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Life in the Fast Rain: My First Japanese Grand Prix - The Kiinote

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 11/21/2014 Ron Kiino

Millie, the hospitable chaperone from Red Bull Infiniti's Formula 1 race team, led me on a journey from a paddock suite at Japan's Suzuka Circuit down into the pit garage -- a high-security, two-pass endeavor with multiple turnstiles that culminated in her handing me a snazzy pair of team headphones. Before I could hang them on my noggin, she passed along final instructions: "If the team tells one of the cars to box, please try not to react -- TV cameras are always watching, and we don't want to tip our strategy." Suddenly, I was a bit nervous. I probably should have been, anyway, given that I was now standing in the middle of a Formula 1 garage at the Japanese Grand Prix, with 20 men dressed like blue Stormtroopers shuffling around me. I started to wonder: What the heck does "box" mean? How did I get here?

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The answer to the latter: my wife, Diane. After applying in August 2013 for a prestigious Fulbright Scholar grant to teach at the University of Tokyo and Tsuda College, she received the news in March 2014: "I got it!" As for me, I got the opportunity to explore Japan's auto industry and car culture, eat Wagyu beef and fatty tuna, and attend such bucket-list events as the Japanese Grand Prix. Win-win.

Still not knowing what "box" meant, I decided to stand as still as a statue. Just listen, don't move. Dialogue between the race engineers and the drivers -- four-time world champ Sebastian Vettel, who the day prior announced he was leaving the team, and über-talented newcomer Daniel Ricciardo, whom team principal Christian Horner immediately anointed the new number 1 for next season -- seemed to occur every 10 to 20 seconds. They briefly discussed chassis balance, what the other drivers were up to, and, most important given the typhoon deluging Suzuka, the performance of the rain tires. Then came the answer. "All right, Daniel, box next lap. Box next lap." So obvious -- box = pit -- yet it had somehow eluded me. And in the fastest two seconds in auto racing, Ricciardo's RB10 race car got four new tires and a wing adjustment, and it was off.

In addition to a typhoon and the Vettel-to-Ferrari bombshell, the Suzuka weekend included other drama.

The Kiinote Japanese Grand Prix© Provided by MotorTrend The Kiinote Japanese Grand Prix Prior to Suzuka, I attended the U.S. Grand Prix at Indy three times. And just as before, I was amazed at the sport's mindboggling cost and complexity. For instance, Millie handed me an RB10 steering wheel and said the price was 30,000 Euro, or around $38,000 USD. That's a lot of dough for some carbon fiber, magnesium, an LCD screen, and a bunch of dials and buttons. But as the CPU of a multimillion-dollar race machine, it's worth every penny. She also described how Red Bull has five sets of garage/paddock gear -- the large containers used to house all the tools, parts, displays, you name it -- and that each set is on a shipment rotation to accommodate the tight dates between international venues. So one set might start in Australia and three races later be used in China and three races later in Canada, all while the other four sets are globetrotting to their various destinations. Imagine the shipping costs.

The race ended like it started, with Petronas Mercedes-Benz drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg occupying the top spots. Vettel managed third and Ricciardo fourth, thanks in part to Red Bull's strategy of trusting weather reports and setting up the cars for wet weather despite qualifying in dry -- thus, their less-than-stellar starting grid spots of ninth and sixth. In addition to a typhoon and the Vettel-to-Ferrari bombshell, the Suzuka weekend included other drama, most notably Jules Bianchi's horrific crash. As of November 20, Bianchi, who suffered a severe head injury, is no longer in an artificial coma and is breathing unaided. Never a dull moment in F1.

This September, when I'm watching the Japanese G.P. from back in the U.S., here's to Bianchi watching, too. Or even better, triumphantly crossing the finish line.

The 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes place November 22-23.

More from The Kiinote:

Battling rain and immense rooster tails of mist, drivers track cars in front via a rear-mounted flashing red light.© Provided by MotorTrend Battling rain and immense rooster tails of mist, drivers track cars in front via a rear-mounted flashing red light.

The Kiinote Japanese Grand Prix© Provided by MotorTrend The Kiinote Japanese Grand Prix
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