato attempting to back the BAR-Honda into it in the wet one year with some journo mates and all of us falling about laughing. Good, good times.

A comprehensive preview of the Japanese Grand Prix is the focus of Episode 75 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also look at Max Verstappen’s first F1 outing, wonder if teams will field three cars next year to keep grid numbers high with several teams thought to be on the financial brink [3], and hear from a candid Fernando Alonso as the fallout from Ferrari’s dire season continues. Makes you wonder where he might end up next season, doesn’t it? [4]

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday October 1, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday October 2. Or, like me, in a very small Japanese hotel room.

– — —- —-

[1] And that was when Kimi actually seemed to care (by comparison). The good old days.

[2] My other memory of that weekend, besides Webber memorably vomiting in his helmet in the race for the world to hear, was having the great misfortune of sitting next to one particular journo who has worn the same shirt and hairstyle to every race since, who spent most of the race bragging to me that he’d invited a heap of drivers to a post-race party he was throwing in Tokyo, confusing me for someone who cared. I still to this day work out where he’s sitting at every race I attend and avoid him like the plague. Wanker.

[3] One man’s view: won’t happen.

[4] One man’s opinion of his 2015 address: McLaren-Honda. Now that would be fun …

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