Formula 1 Expert & Columnist
Rachel's Diary: As different as night and day
Singapore, Suzuka, sumo, super fans...and lots of sushi! Sky Sports News HQ's Rachel Brookes on two very special races as F1 went East
Last Updated: 14/10/15 4:45pm
The Singapore Grand Prix is always a highlight on the race calendar.
Firstly, it looks spectacular. I remember watching it in the early years thinking how amazing it must be to be there and how the whole city seemed to come alive at night for the race. I couldn't wait to get there. Secondly, because we stay on European time, there is no jet lag to contend with! It also has the ability somehow to have what feels like 28 hours in a day.
Normally on a race weekend you are up very early, work a long day and get back just in time to head out for a late supper. You never get a full night's sleep but adrenaline carries you through. In Singapore, somehow you always get a full eight hours or so and never seem to be in a rush to get to work. You get up around midday local time and head over to the track for about 2pm. Once there you work until maybe 1-2am then head back to the hotel for your evening meal. You go to bed around 4 or 5am and still manage a full night's sleep.
As well as that there is always something going on in Singapore. We can walk to the track from our hotel, almost everyone can, and you can walk to most places you would want to go out to as well. That said, getting a taxi to anywhere can be very difficult.
The roads are closed from Thursday onwards and the taxi drivers are loathe to go to certain areas because the one-way systems put into place make getting about difficult. Another reason for loving Singapore is the atmosphere in the paddock. It makes the Friday night F1 Show great fun because the drivers are all still around and sitting outside their hospitality units chatting or eating. No one is in a rush to get back to their hotel.
Sunday night after the race is always a big one. Due to the late finish everyone has to stay overnight in order to fly on to their next destination the following day.
That means everyone has a chance to go out and many head for Amber Lounge. Usually we are all jumping on flights to various destinations as soon as the race is finished, so it is not often we all end in the same place during our down time. It always makes for a special night, and in the case of back-to-backs, it helps carry you through to the next week and doing it all over again.
This year Singapore preceded Japan, and as I had been in the office for the Singapore race I flew to Tokyo on the Sunday night, arriving late Monday night local time.
We had some filming planned for Tuesday so headed out to a local shrine to request permission to film. We were told we were ok to film provided we made a contribution to the upkeep of the shrine and we followed their religious protocols. Once Ted Kravitz arrived we walked up the steps of the shrine, bowed our heads twice, clapped twice, said a little prayer then bowed our heads once more.
One of the people that worked there told me that visitors used to bring gifts such as live horses as offerings, but these days they brought wooden plaques instead with wishes written on the back. I interviewed Ted about Mercedes' problems in Singapore and about Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel's success before filming my piece to camera at the "wish wall" where the plaques had been hung.
I then decided I wanted some lively Tokyo city shots for the piece too to show the contrast. Having done a bit of research, I chose the Shibuya crossing to film at. It is reported to be the busiest crossing in the world and photos cannot do it justice. There is a public address system at the crossing that plays a song every time it's safe to cross. Once a crossing has taken place it is just seconds before people are queuing again for the next one. If you want the best view you have to go to the second floor of the Starbucks there, but be prepared to wait, it's a very popular spot!
Having seen how great it looked on camera I decided I wanted to do my piece to camera there instead, in among the hundreds of people that cross every time. My cameraman went to the far side of the crossing and I was to walk towards him delivering my line and then stop in the middle as everyone criss-crossed the intersection around me. I looked towards the camera but it was pointing off to the right. I spoke to my cameraman on my mic but he didn't look back so I waited, and waited. Eventually he turned back towards me and I crossed the junction while delivering my line and we had our shot.
It was then he said 'I think Sebastian Vettel was just here'. He showed me what he had been filming when he panned his camera to the right and there, stood on a bollard was Sebastian Vettel filming the crossing himself on his phone. I carried on watching and as I did Seb turned towards the camera and saw it before turning back and carrying on filming.
He made no attempt to hide from it and once he had his pictures he got down off the bollard and walked with his bike and his trainer across the crossing and into one of the side streets, completely unnoticed by everyone else. When I had arrived at Tokyo airport on Monday night I walked into the arrivals hall to find Seb in the middle of a crowd of people who had somehow known he was going to be flying in.
The Japanese fans are amazing. It's not just flights, they even manage to find out which train the drivers are on and greet them at the stations. Even if plans change last minute, the 'super fans' never disappoint. So it was quite incredible that amongst the thousands of people milling around, no one had spotted the four-time world champion.
We went back to our hotel and edited our piece to send in. We send reports in over the internet and are subject to upload speeds of the hotel wifi. In this case it was very slow so we took the laptop down to the restaurant and had dinner while it slowly made its way 6000 miles to London. Eventually at half past eleven it finished, so no Tokyo night out for us! The next day we had been invited to a sumo stable to film the Red Bull boys watching a sumo training session. I have seen sumo on TV before but never in this environment.
They went through a long warm up routine and looked to us to be exhausted just by that! We grabbed a quick word with Daniel and Daniil about the race in Singapore, their hopes for the Japanese GP and the future of the team. They are in a difficult position. When they signed their contacts, they would never have expected to be facing such an uncertain future. If you don't perform on track, of course, there is always the risk you will have to move aside for some one else, but these two have been doing a great job with an under performing car. In fact it was at the Japanese Grand Prix last year on the Saturday morning that Daniil found out over a bowl of cornflakes that he had the Red Bull seat. With Dietrich Mateschitz threatening to pull the team out of the sport it's an uncertain time for two talented drivers.
Finally, I had a chat with one of the guys from the sumo stable to find out a but more about it and we filmed the drivers doing some of the warm up - not easy in tight jeans! I recorded a quick piece to camera and we left, back to our hotel. Our cameraman packed up all his kit while I wrote the script for the piece and we recorded a voice track in the room before heading for the station and the bullet train to Nagoya. It was the fastest one we could get on our route but it didn't feel very different to a fast service at home. I was expecting not to be able to make out anything in the landscape and everything to pass by in a blur. I'll have to ask Ted next time which one we should have got - he is our transport oracle!
We collected a hire car in Nagoya and made our way to our hotel in Kameyama, about 15 minutes south of Suzuka where the circuit is. Our hotel room in Tokyo had been very western with a large bed, plenty of space and a decent sized bathroom with bath and shower. In Kameyama it was very different. The bathrooms were very similar to cruise ship bathrooms with very short deep baths, not long enough to sit in, and tiny bathrooms. The room itself had a bed up against the wall and a small desk/table with a mirror.
There were no cupboards or drawers so we may have looked a little more dishevelled than at other races. Your suitcase fits in your room but if you want to open it you have to put it into the bed and if you want to sleep it goes back on the floor. All these little idiosyncrasies make the Japanese GP for me though. It is so different to almost all the other places we visit that you can't help but soak it all in. We even had a laundry room in the hotel where we can take our stuff down, put in 300 yen (£1.64) and it washes everything. Another 30 yen and you can use a dryer too.
One thing always stands out in Japan: the people. They are fantastic. Not just the fans at the track who are crazy in an adorable way, but everyone away from the track too. They can't do enough to help you, to make your stay as good as possible and to leave you with a wonderful impression of their country.
We all knew that returning to the Suzuka circuit was going to bring back painful memories, and none more so than for the Manor Marussia team. Arriving at the track on Thursday morning in the rain with dark grey skies overhead, just as it had been on Sunday last year, made those memories all the more vivid. A couple of people talked about it, but mostly everyone wanted to keep their thoughts private, and remember Jules in their own way, at the last place we saw him race.
On Thursday evening I decided to run the track. It will always remain to me one of the great privileges of our job. I am no runner, I get overtaken by pretty much everyone else on the track, but I really enjoy it. This time, only a few lights were on at the start and the end of the circuit and as a result it was very dark out on track. I reached turn seven and stopped for a minute. Plenty had been there before me and laid flowers and tributes. Where last year a tractor had been, now there were cranes. Lessons have been learned.
For the next part of my lap it was pitch black - a very strange way to exercise I think you'll agree. It is also hilly, very hilly. You never get a real sense of elevation on TV, but run it and you know exactly which corners will prove difficult for which teams. Every corner seems to be on an incline but once through Spoon, you can finally relax into it a bit. The final section is one of my favourites on the calendar. Once you come out of turn 15 it's pretty much downhill to the finish line, hopefully you have saved enough to sprint all the way.
Friday night in Suzuka is one of the best opportunities of the year to get one to one interviews with drivers live on Sky Sports News HQ. We can't be live until 1400 local each day but we can be live long into the evening so we take the opportunity to speak to as many people as possible. A lot of the drivers prefer to stay at the track late as they can eat with the team and the surroundings are more than likely more spacious than their hotel.
One of the lives involves the Sauber drivers. They chat before we go on air and Felipe tells me Marcus has a child's room in their hotel. "It has four beds but it's not a child's room!" Marcus replies. So I ask him if he sleeps in a different bed each night, to which he replies "the one I slept in last night has headlights and an oil pressure gauge on it!" "That's definitely a child's room," I reply as Felipe laughs, but then tells me his room has a small podium in it! They seem to get on pretty well but they tell me that wasn't always the case. When they use to race in junior formulae they were fierce rivals with more than one incident on track.
Once back in the hotel it was definitely laundry night! I enjoyed my track run so much I wanted to go again on Saturday so needed to wash my gym kit. I joined the group sat outside the laundry room on a line of chairs where we put the world to rights, and waited for the spin cycle to finish. Washing done and the boys were back from dinner so we had an impromptu game of poker in the hotel dining area. We used milk and coffee portions for chips!
Saturday morning brought sunshine, blue skies and lifted spirits. There had been so little running due to the previous two days rain that final practice was always going to be frenetic. Were Mercedes back? Could Ferrari match them around here? Was Red Bull's improvement just specific to Singapore? All questions answered by the end of Saturday's qualifying session. It looked like Nico had the edge over Lewis though. Speaking to them both after qualifying Lewis was in a surprisingly upbeat mood while Nico was quiet, his answers were short and you would never had guessed he had just got pole.
We ran the track again on Saturday night and I don't know if it's because the lights were on this time or if it was down to my sprint finish but I beat my Thursday time by one minute 45 seconds. As I crossed the line my cameraman was already there doing press ups to keep warm as he waited for me and my producer. On the way back to our hotel we stopped at our favourite sushi place.
You sit in booths and it's very much like a sushi restaurant here with the conveyor belt passing you by. You order your food from an iPad above the conveyor belt and when your food is nearby the screen flashes and plays a tone to let you know to collect it from the belt. It turned out to be our favourite restaurant. Not least because our hungry cameraman could order 15 dishes and still have change from £20!
The race reverted back to form: Mercedes one and two with Vettel in third. It looks like very little can stop Lewis Hamilton winning his third title or Mercedes their second constructors' crown, which could happen in Sochi next weekend if they outscore Ferrari by enough points.
I haven't been to Russia before - has anyone got a spare ushanka?
(Ed: If you don't know, that's a traditional Russian fur hat!)