Monaco is always an odd place to race, but this year was stranger than most: with seemingly all of the F1 action happening in small rooms out of the gaze of the public it felt as though GP2 was left to provide the action on track, to give everyone that had actually come to the Principality some racing to watch.
Not that there were a lot of people there to watch: with the recession biting hard across Europe it was clear that most of the usual Monaco types had decided to save some money and stay at home: the harbour was notably clear of large yachts, while the grandstands around the circuit seemed almost empty. The actual race fans who had made the pilgrimage were almost all up on the cliff overlooking the town.
Or else they had snuck into the pitlane. The local marshals spent all of their time waving their hands and blowing their whistles at everyone as they tried to move the herd and make a path for the teams to actually bring the cars in and get to work.
Unfortunately they were so busy directing everyone else that they weren't paying any attention to where they were walking themselves: as Durango free wheeled down the hill and into the pitlane one of the marshals blithely walked across the lane right in front of them, blowing his whistle as he went.
Adamo Reggiani, their data engineer, was sitting on the sidepod and yelled out to no avail, and when the mechanic steering the car had to jink left Adamo was sent flying. Gallingly the marshal failed to notice that he had just avoided serious injury but instead blew his whistle and waved as we moved to help the poor engineer back to his feet.
But it didn't take long for everyone to settle down to their jobs: Monaco can throw up distractions, and Marco Codello was keen to get straight up to the safety car and be ready to go, as a delay watching the swarm around the stricken Grosjean car the day before meant that the only thing saving his blushes was that his driver Bernd Maylander and a number of the FIA officials were all watching the same thing until they realised the time just before they had to be out.
While the feature race worked out brilliantly for Romain after the initial problems in the pitlane, the sprint race was the complete opposite for him after his nasty incident after the chicane with Andi Zuber left the Frenchman in need of a new tub before the Istanbul weekend in two weeks time.
Needless to say he was more than a little annoyed, as anyone who saw him walking back to the pits after climbing out from his stranded car could tell, but it didn't take long for the adrenalin to wear off and his mood to change completely.
“It was the scare of my life, for sure,” he noted wistfully after he returned to the paddock. Worse was to become apparent though: a hole was punched through the bottom of the tub when he struck the barrier, which pushed the pedals and debris straight up and into his feet.
“The bottom of my feet are completely bruised, and they hurt a lot: I won't be able to go for a run for a while, for sure.” Even worse was to come though: he soon realised that he wouldn't be able to take up the offer of free tickets to a local nightclub that had been left for him in the truck...
“Where is the best place for tequila around here, David?” Karun Chandhok laughed good naturedly over in the ORT truck. The Indian driver was remarkably stoic after losing a certain historic victory in the Principality.
I had learnt over the weekend that, should you wish for whatever reason to blend in with the background, a kilt is not the item of clothing to wear. Particularly in Monaco. And Alvaro Parente, who had his own reasons to be disappointed after a slow leaking tyre stopped his race, was a perfect example of that.
“What's with the short skirt? Hey, nice skirt. You okay there with that skirt?” he laughed while I was trying to get a few words with his teammate, who obviously joined in immediately. “Yeah, it is a bit short there...”
“It's not short,” I sighed before going on the offensive. “This is short...”
“Whoa, don't pull that up!” they squealed in tandem.
“Hey, you're just jealous of my legs...”
And their silence was obviously a sign that they agreed. After all, my Mum always told me I've got good legs, and she wouldn't lie to me, would she?
No matter how close you are to the racing world, it's not possible to know everything that happens in all parts of it. That's what Alexa is currently telling everyone she meets after a clanger in the paddock this afternoon, anyway...
The series communications boss has become quite friendly with Sergio Perez's father Antonio ever since they joined the GP2 family for the Asia series, and she has been happy to help out with advice on spreading the word about his current racing form, as she does for all of our drivers. But she was more than a little confused when Antonio told her excitedly that Sergio's manager was in town for the weekend.
“I don't know why he was so keen for me to meet him,” she told us later, upstairs in the bus, “but he brought me over and said Alexa, this Adrian Fernandez: we shook hands and said hello, Antonio said maybe we should get some shots of him later, and then I came back here. But the strange thing is that there were loads of people around asking for his autograph: maybe more than were asking for Sergio's.”
“Of course they were: he's the most famous racing driver in Mexico.”
“Oh. Is that something that people know?”
“Everyone who works in racing does, anyway...”
She wasn't the only one having a tough day in the paddock: Pastor Maldonado was clearly struggling to repeat his usual peerless form in Monaco after a disappointing qualifying session where, to add insult to injury, he was handily beaten by his rookie teammate Nico Hülkenberg. Today's race wasn't much better for the Venezuelan: a gamble on an early pitstop meant that he was forever trying to find his way back up through the grid, and surviving a coming together with Kamui Kobayashi looked to be his only positive of the race.
“Yeah, it's not so good today,” he noted over lunch, looking downcast. Until, that is, the penalties were announced, which brought the old Pastor back to life. “You see? I am always first in Monaco!” he laughed about his newly applied eighth position for the feature race, which gives him pole for tomorrow's sprint race. “I just can't help it!”
Although all of his rivals will be hoping for a little of Paolo's divine intervention, the combination of Pastor Maldonado and pole position in Monaco looks fairly ominous for everyone else...
The first weekend back in the paddock is a tense time for everyone, so most of us tend to fall back into our tried and tested routines: like any job, over the years you develop a sixth sense for what works and what doesn't, and in a high pressure world like motor racing there is a lot of comfort in falling back into the old rhythms that help you to get everything done efficiently.
Unfortunately for ART their routine was broken before they even arrived at the circuit, when regular truckie Willy was in a car accident the day before he was due to leave for Barcelona. Luckily his injuries were restricted to bruising around his ribs, but that meant there was no chance that he would be able to come to the race.
Cue a frantic call to their Asia Series truckie Jean-Michel, who was relaxing at home over a few drinks just before taking a well earned holiday with his girlfriend, but within a few minutes he was putting on the coffee and packing a bag for the trip to Barcelona. “I don't think he is too popular at home at this moment, but he is here!” laughed engineer Gaetan Jago as the mechanics were pulling down the awning after the race on Sunday.
“But I hear that Willy cannot wait to get to Monaco, so hopefully Jean-Michel can head home this afternoon and we can free Willy for the next race!” Bad puns aside, we all hope he gets well soon.
One person we were happy to see on the mend was Lucas di Grassi, who was back in action in race two with a much quieter race than the day before, when he had a close encounter with the underside of Alvaro Parente's car.
Despite the damage to his headrest (and helmet) the day before, the genial Brazilian was already laughing the incident off the next day, when he popped upstairs in the bus after the second race. “No problems,” he smiled when asked how he was feeling, “My neck is strong and there's nothing in my head anyway, so everything is fine!”
I've always suspected that racing drivers are missing something upstairs...
There have been a lot of people who have had to miss a race weekend from time to time for a variety of reasons, whether through illness, family or business commitments, and there have been others who have been at the track but been unable to make it to the pitlane for some reason or another, but Super Nova team boss David Sears had the strangest excuse we've heard for a while for his non-attendance in race one.
Staying in nearby Grenollers with his family, David figured that he would be able to relax and spend a bit of extra time with the kids before making the short journey to the circuit: with our paddock being on his side of the circuit the drive had been only five minutes on the previous two days, and so he felt he had plenty of time in hand before he needed to leave.
Unfortunately he didn't factor in the efficiency of the Spanish traffic police, who redirected every lane of traffic on the roads surrounding the circuit to run outwards only so that fans leaving after F1 qualifying would have a quicker run to the freeway, which left him with no way to get into the circuit despite his frantic calls for help to the paddock.
All of which meant that he was unable to witness first hand not only the successful return of Luca Filippi to the team (with a drive that had many in the paddock remarking on the return of the real Luca after a torrid season last year), but also a dramatic moment before the race.
Javier Villa was leaving the pits after being topped up with fuel (the heat for race one meant that fuel may have been marginal, and after Valencia last year no one was taking any risks), but some of the overflow caused a fireball in the pitlane which, thankfully, dissipated quickly.
Of course it is possible that it was just the team's way of outdoing their rivals: many of the cars sported small flames from their exhausts during the race as small amounts of fuel dripped onto the hot exhausts, and engineers are known for their mischievous streaks. While that's probably not the case, David was notable for his earliness in the paddock to keep an eye on things on Sunday morning...
Racing drivers are always late: it's just a fact of life for anyone who has to deal with them on a regular basis. But even by their standards Alvaro Parente is famous for being late: like every other driver Alvaro would rather sleep than do just about anything else, but he struggles more than any of the others to get out of bed and into the track. Which is why, when we need him early for any reason, we tell him to arrive earlier than we actually need him, just so he is there around the right time.
(Alvaro, if you're reading this I am lying now, honestly: please turn up when we ask you to...)
But fresh from his championship win in Asia, it seems that Kamui Kobayashi is determined to take another new title, even if it's one that no one else really wants. We waited and waited for him to arrive in the paddock, with Dams' media liaison Claire calling him frantically to get here in time for the signing session, but when even Alvaro started complaining about how late Kamui was it was clearly time to go.
Finally turning up after running all the way from the carpark to our paddock, to the pitlane, and eventually to the Bridgestone fan area, he set about signing every card on the table in record time, went off for some water, and even had time to come back and take photos for some of the fans with the Spanish driver contingent, all with his usual cheeky smirk across his face. So there's always photography to fall back on if the driving doesn't work out. Although I assume that they have to get out of bed, too...
One guy who wished he hadn't made the effort to get up in the morning was Lucas di Grassi, who had a bit of a torrid time during the race: after pointing out to everyone in yesterday's press conference that preserving the tyres would be the vital component of today's race his team went the wrong way with their set up, and he had shot tyres after six laps or so and a mountain to climb to protect his position.
But how is it possible to get the set up wrong in Barcelona, where the team's have spent so much time testing? “Unfortunately it's pretty easy to go the wrong way on that,” Gavin Bickerton-Jones told me later that night in the paddock, ironically as he was setting up Diego Nunes' car for race two. “We've all been there, so I can sympathise.
“You can top the times in testing and think right, got everything sorted there, and then turn up for the race and be nowhere. The problem is that the data doesn't always relate: testing is in winter and it's much colder than now, and even that makes a bigger difference than you'd think. Everyone has a slightly different approach over the weekend, and sometimes you can go the wrong way and get lost: unfortunately, that's just part of racing.”
Although one look at what was left of Lucas' head rest after the collision with Alvaro told me that a wrong choice on set up being his biggest problem today was probably a blessing...
The final word should probably go to our first race winner of the year, Romain Grosjean. Sitting on the pitwall I had a spectacularly ugly hat sitting next to my computer for the whole race: when I asked Alexa why it was there she was uncustomarily coy, saying only that she was minding it for a friend. And after the race the Frenchman seemed to be in a bigger hurry than usual to get his helmet off.
It was only then that I noticed the hat: suddenly it was on his head, and he was pulling Superman poses.
“Ah, Superman!” he laughed when I asked him about it later. “It was a bet I made over the winter, because I had nothing better to do! Every time I win I will have to wear a special hat: this time it is Superman, next time I don't know. I will look stupid, but I don't mind: I hope I will look stupid more than once!”
I tracked down the French radio journalist who made the bet after the race, and he was delighted to show me the next potential design. I can only say that if Romain does get another win this year, he will certainly live up to his hopes...
Part of the fun of turning up in the paddock for the new year is to see what has changed since you were last there. It's still motor racing, so change tends to happen glacially, but there is always new stuff if you look closely enough.
- Beards: Apparently 2009 is the year of facial hair. It seems to be an Italian led trend, with Davide Valsecchi and Luca Filippi arriving in the paddock with full (for them) beards (the latter has already chopped his down to a surprising mutton chops / goatee combination), while Andi Zuber is sporting an Amish-style beard (and was less than thrilled at that description), and Jérôme d’Ambrosio has a “lucky beard” he started growing in GP2 Asia.
“Well they obviously don't want to go to F1,” was Karun Chandhok's swift judgement. “They don't like beards up there.” “What about Nick Heidfeld?” “He's been there for ages, so it's okay.” “And he probably only grew it so that people would actually notice him.” “It's his USP: he is the beardy one...”
- Paint schemes: The teams have been busy coming up with new colour schemes for the season. Trident's striking new colours have been particularly well received, along with their classic style outfits, while iSport have resolved their blue / red clash in fine style. Arden now look like the GP2 test car, Piquet look surprisingly like a large Formula BMW, while most of the others tweaked their existing schemes. Apart from one obvious change...
- Fat Burner Racing Engineering: They're bright, they're brash, and they're very, very red. Team boss Alfonso de Orleans-Borbon, probably aware of what was to come when he stepped foot into the paddock, was busy over the off-season pre-empting the punchlines. “I've lost 22 kilos since we got this new sponsor,” he told approximately every living being in the paddock (“Is that guy over there Alfonso?” asked a newbie in the paddock yesterday. “I've never spoken to him before, but he came over and told me he lost 22 kilos...”).
He certainly looks pleased with his weekend so far (and also quite slimmed down from last season). Those in the paddock with a grounding in the Latin languages can't help but feel that Lucas di Grassi is less enamoured with the new sponsor, given his surname...
- Hospitality: We've got a proper door out front now, and a new, lower roof that stops the glare on the TV screens and keeps the whole area cooler. Those of us who live upstairs in the central bus are less sure about the latter change: it seems even hotter up here now, and we now can't look down and see who is sitting downstairs (no more antics involving a wireless microphone and fake calls to the stewards' office, sadly). But it does look as though we're above the clouds when we look out the window now.
- ORT: Ocean Racing Scene, as the paddock's aficionado's of early 90's retro rock are already calling our newest team, have hit the ground running: their matt black and shiny blue paint scheme has had numerous people scratching their heads as they try to work out whether they think it is genius or the opposite (current split: 60/40 for genius), while the shirts have all the females in the office smiling because the silver lines are glittery. It's the small touches that make all the difference.
The off season is a mixed bag for those of us who don't do the Asia series: at the end of the main season you're completely exhausted and looking forward to a break and being away from race tracks for a while, but as time goes by you start to itch. Then the craving just builds and builds as you watch the races and read the reports, and you get the texts and emails from your friends on the other side of the planet to tell you about all the fun they're having in sun while you sit at home in cold,
By the time the first race comes around you're climbing the walls: when I finally got to Barcelona I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as I walked through the paddock, shaking hands and swapping stories with everyone, catching up with all the old faces as we stroll up and down and taking in all the new changes.
But there's almost no time for small talk with the launch to be organised. As always Alexa has done an amazing job putting everything together: she is a blur of frenetic energy as she runs around the hospitality area putting the finishing touches on everything, talking to 5 people at once as she goes. I take my instructions and get out of her way, fast.
One of my jobs is to organise the drivers for the photoshoot: getting 26 drivers into one room at once is like herding cats. “I need you in hospitality at 5.50 ... yes, you too, it's for all the drivers ... no, just drivers ... yes, but in your race suit ... no, not your helmet ... stop being awkward, you've done this how many times now? ... yes, 5.50 ... no, in your race suit ... hey, I saw that ... no, hospitality is the opposite direction ... yes, it is on right now ... no, it won't wait! ...”
Somehow it all works: it always does, and we're never quite sure how we got away with it again, but we're always glad that we do.
Standing at the back of the room when the Asia Series prizes were being handed out I could relax at last, while Chandhok and Zuber picked up their comedy routines from where they left them the last time we were in a room together (if they don't make it to F1, they should seriously consider putting together a double act to take onto the road).
There was no such luck for Lee McKenzie, who was hosting the show up on stage: “...and this year's champion is Kamui Kobayashi, who is a very cosmopolitan champion: a Japanese driver who lives in Paris with a Yorkshire terrier who is for some reason called Alfred! But that's another story: how much does this championship change your life, Kamui?”
“Alfred? Well, I called him that because...”
“No, no Kamui: the championship, not your dog...”
Finally it was time to relax, or at least it was until we realised we hadn't yet put the press conference area together. Which is when we discovered that the truckies had forgotten to bring the sound system.
Another problem to solve, but it can wait until tomorrow. It's good to be back.