x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Japanese F1 fans spellbound in Suzuka

Kamui Kobayashi could not have picked a better place for his first F1 podium. No country on the F1 calendar celebrates Formula One better than the Land of the Rising Sun ... They are a wholehearted, fantastically brilliant credit to the sport, explains Gary Meenaghan.

By the time Kamui Kobayashi got to the paddock to celebrate with his team plenty of fans had snuck into the area to join the celebration.
By the time Kamui Kobayashi got to the paddock to celebrate with his team plenty of fans had snuck into the area to join the celebration.

Often timid and always courteous, the Japanese are renowned worldwide for their manners and mild behaviour.

And yet the thousands of native fans who make the annual pilgrimage to Suzuka in rural central Japan are a different breed: Crazy, colourful, committed - and positively possessed by all things petrol.

Bruno Senna, the Williams driver whose late uncle Ayrton continues to be one of the most celebrated and exalted drivers in Japan, said it is almost as if the locals transform cultures when the grand prix circus swings into town.

"When there is an opportunity to take pictures or get an autograph, they all want to do it at the same time," he said.

"They even pull your clothes. All their sense of order disappears. It really seems like a different culture; they can't hide their excitement."

Such mannerisms are the opposite of what travellers have come to expect of Japanese, yet there is not a single driver in the F1 paddock who would even dream of complaining.

No country on the F1 calendar celebrates Formula One better than the Land of the Rising Sun.

The spectators bring with them homemade banners that recognise not only the usual suspects - Hamilton, Button, Alonso - but also honour the sport's unsung figures such as Timo Glock, Valtteri Bottas, Heikki Kovalainen.

Many posters visible this past weekend hailed drivers who no longer even race, including Jarno Trulli and Nick Heidfeld.

They are a wholehearted, fantastically brilliant credit to the sport.

Japan's neighbouring host countries, with the exception of Singapore, have at times struggled for attendances throughout their respective race weekends.

Of course, Japan hosted its first race in 1963 and thus has far greater history than the likes of China and South Korea, but those who travel to Suzuka do so not for the glamour or the spectacle of Sunday's showdown, but rather through their adoration and dedication to the sport.

On Thursday, long after the sun had slipped below the horizon, the grandstands remained thronged and yet no action at all had taken place on track.

The fans had arrived en masse simply to show their appreciation and watch the mechanics in the team garages prepare for the following day's first practice session.

It is to this backdrop that Kamui Kobayashi secured his first podium in the sport and provided a fitting climax to the weekend.

As the 26 year old determinedly defended his third place from Jenson Button in the closing laps, the main grandstand held its collective breath.

When Kobayashi passed the chequered flag to become the first Japanese driver in 22 years to claim a podium at Suzuka, the clapping intensified and when he was introduced at the post-race awards ceremony, the grandstands greeted him by singing "Kamui" in unison.

It was a spine-tingling moment that he nor those watching will forget any time soon.

By the time he returned to the paddock it had been infiltrated by local fans and he was literally chased to his garage as he and the team celebrated their memorable result.

As Kobayashi smiled with his trophy, the usually mild Japanese pushed and shoved and jostled for position.

Their passion had taken over.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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