Opinion

Why, why, why?

Why?

Why is motor racing so horribly cruel?

Why do the good guys die young?

Why did the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix not get brought forward when everyone knew for days that a typhoon was on the cards?

Why was a safety car not deployed when there was a recovery vehicle on the inside of the fence at a circuit with narrow run-offs even in the dry?

How must Adrian Sutil be feeling right now?

Why can’t I get the one replay of the accident I saw while at the circuit out of my head?

Why do I wonder if the sport will learn anything from this?

Why can’t I stop thinking that this whole sorry situation was so easily preventable?

Why, even after years covering motorsport and having to report on death, do I and my journalist colleagues still try to find the right words at times like this when there are clearly no such thing?

Why?

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Now for the future

Australian F1 Grand Prix - QualifyingA few years ago, I was an occasional F1 correspondent for a Melbourne radio station that hosted a two-hour sports program, one with the word ‘sports’ in the title even though it focused on only one. You know the drill: an hour and 55 minutes of breathless chatter about what the 28th-best player on an AFL team had for breakfast yesterday, who said what on Twitter, and a lot of blathering and chortling about ‘back in my day’ from the hosts who, by virtue of what they used to do professionally, have a new profession they’re not qualified to perform in their post-sporting days.

It was the day before the F1 season-opener in Melbourne, and while the rest of the sporting world was ready for a truly global sport to start for the year, said sports (sport) show hosts were adamant as they introduced me a few minutes before they finished for the night. “Don’t know about you Matt, but I reckon this F1 business is losing favour, there’s nobody anywhere that seems to be talking about it,” came the first statement masquerading as a question from former athlete/“journalist”, and it was hard to know where to go from there. I did consider pointing out that, more than likely, nobody in Spain was wondering how Richmond’s backline would handle Carlton’s assortment of tall forwards, but sometimes it pays to keep your powder dry. Nothing I said, no matter how considered, was going to make the slightest bit of difference.

I digress. The news that Australia will continue to be on the F1 calendar for another five years last week was good for Melbourne, good for Victoria and good for Australians [1] who enjoy all sports, not ones pushed down our throats whether we like them or not [2]. Next year’s race will be the 20th at Albert Park; remarkably, only seven races on the calendar have a history longer than Melbourne’s. It’s a great coup, and one we should be proud of. It also gives all those involved in the event a chance to move forward with some certainty; speak to some spectators at the track each March, and you get the feeling plenty feel the event has been watered down a bit in recent years as its future remained uncertain. Some fans were counting down until the end of the (now former) contract in 2015 – “we better go this year because there’s only two more” – so five more years (at least) is a great sign.

What I’d personally like to see over that five years is an end to the alarming promotional trend for the event that almost seems apologetic on occasion, and for the city to actually get behind it properly rather than certain sections of it lining up to belt the event from pillar to post because of what it isn’t each March. More than one sport can have its time in the sun at once. It’s not that hard, as I’ve learned this week.

I’ve taken advantage of the F1 mid-season break to sneak (as much as you can sneak across 24 hours of travel) to Indianapolis for MotoGP, as I have for the past three years. We’re not in MotoGP’s heartland of Europe, that’s for sure – that the only support race on the event bill features a bunch of Harley Davidson’s tells you something – but Indianapolis pulls out all the stops when a big international sporting series comes to town. There’s plenty of other sporting distractions here at the moment – the NFL season is about to start, the Indiana Pacers’ star basketballer Paul George has just suffered a broken leg that will sideline him for a year, and there’s the Little League World Series everywhere on TV [3] – but MotoGP is the big deal this weekend. You can’t move around town without seeing a billboard promoting the event, while the fans continue to show up in numbers at the vast Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a venue so enormous that (as one pic I saw this week showed) it could fit the entire Wimbledon complex, the Vatican City, Yankee Stadium and the Kentucky Derby track inside its oval track used for the Indy 500 (think about that for a minute).

The city is on board, the local media – all of it, not just the ones who have the publishing rights – supportive, and it feels like an event everyone wants and embraces along with their other, perhaps preferred, sports. Melbourne could learn much.

It’s terrific for Melbourne’s self-proclaimed “sporting capital” status (capitals that aren’t ‘A’, ‘F’ and ‘L’) that the Grand Prix season will open up at Albert Park for the next five years. Melbourne has a wall-to-wall international calendar of sport that fits in seamlessly with the events of local interest. Let’s embrace that rather than resist it. And let’s not apologise for it.

—- —– —– —-

[1] I’m speaking in lists, much like Steve Bracks used to when he launched what he repeatedly called the “‘Straya Gran Pree” in his tenure as Victorian Premier.

[2] I do like my footy. Support my team with a passion, do some work in the sport too. There’s a lot of terrific people working in it. But I can’t – won’t – make it the only sport that matters like so many involved in it do.

[3] I’m not joking. Bonkers coverage.

Is this the future of F1?

TVgraphicAustriaAfter the latest round of highly contentious rule and procedural changes that edge F1 ever-closer to WWE, flatchat took a trip into the future to bring you this race report …

Daniel Ricciardo has won the inaugural Grand Prix of Inner Mongolia after a race where not a single lap at racing speed was completed before the two-hour time limit.

The Australian took his third career win after starting from pole at the Inner Mongolia Tilkedrome in a race where there was no overtaking and finished after just six laps in front of a race-day crowd of seven people, three of whom stayed until the end.

Ricciardo made a good start from pole and led into the first corner, a tight right-hander that continually turns back on itself 360 degrees and feeds the cars back across the entry to the corner on the way to turn two.

While the Australian was able to avoid the backmarkers as he held position, Lewis Hamilton wasn’t so lucky, his Mercedes collecting teammate Nico Rosberg, who was slow to get away from the start after wrapping up his pre-race interviews in six languages while attending to his hair. While Ricciardo managed to avoid the recovering Rosberg, Hamilton wasn’t so fortunate, his attention perhaps distracted by the three new tattoos he’d acquired since the previous race in Brunei.

While both drivers escaped injury, the race was neutralised behind a safety car for the first two laps, after which the 20 remaining drivers lined up for a standing restart. The cars got as far as the first corner before Kimi Raikkonen was the next casualty, the Finn wrecking the suspension of his Ferrari after collecting an enormous sack of money that he’d misplaced after falling asleep during the pre-race drivers’ parade. Raikkonen’s post-race debrief shed little light on the incident, with 12 seconds of incoherent and disinterested mumbling being turned into an elaborately-worded eight-paragraph press release penned by Ferrari’s Department of Creative Writing.

After the track was cleared for a second standing restart following a 17-minute delay, Sauber withdrew both of its cars as they didn’t have the funds to complete a racing lap at full speed.

Fernando Alonso made the best of the second restart, the Spaniard recovering after Ferrari had mistakenly given him an old school bus with three wheels to drive for qualifying on Saturday. An internal investigation at Ferrari saw everyone sacked in the lead-up to the race, but Alonso prepared his own car with assistance from the Department of Creative Writing and stormed to second behind Ricciardo after the restart before being taken out by the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado, sending both cars into retirement.

Maldonado’s accident was his 16th incident of the weekend, but he was spared a mandatory five-race ban as the series next moves to Venezuela for the third PDVSA Grand Prix of the season, this year’s calendar dictated by the drivers who bring the most sponsorship money to the sport.

As the track was being cleared for a third restart, Caterham withdrew from the race, but nobody noticed until after the post-race podium ceremony.

Sergio Perez was also forced to retire after being voted out of the race by text message, part of the sport’s 2015 initiative to engage new audiences while infuriating its existing fans.

The third restart was calamitous, with sparks from the titanium skid block beneath the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne igniting some trackside tumbleweed and causing a fire, and McLaren’s Jenson Button running into an on-track TV graphic on the start-finish straight that had been installed after the widespread internal praise the sport’s organisers had given themselves for a similar graphic at the 2014 Austrian Grand Prix.

A planned fourth standing restart was scheduled, but the track wasn’t able to be cleared of debris before the two-hour time limit, which saw the result declared in Ricciardo’s favour. Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Marussia’s Jules Bianchi rounded out a most unlikely podium.

With F1 fans taking to social media to voice their displeasure with the race, the post-podium interviews conducted by a local celebrity with no links to F1 were scrapped, and the sport’s organisers announced they were establishing a working group to look into whether or not social media was a fad, with an announcement of its findings scheduled for June 2023.

Hamilton continues to lead the championship by 106 points with three races remaining, but can ill-afford another slip-up given quadruple points remain on offer for the final Grand Prix of the season in Outer Mongolia.

Stuck in the dark ages

AbiteboulThat the question came from a 22-year-old female journalist was surprising – after all, how many 22-year-olds get access to an F1 media pass to sit in a male-dominated press room that surely boasts the oldest average age of any major sport? – but the source of the answer to it was revealing.

It was the usual drudgery of the mandatory team principal’s press conference at Sepang on Friday afternoon, where the same questions are asked in different ways by the same journalists from one race to the next to team principals who stitch together one banal sentence after another to avoid answering them. And then Yassmin Abdel-Magied got straight to the point.

What must F1 do to appeal to a younger and broader audience, she asked? Another follow-up question from another journalist asked if the broadcasting rights restrictions on F1 were preventing the sport from expanding its youth audience.

The blank stares and uncomfortable shuffling in chairs was broken by Caterham’s Cyril Abiteboul, who at 36 is the youngest team principal in the sport, someone relatively new to the role who has lived outside the bubble that F1 people typically immerse themselves in for decades. And his answer couldn’t have made more sense.

“I think we need to find the right balance between the accessibility, exclusivity and value,” he started.

“I think that there is a belief right now that more exclusivity creates value. Maybe this was true; maybe it’s less true with new media where it’s more the distribution, and our people need to react with content that is creating value. If you look at Facebook, there is nothing exclusive in Facebook and I think that the value of the IPO of Facebook is quite historic. You may argue that there is a bubble of internet, but I think Formula One would be happy to have such a bubble.

“I think those are the sort of things that we maybe have to look at, that maybe a lack of exclusivity maybe does not mean a lack of value.”

While half of the assembled press probably went back to their desks to ask someone half their age what Facebook is, I couldn’t help but think of how poorly F1 does in pushing its pictures across different platforms compared to other sports. With working interests in a number of different sports and without the need to constantly reinforce my credentials by telling everyone exactly how many years I’ve been working on F1 and why what I was doing in 1973 matters now [1], I can think of several first-hand examples of engaging with several sports on different platforms that leaves F1 in the dark ages.

After last year’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, I found myself thinking of my next assignment at Phillip Island in Australia for MotoGP the following weekend. The two-wheel calendar had the bikes in Malaysia the same weekend that F1 was in Japan, and I was keen to watch. So it was straight to the sport’s official website, and after paying a small fee for a one-race video pass, I was watching Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo go at it in a thrilling head-to-head battle as my train sped across the Japanese countryside back to my Nagoya base and the journey to Australia. Brilliant pictures, perfect commentary, replays whenever I wanted them and all sorts besides. And it was hardly an isolated incident.

The year before, I stayed up in the wee hours at my hotel in Indianapolis to watch my beloved West Coast Eagles play a relatively ho-hum Australian Rules football game against Port Adelaide through the sport’s official website. I may have been at the home of motorsport in the US on assignment to interview Casey Stoner, but the option was there to keep tabs on something happening back home, and I took it.

Years earlier, I vividly remember listening to an ESPN podcast where then-NBA commissioner David Stern was interviewed about the almost instantaneous uploading of video highlights to NBA.com, the website of basketball’s biggest and best league. His response was fascinating. The league found that when a highlight happened in a game, viewers were recording them on their phones and uploading them to YouTube as fast as the public wanted to see them or tweet about them, but the quality of what was being shown was inevitably poor. Stern’s idea was for the league to take control of the situation by posting its own videos as soon as possible, with greater say in how its highlights and all of the commercial considerations of the sport were being presented. The NBA’s YouTube channel now has almost six million subscribers, and the sport’s League Pass offering – where any game can be watched at any time on any device for a quite reasonable fee – has revolutionised the way fans interact with that sport. Something big happens? Chances are you’ll be seeing it within five minutes in pristine quality, multiple replays, great commentary, and ready to share with like-minded enthusiasts.

What does F1 do? Fans put a video on YouTube, and it gets taken down within hours. Want to see a highlights package of the latest Grand Prix? Wait several days [2] for an all-too-familiar cookie-cutter approach to the presentation of a race to eventually find its way onto the sport’s official site, music usually drowning out the action, the moment completely lost as the sport’s fans have moved on. It’s not good enough for any audience, especially a younger and technology-savvy one. Yes, the presentation of the highlights always looks great, but why does it take so long? It smacks of a sport that’s losing relevance with its audience. That notion doesn’t seem up for debate – what other sport would change the results of its opening race of the most highly-anticipated season in years five hours after it finished as was the case with Daniel Ricciardo’s belated exclusion from the Australian Grand Prix a fortnight ago? – but what’s of greater importance is what those inside the sport are willing to do about it. As the press room gets older and more detached from the future generation of F1 consumers [3] and what they want, and as so many of those on the inside in the sport live in their cocooned existences, turn left on airplanes and count their money as the circus shuffles from place to place, a young, tech-literate, hungry-for-more audience is left underwhelmed, which shouldn’t be the case given how much the sport has to offer.

Marussia’s Graeme Lowdon was also in the Sepang team principal’s presser, and while he’s some 13 years older than Abiteboul, he too made more sense than most.

“What we don’t want is an audience for Formula One that is big but aging,” he said.

“We want to capture young people. We operate in a sport that’s incredibly rich with data, and youngsters today, they interact. They enjoy interacting in lots of different ways. And so we have so many assets at our disposal as a sport. Not just in terms of video pictures, but in terms of data and information and comments and commentary.

“I think if we get the recipe right, there’s an enormous opportunity to grow the fan base exponentially. And that can only be good for the sport in the long run. So … it’s a huge opportunity, and hopefully an opportunity that the sport will take.”

I’m too grey to be considered a “youngster” these days, but I hope he’s right. Other sports have shown the way and have evolved to ever-changing markets and the wishes of the fans. Time will tell if F1 wants to – or feels it needs to – do the same.

—– —— — —

[1] No, I wasn’t hanging out with Jackie Stewart – I’d only just been born. But even if my memories of 1973 were vivid, I wouldn’t feel the need to continually recount them. Nobody cares.

[2] Or well over a week, as was the case for the dramatic 2012 season-finale in Brazil. How is that even possible?

[3] I have enormous respect for so many of my colleagues in the F1 press room that I come across on my travels, and some of them continue to set the standard in news-breaking, feature writing and observational content. Across any sport. And then there are some that are playing out time as they move further and further away from their last relevant moment. And they know who they are.

Pressure point: Ricciardo ready to roll

daniel-ricciardo-red-bull-racing-silverstoneAlbert Park, Sunday, 5pm. It’s the moment Daniel Ricciardo has been awaiting ever since he was announced as Mark Webber’s successor at Red Bull Racing last year.

Lights out for the start of his first Grand Prix for a front-running team. The eyes of his home country – and the Formula One world – watching his every move. Enormous expectation. The sole Australian in a brutally-competitive global sport where just 22 drivers – the same number of participants who turn out for each of our much-feted footy teams – get to play.

While the identity of the driver who’ll spray the victor’s champagne at Albert Park on Sunday afternoon remains an unknown after a chaotic pre-season rendered the sport’s pecking order of recent years irrelevant, one thing that is for certain is that Ricciardo will take the pressure in his stride. It’s always been the West Australian’s way. His gregarious personality, ever-present smile and unflappable nature has underpinned his rise to the best team in Formula One over the past four years, and it isn’t about to change.

Ricciardo has proven time and time again that he’s built for the big moments. Pressure? That’s something found in Pirelli’s tyres.

Spain, 2009. The Jerez circuit is playing host to an end-of-year young drivers’ test, a chance for the sport’s up-and-comers to press their claims for a coveted race seat in the future. There’s much at stake, and even the most promising of drivers can blink when faced when their first chance to impress the sport’s bosses. His nerves assuaged by an out of the blue phone call from Webber, Ricciardo takes the Red Bull RB5 straight to the top of the timesheets and stays there for the three-day test, his best lap more than a second quicker than anyone else could manage. For a first outing an F1 car, it was a performance that marked the 20-year-old as a man to watch – and one that earned him the role as reserve driver at Red Bull Racing and sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso for the following season.

Abu Dhabi, 2010. The smell of champagne had gone slightly stale in the days following Sebastian Vettel’s world championship win at the Yas Marina Circuit, but the media members who stayed for the young drivers’ test the following week began to get an understanding of Ricciardo’s ability to deliver. Driving the same Red Bull Vettel had used to secure his second title the weekend prior, Ricciardo sliced 1.3 seconds off Vettel’s pole position time to again top the timesheets. It was a display that fast-tracked his ascension to an F1 race seat, which he earned midway through the following season for HRT, Red Bull loaning its young gun to the backmarker outfit to give him some immediate practical experience.

Japan, 2012. In just his 25th Formula One race, Ricciardo had edged his way up into 10th place in his Toro Rosso in the closing stages at Suzuka, one of the world’s most revered circuits for its elevation changes and sweeping turns. Within sight of the chequered flag, Ricciardo faced the most intimidating test of all, Michael Schumacher in a faster Mercedes getting ever-bigger in his side mirrors as the seven-time world champion ripped his way through the midfield. Resistance appeared futile, but lap after lap, Ricciardo held his ground, beating the German over the line by eight-tenths of a second after absorbing 15 minutes of the toughest pressure imaginable in inferior machinery. His reward was one measly world championship point, but it was a performance that enhanced his reputation. “He did not offer me one single chance,” was Schumacher’s surprised response afterwards, while Ricciardo post-race comment – “it was definitely nice to get a battle with him in the scrapbook” – told you the Australian understood the importance of what he’d just achieved.

Silverstone, June 2013. Webber had just announced to the world that he was leaving F1 at the end of the season, and in a sport that is hell-bent on moving forwards at a rapid pace, thoughts immediately turned to the future identity of Vettel’s stablemate at the most dominant team in the field. Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso teammate Jean-Eric Vergne held the upper hand in the battle between the Red Bull-backed protégés, coming to the British Grand Prix off a career-best sixth in the previous race in Canada, and ahead of Ricciardo in the championship standings. But with the stakes raised, Ricciardo delivered the knock-out punch.

A season-best fifth on the grid at Silverstone kick-started a run of five top-10 starts in the next six races in a car that had no business being that high in qualifying, and as a mentally spooked Vergne floundered in the back of the midfield pack and failed to score a single point for the rest of the year, Ricciardo was named as Webber’s replacement by September.

Albert Park, this week. Ricciardo could scarcely been busier in the lead-up to the Australian Grand Prix, a wall-to-wall schedule of media and promotional appearances in Sydney last weekend only an entrée to the attention he’s faced since he’s been in Melbourne. Time to exhale, let alone see family and friends who have come across from his hometown of Perth to wish him well, has been all but impossible, but Ricciardo has handled the demands with aplomb, signing autographs for the fans who waited patiently for him to emerge from pre-race engineering meetings late on Thursday evening long after most other drivers had left the circuit. Away from the spotlight and with no publicity, Ricciardo even found time to organise an autographed auction item for a WA-based charity, rifling through his collection of memorabilia at the family home in Perth’s northern suburbs to find something appropriate when his energies could have undoubtedly been directed elsewhere.

It says much for Ricciardo’s unflappable demeanour that he was almost disappointed that Red Bull’s well-documented pre-season testing woes lowered the team’s expectations for this weekend.

“With the testing we’ve had, we’re not as optimistic as we thought we would be. So from that respect, the pressure’s probably dropped a notch or so, not that I would wish for that,” he says.

“If the pressure’s a bit lower, I’m not necessarily happy about it. It’s absolutely awesome to have a home Grand Prix – I think any driver that has a home race is really fortunate. A lot of people wonder if it adds pressure, but it definitely motivates me.”

While Ricciardo may have to wait for his moment in the sun given Red Bull is still in recovery mode after the pre-season, his combination of talent and temperament suggests he could become just the fourth Australian to win a world championship Grand Prix. No less of an authority than Webber believes Ricciardo will “win Grands Prix this year”. If and when that happens remains uncertain, but based on his career to date, we can expect Ricciardo to deliver when the opportunity presents itself.

Send in the clowns

No, the calendar didn’t say April 1 after all. It said December 10, and that was when it dawned on me: December 10, 2013 will go down as the date when Formula One crossed the line between sport and complete stupidity. In the raft of changes pushed through by the F1 Strategy Group and the Formula One Commission on Monday – some procedural, some sensible, others as vague as vague can be – came the bombshell that the final race of the 2014 season will be granted double-points status, making an absolute mockery of the rest of the season and edging what was once a sport ever-closer to WWE. To have 18 races run under one set of rules and one run under another is completely insane; it compromises the integrity of the season, the 64-year history of the category and potentially the legitimacy of the world champion.

Let’s say, for example, that the fifth and deciding set of next year’s men’s final at Wimbledon decided to award double points where the previous four sets, or 80 per cent of the maximum length of a match, had been played to a different scoring system. Ace, 30-0. Ace, Game Djokovic. Tough luck, Rafa. Reckon the tennis community might be up in arms? Or, for those footballers in the Australian media masquerading as ‘journalists’, let’s change the rules at three-quarter time of the AFL grand final to make all goals worth 12 points rather than six for the finale of the season (insert your own scoring values if you’re a league/union/soccer fan). How would that be received?

In recent years, we’ve had DRS, KERS, grooved tyres, slick tyres, tyres that fall apart, any other number of initiatives to spice up the ‘show’ in F1, as if a category featuring the world’s fastest cars and (mostly) the best drivers needs to be spiced up. Some innovations have worked, some haven’t. It happens. Yes, some seasons are more exciting than others; so go the ebbs and flows of professional sport. For every 2008 or 2010 in F1, you need a 2004 or 2011 to appreciate a thrilling sporting spectacle that grips us to its conclusion. But this is different. DRS, KERS etc – every driver, every team and every car (besides Mark Webber and KERS, which is another topic altogether) had them at every race. Changing the rules for one race when other rules have governed the other 18? Cue the laugh track.

Actually, 2004 might provide some context as to why this change has been shoe-horned through with so little thought to the impact it has on the credibility of the sport. Michael Schumacher won 12 of the first 13 races that year, only a crash at Monaco denying him a baker’s dozen, and after casual fans spent their Sundays yawning on the couch, the response was to insert a regulation for 2005 where one set of tyres had to last for qualifying and the race. Yes, the rule change came in during a year where Fernando Alonso finally broke Schumacher’s five-year red reign at Ferrari in ‘05, but it was a gimmick and didn’t last into 2006.

In 2014, Sebastian Vettel will enter the first race of the season in Australia having won four titles in succession and the past nine Grands Prix on the bounce, and some competition for the German and Red Bull Racing would be welcomed. With a whole new formula set for next season, we had the catalysts for potential change already, and the early days of the new campaign will undoubtedly be dramatic as teams get used to new engines, energy recovery systems, tyres, fuel loads, and for Lotus, an extra shipping container for Pastor Maldonado’s spare parts. There’ll be enough chaos at the start of the season as it is, meaning there’s no need to ruin the end of it with the nonsense that came to light yesterday.

And of all the races to be awarded the “prestige” of double-points … In five previous runnings of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, we’ve had two kinds of races: dull and duller. Yes, 2010 was exciting simply because we had four drivers in with a shot of the title, and being in the pit lane that night just before the start was as tense an experience at a sporting event as I’ve ever had. But the race itself was a snore-fest. As for the rest, you can’t make a case for a single memorable race at the Yas Marina Circuit, which is undeniably pretty under lights but proves the old saying that while you can put lipstick on a pig, it’s a still a pig. How can winning at a track described by Webber as akin to driving around a supermarket car park be worth twice as much as a victory at Monaco, Spa, Suzuka, Monza, Silverstone … other than Bahrain, it’s hard to imagine a circuit layout less deserving of double-points status if we’re having to resort to such a rubbish rule.

While we’re on season finales, is it wrong to wonder if the organisers in Abu Dhabi had been made aware of the implementation of the double-points gimmick and all of the attention it will undoubtedly receive when they negotiated to have the last race come back to Yas Marina after the last two championships wrapped up in Brazil at Interlagos? As a means to extract more cash from a country where it isn’t in short supply, it’s a good one. Should the location of the final race of the season come down to who has the deepest pockets and who is prepared to pay the most to host, Abu Dhabi wins every time.

Yes, December 10 will be forever known as the date Formula One went too far. All that’s left now is for circus music to replace the national anthems on the podium next year for the season finale. Red noses optional.

Webber’s Japanese adventures

Vomit, a burnt bum, kids that “f**k it all up” and first-lap nutcases – life has never been boring at the Japanese Grand Prix for Mark Webber, and after last weekend’s litany of disasters in Korea, surely better fortune is on the cards for the Aussie this weekend in a country that has never been one of his favourite stops on the Formula One calendar. But for all that, Suzuka remains one of the tracks he’s held in great reverence throughout his 12-season career, and one last chance to let an F1 car rip around one of the sport’s best circuits is something he’ll relish.

Webber, of course, hasn’t missed a Japanese Grand Prix since 2002; my own Japan run started in 2004, and as we chatted in the Suzuka paddock on Thursday, plenty of those memories came flooding back.

There was 2004, when, after qualifying a Jaguar in third place in a car that had no business seeing the top 10 without a pair of binoculars, he had to retire as his seat was getting hot – to the point that his backside was almost on fire. Five points for Williams 12 months later (back when five points actually meant something for fourth place) was his second-best result of that season. The next year, I vividly remember watching him wrestle a pig of a Williams through the final chicane, seemingly closer to disaster on every lap as he searched for pace the car didn’t have before binning it on the start-finish straight late in the race, clouting the wall and conveniently coming to rest opposite the Williams prat perch, ensuring himself a short walk back to the garage.

And then there was Fuji.

I’m not sure I’ve been belted by rain more at a sporting event than that first year at Fuji in 2007. The famous mountain was spectacularly visible – for about 30 minutes in Friday morning practice. From then on, the grey clouds turned to black, and proceeded to lash rain on the circuit for the best part of two days, rain that made the 1976 season-decider immortalised in the movie ‘Rush’ at the same circuit look like a passing shower.

Race-day morning, something wasn’t right, and it had nothing to do with the velocity of the water as it cascaded from the sky. There were 21 drivers on the drivers’ parade; the one who was missing was, as he might put it, “hurling his guts up”, ravaged by food poisoning. Given the conditions, it would have been perfectly excusable for Webber to sit out, but he dragged his weakened body into the Red Bull RB3 and cruised around behind the safety car until the weather was deemed suitable to start the race.

Webber, covered in vomit inside his steamed-up helmet with rain continuing to tumble, worked his way up the field from seventh on the grid. Before long he was second, title contender Fernando Alonso had crashed, and Webber was gaining on Alonso’s rookie McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton, the race leader who surely wouldn’t have fought too hard as he attempted to bank a slab of points critical to his title aspirations. The best result of Webber’s career looked to be on the cards, and the top step was real possibility.

And then this. “It’s kids, isn’t it?” Webber spat to startled pit lane reporter Louise Goodman after a 20-year-old named Sebastian Vettel had rammed him off the track in the rain behind the safety car, eliminating both cars from the race. “Kids with not enough experience – and they go and f**k it all up.” Interview over. Makes you wonder what ever became of that Vettel ‘kid’ and whether he eventually turned out to be half-decent …

Later that afternoon, I got a sense for the sort of bloke Mark is, win or loss, good or bad. Two hours after the race, we sat with Mark’s partner Ann and dad Alan and chatted. I’d filed all my stories for the day, had no work to do, no reason to be there other than to see how he was. He looked dreadful, but hung around. “You’ve come a bloody long way mate, so you’re right,” was his reasoning.

It’s either the sublime or the ridiculous for Webber in Japan. In 2009, he made a mess of the Red Bull by going off at the trickier-than-it looks-on-TV Degner 2 corner in Saturday practice, smashing the car up so badly that he couldn’t qualify it hours later. Starting dead last from the pit lane the next day, his first four laps probably should have been accompanied by a laugh track. Three pit stops – two for the headrest material in the car coming loose and one for a puncture – put him nearly as many laps behind the field as the rest had completed. The response was a near-faultless drive – to 17th given how many laps down he was – with the fastest lap of the race thrown in to boot. Teammate Vettel won from pole with no mechanical problems or ill-fortune (stop me if you’ve heard that before), but Webber was happy he’d at least achieved something. “Can’t let Seb have everything, can I?” was his wry comment over a solemn post-race green tea.

A year later, Webber was at his best and most amusing. Qualifying was a complete washout on the Saturday – we spent more time discussing cricket as the rain belted down – but on Sunday he was on it, arguably the strongest weekend where he didn’t win the race in his F1 career. Pipped to second on the grid by Vettel by 0.068secs in a hastily-arranged Sunday morning qualifying, he finished 0.9secs behind his teammate after 53 laps to enjoy a 14-point lead in the championship with three races left. Korea and that crash was to come a fortnight later, but Webber was almost in as good form off the track as he was on it that weekend.

He wanted to get the one flight back to Australia that left Tokyo that night, and had a helicopter lined up to take him straight from the circuit to Narita Airport, and time was tight. The only problem was, because he’d finished second, he had the post-race press conference to negotiate. Knowing I was onto his escape route, he grinned as he entered the presser, politely asked if he could get through his questions first despite not having won the race, and then scampered off to the waiting chopper still in his race suit. Got in a little bit of trouble too, but it was worth it for the sheer audacity of it all. He made the flight too …

Then there was last year. Strong qualifying, second again behind Vettel who is absolutely mega at Suzuka, and ready to do something big in the race. Come Turn 2 on Sunday, Webber was on the grass facing the wrong way, turned around by serial offender Romain Grosjean, and while he recovered through the field to ninth, you could almost see the steam coming out of his ears every time he passed the pits. As he crossed the line to take two points on a day where he felt 18 would be the bare minimum, I knew I just had to scurry down to the post-race ‘pen’ where the TV cameras gather to broadcast the thoughts of the drivers after they returned to pit lane. I promised the Fleet Street tabloid guys sitting near me in the press room that I’d share what I got from my compatriot if they kept an eye on other things for me, and they weren’t disappointed.

“I haven’t obviously seen what happened at the start but the guys (on the pit wall) confirmed that it was the first-lap nutcase again, Grosjean,” Webber started, and then he was off. In an era where driver after driver is too busy thanking a sponsor or on-message to deliver anything of interest, the next 90 seconds were gold.

“I don’t know what the issue is. We’re starting an hour-and-a-half Grand Prix and we all fold into the first part of the lap … I was hoping for his sake that somebody else hit him and put him into me, but the guys said it was all of his own doing. Maybe we have two separate starts, one for him and one for us. We finished eight seconds off fifth place, and I was in reverse for 10 seconds on the grass.

“The rest of us are trying to fight for some decent results each weekend but he is trying to get to the third corner as fast as he can at every race. He needs to have a look at himself. How many mistakes can you make, how many times can you make the same error? It’s quite embarrassing at this level for him.”

And with that, Webber was off, stopping by the Lotus hospitality area for what was described as a “conversation” with the Frenchman, although it was more than likely a fairly one-way chat …

You sense only Webber could have had the sequence of events that scuppered his race in Korea last weekend happen to him. Out of position on the grid from a 10-place grid penalty after qualifying third, he’d moved his way into potential podium contention before pitting for a second time – and came out right behind Sergio Perez’s McLaren as its right front tyre exploded. As the first car on the scene, a puncture ensued … which necessitated another pit stop … which dropped him down to 11th … which meant he was in the firing line for Adrian Sutil’s spinning Force India after the re-start … which meant a Red Bull on fire. Given his usual luck, it was a surprise the 4WD safety vehicle that was dispatched onto the circuit didn’t hit him when it eventually got to his smoking car. Webber does have history with being hit by 4WDs in places where they shouldn’t be, after all …

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the weekend it all comes together. The RB9 will be ideally suited to Suzuka’s sweeping curves, he loves the circuit, typically goes well here and is due a massive slice of good fortune after his recent travails. Vettel’s recent form suggests the German will be mighty hard to stop, but it’s very possible that some ‘Aussie Grit’ could propel Webber to his first victory of the season – and a great way to finish up at a circuit that he describes as one that provides “an awesome feeling to know you’ve got the best out of the car.”

One thing we do know: win or not, it’s bound to be entertaining. Japan and Mark Webber together know no other way.