x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Japan's F1 fans are a perfect model for fanatical dedication

Fans in Japan are expressive and artistic, but most of all they are passionate about Formula One.

Japanese fans where their hearts on their sleeves, and car parts on their heads, at Suzuka for the grand prix.
Japanese fans where their hearts on their sleeves, and car parts on their heads, at Suzuka for the grand prix.

From animation cafes dedicated to the likes of Hello Kitty and Charlie Brown, to entire shopping malls catering to eager enthusiasts of pachinko-pinball, few nations do fantasy and fanaticism quite like the Japanese.

This weekend in Suzuka, a small town 50km southwest of Nagoya and host venue of the country's annual Formula One grand prix, a series of new characters have become the focal point of the obsessive locals.

Racing drivers, such as Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher, teams including Red Bull Racing and Ferrari, and even Formula One's intimidating ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone, have found themselves transmogrified into cute, colourful and cuddly cartoons.

A stroll through Suzuka Circuit's merchandise village opens your eyes to all manner of manifestations: a group of seven fully grown men clad in Scuderia-red samurai outfits, complete with Brazilian flags painted on their cheeks; a pair of Japanese women dressed in French maid outfits; and a girl selling Button-branded bracelets and hand puppets of Ecclestone.

Puppets of several prominent paddock people are available, but none is more in demand than that of the sport's commercial rights holder - available to the customer for ¥3,500 (Dh167) apiece.

Ecclestone has said that he is donating all proceeds from sales of his puppet to a charity set up to aid victims of this year's earthquake and resultant tsunami. He also has paid for 3,000 three-day race passes and distributed them among those affected by the disasters.

Sebastian Vettel, who is hoping to secure his second successive world championship today in front of passionate fans and a packed grandstand, said: "There isn't much we can do, but if there is … then we are all ready to give something back to try and help. The special thing about Japan and the Japanese fans is that it's always different.

"Most of us like that a lot."

Different indeed. Yumi Kubota and Kazouyo Kubota, women from Nagoya and Kyoto, respectively, have been attending the Japanese Grand Prix for close to 10 years. This year they are wearing specially constructed headgear featuring sizeable models of Vettel's and teammate Mark Webber's cars.

"I don't honestly know how long they took to make, because we did it gradually when we had spare time from our jobs," said Kubota, lifting the visor on the miniature helmet to reveal a photo of a smiling Webber. "I've never been to any other race, so I can't say if we are more passionate than other countries, but I think it is nice to see so many people here enjoying Formula One."

On Thursday, the grandstands were thronged with spectators despite the only on-track action being that of the safety car and some low-key movement in the pits. One observer joked that it was in all likelihood a greater number of fans than attended this year's poorly promoted Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai.

"The people here are very passionate about Formula One," Vettel said. Even on Thursday, "the grandstands are sometimes full of people, and it's great to see the support we get".

Jerome d'Ambrosio, the Belgian driver with Virgin Racing, said that the turnout for this weekend's event has been phenomenal. The driver has seen his car mobbed on its way into the circuit each day.

"It's special," he said. "All the fans come out. They are passionate about Formula One, they are everywhere, very respectful, as well, and it's just a joy to be here. They are non-stop everywhere, saying 'Hi', greeting everyone and loving every single person in F1."

Honda, the Japanese automotive company who raced its own team in F1 from 1964-68 and 2006-08, built the Suzuka circuit as a test track in 1962. In the early 1990s, with Honda flourishing and supplying engines to championship-challenging teams such as McLaren and Williams, and the sport featuring a Japanese driver in the form of Satoru Nakajima, the story is told that more than three million people applied for the 120,000 tickets made available. The eventual allocation was decided by ballot.

Kamui Kobayashi, the only Japanese driver to take part in Sunday's race, has arranged for a girls' choir from the disaster-affected area to attend and sing the national anthem. He said that as soon as the country began rebuilding, fans were "waiting for Formula One".

Naoki Tokunaga, the deputy technical director at Renault, said that he arrived here earlier this week "with a little bit extra emotion after the tragedy" and that he is "happy the fans and the teams all got together again here in Suzuka for this great sporting event".

Kubota, the woman with the Red Bull model car on her head, said she had feared the race might not take place after witnessing the horrific scenes broadcast from the east of the country earlier this year.

"I doubted it, yes. How could I not after what we saw?" she said, adjusting her ornate headgear. "But it's here and it's great to see it here.

"Now we just wait for the race."