Monday, October 15, 2012

Japanese Grand Prix - October 7, 2012

While I was in Sri Lanka, I received a message from my friend Mike saying that he had an extra ticket for the Formula 1 race in Japan that coming Sunday. As it happened, I was going to be in Tokyo that weekend, although Mike didn't know that. He had received the tickets from a co-worker and had already asked all of his Tokyo-based buddies, none of whom could go on short notice. He was hoping that I would fly over from Singapore to join him for the race. Even that would have been a difficult trip to make but fortunately, I already had a flight ticket to Japan and Sunday was a free day for me, so the decision was pretty easy to make.

Early Sunday morning, I met Mike at Tokyo Station and we boarded the Shinkansen for Nagoya, the closest big city to Suzuka International Racing Course, home of the Japanese Grand Prix.

Suzuka Circuit

Built in 1962 as a test track for Honda Motors, Suzuka Circuit has evolved into one of the more challenging tracks on the Formula 1 calendar. It held its first F1 race in 1987 and for 20 years it was the site of either the penultimate or final race of the season, so the world championship was often decided here. Enthusiasts particularly remember the crashes between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost that decided the titles in 1989 (Prost) and 1990 (Senna), and Senna took the 1991 title here as well, his third and last world championship. In 2006 and 2007, the Japanese Grand Prix moved to Fuji as part of an agreement that was to annually alternate the race between the two venues, but this arrangement never transpired. Since 2008, the race has been held at Suzuka every year with no sign of leaving anytime soon. It takes place over three days in early October and during that time, Suzuka becomes the center of the racing world.

This is somewhat ironic because the track is rather far from civilization, lying about an hour from Nagoya. To get there, first take a train to Suzuka Circuit Iino station and then follow everyone along a narrow sidewalk for about 15 minutes to reach the 1st corner gate (above). As you approach, you will notice helicopters ferrying the drivers and other VIPs to the track (below).

Inside the circuit there is plenty of space, but many fans sit outside the grandstand, using groundsheets to mark their territory. This is because the sun shines into the main grandstand for most of the day, so to avoid getting a nasty burn, most fans relax near the eating area until the festivities begin. This does make walking through here a bit frustrating as there is no pattern determining where people choose to sit, so you have to pick your way around, being careful not to kick over any beers or young kids.

The shot above is taken at GP Square, just outside the main grandstand. Here you will find over a dozen concessions offering all sorts of Japanese and Western fare. Even better, prices are the same as you would pay outside the circuit. I tried a number of different items, with the nikuman stand (below) offering very tasty pork buns and gyoza. Yakitori, curry, noodles, rice bowls, even pineapple slices on a stick are also available. Definitely spend some time walking around to check all the options.

Due to the crowds, there is a very organized system for queuing. On the ground you will see white lines tracing a back-and-forth path in front of each concession (below); simply line up behind the last person here and follow the lines on the ground. Even if you don't understand, there is somebody there to kindly explain it to you.

Beer is available on tap for 500 yen, or you can visit the Lawson convenience store underneath the main grandstand, which sells chilled cans without any markup, and no limit as far as I could tell. There are tables that are safely hidden from the afternoon sun where you can stand and eat in a comfortable setting, and perhaps engage in some people watching as well.

There are also plenty of souvenir stands selling merchandise from each constructor as well as the more popular drivers, such as Jensen Button. Most fans had one piece of F1 paraphernalia on their person, and some went all out, dressing from head to toe in their favourite car's colours.

There is a theme park here that includes a Ferris wheel which seemed to be popular, although I did not bother to check it out given our limited time. I would suggest that you spend all three days here if you can; one day is not enough to see the entire venue, which is very large indeed.

After the race, returning to Nagoya was easier and faster than expected. Again, brilliant organization was the key. As you approach the station, you are forced into a queue depending on which direction you are going. For those going south, there is no waiting, but for those heading north to Nagoya, each queue is dedicated to one regular train. Before the next train approaches, everybody in the queue for that particular train is allowed onto the platform. The train arrives, everybody boards, and the train departs, all in an orderly fashion. Then the next queue is allowed onto the platform for the next train, just like clockwork. If you are in a hurry, there are also express trains that save a few minutes but for which special tickets are required. These can be booked in advance, but you then need to take that specific train. Therefore, you must avoid the regular queue and move into the special “express” queue. It might sound confusing, but once you get there, it is easy to figure out what to do and if you are stuck, somebody will be glad to help. This remarkable efficiency that gets crowds moving is one of the things that I miss about Japan.

Overall, I was happy to be able to add Suzuka to my visited venue list. I wasn't much of a racing fan while I lived in Japan, but have begun to appreciate the sport quite a bit now and am thankful to Mike and his busy friends for allowing me a chance to see F1 in one of its grandest tracks.

The Race

The tickets we had were some of the best, right in the middle of the grandstand with a face value of 68,000 yen ($850). From here, we could see pit lane and the start and finish lines, but very little racing occurs down this stretch.

Still, the two hours or so before the race is one in which the buzz grows by the minute. First, the drivers parade is conducted, as each racer is driven in a classic car around the track to greet their fans (that's Button above).

Then fans watch the cars being assembled in their garages before being wheeled out to the track. Then the drivers suit up as the mechanics make their last second adjustments (above) leading to the warm-up lap. Below is Bruno Senna preparing to run his lap while his team stands aside.

Finally the race. By the time 24 cars roar towards Turn 1 (below), the entire grandstand is awash with anticipation, and only after the cars disappear between the pit building do fans finally relax, only to be brought to their feet again a minute later as the leaders emerge from the final turn to race down the main straightaway, the first of 53 laps on the day.

However, that first lap is usually the highlight of the afternoon and the race itself is often anticlimactic as there is little passing at the front after that. That was the case here as well as championship points leader Fernando Alonso spun out of the race going into the first turn and Romain Grosjean bumped Mark Webber at turn 2. Once all the dust cleared, pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel had the lead and he had no trouble keeping it, taking the race to close within 4 points of Alonso. The shot below is of the race position after 14 laps, with Vettel leading local favourite Kamui Kobayashi while Felipe Massa ran third. These were the three podium finishers, although Massa overtook Kobayashi for second by the end of the race.

It was actually a pretty exciting finish for Kobayashi (below), who beat Button by just half a second to net the first podium of his career, which made the Japanese fans very happy indeed.

The presentation was held just across from the grandstand, and you can see Kobayashi holding his 3rd place trophy while Vettel applauds. Great stuff, and perhaps enough to get Kobayashi a contract for next season.

There is nothing quite like F1 and the race in Japan may be the most interesting of all. If you happen to be in Japan in early October and looking for something to do, consider a trip to Suzuka for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Next Up

Things have hit a lull here as my travel schedule settles down. I'm off to Brunei for an upcoming long weekend but there is nothing to see there in the world of sports. Then I'll be visiting the Philippines where there is some MMA (PXC is the Asian equivalent of UFC) and basketball available so I'll have to choose one of those two events. The following week will see me in India during the Ranji Trophy, but I'm not sure if there'll be a match in the city I will be visiting. Even Singapore has a few events coming up, including the final of the Singapore Cup next weekend, the Singapore Rugby 7s during the first weekend of November, the Singapore Open golf tournament on November 10th and 11th, and the Clash of Continents tennis tournament at the end of the month. So despite not being back in North America, I will be watching some sports and updating this blog. Check back on occasion to see what's going on.



Monday, October 8, 2012

2012 ICC World Twenty20 - Colombo, Sri Lanka - September 30/October 2, 2012

Moving to Singapore has turned into a blessing in disguise. Although the city itself lacks the regular sports scene that Tokyo had, there are so many nearby destinations with sporting events that were not accessible while I was in Japan. Most notable is cricket, a religion in India and Sri Lanka, which are just a few hours away. When I discovered that the International Cricket Council was holding the 2012 Twenty20 World Cup in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, I immediately booked tickets on discount airline Tiger ($150 return, insanely cheap for a 4-hour flight each way). I have a few friends who are cricket fans and when I mentioned my plans, they eagerly agreed to join me. Even my girlfriend couldn't resist the lure of a new destination, although she went for shopping instead of sport. At any rate, the five of us had a blast regardless of what we were doing.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island just east of the southern tip of India. Sadly, it is most famous for its vicious civil war that stretched over 25 years and cost nearly 100,000 lives. The war ended in 2009 when the government finally killed off the rebel leaders and since then, Sri Lanka has begun to see new opportunities, both economically and as a tourist destination. The people are friendly and have yet to develop the skill of ripping off visitors, but there is still decent infrastructure and plenty of natural beauty, making Sri Lanka a great place to visit for any reason. The capital city of Colombo is an assault on your senses, with the colourful colonial architecture combining with the cacophony from the streets, the spices from the markets, and the humidity on your skin to complete the sensory overload. What amazed me most was the lack of air pollution which allowed the sunlight to reach the earth unimpeded, making everything brighter than I had ever seen before. Doubtless I will be back to explore more of Sri Lanka, but on this occasion, it was sport that had brought me and thus sport that I went to see.


Before I go on, a quick overview of cricket. It is like baseball, but it isn't. Sure, batters bat against a bowler and score runs while avoiding outs. But that is where the similarities end. In cricket, the diamond becomes a pitch that separates two wickets and two batters run between these wickets to score runs. (In the photo below, the pitch is the dirt portion in the middle.) When a batter swings, he is under no obligation to run unless he feels confident he can make it to the other side of the pitch for a run. Balls that reach the boundary (equivalent to the outfield fence) on a bounce score 4 runs, while those that clear the boundary (a home run) are called sixes. I won't detail the many different ways a batter can get out, but a ball caught by a fielder without a bounce is one that is similar to baseball. Although in cricket, they don't use gloves.

Cricket matches originally were five-day "tests" in which each team batted through two innings of 10 wickets (outs), scoring as many runs as possible. The problem is that outs can be very difficult to obtain and teams could bat through an entire day of 90 overs and only make one or two outs. As well, to get a win, a team had to get their opponents out all 20 times (assuming all five days were played and there were no declarations). Far too often this was not accomplished and the result was a draw, a very unsatisfying conclusion after nearly a week of action.

To get more results, the powers that be invented one-day cricket, where each team batted 50 overs or one innings (i.e. ten wickets), whichever came first. An over is six balls, so each team had 300 balls to get as many runs as possible. These one-day internationals (ODI) would last about seven hours and draws were much rarer.

Still though, seven hours is not a suitable length for TV, so along came 20-over cricket, known as Twenty20 and abbreviated T20. Initially frowned upon by the establishment, it has been made popular by the Indian Premier League. Now a match can be over in three hours, and with wickets no longer an issue, batters can take risks that they would not take in a normal match. Offense is measured by run rate, the number of runs per over. A typical test match RR might be 2.5, where as in T20, 7.5 is considered a reasonable RR (150 runs in 20 overs).  Much like how the NFL has used rule changes to improve scoring and hence popularity, national cricket boards realized that fans like lots of offense and T20 was their answer.

I still prefer the test version as it is the most intriguing game, since wickets are the key rather than runs, but T20 has its own appeal and I was more than happy to venture to Sri Lanka to see the fourth World Cup in this format.

The Tournament

For sports travellers, cricket is probably the only reason to visit this area of the world. They are mad about this fascinating game down here and as such they get to host major tournaments on a regular basis. Last year Sri Lanka co-hosted the 2011 World Cup (the 50-over variety) with eventual champions India, and this year they were the sole host for the T20 version. Twelve teams entered, but four of them were qualifiers, so the first round was meaningless as it just eliminated these four weaklings. The other teams entered the Super 8s, divided into two groups. England, New Zealand, West Indies, and the hosts played in Group 1 in Kandy, while India, Pakistan, Australia, and South Africa comprised Group 2 with matches at R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo. Each squad played the other once in a round robin over three match days, meaning doubleheaders were on tap each day. The top two finishers would make the semi-finals and those winners would contest the final, also at Premadasa.

R. Premadasa Stadium

Built in 1986 on swampland next to the Khettarama temple, Premadasa is named after the Prime Minister who pursued the idea of creating a world-class cricket facility and who, as President, was later assassinated as part of the civil war. After its completion, the stadium held just 14,000 fans, but recent renovations have increased capacity to 35,000, making the stadium a suitable host for the 2011 Cricket World Cup and the 2012 T20 version as well.

The stadium is located northeast of the main tourist area in Colombo, about 30 minutes from Galle Road by tuk-tuk, the small 3-wheeled taxis that dominate local traffic. We were dropped off about 150 meters from the stadium where we had to clear two separate security checks, before walking to gate 11 behind the stadium.

Although the immediate vicinity was not particularly impressive, it was nice to walk to the back entrance, where we saw Khettarama Temple. It is certainly incongruous to see this beautiful white structure (above) next to such a large sports venue. The road here borders the Sebastian Canal across which you can see some true local neighbourhoods, along with the occasional cow chewing on the grass.

Tickets were insanely cheap with grandstand (above) seats the most expensive at $18, while those in the C block (below) cost only $3. Ticket prices were kept low to encourage the locals to attend, since their national team was playing in the other group, whose matches were about 3 hours to the east. We spent the first matches in the C block, which was crowded and chaotic with concessions a bit crazy.

For the second set of matches, we were in the Grandstand, which is roomier, has fewer fans and far less waiting at the concessions. Sitting here also gives you a straight-on view of the hand-operated scoreboard, which is important in a game as complicated as cricket.

There wasn't a huge variety of food here, with KFC providing a few chicken choices such as 5 hot drumlets for 260 LKR (LKR is the symbol for Sri Lankan Rupee, 130 LKR = US$1). There were also chicken hot dogs (pork and beef are generally not served here) that seemed quite popular. Bags of Lay’s potato chips were available at 80 LKR for small or 170 LKR for large, with Magic Masala my recommendation. There were even ice cream sandwiches in a few select spots. Soft drinks and bottled water were easily available and equally affordable, but the best offering was the beer. Lion, the local brew, was on tap at just 120 LKR per cup (that’s less than one US dollar!), and you could buy 6 at a time using a fancy carrying case that held the cups in holes and folded up with a handle for carrying. Given the packed crowds, this method of transporting beer from the concession to your seat was much more practical than the cardboard holders that you get in U.S. stadiums as you don’t have to worry about having the cup knocked over. Yes, the cups weren’t that big but with the heat and humidity beating down during the afternoon matches, having plenty of cheap beer made the event much more enjoyable.

In some areas, the lower sections were mostly cement blocks, but the upper sections were seats that were with sections alternately colored yellow and blue, representing the colours on the Sri Lankan national team uniform. It made for a beautiful sight on a bright sunny day.

Cricket used to be a staid sport, but T20 is changing things. One clear sign here were the dancers who appeared after every four, six, or wicket. Clad in bright outfits, they performed a brief jig to loud, blaring music. They may not have been quite as talented as NFL cheerleaders, but full marks for effort.

The highlight though were the fans. Cricket fans are unique in the world of sport; when it comes to supporting their nation, they are without equal in finding innovative ways of dressing up in team colors, making noise for the entirety of the match, and generally having a good time. Despite some fierce rivalries between India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka among others (the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by terrorists in Lahore, Pakistan in 2009), fans from each country were well behaved and friendly with their opposites, taking pictures with each other and engaging in a bit of good-natured trash talk. Of course, with armed security everywhere, any trouble would have seen you removed immediately.

The Matches

Frankly, the three matches I saw were secondary to the atmosphere in the stadium. The first match saw Australia pitted against South Africa, who batted first and notched 146 runs, a fair total. But Australia had no trouble beating that behind Shane Watson's 70 off 47 balls as they hit 147 with 14 balls to spare. Above is Pat Cummins bowling, while below is Michael Hussey (45 not out) watching one of his two 6's clear the boundary.

The match started at 3:30 and although fans of both nations were active and cheering, they were outnumbered by the locals, as well as the Indians and Pakistanis waiting for the evening affair when these two enemies would face each other in what may be the most heated rivalry all of sport.

For three solid hours fans of both squads chanted, cheered, screamed, swore, and sang as the match moved along. Unlike U.S. arenas where fans are exhorted to “Make Noise”, everything here was based purely on emotion. Add on the blaring music after every 4, 6, or wicket, dancers, and a stadium MC, countless flags from both nations, and and there wasn’t a moment of quiet. This may sound unbearable, but it was truly incredible to be part of it. This was like a Stanley Cup, World Series and Super Bowl rolled into one, an unforgettable combination that needs to be seen to be believed.

The match itself was quite interesting, as Pakistan finished 128 all out after a fast start (that's opener Mohammad Hafeez swinging above). This should have been an easy total for India to beat, but they started slowly, scoring only 36 runs in their first six overs. My friends who are ardent Indian supporters were worried, but Man of the Match Virat Kohli (below) quickly turned anxiety into exhilaration, managing 78 not out as India cruised to 129 with 3 full overs to spare. Once it became clear that India would win, my friends and their compatriots erupted with a joyous celebration. For them, there is nothing better than beating Pakistan in cricket (like us Canadians beating the Americans in ice hockey) and for them see it live was the highlight of the trip, if not their entire lives.

After a day touring Colombo, we ventured back for the last day of the Super 8s, this time enjoying the relative relaxation of the grandstand. Pakistan took on Australia in the afternoon match and batted first, running up a surprising 149 runs, giving Australia a tough total to chase.

They then used a spellbinding spin attack to completely stifle the Aussie bats. Opener Shane Watson was the first to go (above), bowled lbw by Raza Hasan (below) after managing just 8 runs. Lbw, for those not familiar with cricket, is an abbreviation for "leg before wicket", which is when the batter misses the ball with his swing but his leg blocks the ball from hitting the wicket, which is an out.

Although the Australians were not in trouble wicket-wise, they were unable to score many runs and after 14 overs they were just 68/5. This is where things got very interesting. It was clear that Australia was going to lose, but as long as they scored 112 runs, they would advance to the semifinals based on net run rate (i.e. their run rate less their run rate against), which would then be better than Pakistan's. When they scored 33 runs in the next three overs it looked like a done deal, but they actually had to wait until their last over to acquire that critical 112th run and a place in the semis, much to the relief of their fans.

Personally, I thought they allowed Pakistan to score so many runs as they wanted them to advance in place of the Indians, who are the better squad but had been annihilated by Australia in the first match. Both teams had beaten South Africa so they finished the round robin 2-1, which India would duplicate if they beat South Africa in the nightcap. However, Australia allowing Pakistan such an easy victory meant that India would need a nearly impossible blowout to edge Pakistan on run rate.

Sadly, I had to return to Singapore so was forced to listen to the match on the way to the airport. India won what seemed to be an exciting battle, scoring their winning run on their last ball. Of course, it was not enough to make it to the semifinals and Australia went on to meet the West Indies, while Pakistan faced hosts Sri Lanka.

The sporting gods did not look kindly on that Australia/Pakistan farce, causing both to lose in embarrassing fashion in the semis. The final featured the West Indies beating Sri Lanka to win their first major trophy since 1979. That happened to be the same day I was in Japan watching the Formula 1, but more on that in a future post.

Despite the somewhat mundane cricket, this was a fantastic trip that made me remember just how much there is so see, not only in the world of sport but in the world as a whole. With the NHL lockout continuing, I've already decided to forgo the Winter Classic and a trip home for Christmas. Instead, I'll be traveling somewhere new here in Asia, and probably avoiding sports altogether. Too often we do the same thing day after day and forget that there are new experiences to be had if we just take a chance. For me, moving to Singapore was that chance and so far, I've enjoyed many new experiences both as a sporting spectator and as a tourist. Keep checking back to see what might happen next.



Friday, October 5, 2012

Will Fans Boycott the No Hockey League?

I received an email from the Toronto Maple Leafs telling me that the NHL has cancelled regular season games until October 24th, representing the first two weeks of the season. Ah shucks, what am I gonna do now? The answer: stop watching the NHL if and when the owners come to their senses. I was hoping to make the Winter Classic the centerpiece of my December sports road trip but with uncertainty like this, it is not worth booking the airline tickets, which I need to do quite soon, before prices rise even more. So I'm cancelling the 2012 Winter Trip entirely. The NFL season is tainted after the replacement referee debacle, the NHL is a joke, and although I enjoy the AHL, it isn't worth the 24-hour trip each way to see a few games in Providence and Hershey. Suddenly I have three free weeks and I'll be finding something more exotic to do here in Asia or maybe the South Pacific.

That is the short-term solution, but in the longer term, I don't think I will spend a dime on this league ever again. I have three NHL arenas to see as part of my Quest for 400 and I will visit those, but will be getting tickets from your friendly neighbourhood scalpers. I will avoid parking, concessions, and any other revenue stream that will see money go to the owners. Even the NHL's signature Game Center Live package will not be spared. Failure to do so will confirm that I am a stupid fan; the type that the NHL hopes will return without complaint when this fiasco finally comes to an end.

I wonder though about other fans. I think the league will return in a month or two, in time for the 24/7 series to be filmed and Winter Classic to be played. Will hockey fans again forgive a pointless work stoppage? I'm hoping that fans begin to realize that they are being played for saps by Bettman and his owners. Similar scenarios will continue to play out after every CBA expires. The NHL is being poorly run but those responsible have no reason to improve the business model, because fans keep spending their money without complaint. All I can do is be one of those fans that says "Enough!" and start spending my money elsewhere. So I am. I hope that at least one reader can do the same.

Next Up

After a sparkling three-day trip to Sri Lanka where I saw lots of Twenty20 cricket, I'm off to Japan this weekend. A friend was kind enough to offer me a sponsor's ticket to the Japanese Grand Prix, so I will be spending Sunday traveling from Tokyo to Mie to watch the race. Check back for recaps of both trips next week.