AUTOSPORT's Jonathan Noble brings you his regular column of life inside the paddock. This week: Suzuka.
After two years in Fuji, Formula 1 returned to Suzuka with a mixed bag of feelings. On the plus side, the work that had taken place over the past few months to revamp the facilities resulted in a totally transformed feeling to the place.
Gone were the cramped pit garages and offices, the teams' crates of equipment spilling out onto the paddock and a struggle to get through the obstacle course if you happened to want to speak to someone at McLaren's garage one minute and one of the smaller teams the next.
Now there were lush open asphalt areas, team offices, and even a few table and chairs situated outside. It transformed the feel of the place, and made the whole weekend as social as some of the best races like Melbourne and Montreal.
In fact, the layout proved quite neat for Kimi Raikkonen who, several times over the weekend, in the wake of his Ferrari contract being terminated, chose to use McLaren's garage to cut through to the pitlane – rather than going next door and using his own! While the revamp was welcomed by everyone – including Bernie Ecclestone – it was not all totally positive....
• On the downside, the revamp, which included the main grandstands and access to the paddock, meant that one of the traditions of the weekend was erased forever.
Race organizers always put on buses for the media and teams from various towns near the track (although still have not yet met anyone who has taken the 5am one!), and in years gone by these shuttles would only be able to get as far as the main entrance of the Suzuka Circuit Hotel.
That meant a 20-minute walk through the amusement park that falls within the grounds of the venue to get to the track – but it was always great following the fans pouring into the circuit in the morning, and feeling the excitement build as you neared the old main grandstand and walked down under the track.
Now, with improved access, the buses were able to get all the way to the paddock entrance on the inside. There was no walk through the amusement park – but each morning there was at least a glimpse of the enthusiastic Japanese fans as they queued up on the road outside the track to catch a glimpse, a wave and a photograph of anyone working in F1 – be it drivers, team people or even journalists!
It was a shame, too, that the business of the weekend meant there was no time to go search out the delights of the F1 merchandise and marketing stands, either – because I heard there was a brilliant Ayrton Senna display. It included his 1990 car, plus a signed Ayrton Senna tire from October 1993. Now that is something special!
• Formula 1 has always embraced Japan. Although a minority who follow the circus detest the place and the lack of home comforts, most adore experiencing something totally different. And for what is essentially a well disciplined, totally under control place, Japan can throw some totally crazy and random things at you.
An early evening walk through Tokyo on the Tuesday before the race to find the nearest decent restaurant, saw a colleague and I, after looking at the menu, walk into what we thought looked a normal Italian restaurant. Imagine our surprise, then, when we were greeted by walls covered in racing car pictures, signed helmets from Takuma Sato and Jarno Trulli, and even a signed Ferrari surfboard on the wall.
It turned out the restaurant is the brainchild of a former staff member at Bridgestone, who persuaded Ferrari's chef to take part-ownership of the venue. And such is the quality of the food that, with Bridgestone's Tokyo headquarters just around the corner, more often than not the tire company's chief executives choose to eat lunch there – and bring along the steady stream of memorabilia that they can get hold of.
• When Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone put together the 2009 calendar it probably seemed quite a good idea to put Singapore and Japan back-to-back.
It meant there would be no need to ship equipment back to Europe after the night race and then back out to Suzuka – and also staff could do the two races as one Asian trip. But what seemed like a good idea in January seemed far from great when the F1 paddock rolled into Suzuka on Wednesday and Thursday.
All you could see were dark bags under everyone's eyes – and endless complaints about how hard it had been to adjust from the effective night shift in Singapore to proper Japanese time in the space of a few days. It was like a condensed version of jet lag!
The grind of the season, allied to the quick shift in body clocks, inevitably caught a few people out whose bodies swiftly decided that they had had enough. Fevers and illness set in – and it was poor Toyota that suffered the worst.
First Jarno Trulli went down with some bug, so was forced to stay in Singapore until the Wednesday - when he had to make the trek across to Japan. It meant he missed Toyota's all-important media build-up to the weekend. Then, Timo Glock – having been on a high from his second placed finish in Singapore – was struck down with some mystery bug on the Thursday night, and could not take part in track action on Friday.
That illness allowed reserve driver Kamui Kobayashi the chance to drive a Toyota on home soil – and prompted a few skeptical members of the press to wonder whether there was something more to seeing the Japanese in the car, with much focus on Toyota's future at the moment.
In Friday's media conference, Toyota F1 president John Howett was not too impressed at the conspiracy theories. German journalist Ralf Bach asked: "What is the illness of Timo. Is it Kobayashi fever?"
Howett swiftly responded: "I just won't answer. It is a stupid question and it doesn't deserve an answer."
By Saturday night, Glock probably wished he had stayed in bed for the whole weekend....