SUZUKA, Japan — Formula One returns to Japan this weekend at the mighty Suzuka circuit, albeit on a date earlier than previous editions of the Japanese Grand Prix. The April running of the event this time round happily coincides with the start of the country’s famous cherry blossom season, in which Japan’s 1 million sakura trees bloom with pink flowers, a phenomenon mirrored in much of the event’s promotional material this year.

But as the paddock reconvened two weeks on from Carlos Sainz‘s victory in Australia, talk of the beautiful surroundings took a back seat to conversations about driving standards. Fernando Alonso‘s 20-second penalty for “potentially dangerous” driving on the penultimate lap, which led to George Russell crashing heavily, divided opinions within the sport.

Although this Paddock Diary wouldn’t usually dwell on one of the more serious stories doing the rounds (more on which can be found here), there was one detail that emerged in the FIA news conference that was too good to ignore.

Catching up over coffee

Monaco is a small place with a disproportionately large population of F1 drivers, so it’s not unusual for members of the grid to bump into each other between races. However, after their incident in Melbourne, the first time Alonso and Russell came across each other was as they were queuing for a cup of coffee in one of the principality’s many cafes.

“We actually saw each other back home,” Russell said. “We just coincidentally bumped into each other in a coffee shop.”

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At this point, Max Verstappen, who was sat next to Russell in the news conference, interjected with a joke that no doubt seemed funny in his head but didn’t quite land.

“Did you brake test him there or not?”

Russell brushed off the levity from his Red Bull rival, but when asked if he discussed the incident with Alonso while grabbing a coffee, he said: “No, we didn’t.

“He didn’t buy my coffee, though. That was probably the least that could have happened, but no, it’s history now.”

The conversation is likely to be reignited in this weekend’s driver briefing, however, which takes place on Friday after second practice. The briefing offers all 20 drivers a chance to raise issues with FIA race director Niels Wittich, and Thursday’s media session demonstrated that opinions on the incident vary significantly, with some drivers claiming it is no longer clear what is allowed when defending position.

“I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest,” Lance Stroll said of the stewards’ decision to penalise his Aston Martin teammate. “I don’t think he did anything stupid, he was just preparing the exit of the corner.

“There’s going to be, I’m sure, a very long drivers’ meeting this weekend, which I’m not looking forward to, because they’re already too long. But I’m sure there’ll be a whole, long list of explanations.”

Haas driver Nico Hülkenberg took a different opinion.

“While that tactic is quite a common one in Formula One, at that particular corner, with that speed, and the blind exit, is the wrong corner to do it, and it produced quite a dangerous situation,” he said. “It’s the wrong speed range, the wrong corner, and the shift or the change, the deceleration was quite a big delta obviously, it’s easy to overreact and lose the rear of the car like it happened to George.

“But we’ve seen that corner last year with Alex [Albon] who crashed there, that barrier puts a car back onto the circuit. We need to look at that and change something there for the future because that’s really not good when you come around that corner and see a car in the middle of the track.”

It’s unlikely the issue will be settled on Friday.

Fans like no others

It’s often said that the Japanese F1 fans are unlike any others around the world. Homemade costumes — including hats with rear wings attached (complete with working DRS functionality) — seem to increase in numbers and creativity each year. On Thursday alone, three fans were spotted in full Sebastian Vettel race suits and helmets while two others opted for Haas-themed cosplay.

Although no track action takes place at the Japanese Grand Prix on a Thursday, thousands of fans still visit the circuit. A large proportion sit in the main grandstand where they can view the garages as the teams prepare their cars ahead of the first practice session on Friday morning.

“I think we get to see it already from the moment we get to the airport or train station or even on a Thursday on a race track,” Alpine driver Pierre Gasly said of the Japanese fans. “I think this place is very unique.

“You’ve got fans, spectators in the grandstand already on a Thursday just appreciating the work from the mechanics, you know, building the car, putting all the parts together. And their passion is just unbelievable.

“You’ve got to come here with half-empty luggage because you leave that place with hundreds of toys and gifts that you receive from the fans. They’re really showing their support in a very unique way.”

Those with banners attach them to the railings of the grandstand — several in support of lesser-known paddock figures, such as Haas’ two Japanese tyre engineers Hiroshi Tomitsuka and Yuta Kimura. One banner, positioned opposite the garage housing the safety car, wished safety car driver Bernd Maylander a “happy 25-year work anniversary,” adding “you are faster than Max.”

Along with one of the best circuits in the world, Suzuka also boasts a theme park called MobilityLand. Within the park, there are a number of gift shops, selling a range of F1-related merchandise.

The usual team t-shirts and caps can be found in abundance, but more interesting are the novelty food offerings. “Engine oil” curry sauce, black pepper and garlic “gravel,” dark rusks made of “asphalt” and dried black squid posing as “tyre marbles” are among the most popular options.

Sargeant takes some time off

After he was forced to hand his chassis to Williams teammate Albon at the last round in Australia, Logan Sargeant had to sit out of the third round of this year’s championship. When Albon damaged his chassis beyond a quick repair, the lack of a spare due to manufacturing delays meant Williams had to choose just one of its drivers to take part in the race.

Understandably, Sargeant felt the need to take some time to clear his head. After the weekend, he flew north to Bali in Indonesia for some much-needed rest and relaxation.

“I think you always have to look at what’s best for the team,” he said on Thursday. “Of course, as a driver you want to drive but at the same time I know everyone’s working as hard as they can.

“I don’t blame anyone, I know everyone’s trying their best. I make mistakes, the team makes mistakes, we move on.”

Asked if it had been difficult to get his head around the situation, Sargeant added: “I think the funny part of that is I probably psychologically feel better. After having a week away, you see things from a different perspective.

“Like I said, I’ve had a decent start to the year, it hasn’t shown up in qualifying yet — I think it would have in Melbourne — so I’m just continuing with that mindset that I’m close to where I need to be. It’s going to start this weekend.”

Sargeant will race the repaired chassis that once belonged to Albon (carrying an additional 100 grams as a result of the fix) rather than his original one, but insists it won’t cost him performance.

“It’s the repaired one just because the workload to switch the cars back over would be far too much for the mechanics,” he said. “But the chassis repair went better than expected, so it should be perfectly normal as far as I’m aware.”