Mika Hakkinen, McLaren MP4-13, classic F1 parade, Szuka, 2018

Paddock Diary: Japanese Grand Prix day three

2018 Japanese Grand Prix

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What did Mika Hakkinen make of being reunited with the car he won his first world championship in? And is Fernando Alonso’s McLaren more competitive than a “GP2 car” this weekend? Here’s the Paddock Diary.

8am

With FP3 starting at midday and no scheduled appointments before lunch, I catch up on world happenings via my e-news subscriptions before having a few coffees in the hotel lobby before setting of for Nagoya Station in plenty of time to catch the 10:01 Express to Shiroko.

11am

The connecting shuttle gets me to the paddock gates at 11:15 – perfect timing. En route I note the local shopping mall has changed its name: previously known as F1 Mart in obvious deference to the annual sporting event held a few miles up the road, it is now the ‘F* Mart’.

I had heard Liberty is enforcing the use of its F1 trademark even more stringently than did Bernie Ecclestone – and wonder whether this a further example of their influence.

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1pm

After the final practice session I walk the paddock in search of news. One of the snippets I pick up is that Sochi’s TV ratings recorded a 23% fall over last year. While Liberty downplays the drop with a “last year the race was early in the season; this year it’s near the end” comment, it’s clear something is awry, and I wonder whether last night’s impromptu team boss meeting wasn’t called as a direct result of the slump.

1:30pm

I’ve arranged to meet with Guenther Steiner of Haas to discuss his team’s plans, particularly post-2021 – when F1’s listed parts model is due to change, as outlined here – and he kindly suggested doing so over lunch. His team uses the same catering company as Ferrari, which means the pasta will be excellent – and it is.

For dessert we share a bunch of kyoho grapes, which the team received as a gift from a supplier. We agree they are (by far) the most delicious grapes we’ve ever tasted, and so they should: they’re cultivated under strictly controlled conditions, with bunches restricted to around 30 (plum-sized) grapes to ensure the sugar content is not diluted. More about the fruit here: https://favy-jp.com/topics/1856

Later, while at Toro Rosso, I grab a Kit Kat unlike any other I know: wrapped in green foil, this crunchy, green tea-flavoured chocolate bar is, you’ve guessed it, green in colour. It turns out to be less slightly sweet than its western equivalent, with a slight tang.

4pm

Interview time: First up are the Toro Rosso twins, and it’s a real pleasure to observe the unbridled joy in the team’s hospitality after Brendon Harley and Pierre Gasly posted sixth- and seventh-fastest respectively. The relief in the Kiwi’s face is clear to see – he knows his future depends on putting in sterling drivers, and this performance was just what the Doctor (Marko) ordered.

Thereafter I chat to Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost, who is understandably over the moon with the team’s performamce, particularly the engine’s contribution. We’re joined by a Japanese journalist I’ve worked with before, who last year was sceptical when the team announced its switch to Honda, and it’s clear Tost has a long memory – he stops just short of demanding an apology…

From there I head for McLaren and their Meet the Team session. Unfortunately the timing clashes with a demonstration of F1 historic cars, with V10 Ferraris mixing it with Benetton’s and McLarens. Star of the show is Mika Hakkinen, driving a McLaren-Mercedes MP4/13 – which obviously bucked F1’s superstitions by delivering the 1998 driver and constructor championships for the Finn and team respectively.

Although I can’t see the cars running, I sure hear their wailing engines as I hang about outside waiting for the session to start. I remark how wonderful they sound, and, rather surprisingly, a passing marketing man counters, “They should ban [historic F1 cars] at grand prix, and restrict them to Goodwood and historic events.”

Why so?

“It’s impossible to impress sponsors with our current cars when they hear those…”

As luck has it Mika passes by, so ask about the demonstration run, whether he enjoyed it and what chance of seeing him in historic racing.

With his trademark twinkle he says, “This was a very unusual situation to even get this car. It belongs to the (Mercedes) museum and getting the engine to run is not just changing the oil.”

“You have to remember [that] when you’re driving a car that is 20 years old and you’re still heading 300 km/h… I’m 50 and have five children. But you never know [whether I’ll do some more historic stuff]…”

I ask his take on current F1. In typical Mika fashion his words are measured: “I don’t think I’m the right person to ask, because you’re asking [me] as a racing driver; I would like to comment about it feels and how the balance is.

“But what I have been listening and discussing with some drivers, you know, the tyres are very fragile and they have to save some fuel in the race, so there are some challenging elements and the drivers are not able to push at 110 (per cent). But the competition is good, it’s definitely getting exciting…”

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4:30pm

Fernando Alonso, McLaren, Suzuka, 2018I have fun with Fernando Alonso at McLaren’s Meet The Team press conference. In 2015 he informed the world via radio that McLaren-Honda’s performance was “embarrassing” through “having less power than a GP2 car”. Today he fared worse despite McLaren’s switch to Renault power – with Honda powering both Toro Rossos into the top ten – so can’t resist a dig; “Fernando, given your lack of performance, do you have less power than a GP2 car?”

To his credit he explains that on top speed they aren’t far down on the rest, suggesting McLaren’s chassis is even worse than suspected, the team’s unfathomable tyre compound selection notwithstanding…

From there I head for Williams and chats with the two drivers, plus technical director Paddy Lowe, who is always good value.

I’m often asked why I seemingly choose the midfield for interviews. The reason is simple: It is impossible to cover all ten teams and 20 drivers in a single afternoon, so a few of us divide up the schedule.

The front-runners seldom give media sessions on Saturdays as they’re usually in the FIA presser and/or their comments widely covered on TV, so there is little sense in repetition. That leaves eight teams, which I narrow down to three or four, depending on schedule.

7:35pm

Shuttle to Shiroko, in time for the 7:56pm Ltd Express, which hits Nagoya at 8:45. After my filling lunch at Haas all I need is a ham and egg sandwich, which is taken in the room.

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2018 Japanese Grand Prix

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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20 comments on “Paddock Diary: Japanese Grand Prix day three”

  1. I had heard Liberty is enforcing the use of its F1 trademark even more stringently than did Bernie Ecclestone – and wonder whether this a further example of their influence.

    I never thought of it earlier, but was that also part of the motivation for a certain website to rename itself – either proactively or reactively?

  2. One of the snippets I pick up is that Sochi’s TV ratings recorded a 23% fall over last year. While Liberty downplays the drop with a “last year the race was early in the season; this year it’s near the end” comment, it’s clear something is awry

    Liberty’s excuse rings hollow – we had a title battle still on when F1 arrived at Sochi, so if anything TV viewership should have been higher.

  3. I had heard Liberty is enforcing the use of its F1 trademark even more stringently than did Bernie Ecclestone – and wonder whether this a further example of their influence.

    Great timing, @keithcollantine !

  4. a passing marketing man counters, “They should ban [historic F1 cars] at grand prix, and restrict them to Goodwood and historic events.”

    Welcome to the fun house that is the F1 circus! maybe banning that man is a better option!!

    1. Thinking about it, maybe he doesn’t want the current F1 cars to be compared hand in hand with the old machines we used to have, which in my view and I’m sure a lot of people think the same, were much, MUCH more exciting.

      1. @fer-no65 – if you look below the picture, you’ll see that’s exactly his concern.

        The marketing guy is not being a stick in the mud, he finds it hard to sell sponsors on the current cars after one of those V10s has gone howling past.

        1. @phylyp lol, i missed it, I guess I just assumed it was the caption on the picture.

          1. @fer-no65 – an understandable mistake – the photo broke the flow of the narrative.

  5. I’m often asked why I seemingly choose the midfield for interviews. The reason is simple: It is impossible to cover all ten teams and 20 drivers in a single afternoon, so a few of us divide up the schedule.

    The front-runners seldom give media sessions on Saturdays as they’re usually in the FIA presser and/or their comments widely covered on TV, so there is little sense in repetition. That leaves eight teams, which I narrow down to three or four, depending on schedule.

    Thanks for your answer, @dieterrencken!

  6. Gotta love it when nameless marketing guy has a better grasp on one of the biggest problems in the sport than the sport itself does.

  7. “Fernando, given your lack of performance, do you have less power than a GP2 car?” – LOL. I wonder what his reply was.

  8. Five kids ?? Mika’s been busy !!

  9. Grapes = Yeuk. Big grapes = YEUK,
    and the only good Kit-Kat is the Dark Chocolate one.

    other than that a top read as usual ;)

    1. Why not have them both 🙂? @nullapax Kyoho Grape Kit Kat!

      The Japanese have the most hilarious flavours of Kit Kat.

      1. I’m game to try any new flavours. Grape sounds worth a shot for sure :-)

  10. “I had heard Liberty is enforcing the use of its F1 trademark even more stringently than did Bernie Ecclestone – and wonder whether this a further example of their influence.”
    Let us hope they do not get as obsessive and paranoid as the IOC (Olympics committee) Who forced the owner of the Olympic cafe in the east end of London (which had been there for many years) to change it’s name or suffer the weight of instant international lawyers. He merely took the “O” off the sign outside! The shopping mall has reacted in a similar way.
    It could have been worse, back when I worked for a certain Japanese audio company we were presenting a new top of range car audio component system which had come straight from Japan without me seeing it first. The head unit had a multifunction display which could be changed from say, radio tuner to graphic equaliser to tape or CD readout. In the Japanese way of shortening words, the button was labelled FU. This did not go down well at Crewe. It took some time to get them to change it.

  11. It would be a fun engineering exercise to put this years McLaren front wing on that old MP4/13 and run it a little bit, first in the wind tunnel, then in a strait line, then on the track. That would be something to see. Of course, it will never happen, but I’ll bet some smart CFD guy could do it.

  12. Oh my…that 20 year old McLaren looks so much better than the current model. Probably just almost as fast too. At least it looks faster. Definitely sounds much faster. ;-)

  13. Given the fantastic food there is to eat in Japan this paddock diary makes depressing reading (excluding the grapes). At the least try the beef skewers (or beef lollipops as my wife called them) which are sold all around the circuit – to die for.

  14. beef lollipops

    @wombat1m – now that is truly a better name than the actual one!

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