They stand around in a gaggle, talking, laughing and waiting, their cars arranged haphazardly around like a small child’s collection in a sandpit after a call in for lunch. The cars are held in place by a collection of items, an umbrella here, an electronic starter there, to keep them from rolling back down the gentle incline towards the pits. They’re held in place by the inertia of waiting as the pitlane is cleared after Formula One qualifying.
They don’t look at the moody, slate grey sky, they don’t look at the other drivers, unless they’re talking to each other. They look at their cars, they look at their mechanics, they look at the still shut gate and will it to open, to let them go through and get on with their jobs.
The weekend started in the paddock as usual, everyone waiting to be released to the pitlane for free practice on Friday after a normal, uneventful Thursday in Magny Cours. Nothing much ever seems to happen here, in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields under that big, ominously cloudy sky.
The signal came and we moved off, the mechanics pushing the cars up the long, low hill to the pitlane, the drivers walking with soft straws in their mouths draining the last of their energy drinks as their engineers talked them through the 30 minute programme, and the rest of us talked among ourselves or silently looked around as we walked with them into the pitlane, then watched as they rapidly prepared for the green light at the end of the pitlane.
Half an hour later they were back, and the newly resurfaced track had taken a toll of some of the drivers – Ho-Ping Tung and Nicolas Lapierre both ran too deep at the hairpin and went off, while returnee Ernesto Viso lost the back of his car and spun off harmlessly into the gravel – but it had promoted competition too, with the top three drivers (Andi Zuber, Giorgio Pantano and Pastor Maldonado) split by less than a tenth, and nineteen drivers were covered by just one second in free practice.
It’s the standing around that’s the worst, the waiting. They’re always waiting at this level: waiting for the gates to open and admit them, waiting to get out on track, waiting to get into the big paddock, waiting for their dreams to become reality. They stand there like soldiers, a motley bunch waiting for the call to arms, the call to battle. When the call comes, they don’t delay.
Nothing much ever happens in the paddock here. Which is generally good, as the French race is usually in the middle of a number of other races, and the change of pace works to everyone’s advantage. This year it’s the middle of the season, timewise if not numerically: the season started three months ago, and has three months to remain, but the number of events either side are more than a little skewed.
Which is why everyone was so keen to get here for once, to start racing again. Will Buxton’s keenness manifested itself in the speeding ticket he picked up on the way down from Paris, one of a few in the paddock, which set the mood of conflict even before his run in with the woman in accreditation who refused to hand out the paddock passes, despite his polite requests and it being her job.
Eventually the normally placid fellow exploded, doing his part for the continuation of a solid Anglo-French relationship by blurting: "You know what? Now I understand – it’s you. You are the reason no one ever wants to come here, or to come back" before storming off, seething with rage for whole minutes before inevitably blushing with shame.
Two men who did want to come back were Adam Carroll and Ernesto Viso, both men returning to drive in the series for the first time this year. “It’s just great to be here, you know?” the Ulsterman smiled as he stood waiting to head back up the hill for qualifying. “I’ve enjoyed myself this year in DTM, but I’ve been wanting to get back into one of these things for ages. And I’ve got my old seat back from the old team – it took us a day to make it last year, so that’s a bit of a bonus!”
Ernesto was grinning like a maniac all morning too, eager to get back and show his new team what he could do. “You know, it’s been too long away from here: when I got the call to come to the test, I couldn’t stop smiling!” The deal had come at the last moment: so late in fact that the team didn’t have a race suit ready for him, obliging the Venezuelan to wear a black suit with his own name and logo across his chest.
When the signal comes they go, marching up the hill as if to war. The intensity level rises perceptibly, the jokes get feebler and fade from view, the mind switches into gear and they are mentally in their cars before they’re even in the pitlane. Then they are physically in them and the intensity gets even higher: the mechanics swarm around, the last minute checks that could make or break an event, everyone waiting for that one little light to change.
Eventually it does, and the thumb comes up from the pitwall, the murmurs into the microphones subsumed by the caged animal scream of the engines firing into life before they’re moving into the pitlane proper, the buh buh buh stuttering starts of the younger ones, the confident slide of the more experienced drivers as they leave their telltale black stripes on the tarmac, a signpost for their leap into battle.
“Please, can you not ride your bike in here? It’s dangerous.” Will was leaning down to talk to a small, blond mop on top of the tiniest minibike ever made just before qualifying, and was rewarded with a quizzical stare for his efforts. He tried again in French, to the same result. Eventually someone repeated the warning in German and the small mop said ja, okay, before zipping out of the paddock again, back towards the Formula 3 paddock.
The session came and went in a flash, a five way fight for pole that saw Glock, Zuber Senna, di Grassi and Pantano battle it out between them right up to the red light. Vitaly Petrov and Luca Filippi played no part in the clash, coming together at the hairpin on their outlap, a premonition of sorts for the melees to come. Zuber looked like he had it until his teammate pipped him by a tenth: on the closing lap Pantano was caught in traffic in section two, Zuber was fastest in sector one but couldn’t quite hold on in sector three, and di Grassi just pipped the Italian to put himself next to his countryman on the second row.
“It’s just that it’s dangerous here,” Will said after session as that familiar high pitched whine indicated the return of the mop. “There are forklifts and all sorts of things coming through here, and they won’t see him” he added, as we watched the small bundle of fleece flick his bike around one of the cars as it was pushed into the laneway and then back around the corner.
“Nice reflexes,” I noted. “Maybe we should get him back for a test in a few years, when he can see over the wheel.”
“That kid is just looking for trouble,” he seethed when our unwanted visitor returned as we walked with a few drivers up towards the signing session in the middle of the track. “If he comes back here again, I’m going to kick him off if I get a chance.”
They left the rest of us behind as they rolled around the circuit, weaving this way and that as they prepared for what lay ahead. All the words were spoken, and now it was time for action as they worked their way back to stop in front of us again, silent but for the deep throb of their engines and the occasional bark as they squirted the power to warm the tyres and brakes.
Eventually they were back, forming ranks again ahead of the skirmish to come. The leaders are pointing at each other, I thought briefly before discounting it. They know what to do. The red lights came on: one, two, three, four, five, the sound and the fury increasing with their number. They were held there for a moment, along with our breath, and then the lights went out.
“He’s not making my life easy, I would say!” Timo laughed in the press conference afterwards, slapping his teammate on the back as he did. “Andi's doing a good job, and when you look at all the qualifying positions he's still the man to beat in qualifying: he is really strong, and he will be strong in the race tomorrow, definitely. But it good - we push each other, and I think we are right on the limit at the moment.”
I had to ask it: “So Andi, apparently you're the man to beat in qualifying - why did you get beat today?”
“I think he was quicker today,” he smirked back, “so he is the man to beat in qualifying next time! I just lost one tenth to Timo today, so I'm quite happy with qualifying today.”
And for tomorrow? “We will be clever enough for the first corner,” Timo predicted. “Andi will fight for the win, and I have to think about the championship, but I want to win too! We will see: it's always tricky to go into the first corner when you are one and two, but we have to watch out for Bruno too, because he is quite quick and will be there at the start, and he will try to get in between us.”
“I just said to finish one and two,” team boss Paul Jackson suggested afterwards. “I don’t care what order they’re in. The winner will be the one who crosses the line first…”
They mirrored each other at the start, a special effect gone wrong as both cars headed for the same spot in the centre of the screen. Inevitably they hit, Zuber up and over Glock, both cars stacked together and sliding towards the end of the pitlane as though looking for a shorter walk home. A couple of drivers were left behind: Rodriguez was still there, as was Carroll, while the rest made their escapes and smiled at their good fortune.
The shaking, snarling beast that is a race start roared into life, thrashing and writhing itself around the circuit, cars moving up and down as it went. And then it bit: one of the cars went over another, soared into the air, twisting as it rose, and then closed the parabola as it came back to earth, landing upside down on the concrete wall next to track and rolled over the edge, shedding parts as it continued on and on, before finally coming to a rest at the next corner.
There was no sound, no breathing, no movement as we watched the screen. “Fuck,” someone said, in shock. He spoke for us all, kicking us back into motion. You feel your heart, too fast, you see your hands, moving unbid. You know what you saw, you think, and you know how useless feels. Your mind races, a thousand thoughts a second, and you have no way to act on any of them. You turn to the person next to you, you talk, you touch each other, the arm, the back: you crave the sense of feeling human again. And you wait.
Slowly, eventually, the word gets out. I was sitting with Ines from Racing Engineering; she was getting news from the pitwall while I got it from Will: together we pieced it together and relayed it. A miracle had unfolded in front of our eyes; we could only sigh with relief.
They climb back into their machines, strap in and wait. The noise and vibration comes, telling them they’re about to fight again. Do they think about what they saw, and what they didn’t? They wait for the speed to come again, and they banish such thoughts from their heads: war had come again.
Pantano won this time, the first victory for Campos, a relatively easy result after the hour under red flag. Lucas di Grassi and Bruno Senna rounded out the podium, the latter claiming his spot on the last lap after Luca Filippi’s remarkable drive from sixteenth on the grid petered out as a result of disappearing gears with a few laps remaining: the Italian had to make do with fourth despite his best efforts.
“We just worked to the maximum,” an unusually subdued Pantano noted after the race. “I worked very hard with the mechanics, with the engineers, with everyone, and now we can see the results start to come. In Monte Carlo we saw it, and also here - we were just unlucky in the first few races with the car. But I'm very happy for them, I'm very happy for me also: we work very hard, and now we can see that Campos can win races with no problems.”
Everyone just got on with their jobs back in the paddock, trying not to think too much about what we’d seen, and eventually we sat down for dinner, everyone mixing around the various tables in hospitality as usual. Eventually someone put the race replay on the screens, and we watched silently until the moment came again: the sound of teeth being sucked, the heavy sighs afterwards. It wasn’t until the replay of Lapierre accidentally knocking over his mechanic brought a cheer from the man himself, shocked but unharmed, that we could laugh again and watch the race like any other.
When we finally came to leave the paddock, head of operations Marco Codello, normally the first man to make a joke at your misfortune, walked around shaking hands with every man and kissing every women before he left, something I’ve never seen him do in the three years of our paddock. But he wasn’t alone: everyone you spoke to in the paddock would touch you arm, hold your hand longer than usual in a handshake, as though human touch would banish the events of the afternoon for good.
The next day we heard some more good news from the hospital: “Ernesto was told he had to have the nurses come in to see him every hour just to check on him: he asked them if they could send them in every half hour instead…”
Waiting at the gates once again, Paul Jackson was in a good mood too: "Do you see that circle on the cars there? The boys have stuck a couple of magnets on the top of the cars..."
The race went off without the drama of the previous day: Nicolas Lapierre led Javier Villa comfortably from pole until late in the race, when a hydraulic failure broke the Frenchman’s heart and stole his win in front of his friends, neighbours and family (he grew up within a mile of the track, and couldn’t have wanted a win more in his life), handing the victory instead to Villa, who just held on despite the rain and constant pressure over the closing laps from Luca Filippi and Pantano, both of whom had sliced through the pack to be there.
It was while the champagne was being sprayed that we heard the bad news: a helicopter had crashed the previous evening, killing the pilot along with Emmanuel Longobardi from Quiksilver and Simon MacGill from Oakley, and injured Nicolas Duquesne from Bridgestone and his niece: the three men were regular visitors to the paddock, and known to most there.
It was a punch in the guts after a weekend we thought we’d escaped. That’s racing is the glib, pre-programmed reply, but it’s not: it leaves you shaking with useless rage and a sense of hopelessness. Ernesto finally turned up in the paddock, hugging everyone and smiling over his neck brace: we were all genuinely delighted to see him again, but our thoughts were elsewhere by then.
With nothing else to do we finished our jobs, packed our bags, said our goodbyes. Will and I walked down towards the carpark just as the sound of 22 Formula One engines reached fever pitch at the start of their race, but we didn’t have the stomach to watch them. It was the last time that we would walk through the gates at this circuit in the middle of nowhere in France. We didn’t look back.