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Typhoon Thirteen

October 12, 2004 21:25 IST

At times like the days leading up to the Japanese Grand Prix, one must spare a thought for poor Mr. Bernard Ecclestone, one of the richest men in England. It is admittedly dashed hard to drum up off-track interest in a devastatingly one-sided year, with both titles decided eons ago, and no real gossip to speak of.

So the FIA steps in to shake the proverbial collie, dreadfully-delaying the JensonGate verdict till October 15, and then, after no one really mourned the demise of Jaguar racing, beginning talks about another circuit.

Ah, but all so predictable, Bernie. The British Grand Prix?

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You can threaten a Hungary or an Austria, and they'll capitulate gladly, or some obscure contingent of nostalgic racers will sob onto their unendorsing sports-blazers about the glory of the Sarsaparilla Curve or some such piece of bendy tarmac. In most cases, you big bully, you, they'll back down and let you hawk. Mild Seven cartons from around your neck. But these boys, you need them, Mr. President. The sport is undeniably played largely in and around Limey-land, even if most of the new blokes aren't theirs. Silverstone will stay.

The Saturday weather would have lifted Bernie's spirits considerably, though. A typhoon ravaged Suzuka would be quite the spectacle, and that Colombian buffoon, God bless his distinctly uncerebral head, was already dropping palatable sound bytes, saying that he'd rather qualify in the finishing positions from Shanghai than drive in the rain, seeing he finished 5th to the German's 12th. Tsk!

Not that it was actually going to happen, but stupid as they may well seem, more column centimeters never hurt anybody. Anyway, the champion had already said he was ready to qualify in the downpour, and evidenced that in the two practice sessions on Friday, the only driver to work awesomely despite the rain.

Qualifying moved to Sunday, and not much changed as he retook pole in his quest to oust Senna from the top of any list whatsoever. Surprising, though, was little brother piping up with a piquant me-too and joining him on the front row in his penultimate Williams drive. The disappointingly hurricane-free race began with the two brothers pulling off into the distance, and Jenson Button overtaking Takuma Sato, in a moment that would have David Richards gasping for breath and gulping cava by the bucketful: the prospect was a team-threatening nightmare – two BAR Hondas, graveled, meshed into each other uselessly at Honda's home race and home track, with one of them being the very upset native Sato.

Much applause to Jenson for averting that, and squeezing past his popular teammate with rather visible style. As the Brit followed along in the wake of the sibling formation ahead, he must have been thinking of the car that just allowed him to push that hard right from the get-go, that terrifyingly powerful, mysteriously high spec engine on the Honda, and musing about leaving it behind. Seeing the Williams cemented firmly ahead of him would have assuaged some of those doubts, but it was on a far lighter fuel load than the Ferrari. Sigh!

Either way, Jenson, a coin currently twirling in mid-air, will fall only on Saturday. After the manner in which he's conducted himself, however, one feels it might fall flat – and we might just be witnessing his finest season.

A what-if Sunday for several faces across the paddock, the Japanese countryside inspired them to philosophise and catch up on long-neglected ruminations, at least in the gaps between the beeps of digital music players and the yelps of robot dogs. One can literally picture Flavio Briatore's masculine jaw drop considerably at seeing his recently dismissed employee, Jarno Trulli fly into a sixth position with a Toyota in qualifying.

It had been a questionable decision, firing the man who won Monaco, and gathered more points than his favourite Spaniard. Fernando Alonso hung on in the race, not doing anything stupid – but where was all last-year's panache?

And his other hire, the vintage world champion, was fun to watch, but stuck in back-of-the-grid traffic. Hmm.

David Coulthard continued on his playstationic ways, his front right suspension giving way after a collision with Rubens Barrichello. To be fair, this time the Brazilian was reportedly – we are back to word-of-mouth days since those fascinating people at Japanese TV could not capture the occasion on video – the hurried one, trying to catch up with David unawares and 'surprise' him as he leapfrogged the McLaren. The Scot, as is his regulation behaviour in such look-there's-a-flying-Ferrari-behind-you situations, did not have time to react, and they both limped paddockways, Rubens being hurriedly signaled away by frantic men in red overalls aware of the world champion pitting right behind. Perhaps this is David's way of denying the goodbye wave, trying to injure in an attempt for a drive next season.

Speaking of farewell, at the moment of reading this, Jaguar Racing has probably been posted up on eBay. For buyers with enough spare change in their ample trouser pockets, I feel obliged to warn that it's not the smartest of decisions, even though the green cars look rather nifty. The company has been complacent over the last couple of years, proving only Mark Webber with a chance to showcase his mettle, allowing him to make the big-league switch to Williams. Well-marketed and sponsor-friendly, but merely a James Bond logo isn't enough to make the revs fly. If really in the mood to shop, I'd recommend Jordan. If all else fails, Eddie plays a helluva good skiffle.

The race ended stereotypically for the 2004 season, with the red car missing from the top step of the podium for an unthinkable three successive races restoring the status quo in inimitably grand style: starting the race in pole, flying ahead, and exiting the pits all three times only to rejoin still in first place, with a twenty second lead, to boot. There was some eyebrow-raising when Schumacher had vowed to 'win Suzuka' this year after Shanghai, but it seems he's actually earned the right to announce victories in advance.

The Japanese, it is said, while driving their Toyotas and Hondas, aspire toward the pinnacle, a Ferrari. Michael just made them smile.

Raja Sen