The global coronavirus pandemic has brought the world of motorsport to a screeching halt in almost all parts of the world, but this week Super Formula pressed ahead with its first test of the pre-season in what can only be described as a surreal atmosphere at Fuji Speedway.
The paddock, normally thronged with fans, was eerily quiet, with access restricted to essential personnel and media. Unlike at the recent Okayama SUPER GT test, spectators were allowed into the track, but only to watch from the grandstands and trackside viewing areas.
Indeed, a handful of punters took the chance to observe the field of 20 SF19s in action across the two days of running, albeit denied the chance to see their heroes and their machines up close and personal as they would normally be able to.
Sergio Sette Camara, B-Max Racing Team
So far, Japan has appeared to escape the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. As of the time of writing, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country had reached 1,300, or around 10 cases per million of population, compared to 1,059 for Spain and 1,230 for Italy – now the two worst-hit countries in the world in terms of death toll.
Schools have been closed and most major sporting and cultural events have been called off, most notably of all the Olympic Games that were scheduled to be held in Tokyo this summer. But the more radical lockdown measures that have been adopted by much of the Western world amid the deepening crisis have not been deployed, at least not yet.
Of course, this year's Super Formula action was due to commence earlier this month at Suzuka, but the first test was postponed along with the opening round at the same venue.
Track owner Mobilityland, a subsidiary of Honda, has so far taken a safety-first approach to the coronavirus crisis, closing the amusement parks connected to both Suzuka and Motegi and its famous Collection Hall as well as the track themselves at the start of March.
Toyota-owned Fuji on the other hand was willing to go ahead with its scheduled test, albeit adopting a number of measures aimed at mitigating any health risks for those present, besides the most obvious policy of not allowing fans into the paddock.
Team personnel and media were required to submit a medical questionnaire, including a temperature check, before being granted access to the paddock. Additionally, pit garages were assigned in such a way that one empty garage lay in between each of the teams’ working areas, with the majority of team staff (voluntarily) using face masks.
The measures also extended to the media centre, where chairs were spaced two metres apart and alternate rows were blocked off to prevent journalists and photographers sitting too close to one another. Windows were also kept open to ensure good air circulation, despite the less-than-summery temperatures of the test.
Track action with Mount Fuji in the background
Still, not everyone was convinced by the action that was taken, with reigning champion Nick Cassidy being the most vocal about his misgivings about being present at Fuji.
“There haven’t been many precautions during this test,” TOM’S driver Cassidy told Motorsport.com. “I’ve been surprised. They’ve made a point about not letting fans in [the paddock], but otherwise life is going on as normal.
“To me that’s nice, but also dangerous, and I’ve almost been criticised by the series for being worried about people’s health.”
Whether the test should have gone ahead in such a situation will remain a matter of opinion, although there's a strong practical argument to be made that testing makes little sense while it's still unclear when the season will begin in earnest.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs, this weekend Fuji will be playing host to two days of testing for SUPER GT. A few days later, it will be time for Super Formula’s second test at Suzuka, as Mobilityland partially reopens the facilities that have lay dormant for a month.
But then, a long wait – at the very least, some two-and-a-half months – will follow before racing resumes for either of Japan’s premier categories.
Fans in Japan and elsewhere ought to savour the sight of racing cars being driven on a track in anger while they can, because it could be their last chance for quite some time.