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Formula One soap opera comes to Japan

By Fred Varcoe

Japan’s Formula 1 Grand Prix seems to be getting earlier and earlier. Thirty years ago, it was the final race of the calendar and it has played host to a number of exciting climaxes to the F1 season. Not anymore. This year’s Japan Grand Prix will take place on April 7 at the Suzuka Circuit in Mie Prefecture.

While it may not determine this year’s champion, the Japanese Grand Prix comes at an interesting time for the world’s most extravagant sport. The first two (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) and final two (Qatar and Abu Dhabi) races now take place in the Middle East and there are three races in the United States (Miami, Austin, Las Vegas), as well as Grand Prix in Canada and Mexico, giving North America five races. There are nine straight in Europe from May to September.

It’s not surprising that Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is still the No. 1 driver in the sport with the No. 1 car, but Red Bull could not have had a worse start to the season off the track, leading some to speculate that Verstappen could dump the team or the team could dump its leader Christian Horner, who has been accused of sending inappropriate messages to a female member of the team. Curiously, the accuser has been suspended from her job rather than the person accused, leaving Horner – husband of Spice Girl Geri Halliwell – in charge, for now. Red Bull have been accused of whitewashing Horner’s behavior and potential problems remain for the team boss.

Is Red Bull falling apart? Well the latest news is not good for Verstappen as the team’s Chief Mechanic Lee Stevenson has quit. Stevenson has been with Verstappen for all of his 56 grand prix wins and three world championships to date, but has suddenly decided to jump ship, a somewhat curious move with the team riding so high.

Verstappen ally and Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko was also dragged into the Horner controversy and his position was under threat for a while. Max hinted that if Marko went, he would go, too. Then, suddenly, all the accusations seemed to dissolve away. Horner was OK and seen walking with his wife, Marko remained on board despite some vicious words from Jos Verstappen, Max’s dad, and the team finished 1-2 in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix (although Max had a rare retirement in the last Grand Prix in Australia).

Jos Verstappen was brutal in assessing Horner: “There is tension here while he remains in position” he said. “It will explode. He is playing the victim when he is is causing the problems.”

So, the rumors start. The Daily Express reported that Verstappen was being eyed by Mercedes to replace Lewis Hamilton, who is defecting to Ferrari next year, and even had talks with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. It’s possible that Japanese fans might be seeing Verstappen in a Red Bull car and Hamilton in a Mercedes for the last time.

F1 giant Hamilton is also not happy with the sport’s approach to scandals. Talking about the lawsuit filed by Susie Wolff, the wife of Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, over an alleged conflict of interest, the British star said: “Things that are happening behind closed doors, there is no transparency, there is clearly no accountability. How can you trust the sport and what is happening here if you don’t have that?”

If Verstappen was to jump ship – a distinct possibility – the big question then would be who will replace him. Japanese fans will be pleased to hear one name that is being mentioned more and more: Yuki Tsunoda. In fact, Tsunoda could join Verstappen even if he stays with Red Bull. “There's a lot at stake for Tsunoda,” Marko told Sky Germany.

Yuki Tsunoda, driver of RB, the team previously known as AlphaTauri, poses for a selfie with fans at the Albert Park circuit ahead of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, on March 21. Image: AP/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

The 23-year-old currently drives for Red Bull’s second team, initially labeled this year as Visa Cash App RB but sometimes called RB Formula One Team (it was formerly AlphaTauri and before that Toro Rosso). Tsunoda’s performances haven’t been electrifying – he has even referred to himself as a “lazy ba*tard” – but he has improved, prompting Marko to remark after the Australian Grand Prix, where Tsunoda finished seventh, “I think we have confirmed that Yuki is an absolutely mature driver.”

The jury’s still out on that confirmation as Tsunoda has had a number of sloppy crashes and is well known for his petulance and outlandish comments on his team radio, which became so bad his team hired a psychologist to try and calm him down. Tsunoda’s English is not great but he seems to be fluent in swear words, which prompted The New York Times to label him in a headline, “The Potty-Mouthed, Baby-Faced Japanese Racer.”

The therapy sessions didn’t work in the first race of the season when he was asked to let teammate Ricciardo pass him into 13th place. “Are you kidding me?” was Tsunoda’s response over the team radio. Tsunoda complied, but added: “Thanks guys, I appreciate it.” He then complained that Ricciardo was holding him up. “He’s not fast at all,” he moaned. Ricciardo later alluded to Tsunoda’s “immaturity” while Horner has suggested that Tsunoda might not be the right fit for the “senior” Red Bull team.

“Yuki's a very quick driver, we know that, but I think we want to feel the best pairing that we can in Red Bull Racing and sometimes you've got to look outside the pool as well," he was quoted as saying after the Australian Grand Prix.

The Japanese Grand Prix could be crucial for Tsunoda’s future and the youngster has big ambitions.

“My goal is to become the world champion. However, I have not reached the stage where I can aim for that yet. I want to become faster and stronger to get to that stage. I want to be a driver who is respected by everyone. I want keep pushing boundaries day after day. This is what motivates me.”

Suzuka could be make or break for the “potty-mouthed, baby-faced Japanese racer,” but whatever transpires, the F1 soap opera will continue to fascinate fans in Japan and beyond.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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At least the weather should hold for this weekend. Let the chips fall where they will.

Suzuka is great, but it's a pity that Fuji no longer serves to hold the J Grand Prix. They could even take the opportunity to improve access routes as part of their preparations for more quickly evacuating the population in the event of a Mt Fuji erution.

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Edit. erution = eruption.

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