Lost In Translation

Mark and Keith Sutton on the grid at the Japanese Grand Prix © Sutton Images
With all the rain on Saturday it was a bizarre weekend in Japan, but one that was certainly lifted by the fans enthusiasm for the sport. The word fanatical doesn’t really do them justice; they’re obsessive autograph hunters and simply can’t get enough of merchandise.

I was talking to one of the guys running a merchandise stall and he said it was his biggest weekend of the year in terms shifting products. A lot of the drivers have their own stands, including Takuma Sato who doesn’t even race in F1 anymore, and the whole area is heaving with people.

But it’s a very polite form of fanaticism and during the autograph signing they all waited patiently in the grandstands, just sitting there waving their flags. The organisers have everything strictly regimented so that the drivers are not swamped by fans and everybody abides by the rules. They tend to let 30 people into the signing area at a time for one driver, while at most other circuits it’s more of a free-for-all.


Sebastian Vettel with his slightly-altered “I love DC” t-shirt © Sutton Images

At one point a girl with an “I love DC” (David Coulthard) t-shirt came in and made a b-line for Sebastian Vettel. He gave her a bit of a funny look and joked “Who’s DC?” but he signed his name on the t-shirt anyway, and then above the “I love DC” he wrote “I’m not sure if…” It was great fun and the girl actually gave him at t-shirt, although I’m not sure he knew what to do with it.Vettel’s very good with the fans and has a great sense of humour. He will pretend to be very serious but the break into a smile and joke around. Later in the day a guy came up to him with a paddock pass around his neck and gave him this huge diamond-encrusted watch to sign. Seb sort of looked at it, looked at the guy and then put it straight on his wrist and started to walk off. He quickly came back, broke into a smile and signed the back of it and gave it back.

He then waited for the next person to come to the table, but this guy pulled out a Mercedes car key and asked him to sign it. Again, Seb looked at it, looked at the guy and said “Thank you very much” and walked off as if he’d just been given the car. Eventually he signed the key as well but this guy was clearly a bit of a nutter and just wouldn’t go away. It felt like he was a bit of a stalker, it felt a bit weird.

After that I left the autograph signing and went down to the pit straight where there were a load of box kart racers lined up on the grid. The idea was that the teams got involved and built gravity-powered go-karts to race down the pit straight from spare bits in the garage. In the end they didn’t really have the time and the field was entirely made up of local entrants and one from Bridgestone.


The box kart competition attracted a varied field © Sutton Images

But it was still great to watch and there was some crazy stuff there, including people dressed up as ninjas and cuddly dogs. It was a bizarre mixture of people and creations. The Bridgestone one was very clever and eventually won. It had front wheels from an F1 car on the back and rear tyres from a wind-tunnel model on the front.Of course Saturday was a complete washout, but I actually quite enjoyed it because everybody was a lot more relaxed as they knew nothing was going to happen. There was a river running down the middle of the pit lane and some of the teams made little boats to float on it. Sauber made a mini Titanic and Red Bull made one out of empty drinks cans.

Mercedes had a boat with a sail that got wet and destroyed itself, but the best one was just a piece of paper folded into a hammock shape. Eventually the marshals got involved and stuck the chequered flag out at the end of the pit lane for the winner.


There were some very keen Red Bull fans at Suzuka © Sutton Images

The best story to come out of Saturday that I heard of was about a guy who put a bet on Jaime Alguersuari to top the timesheets on Saturday morning and won £5,000. Because you can now bet after the session has started, he saw that Alguersuari was heading out more than most and took a gamble on him. I’ll have to remember that one for the future.Next up we’re going to Korea and we’ve just had a few aerial photos through showing the newly-laid track. I think I might have to take my boots with me as it still looks rather muddy in the infield and around the outside of the circuit. The final plans are for a huge complex of buildings in the middle with skyscrapers and a Monaco-style marina. That could definitely still happen, but it’s down to the success of the circuit and the event in the next few years to turn what are basically paddy fields into something that can attract serious money.


Mark Sutton is taking his boots to Korea © Korean Grand Prix

I like the look of the layout but the problem for the photographers is that there isn’t going to be much of a background for pictures this year. It’s very bland at the moment and there is no iconic structure that says “This is Korea” like you have in Bahrain, Shanghai and Singapore. I think there are plans for a pagoda style bridge over one of the straights, but that’ll be at a very high-speed part of the circuit and that’s not ideal for photos.Having said that, when we first went to places like Bahrain and Malaysia they were quite basic and now they have expanded with new buildings or put trees in that have grown. Those places are much more interesting now so we shouldn’t be too quick to judge Korea on its debut year. I’ll file a report in my next column and hopefully offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it’s really like.


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