In search of charisma

David Tremayne reflects on the tribulations of a Formula 1 stronghold
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IN THE days when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost clashed so violently in their struggles for the world championship, breaking into the Sumitomo Bank was easier than getting into the Suzuka circuit.

It was not unusual to see a queue snaking the best part of a mile from the grandstand entrance on the pit-straight back through the thriving merchandising stalls to the main gate. Sleeping figures lay protected by the sort of scaffold poles and trestles Europeans usually associate with roadworks, and though wallets might protrude from exposed back pockets nobody suffered loss, such is the integrity of the Japanese people. The Japanese Auto Federation operated a lottery, success in which permitted the winner to apply for grandstand tickets. The organisers did rather well, holding a great deal of money for several months before the unlucky had their subscriptions returned with the option to form the queue for standing room only.

Now even Suzuka is reflecting the economic situation in Japan. For the first time in years there has been no lottery and some seats remain unsold, though now that baseball's World Series is over and the national passion for that sport is abating, a last-minute rush has not been ruled out. "Having two races one week apart has had an effect," said Kaz Kawai, Fuji TV's Murray Walker, despite what seemed a small crowd at the Pacific Grand Prix in Aida last weekend.

The underlying problem, running hand in hand with the economic downturn, is Japan's present lack of a driver with true star potential. In refusing to grant Hideki Noda and Katsui Yamamoto the superlicences that they needed to race, the FIA may have sought to control the Japanese population on the grid. Already Ukyo Katayama at Tyrrell-Yamaha, Aguri Suzuki, who has temporarily replaced Martin Brundle at Ligier Mugen-Honda, and Taki Inoue at Footwork-Hart, have waved the flag, but though the Japanese fan has an enthusiasm unrivalled anywhere in the world - even by the Italian tifosi - these drivers have insufficient pulling power.

"At the beginning of the year people were happy that Suzuki was due to drive the Ligier," Kawai said, "but then they became confused and angry when they discovered he would have to share it with Brundle." They were unhappier still when the Englishman proved conclusively faster, and Suzuki was only drafted in for his two national races when the Japanese Mugen- Honda engine manufacturer flexed its muscles.

Back in 1990 Suzuki finished third here driving a Larrousse, but his countrymen's raucous applause was reserved for the man who finished in sixth place: Satoru Nakajima. Though he is now retired, "Naka-San" is still revered as his nation's best-loved racing star even though both Suzuki and Katayama have since shown greater long-term potential. Japan, the country with the greatest influence on the sport outside England, is thus a nation in waiting, still desperately seeking its own Senna, its own Schumacher. But when he arrives mere speed will not be sufficient. Whoever he is, he will need to match Nakajima's charisma.

Until then, even Japan must face the realities other countries within the sport have had to face. The depth of enthusiasm for Formula One has ensured that the best magazine's circulations are holding up even though attendances are down, but a new star might help to spice up Japan's long-standing love affair with motor racing.