Japanese Grand Prix wrap-up part 1: A circuit walk-around

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Welcome to part 1 of my Japanese Grand prix wrap-up! My goal is to give a sense of what it’s like to attend a grand prix in a country whose fans are renowned for their knowledge, enthusiasm and civility, and at a circuit that is a perennial favorite amongst drivers, journalists and fans alike. It’s a tribute to Suzuka and all the people who attend this great race.


Seriously atmospheric


I’ll start the same way I started the weekend – by walking all over the place. Due to the additions of an awful lot of seating during its two year absence from the F1 calendar, all ticket sales are for assigned seating – no more general admission to be had. Recognizing the need for a bit of variety, though, the organizers came up with what is to my mind an absolutely brilliant concept: open seating on Friday. Excluding the main stand (section V), every area of the circuit was open to anyone, meaning that I was able to watch FP 1 from stand D at the esses, FP 2 from Stand Q2 at the Casio Triangle chicane, and check out every other seating area in between. What’s more, following the end of the race, the VIP stands opened up as well, leaving those who stayed a chance to watch as the mechanics hurriedly packed up for what was, at the time, an uncertain trip to Korea. Thus I had the chance to, in one weekend, sit in every seating area at every curve in the entire circuit, with nobody hassling me to see my ticket. Pretty neat, yeah?

So with no further ado, we’ll begin our 5.807 KM journey.


Looking back on the main straight


Stand A offers fantastic views of the start, as well as the mess that tends to happen at the entrance to the first corner. Looking west, you get a clear overview of the pit lane exit, to the east is the long sweeping first and second corner complex, and the Kamui Kobayashi cheering section set up in stand B2.


A great overview


From stand B, you can take in one of the most technical sections in modern F1 racing, with the decreasing radius turn 2, the esses and the anti-banked curve 6. You also get great glimpse of the famous ferris wheel, and of the paddock, which is far less exciting without the motorhomes from the European season.


The esses


Perhaps the most challenging element at Suzuka, the esses reward precision – a mistake at the entry multiplies with every curve, while accurate braking can help a driver carry tremendous speed. Stand D is a simple concrete affair poured directly into the side of the bank, but it’s in an ideal location, close to the paddock tunnel and the best eats at the circuit for this event, with local delicacies such as garlic pork steak (四日市とんてき – Yokkaichi tonteki), Matsuzaka-beef buns (松坂牛まん – matsuzaka-gyu man), Ise Udon (伊勢うどん – a kind of thick wheat noodle in light sauce), and of course Suzuka takoyaki (鈴鹿たこ焼き) a kind of fried octopus ball covered in sweet sauce, mayonnaise, powdered nori and dried fish flakes. Seriously tasty!


Local gourmet


The esses are followed by the the Dunlop and Degner curves, the latter of which sits atop an embankment and has no stands at all, regrettable as it had a propensity for picking up McLarens at this grand prix.


The crossover


A double apex right-hander, it bears the name of an East German motorcycle racer who competed for Suzuki after defecting from his home country, and suffered a horrific crash there in 1963. A surprising amount of speed is carried into the second turn of the complex, and a lot can go wrong with a very agressive curb ready to catch out anyone trying to cut it too close. Paired with 130 R which runs parallel to it, it’s one of the most dangerous spots in grand prix racing.


The hairpin


The circuit then dips under the crossover, and off toward the hairpin, site of some heroic maneuvers by Local hero Kamui Kobayashi. Astonishingly, he hadn’t raced the circuit in seven years, having spent most of his youth racing in Europe and in the GP2 Asia series (which doesn’t include Japan, which has it’s own second tier racing series, Formula Nippon). I stand is a great place to get pictures as it’s the slowest part of the circuit as well.


200R from the gridwalk


Following the hairpin is 200R, gateway to the lightning quick west circuit. A lap of Suzuka requires a driver to shift mentality, first technical and precise, then fast and flowing, and this latter section is exemplified by Spoon, a multi-apex high speed thrill ride where an accurate line will let a driver get on the gas and blast down the west straight, gaining tremendous time in the process.


The main grandstand


It’s also a great place to take in the race, so long as you don’t mind walking – from the main gate to N stand can be a 45 minute trek, and there’s little in the way of food or drinks. Still, the atmosphere is unique – it seems more like a rally stage, isolated and disconnected from the rest of the race.


The Casio Triangle


Seating is sparse along the west straight, but through the infamous 130 R, G stand east provides a unique view. Best of all, however, is the Q stand at the Casio Triangle chicane, with a view to the west of the 130 R exit and to the east toward the last corner and down the main straight. Here the cars are close and moving slow, overtaking is a real possibility, a giant screen and leader board keep you in touch and the stands themselves are new and feature individual seats. It’s also vey close to the last corner gate, and a great way to get into and out of the circuit.


The view from Q2 stand: Shiroko and Ise Bay


The top of these stands, and also the V stand on the main straight, also offers a great view of the Ise bay (伊勢湾 – ise wan and the Shiroko (白子) district of Suzuka city. It’s about as picturesque as Japan gets – only the ubiquitous power lines detract from the view.


The main straight


Finally we reach the main straight, and seating V, which runs up to and straddles the finish line across from the pit complex. Newly rebuilt and considerably more modern, the V stand has great facilities at the entrance, luxury boxes up top, a full roof providing some shelter from the famously capricious weather and a big array of video displays, which are unfortunately necessary – the racing as seen from the main straight is the most dull to be found anywhere on this remarkable circuit.


The main grandstand


What you do get is the most comfortable seat in the house, and the chance to watch all the goings-on in the pit lane, along with the champaign shower, the grid walk and, dare I suggest, the grid girls as well. Which might make it worth the perilously steep premium one pays to get in.

So that, in a nutshell, is one lap of Suzuka from a fan’s perspective.

Keep an eye out for part 2 for a recount of some of the action, and some insight on just what it is that makes this grand prix such a special event.

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Anybody for a swim?

October 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I come to you now not from my seat at the entrance of the Spoon curve but from my slightly less than waterproof tent, mostly because my rain gear proved less than a match for FP3’s weather, and it’s raining an awful lot more now than it was then.

Watching Glock go off was about the only highlight, and precisely the moment he did, a very rude child arrived in the row in front of me, standing on her seat and blocking my view of it happening.

I’m now hearing a the distinctive rumble of an AMG V8 in the distance, so I presume they’re having a think about conditions. But I’ll be watching qualifying from my car’s navigation system, if this downpour lets up enough to make a dash to my car!

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October 8, 2010 Leave a comment

See Lewis run. Grabbed with my iPhone!

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Greetings from cloudy Suzuka!

October 8, 2010 Leave a comment

And here we are, at the esses in stand D on a cloudy, humid morning and just half an hour from FP1. Weather prospects are not bright, and I expect to be making good use of my rain gear, particularly for what promises to be a wet qualifying. Shall we cross our fingers for a mixed-up grid?

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We made it!

October 7, 2010 Leave a comment

It really did take all night, but I’ve arrived in Suzuka none the worse for wear and ready to set up camp (literally) and head to the circuit in time for FP1. Given that I’ll have slept all of 20 minutes during the night, don’t expect any stunning insights.

On the other hand, with open seating on Friday, do expect a pictorial tour of the circuit and facilities when I return. And as Friday may be the only dry day of the weekend, I’ll be taking as many shots as I can.

Coming up next: Can I remember how to pitch a tent?

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October 5, 2010 1 comment

Call it a sabbatical. Or a hiatus. A long vacation. But from now, I’m back in business, with some really good stuff coming up:

First off, the Japanese Grand Prix is less than a week away, and things have already started coming together at the circuit. In a marvel of planning, the company which operates the area’s major expressways has decided that now is the time to shut down half of the only highway which connects Tokyo to Nagoya for repairs, so it’s going to be a long tedious drive, but come Thursday night (just 60 hours away) I’ll be loading up my minuscule transporter with camping goods a’plenty and heading to Suzuka. Armed with a gaggle of cameras and a solar iPhone charger (no lie!) I should be able to do a decent job of updating things from the scene.

In a way, this is the perfect convergence of my interests on this site: A cross-country driving adventure, a world class motor sports event and a chance to be in commune with the automotive public at large.

Also forthcoming: this month will provide the opportunity to do a one week extended test drive of the Honda Insight hybrid, and we’ll see what kind of replacement it makes for my tiny little Life (and whether it can actually better its real world mileage). Regrettably, this comes because my life will be a week(!) in the shop having its first major repair. I managed to correctly diagnose my air conditioner compressor as faulty, but thankfully it will be covered under warranty.

That’s all for now, but look out for a brief flurry of activity in the next weeks.

Oh, and one more bonus – it seems child seat reviews will be coming under the purview of this blog, so expect a roundup to be coming sometime before March of next year.

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Navigating the options for navigation

March 3, 2010 1 comment
Sanyo Gorilla Navi

The Sanyo Gorilla portable navigation system

This is a story about navigation systems. But more than that, it’s a story about maps. So if you’re not in the mood for introspection, feel free to skip the first two paragraphs

I’ve always been intrigued by maps. They’re powerful things: they offer a form of vision unlimited by the context of our limited point of view. They help us conquer landscapes, divide territories and find our way in unfamiliar lands. When I was a child, I would pore over the Thomas Guides which resided in our family cars, soaking up the local geography and drawing the mental connections between what I could see peering out the back seat window and what was so orderly written and recorded in them. On road trips, I would track our progress, past each exit, for hundreds of miles, and announce our location with glee to my parents that they were hard pressed to restrain their exasperation. For me, knowing where I was, in the middle of what I took for nowhere at all, was all the power I had as a tiny kid in a great big world.

The point of this story is that in California, roads are orderly, broad affairs, with names clearly displayed. They were planned by someone, and they were the precondition for the development that followed. I could know where I was because there was a sense to the way they worked that even a seven year old could understand. Such is not the case in Japan.

Why you need it

By and large, Japan’s roads were not laid out in vast cartesian grids, carefully aligned by surveyors and cut into virgin land. They have grown organically with a country that had vast cities and trade networks when the only means of conveyance in my homeland were the feet of the people of the native tribes. They were not laid down by municipalities, but by farmers, local landowners and merchants, and as such, are as disjointed and confounding as anywhere you’ll find; thus is their charm and their curse. Combined with Japan’s weak eminent domain laws and some challenging topography, and Japan is not a country to be easily mastered by a boy with a guidebook. It takes some serious maps, and a lot more processing power than I can easily muster. It takes a navigation system.

Navi, as they’re called here, are as essential to the motoring experience as gasoline. One will get nowhere fast without one, as proven by Jeremy Clarkson in his race across the country in a GT-R. Even locals will pull down a road only to see that it goes precisely nowhere, or is blocked for seemingly no reason. The lack of names for roads in most of Japan – only the largest are named, along with major intersections – adds another dimension of challenge. Finding anything on a map from it’s address is nigh impossible, due to the unconventional system used here.

So with this in mind, you’ll be needing navi if you plan to do any motoring in these parts. There are three basic forms these take, each with tradeoffs to be considered.

What’s out there

Nissan Fuga

The 2010 Nissan Fuga with factory integrated navigation

The first option is to buy a car with factory integrated navigation. Generally found only on luxury cars, these systems are completely integrated into the vehicle’s dashboard design, often with separate mechanical controls in lieu of a touch screen. These designs have the advantage of being aesthetically more a part of the interior’s design, and they often have usability benefits from this integration, with steering wheel mounted controls, multifunction displays with climate control or vehicle notices, and improved sight lines afforded by placing the display high and out of reach.

The trade off of this integration is that the navigation is forever a part of the car. There is little potential for upgradability (other than by updating the map version), and you’ll be reinvesting in a navigation system each time you upgrade your car. The specs on these systems also often lag those of the in-dash units designed by major electronics manufacturers as well, so while you benefit from great looks, you may not have the best functionality.

Pioneer Carrozzeria Cyber Navi

The Pioneer Carrozzeria Cyber Navi AVIC-ZH9900

The next option, and traditionally the most popular, is the in dash navigation system. Most Japanese cars of the past 15 years have been designed around a 2DIN audio unit, and the majority of them will allow the simple exchange of that audio unit for the kind of in-dash navigation seen above. These systems serve as the car’s stereo receiver, with CD player, AM/FM tuner and amplifier, but even the most simple far surpass a factory stereo in media capability. Nearly all function as DVD players, using their integrated display or an external one if desired. They feature hard disk drives or internal flash memory, and can extract and store CD audio internally, and many have SD card slots to allow you to bring music and video directly from your computer. Most models also have TV tuning functionality – basic models decoding 1seg digital broadcast (as is used by mobile phones) and higher end models with full 12 segment high definition decoders. Coupled with wide VGA displays, they are fully fledged HDTVs as well. As for navigation, these systems generally have the most detailed maps and most advanced and responsive rendering capabilities. Finally, their design allows them to be removed when you choose to sell your car, and installed into the next car you buy.

As a downside, to maximize the display size (most feature 7 inch displays), touch screen controls are always used, however, and while remote controls are sometimes supplied, these must be clipped obtrusively to the steering wheel or kept in a nearby pocket. In addition, they suffer from a general lack of integration with vehicle systems, and often require bespoke accessories – a Sanyo unit will need to be equipped with a Sanyo rear camera and a Sanyo ETC unit, and so on – which can push installation prices to the astronomical, should you choose to add a number of options, by necessitating the installation of wires throughout the car. The final downside is price – these units start at over ¥100,000 and can easily push into the ¥300,000 range. Buying one is clearly a long term investment.

Sony nav-u

the Sony nav-u NV-U3C

The final option is to go portable. With the miniaturization of components and affordability of flash storage, portable navigation systems have grown in popularity immensely in the past few years, and the prices they command have fallen significantly. These devices are not designed to be permanently installed in any vehicle – by and large, they feature suction-cup feet for their cradles and internal battery power, with the option to supplement with a 12v charger when necessary. Their display sizes vary from full size 7 to 8 inch models on one hand to tiny 3.5 inch turn-by-turn designs on the other. They generally feature 4 to 8GB of internal flash memory, and have maps and databases which can be just as detailed as in in-dash units. Generally, however, the feature lower resolution displays, simplified menus and lack ETC integration.

Higher end units may retain some of the media capabilities of in-dash units, such as 1seg television and MP3/WMA/AAC playback. Also, select models feature VICS – the Japanese FM broadcast traffic data reporting system – and can reroute you to avoid traffic just as a larger system would.

The downsides to these systems are clear – they are not integrated into the vehicle at all, cluttering the dashboard, and can be difficult to access on the go. Their displays tend to be smaller and lower resolution than permanent units, making them harder to read on the go. They are also an easy target for thieves in a country where car theft is rare, but break-ins are increasingly common, and should be removed from the vehicle when parked.

The upside is of course price – many models can be purchased for as little as ¥20,000, making them barely more expensive than a collection of road atlases.

What to look for

Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering your navigation options.

How long are you going to keep the car? If you plan to sell it quickly, opt for the factory navigation or purchase a portable. Installation of an aftermarket navigation and accessories can drive down the resale value of a car, while factory navigation is generally desirable, as it’s covered under the vehicle’s warranty and provides the cleanest look. If you plan to keep your car for a long time, or if you’re purchasing used, these consequences could be outweighed by the increased feature set of a high-end in dash navigation system.

How much time are you likely to spend in your car? If visions of family road trips are dancing in your head, installing a high end aftermarket navigation system with supplementary rear display may be just the ticket. Improved legibility is a boon on long trips and the entertainment options will keep you and your family entertained for days. If you’re mostly commuting, or poking around town on familiar roads, a portable navigation would be more than adequate for your needs.

Does your new car carry factory options for park distance sensors, rear or corner cameras? These goodies are always less expensive to order from the factory than to purchase separately and install, and if they come integrated (along with the GPS antenna and ETC) with the purchase of a factory-installed navigation system, end your debate now: you can’t do better than get it all up front. When available, factory systems are usually the way to go.

Finally, be wary of dealer options. What comes from the factory is good value for money; what the dealer will sell you is generally second rate and overpriced. If you’re going for an aftermarket option, decide what you want, find a reasonably priced audio shop and have it installed – you could save tens or even hundreds of thousands.

Who makes them?

Portable systems have a fairly limited lineup. Three makers dominate the scene.

Sanyo offers their Gorilla Navi series, which in my opinion offers the best user experience, with a “just right” touch screen and lots of interesting extras. Geared primarily toward in car use, they have great readability and clear menus as well.

Sony is also a player only in the portable market, with their “nav-u” line. These tend to emphasize portability – for walking, cycling and other functions – over large displays, and their feature set is geared toward hybrid use, in the car and at your destination. Their displays are bright and clear, though the touch screens are too sensitive to minor bumps.

Panasonic also offers portable models in their Strada brand. Heavy on multimedia capabilities, they bridge the gap between in-dash and portable.

In-dash systems are available from more makers, many of whom are focused solely on automotive products.

These include Alpine and Clarion. These makers offer the best options for seamless integration of high quality audio with external amplifier control, but lag in the quality of their interface.

Big name products include Fujitsu’s Eclipse range, Sanyo’s Gorilla AV series, Panasonic’s Strada and Pioneer’s Carrozzeria.

With so many options available, multiple form factors, HDD or SSD memory, WQVGA or WVGA displays, bluetooth integration, accessory displays, SD slots and media formats, it’s best to select one by going to a large shop, playing with what’s on display, and figuring out what works for you.

My personal opinion is that the Carrozzeria Raku-Navi and Cyber-Navi are the best of what’s around in their price points, but everyone’s needs are different. So here a few things to look for:

HDD vs. SSD: An HDD offers greater storage options, but at the price of added heat, mechanical complexity and the chance of failure (and an expensive repair). If you want to store all your music in the car, it’s an option, but if you already have an iPod, or don’t mind using an SD slot to store your music, SSD systems feature faster load times, better reliability and a lower price point.

WQVGA vs. WVGA displays: With four times the resolution and a resultant increase in legibility, I wholeheartedly recommend spring for a full WVGA display. You won’t regret it if you do.

1seg vs. 地デジ (12 seg HD): If you plan to have kids in the car, or you spend a lot of time in parking lots, opting for a full digital tuner might be worth your while. I personally don’t feel that I need either…

iPod integration: Most makers offer it, so if you need it, check how much they charge for their accessory cable, and be sure it supports charging. Be careful as well if you have an iPhone, as not all systems support it.

SD slot: This ought to be a must-have for any system – it offers significant memory expandability at a minimal cost. Look for it.

Bluetooth: The capabilities and integration varies by maker, so be on the lookout, decide what you need (if anything) and buy accordingly.

VICS: Traffic data is another must have, but check the cost of accessory antennas, as some require an external beacon which can add a lot to the cost of installation. Since VICS is offered free as a public service, take advantage of it. Pioneer offers a competing service, Smart Loop, based on Willcom’s PHS service, which greatly increases the number of areas covered, but requires a monthly fee. Opting in also allows the system to obtain real-time map updates when new roads open or for temporary closures.

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