Konichi-wa race fans. Spy here, reporting from the Land of the Rising Sun, or looming typhoon!
After the heat of summer it’s something of a reality check to do the early morning departure for the airport and see your breath condensing in the cool air – or at least it would be if it wasn’t still dark outside. Having done four races in five weeks, the mid-season break seems a long time ago now and – Spy’s calling it – we’re definitely at the point of counting down the weeks to the end of the season.
On the upside, this phase of the season has some of the coolest races, and the best of the best is Japan. Everyone looks forward to Suzuka. It’s not the easiest circuit to get to, and it’s not the simplest pitlane in which to work – but the atmosphere’s fabulous, the fans are incredibly generous and you’ll never see a Formula One car looking better than it does hammering through the Esses. Even cantankerous misanthropes like Spy remember why they really enjoy Formula One – which is actually quite annoying.
Of course, there’s a not unreasonable chance we’ll spend the weekend cowering in the garage. Super-Typhoon Hagibis is set to menace the island of Honshū over the weekend, so we’re breaking out the sort of kit that’s usually seen on Deadliest Catch. Some circuits have excellent drainage such that a session will run whatever the weather. Suzuka isn’t one of them: when it rains it gets downright biblical. The pitlane turns into a river and, for days at a time, the only action anyone sees are the paper boats we’ll be sailing down towards other garages.
Occasionally this happens at the Japanese Grand Prix. Spy remembers Sunday morning qualifying at Suzuka in 2010. That’s a cruel and unusual punishment for a creature of habit – but not nearly so bizarre as Saturday afternoon not-qualifying.
A qualifying delay is just about the weirdest thing that can happen in a garage – because it’s the only time you will ever see people with absolutely nothing to do. Race control likes to string out the drama: normal people would look at the track, look at the sky and tell everyone to come back tomorrow and try again, but race control likes to keep us hanging, and so, even when mackerel trawlers are throwing out nets on the start-finish straight, they’ll only issue a 20 minute delay, and renew that every 15 minutes all afternoon – they’re like the world’s most passive-aggressive snooze button.
Faced with that, there’s very little for a garage crew to do. The devil makes work for idle hands – but when the no.1 mechanic is happy that the car is ready, no-one’s going to touch it, whatever the devil suggests. Everyone will tidy their kit, clean anything that isn’t already sparkling and then… nothing, because there’s only so many different ways to sort your big box of tank tape.* By the third hold, everyone’s either sipping a cup of tea, looking at their phone or playing brake-fan football. Team managers might ask a garage tech to dry the pitbox – but only if they’re new and it's funny.
You’d think it would be nice to sit back and take a break – but actually it’s just weird and nobody likes it. Of course, typhoons are as capricious as an F1 steering committee, so this one could miss entirely– but we’ve been dodging the showers this year and nature loves balance.
If we do get a dry weekend (and here’s hoping) we’re not in bad shape. While we haven’t been quite on it over the last few races, it’s obvious the car’s pretty close. At this stage of the year the development focus is obviously on 2020 – but we’ve got a lot of optimism that the RB15 has more trophies in it.
*Colour; thickness, tensile strength, most likely to hold a front valance in place without the hire car depot noticing.