Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Spain, Mid-February
The early Monday morning fog was slowly being cleared by the bright winter sun, allowing those present at the first day of testing for the upcoming Formula 1 season a chance to see the track in all its glory.
All the teams were there with their new car, but not all the drivers would be taking part in testing this morning.
One of them was the double (yet now former) World Champion, Taira Capeta of Japan. Instead of him driving the bright scarlet Ferrari he’d become inseparable from over the past four years, his team-mate had been given the job of putting the new machine through its inaugural paces. The team had several objectives to go through that morning, and the data was gathered from the car without incident.
As well as his printouts, Taira also had one eye on his three long-time rivals, compatriots and friends. He noticed that Ryou Shiba wasn’t in the Mercedes that was currently out on track. This meant the newly-crowned World Champion was driving in the afternoon - the same as Taira.
They had fought an epic battle the previous season in which Ryou (in his first season with Mercedes) had defeated Taira, denying him a three-peat of titles. But the world’s media had also noticed the increasing presence of the other two Japanese drivers on the grid: Naomi Minamoto and Akira Kaneda.
The previous month both had been promoted up the F1 ladder to the current front-running teams after proving their talent in the midfield. Naomi was now Ryou’s team-mate at Mercedes, while Akira was driving for Red Bull.
Taira could tell they would be seeing a lot of each other that season and in the years to come from here on in. Four Japanese drivers were in the six fastest cars. One was a double World Champion, another was the reigning champion, one was good enough and hungry enough to be a multiple World Champion too, and the other’s raw talent was there for all to see.
Back home in Japan F1 was more popular than ever before (even more so than the era of the great Brazilian). The Japanese Grand Prix in the autumn was already sold out and the media couldn’t get enough of them.
To win the championship this year was going to require something extra. Other tactics needed to be employed besides those on the track and in the garage. Fortunately for Taira he’d gained what he saw to be an advantage over his frienemies before they knew for certain their engagements for this year. He’d tell them all personally at lunch.
Lunch – Pirelli hospitality unit
The four Japanese drivers hadn’t seen each other in a while and wanted to catch up on a personal level away from TV cameras and smartphones. Since none of them had any allegiance to Pirelli, their hospitality unit was to be the venue thanks to some negotiations by Taira’s right-hand-man, Nobu Andou.
Nobu knew what Taira’s surprise tactic was going to be and it was down to him to set everything up. All he had to do was to wait for Taira’s signal, and not long after they’d all started eating their pasta-heavy lunch Taira gave Nobu a wink.
“So Naomi, what did you get up to over the winter away from F1?” Nobu innocently asked.
Naomi sighed heavily and ran his hand through his hair.
“Mostly chasing and driving Monami to this and that. If it wasn’t that TV show it was that appearance. Or that recording session and that rehearsal. We had very few nights together, and when I was planning something romantic for New Year’s Eve, my mother showed up with her partner!”
Taira laughed and cringed at the same time behind his thermal gloved hands. Nobody was meant to know that Naomi’s mother had married his father in secret the previous year, and the thought of now being Naomi’s step-brother filled Taira with very conflicting emotions.
“OK.” Nobu continued awkwardly. “How about you Akira?”
“Let me guess.” Taira smiled devilishly.
“Shut up Taira!” Akira sneered. “I told you I don’t do that anymore!”
“I know that’s a lie.” Ryou chipped in. “Now you’re at Red Bull you’ll have all the MILFs wanting some of your-“
“Red Bull.” Naomi quipped, much to the unbridled mirth of everyone at the table except Akira who could only stare into his food.
“You guys are gonna pay for that in Melbourne.” He declared.
“Why? Is that the arrangement now?” Ryou grinned and put his arm around Akira who completely blanked him.
“OK everyone he’s had enough.” Nobu said waving his hands. “Akira might set the Yakuza on us if we keep this up.” He quickly turned to Ryou. “So, Mr.-new-World-Champion: what have you been doing?”
“Let me put it this way gentlemen.” Ryou spoke like he was a mafia don. “If you’re single and a Formula 1 World Champion you will be surprised how many young ladies take an interest in your gearstick if you know what I mean.”
“Hang on! How is that any different from me?!” Akira demanded.
“Because these women aren’t old enough to be my mother pal!” Ryou answered looking Akira directly in the eyes.
“Just be grateful you guys can do what you do with who you want.” Naomi said glumly, bringing his new team-mate and Akira back to their senses. “I have someone I’m dying to have more of a physical connection with but life keeps getting in the way.”
Taira lightly kicked Nobu under the table.
Now was the time.
Nobu cleared his throat in order to reset the atmosphere of the group and turned to his best friend.
“So Taira. Care to share what you’ve been up to over Christmas and New Year with the group?”
“I’m glad you asked Nobu.” Taira smiled.
“And why are you still wearing your gloves at the table?” Ryou asked.
“Oh! How silly of me.” Taira’s reaction was obviously fake but he carried on regardless.
“I did some cycling around Monaco, chilled in the apartment with Noriko most of the time playing the F1 game leading up to Christmas…” he explained as he removed his right glove. “Then on Christmas Day just after we’d washed the dishes I…”
Taira removed his left glove to reveal a gold ring on his ring finger.
There was silence at the table for a few seconds, followed by the sound of Nobu’s phone telling him he’d successfully released the news of Taira Capeta’s engagement to Formula 2 driver Noriko Hata.
Naomi, Ryou and Akira all stared at Taira’s engagement ring for a few more seconds before unleashing a unified response.
“Oh come on you three.” Taira grinned devilishly. “You all knew we’ve been together since just before I started All-Japan Formula 3. On our first date we bumped into Naomi and Monami on theirs.”
Ryou and Akira looked at Taira with open mouths and raised eyebrows. Both had been extremely jealous of Taira’s relationship with Noriko for years, and believed she was way out of his league. Naomi on the other hand was trying his best to play it cool.
“Congratulations.” He offered his hand to Taira who gladly took it. “Who else knew before we did?”
“We told my old man and her family on New Year’s Eve, and I told Nobu and Monami on New Year’s Day.”
“I’m surprised she kept it secret from me.”
“So are we.” Nobu smiled and opened his rucksack.
“You’re all invited to the wedding back home in Japan during the summer break. It would really mean a lot to us if you could all be there.” Taira said as he handed out the wedding innovations Nobu had just handed him to his fellow drivers.
“Uh oh. Here comes trouble.” Nobu said has he looked out of the window to see Hayato Adachi and the English TV pit-lane reporter running in their direction, microphones in hand and cameramen not far behind.
Taira hastily shovelled the rest of his lunch into his mouth, grabbed his gloves and waved goodbye to the others before walking into an ever-increasing number of reporters just outside the front door.
Back at the table Naomi read his invitation while Ryou and Akira both sighed heavily.
“He’s going to be unbearable all season.” Akira moaned.
“He’s going to be unbeatable all season.” Ryou added.
“I don’t think so. I think he’s actually made a grave error.” Naomi said like it was nothing, though he did get a couple of very questionable looks back. “A driver with a wife is a second a lap slower.”
The other Mercedes and Red Bull driver mulled this over before apathetically returning to their food.
Meanwhile Naomi was already celebrating victory.
‘Got you. All three of you!’ He thought to himself.