Japan has endured an incredibly hard time of late: not only did an earthquake viciously destroy most of its infrastructure in north-east, but the resultant tsumani washed away what little was left standing alongside the adjacent coast. Then, to really compound the suffering, Fukushima nuclear power station went into melt-down, causing radiation to infect the immediate vicinity before spreading its relentless tentacles.
The MotoGP round scheduled for April – a month and a bit after the catastrophe – was postponed until last week, with that fixture being unconfirmed until three weeks before after the riders threatened to boycott the race due to radiation. Yes: these big-balled guys who throw caution to the wind every alternate Sunday threatened to boycott the race at Motegi despite the track being 200 kilometres south of Fukushima…
Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Bridgestone quickly disabused them of the notion by pointing out that collectively they made millionaires of the riders, and the event went ahead. What an incident-packed race it turned out to be, one saw championship leader Casey Stoner – one of the instigators of the anti-Motegi brigade – lose points to his closest challenger, reigning champion Jorge Lorenzo, after going wide and dropping to third.
Fortunately in Formula 1 there were no such suggestions, certainly not once stock had been taken of the situation, and the race at Suzuka – like Motegi, Honda owned – was never in doubt. To be fair, Suzuka is 200 kilometres from Fukushima; still one knows not where the water in Suzuka comes from, nor where supermarkets source their products, and, of course, nuclear radiation is virtually indestructible.
Japan has taken Formula 1 to heart – at one stage so massive was demand for tickets that they were offered by ballot, with one in ten fans hitting the luck and 90% of the money being returned – and this year F1 returned the compliment.
Six drivers, including Jenson Button (who has a Japanese girlfriend), Michael Schumacher and local matador Kamui Kobayashi granted licences for puppet figures of themselves to be sold to raise money for earthquake victims. Not to be outdone, F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone went one further: he granted permission for a Bernard puppet, then donated 3000 race tickets to young orphans. The cost to the 81-year-old was well over R12m.
Before the race there had been fears it would be a commercial disaster: not only had the Japanese economy been hard hit by the global crisis, but the earthquake forced the likes of Honda and Toyota to cut back production due to dwindling sales after the earthquake, plus a lack of components due to the factories being destroyed. Other industries were similarly hit, so all in things did not look too bright.
Yet the place was virtually sold out, which was a marvellous sight. The sun shone brightly throughout race weekend, and with the Big Wheel spinning non-stop above the pits the atmosphere was more carnival than race car. The merchandising area literally heaved with punters, while every time a driver walked about the pit lane massive cheers erupted from the stands across the main straight.
Autograph hunters waited for hours at paddock turnstiles for glimpses of their favourite drivers, while virtually every fan bore allegiance to a team or driver, via shirt, cap, jacket or any combination of the three. Japan has always had F1 fever, but it seems the country caught a double dose this year.
But, if the weather played ball – the rain of the past two years were conspicuous by its absence – the drivers delivered a real humdinger of a race. From the opening lap it was clear Sebastian Vettel was on a mission to take his second consecutive title in style – thereby becoming the youngest double champion in history – with the rest equally determined to make life hard for him.
In the end two managed just that, with Jenson Button’s McLaren and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso heading Seb’s Red Bull across the line, while behind him Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa tripped over each other (again) after the former stated he had not seen the bright scarlet red car (again). Michael Schumacher even led for four laps, if only because all about him had pitted.
However, in the end Seb won his championship, doing it at the greatest current circuit of all. Everybody was happy: the fans after a magnificent race, Jenson after his third win of the season, Fernando with his podium, Seb with the title, Bernie with the levels of adoration and the fact that he presided over a packed grand prix after playing to empty houses across the globe this year, and Lewis that the stewards did not penalise him. In fact, it was a pity Bernie bailed and did not make the trip…
This weekend F1 shone a light in many dark corners, and the sport is all the better for it. There must be a moral in there, somewhere.