Why Fuji Wasn't Just a Washout

At 2.30am last Sunday my alarm went off. I’d changed it the night before so that it would play the most annoying noise in my phone’s repertoire, reasoning that I’d be more likely to get up at this stupid hour if I was a bit grumpy. As it turns out I needn’t have done that because I woke up excited as a kid at christmas, leapt out of bed and put Motors on the telly and Radio Le Mans on the headphones; Round 6 of the World Endurance Championship was just half an hour away.

Fuji Gainer Umbrella

Many of you will know that I tweet all WEC races live on @speedchillsview. I diligently fired up Tweetdeck, hugged my cup of tea close and got stuck into the conversation that always surrounds races of this calibre. Everyone else was excited too; the usual rabble deep in discussion about the not-very-knife-edge championship and the raindance we’d all been doing for a Toyota resurgence at this late stage.

Meanwhile, in Japan it was absolutely p***ing it down. Talk was of wet weather strategy, starting behind the safety car and the two GTEs that had already come a cropper on their way round to the grid. It’s not one of our greatest traits as human beings, but racing fans often hanker after horrendous conditions that add a bit of spice to proceedings, and most of us were quietly looking forward to seeing just how successful the superstars would be when toeing the line between pace and the tyre wall.

The race started behind the safety car, a full grid snaking its way along the asphalt and around the newly forming Japanese Lake District. Some of the GTE Am teams decided to be a bit clever and put their gentleman drivers in the car for these slow laps, which would’ve been a great idea if the race wasn’t subsequently red flagged. Then the long wait began.

They just kind of sat there, really. All these championship hopefuls just chilling out on the grid, wondering when the rain would sod off, while we were caught in this horrible purgatory somewhere between sleep and an endurance race. There was a brief excitement scare a couple of hours later when the same grid sailed around the same eight wet laps, but only a very blinkered optimist would’ve believed we’d see a race at any point. It was cancelled after 4 ½ hours of not racing, with Toyota taking the ‘win’.

I was gutted; my Christmas kid had had his presents set on fire in front of his face. Whenever I turn on the WEC, I get 6 hours of utter escapism where all that matters is what’s happening on track and who I can share it with around the world. I didn’t get that. I felt cheated.

And yet it was one of my favourite races of the year, and to understand why let’s hop in my time machine and go back a couple of years to the 2009 Malaysian F1 Grand Prix. Mark Webber, as head of the Formula 1 Drivers’ Association, walks down the pit straight while consulting the various men on the grid. They’re wondering whether to refuse to carry on if Charlie Whiting waves the green flag, it’s all very combative, us and them, trade union vs. Ecclestone’s fatcats.

Fuji Wet Car Closeup

Now fast forward back to Fuji last week. I know the organisers had more leeway with a race that’s three times as long, but there was no raging argument to be found anywhere on the river Fuji Speedway. Apart from a couple of tweets from drivers (I remember Jamie Campbell-Walter in particular barking his view out, and rightly so) and some bizarre post-race PR strangeness from Porsche (hat-tip to Marcel ten Caat from www.dailysportscar.com) the conversation was always good natured, discursive and most of all, fun.

Back on track, the teams were displaying a good natured acceptance of the situation. First to blink were the Porsche lads with their burger box boat, then the Krohn guys decided to pass the time with a quick game of their fake American kind of football. Gold prize, however (and not because we’re at all biased) goes to Aston Martin with their leftfield entry which we’ve named ‘Gulf-sponsored cardboard racing fish’. It was the prettiest fuelling gantry you’ll ever see.

The drivers were doing their bit to gee up the crowd, too. Bruno Senna played a weird kind of Simon says with some Toyota fans, a sort of ‘I smile and wave, you go mental’ effort. Kazuki Nakajima made regular appearances on the pit wall, and the Lotus boys provided some entertainment with their hurried bailing of the picturesque new Lake Lotus which had formed either side of the T128’s shark fin.

The Japanese fans were bloody heroes. They sat there resolutely, twiddling their thumbs and cooking their noodles in makeshift tents, for hour after hour. After the race they were compensated with a spur of the moment autograph session, a great decision from the organisers and something you feel wouldn’t happen elsewhere. For us at home though, all we had was the coverage and the conversation.

So thank the Lord Eduardo Freitas for a) you lot and b) Radio Le Mans. Even though there was absolutely nothing to talk about, we managed to talk about everything. Hindhaugh and the team were on superb form, as always, but this time with the added difficulty of having to conjure their usual infectious excitement out of thin air. I had a few brilliant conversations with some of you as well, so thank you for keeping me awake.

It all made me realise what a special thing the FIA and ACO have with the WEC. We all get brought together for 6 hours every month or so, and during that time we have a laugh and enjoy the racing. It’s a completely different atmosphere to the commerciality and politics that hamstring the ‘top’ form of motor racing, because it always feels like a load of blokes (and ladies, an RT from Bruno Senna filled my timeline with attractive brazilians) sitting around in the pub having a good old natter about sport.

And actually, just generally thank the Lord Eduardo Freitas. Overlooking some delayed penalty-giving in Spa, he and his team have been spot on for the entire season. In comparison, F1 has a dearth of interest most of the time and the organisers feel that controversy equals audience equals money, so it’s such a relief to have things settled on track and stewards’ decisions taking the invisible back seat for once.

If in a couple of weeks I switch on the TV only to find a Chinese deluge happening, I’ll still be disappointed. You’ll not catch me praying for rain to spice up a race ever again. But it’s nice to know that even if there’s nothing going on, you can still rely on the fans for entertainment, some consolation and a bit of banter to while away the hours.