We're in this business for the love of automobiles, not sushi or sightseeing
If you've read Indian automotive journalism for any length of time you know most of us, if not all of us, have a soft spot for Japan. We love its quirkiness, Tokyo's busy but ordered sense of life and that sizzle of after hours madness that comes right after eight hours of rigid, unrelenting conformity. But I increasingly get the sense that most of the Japanese manufacturers, if not all of them, do not have a soft spot for India.
That's a politically incorrect way to start the new year, right? Allow me to explain.
We drive and ride all over the world, you know this. But when was the last time you read a story from the streets of Japan? I think the only time I ever did was when Yamaha invited us to ride their bigger machines six or seven years ago. Even then, we rode a fleet of rented Yamahas. We had a good time, the ride was incident-free and so far, not repeated. Honda similarly has only ever let us ride bikes at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit using small go-kart loops within the layout as well as the F1 track.
But the worst I've experienced and others corroborate this are four-wheeler events. So bad were almost all of these experiences that after three days in Japan, journalists ended up with under four minutes of seat time in cars. One launch involved more or less, driving a lap each in a parking lot in the middle of pouring rain.
Now the Japanese may argue that they treat all journalists the same. I don't care who all are treated like this. I've driven all over the world and remained incident-free (knock on wood) so it's not by pure luck. I think I might be able to drive a hatchback in Japan, on the street for more than four minutes without causing an epic pile-up.
On the other hand, the Europeans offer us drives on public roads in everything from an 80PS hatch to a 600PS supercar. And we drive roughly 35-40 European cars every year now versus the odd Japanese car at a parking lot/go-karting circuit/race circuit in Japan every other year. There appear to have been more incidents on these off-street events than otherwise.
To wit, a manufacturer presented an R&D prototype. They said you couldn't shoot inside because it wasn't finished and that we would all get roughly 65 seconds of driving. Why bother at all? What happened next was that the third chap slotted to drive was a business journalist who probably couldn't tell a hoola-hoop from a steering wheel. So while the rest of the press watched aghast, said prototype speared off the 1km track's third turn and rolled twice before coming to a stop right side up in a cloud of plastic, metal and GoPro cameras. Million dollar boo-boo. The nut holding the wheel went bar hopping that night, I learnt anecdotally, so he was clearly not injured.
What did we learn? The incident underlines three big points. First, accidents happen. Taking gaijin journalists to a track isn't a solution. It does encourage the less experienced into driving in a manner befitting a track. Not a good combination to have on your hands when one ingredient is an eye-wateringly expensive prototype and another is inexperience.
Second, if you're not going to give us adequate time in the car, don't roll it out for us at all. It makes you look bad and makes us feel sad, we could have spent our time far more productively back at home. We drove the SLS AMG 420km on day one for the launch, so it can be done spectacularly right, and that is one of literally hundreds of examples. Personally I learnt that the itinerary has to be studied carefully. When one car is split between three dozen journos including four TV crews in less than an hour it's best to politely decline the invitation.
Third, we are moving into the digital age and everybody and their uncle has an automotive blog. Which means someone - that's you Manufacturer San - needs to exercise discretion. Invite whoever you like but allow them to focus on what they do best. Business journalists should be meeting CFO San not trying to find the edge of traction on a prototype. Balance sheets and chassis balance are rarely the preserve of the same people. Some of the blogs have good drivers and others do not. Stop being blinded by hits and page views and force them to up their standards so that they can join these drives and have fun and write good stories. Invite the good drivers and tell the others to improve their game.
A few blogs, some newspaper guys and most of us magazines, take our jobs very seriously. OVERDRIVE internally selects staff members for launches depending on ability. Driving skill and maturity determines participation not seniority or a draw of lots. Manufacturer San should do that for all invitations as well. It needs a little spine and the ability to put up with badgering. But it's better than dealing with injuries, ambulances and tons of paperwork.
I understand that insurance is so expensive that Manufacturer San has no choice but for these off-street events. But when the automotive agenda is the least interesting part of your itinerary, perspective has been lost. We, Manufacturer San, are in this business for the love of automobiles, not for the sushi or the sightseeing. Don't make us sit in buses for hours and then have us drive for four minutes. It prevents us from bringing the richness of the driving experience to our readers. It leaves us less able to appreciate all the effort you've put into making your cars! You take years and millions of dollars creating your cars. Why then should journalists get exactly as much time it takes to brush teeth to appreciate the results?