"You know, it really looks like Chinatown here," he said as he was waiting for the barman to bring our drinks over, "except it just keeps going on and on." I was sitting in a bar in Xintiandi, the westernised, pedestrianised bar section of the city with a couple of people I'd just met who work in the Paddock Club, and my new companion was keen to explain how much he was enjoying his trip, but he wasn't really thinking it through too well. In his defense he'd been in the bar for a while.
To be fair, it does take a little while to realise that a sign in Chinese doesn't automatically mean the business underneath it is a restaurant. China is unlike any other location for a race, although Shanghai itself is poles apart from China – saying you've been to China after attending a race in Shanghai is like saying you've been to America after visiting New York City.
Shanghai is a beginner's guide to the country – it is populated by Chinese people, sure, but they speak English, drive foreign cars to department stores and earn more money in a week than most Chinese make in a year. Which is why it sometimes seems that the entire population of the country is moving there when you are driving around on the freeways at any time, day and night.
Chinese driving is like no other driving anywhere, and I've seen a lot of driving. My friend's mother used to run a factory for a year near Hong Kong, and she was told that she was not allowed to drive a car while she was there – they gave her a driver to help her get around, and she was put out about this until he picked her up from the airport and, as they were driving towards the city, one after another cars coming the other way started overtaking each other – one, two, three, four, five, six – and they had to take to the footpath to avoid the oncoming traffic.
I found it was better to catch up on sleep on the way to the track than to watch it, and just hoped that I would be woken up by someone telling me we had arrived at the other end rather than by an impact. It pretty much worked out, although every day I woke too early and had to watch the police at the track not allowing vehicles into the multiple car parks around the venue, necessitating a lengthy walk rather than being dropped anywhere close to the media centre. At least the weather was nice.
The Chinese are brilliant at big projects, but the details tend to get overlooked a little. The track was amazing – an enormous stadium section across from the pitlane the size of which I had never seen anywhere else, the incredible team houses out the back and the undulating, tricky circuit that took the best corners from around the world and joined them - the sheer scale of the place was breathtaking, but then they forgot to put any signs up to let people know how to get around the place.
I was reminded of that after taking a Russian built hydrofoil along the Yangtze River, noting that all the cities along it's length from Chongqing had moved themselves up the hill, leaving the lower sections (which all looked as though a skirmish had recently been through, not unlike my visit to Mostar and Sarajevo a year after the war had dribbled to a conclusion in Bosnia) to rot in the anticipated rise of water from the Three Gorges Dam.
The Dam was everything you've never seen anywhere – built to a scale that is so vast that it shrinks unbid in your memory just so you can capture some of its essence and is still the largest manmade structure you can remember seeing, but which has a ten kilometre long dirt track joining it to the nearest town. Vast things are good, but the Chinese seem to forget that humans inhabit them from time to time.
It does fill the people who witness these creations with awe though.
"This place is stupidly impressive," Will noted, in the paddock and squinting in the bright sun without the benefit of sunglasses on Thursday.
"I know what you mean," John agreed, "it's like the starship enterprise landed in a rice paddy."
"You could put the entire Imola paddock in the lower half here without touching the sides," I commented.
"You could," John granted, "but no one would thank you for it."
The sheer size of the place meant that people did things to try and shrink their surroundings to a scale they could deal with. The team houses had a small lake running underneath them, as you do, and Mark Webber's dad Al bought a radio controlled hovercraft to amuse himself with between sessions. Everyone went shopping for something in Shanghai, whether it was DVDs and CDs, sunglasses, or complete golf sets. No one could claim the economy of Shanghai didn't get a nudge when the circus came to this town.
But the team's mechanics took one look at the hovercraft and decided it was worth working on to give it a performance advantage – Formula One people want everything to run faster – spending three hours between work hotting it up for its maiden voyage. Unfortunately the run lasted three minutes, stopping underneath Renault, and Al spent the next couple of hours trying to explain to the local gardeners that he would like to get it back if it ever drifted back to shore.
The last I saw of it was underneath Minardi – they need an engine for next year, but I don't think that was quite what they were looking for from Cosworth.
Shanghai is a city of contrasts – it is the most European of Chinese cities, with Mercedes gliding between old men on ancient, rattling bikes, where the fastest train ever flies over the magnetic rail at more than 420 kmph from the airport to a subway station which then crams hundreds of people into each dawdling carriage for the rest of the trip into town, where giant advertising blimps float and bobble over the river as enormous fireworks displays explode around them while those watching on The Bund along the river are asked if they want to buy fake Rolexes and Mont Blanc pens or real sex ("Rollucks? Mon Blan Pa? Blue job?"), where Will and I took Bjorn to a ramshackle restaurant with a menu someone had transcribed into English in an exercise book which resulted in food that he declined (he had seen his race engineer fall foul of food poisoning at the expensive hotel they were staying at a few days prior, and was taking no chances) before Bjorn took us to the most exclusive restaurant in Shanghai for a Jaguar party for drinks afterwards, where BAR built a structure on a manmade lake to put on a light show for invited guests in Xintiandi two blocks away from some ramshackle dwellings that whole families lived in, where you get to the most famous nightclub in town with world famous DJs like Dave Seaman ("he looks very much geek in his bedroom," Will noted presciently as Seaman ‘danced') by walking through a darkened park with beggars asking for cents to make their lives a little easier.
It's the sum total of these contrasts that make Shanghai much more than any other city on the Formula One calendar. It's all of this disparity that makes Shanghai work like nothing else in China can. It's why Shanghai is Formula One when places like Guilin, with its sprawl and slow pace and children who reach up to touch your hair because they've never seen hair that isn't black and then pull themselves along by holding on to your shirt in the hope of selling you a fake rose, or Chongqing with it's appearance of New York under a sky that doesn't differentiate between smog and fog and its inability to organise any travel alternatives, or even Beijing with its locals who put their children into your hands for a photo for good luck before the police clear Tiananmen Square for the night, or Yichang where men write poems with a damp brush on park footpaths at night before the cleaners hose them down, are left behind.
China loves Formula One – they wear team caps in Yangshao at Moon Hill, in Beijing at the Forbidden City, at the Great Wall, at the Three Gorges and on the Li River – but only Shanghai is Formula One. It's fast and it's confusing and it's everything all the time, forever. Formula One works because they convince other people to give them vast sums of money to gain a foothold into a worldwide television audience, and Shanghai works because they convince companies to give them vast sums of money to gain a foothold in a Chinese one. The only surprise is it took so long to put the two together.
China works because, like Japan, like Italy, it has a few people at the top who tell everyone else what to do and they get on with it. Other than in Italy of course, where they complain about what they have to do before doing it. Everyone has their small area of responsibility, like the guard in the media centre who was surprised when I said I wasn't the person he had been told to find, apologised by stating that "all you westerners look the same to me", or the pond cleaners who relinquished responsibility for Al's wayward hovercraft as it gently floated into someone else's area, or the woman with the nametag Number 37 at the airport who couldn't answer a question for us, asking Number 23 before needing to call her manager, the improbably named Frank, over.
Which is to say that it works, but slowly. Japan works to a timetable – if a bus is late in China it's probably on fire on the side of the road somewhere; if a bus is late in Japan it's been cancelled, and you'll never know why. A bus through China is fast and hair raising and gives you the feeling that you are taking your life in your hands as the brakes (directly connected to the horn) are slammed on to avoid a wayward bike rider or a cow and slices through mile after mile of construction fencing and tumbledown dwellings leaning each against the other – a bus through Japan feels like a air-conditioned dream as you float by the small, neat boxes with their bonsai yards all trying to not draw attention from the next one.
In Japan, as in China, Will and I stood at least a head taller than everyone but, unlike China, Japan is built to a small scale, the scale needed to fit all those people into a very finite space, which means that anyone larger than the norm has to stoop to walk through a doorframe or a tunnel. China is built to American or Australian scale – vast and sprawling – Japan is more like Britain, with everything built together through necessity.
Japan is small but perfectly formed. China is large and unwieldy. I admire Japan, but I'm afraid of breaking it. In China, I can slouch.
You can still have fun in Japan, but you tend to need to find it yourself, or have someone else from the show invite you. Honda held their annual party in the fairground by the track, and it drew people from all of the teams like moths to a flame – it was a free meal, and those words are currency in a paddock that doesn't have anything like the parties it used to. The food was good – Japanese cuisine after a two week, mad paced trek around China was manna for Will and I – and the giant wooden barrel of sake provided its own amusement for everyone. The people I know best didn't mention me leaving the circus – it went unsaid, like so much in the show – but others had heard and wanted to know why I was leaving the faith.
A Swedish journalist I know slightly through Bjorn asked "but why are you leaving really? No one leaves – it's what we do."
"Yes, but I want to be with my girlfriend – I love this life, but I love her more."
"We all do that, but we all stay – look at how many divorces there are around you."
"Sure, but I've never liked being a statistic."
The conversation would have continued but for a rigger who had gatecrashed the party collapsing with a thud and a row of bubbles popping between his lips right behind us, bringing the event to an early close. We were just in time for the rain, started to drizzle as we left.
The rain was already heavy by the time we made it to the track the next day, but everyone got on with what they could do – the cars were ready if the track cleared up, lunches were prepared early, I walked around setting up my final interviews and talked to everyone as we tried to shelter from the rain. Last year Japan was the final race and everyone felt like they were waiting for the final bell in school to let them out, but this time it felt more like a bunch of kids mucking around inside because they weren't allowed outside to play.
As the rain got heavier and puddles grew larger, the reports of a typhoon started to dribble in as the radio masts were being taken down. Bjorn disappeared early – his team decided to get him onto an earlier flight to make sure that he made his test in Jerez in time – so I didn't get to say goodbye to him. Considering his mood at being flown all the way to Japan to sit in a wet paddock and not drive, it might have been a blessing.
Some time in the afternoon we had confirmation – the typhoon was headed straight towards us, and we were told to get back to our hotels and settle in. There were a lot of worried people as we walked out through the fairground, workers with plastic sheets draped over them pulling down all of the displays and merchandise stalls as we passed, but there were more who saw it as an adventure, or at the very least a day off work.
Back in Yokkaichi I took charge – "we're going to need to find a cash machine," I instructed Will and Ali, "and then we're going to need to buy beer." By the time we made it to the local convenience store the Toyota mechanics had invaded en masse, and the fridges were starting to run low. Germans obviously have the same basic instincts as we did, and their baskets were as overflowing with beer, instant noodles and potato chips as our own. On the way back we found a small restaurant for a last proper meal, and we settled in for the storm.
The next morning we opened the curtains, turned on the computer for music and the television for typhoon updates, put the kettle on and waited. It was strangely peaceful, and we told each other silly stories to make each other laugh as we worked our way through the refreshments. We each sent emails to our girlfriends to let them know we were okay, that the storm hadn't arrived yet, and got back replies each along the lines ‘I know what you lot are like with nothing to do but drink beer – it's not a fun idea to play in a typhoon when you're drunk.'
But mostly it was calm – it reminded me slightly of Will and I sitting on the banks of the river in Yangshao after dinner on the night of the Moon Festival, everything black around us except for the rafts on the river with lanterns that looked like fireflies headed toward the bonfires across the river as the occasional firework was launched, and we sat there eating our moon cakes and drinking a beer while Leftfield played in the background. The only difference was that this time I was supposed to be at work at the job that I was about to leave, and was sitting with the guys that I wouldn't be seeing for a while because of that.
We sat there until the television told us the storm had turned, and then we went for a walk. Nothing much was changed – Yokkaichi always looks closed, so it was much the same as ever. At the time the storm was supposed to hit we went bowling.
"This is the good life, huh?" Ali laughed between frames. "Who would have thought we'd have this much fun at a Grand Prix?"
"If life was anymore exciting I just might explode," Will smirked.
Sunday came and went in a blur – everything that was supposed to have already happened seemed to be shoved into a fifteen minute period, most of which was over by the time we arrived at the track – the traffic jam on the one road to the track ran for miles, and we ended up walking the final few because we could get there quicker on foot than by bus.
"Muddy car parks and long queues," Will noted, "remind you of anything?"
"They're just sending me off in a style to which I've become accustomed."
We finally left about 9.30, and headed up to the Log Cabin. We drank, we talked to everyone and anyone, we jumped through a window into a karaoke cabin, opened the door, and then we sang with them too. It was a good night, a Formula One night, a night where everyone was equal for a short amount of time, and everyone was just happy to be together. I wasn't the only one leaving – a lot of the people I knew from Jaguar were leaving too, taking real jobs and filing it all away as an adventure to tell the future kids about, but no one wanted to talk about it then because we were having too much fun.
"You know," one of them said to me later as he brought me a beer and draped him arm around me, "this is like the circus – everyone is trying not to go home, no one is saying goodbye."
"That's pretty good, you know."
"I've been practicing. I think it might be from a movie or something – I can't remember."
"So what are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to go."
"Oh – well, all the best."
"No, I mean I'm going to go for a piss – hold my beer for me, you dickhead." I know he said it with affection, and I smiled as I watched him stagger off to the hotel foyer where the toilets were.
And, as soon as he went around the corner, I drank his beer and went back into the karaoke cabin. I'm sure it's what he would have wanted.