Another day, another early start in Abu Dhabi: six years I've been working for GP2, and still I haven't worked out that when Didier recommends one last drink, while Alexa and Marco say that they are going to get some sleep, I should just follow them. It's not the drinking that extends a toll – he's French, after all – it's the fact that you lose track of time as he tells story after story until you realise one o'clock has come and gone, and you have to meet the others in a couple of hours in the foyer...
I admit, the tiredness might have played a part, but the security guard couldn't have annoyed me more if he'd started talking in a comically high pitched voice and poked me intermittently with sticks. We went to walk into the paddock but he stopped us, yelling that we need to put our bags through the scanner: I went to remove my coat but he said no, and pointed towards the metal detector gate.
It buzzed, obviously, as it did for everyone, which gave him the chance to rub me everywhere. Yes, everywhere. He found my phone and iPod in my coat, what a surprise, and scowled but had to finally let me in. The only bright point was that Alexa had to go into a small black tent to be patted down in the darkness, and was still yelling back at the occupant as she finally emerged, looking even more annoyed than me, somehow.
We had to head over to the main pits not long after to set up for the race, but unfortunately it was too early for the F1 teams again: ART had to open up the origami Ferrari stand, while iSport put the chairs in place next door at McLaren. The Williams guys had just opened the pit doors and were starting their set up, but thankfully they were happy to come over and take the covers off so the Coloni guys and us had somewhere to watch the race: Renault didn't arrive until the race was almost over, forcing everyone to squeeze onto the perches that were open.
There's not a lot of extra space in the main pitlane, so parc ferme was placed in our pitlane rather than the main one: it's easy enough to drive to, but it meant that the usually dramatic moments where the top three get out of the cars to be greeted by a heroes welcome was replaced with ... well, I don't know really, I was up in the main pits with everyone else, while the guys were in the paddock with the cleaners, I guess.
There wasn't even a TV camera to record the moment, so we were all in the dark until a large coach rolled into the pitlane, unloading Sergio, Oliver and Sam, who sheepishly strolled over to us and then upstairs to spray the fizzy rose water around (which is much better smelling than champagne on a sweaty, steaming race suit, trust me), back downstairs for back slaps and hugs, job done.
At least you'd think so. With the circuit going live in preparation for the F1 practice session, Oliver and Sam had to get back into the big bus to be driven outside the track and dropped at the front of the GP2 paddock, in full race suits and holding their trophies and bottles, only to be stopped by the guard.
“Er, we've just finished the race, we don't have it.”
“I don't have it – I've been racing!”
“They're racing drivers, let them in!”
“This bottle is not allowed – no alcohol.”
“It's not alcohol – it's from the podium! It's rose water.”
“It's not ... never mind (Sam tips out the remainder of his drink) Can we come in now?”
“No bottle – it's not permitted.”
“They were just given the bottles on the podium! They just came second and third in the race!”
Eventually someone offered to take the bottles and keep them secure for the guys, and they were let through by the clearly disapproving jobsworth (after the trophies were run through the x-ray machine, of course: you can't be too careful, as trophies could possibly be used as weapons, somehow). Sam had to run over and get changed before sprinting up to Mercedes for a debrief, while Oliver came over to tell his team the story, to everyone's obvious disbelief.
Sam was asked to watch the F1 practice session with the team on the pitwall, and had to sprint back to make the next signing session, but at least he made it: Giedo van der Garde slumped off to the hotel 10 minutes after his race finished (no one would be too happy about being pushed off at the first corner, to be fair). But it probably didn't matter, as the star of the show was Marcus Ericsson.
The likeable Swede has had a pretty torrid debut season, but he always has a smile on his face and is happy to talk to anyone. Which is just as well as the Mad Swedes (TM) turned up in force, flying over eight hours to watch a guy race around in the midfield of the F1 support race. “I think he is a good driver, and I just wanted to see him race,” one fellow noted, “so I had to fly out and be here before the season finished.” “We have races in Europe, too...” I noted. “Yes, but this one has sun, too. I like the sun.” I thought about pointing out that we had a fair bit of sun in Europe too, but figured it was better to hold off. “The last time I went to a race was in 1977. It was in Sweden back then. It was sunny, too.”
When he finished the signing session Marcus strolled over, seemingly oblivious to the swelling ranks of his countrymen standing at the side of the stage for a moment with him: “It's always like this, if you are Swedish,” he noted. “Our fans are the best in the world, and the most passionate!”
I waited around for him, but he was happy to stay and spend time talking to everyone, and I had a blog to write. I might just pop out to check the gate now though: I'm not sure that he brought his pass with him, and I don't like his chances with the crack security force here...
It felt like ages since I'd been to a race track, and it was, but things were soon back in place: despite a very early trip to the airport on Thursday, a combination of an all day flight, massive queues to get through immigration, and a delay in finding the driver Marco had sent out for me meant it was still after 10.00 pm when I finally left the airport, which is about usual in Europe. It felt like ages since I'd been to a race track, and it was, but things were soon back in place: despite a very early trip to the airport on Thursday, a combination of an all day flight, massive queues to get through immigration, and a delay in finding the driver Marco had sent out for me meant it was still after 10.00 pm when I finally left the airport, which is about usual in Europe.
In fact I was lucky to get here at all: I wasn't given the hotel details, and my phone was running on empty when I rang Alexa to see if she could help me find the driver: “There's a big board in arrivals, and it should have your name on it if you can't find him.”
“I'm standing in front of it, and it doesn't say David Cameron anywhere.”
This was when providence struck: an older couple tapped me on the shoulder and said, in that quintessentially English way, “I'm sorry to disturb you, but I couldn't help but overhear you...” before pointing to a man sitting down around the corner, holding a piece of paper on his lap. “We were waiting to see if he was picking up the Prime Minister, actually...”
Night time is probably the best time to fly into Abu Dhabi though: the track shone like a necklace of diamonds, with half the plane looking through their windows excitedly and the other half coveting our view. On the ground we weren't able to enter Yas Island in the usual manner because of security concerns, but luckily the driver knew a back route in, between the stunningly large Ferrari park and the main hotel, shining like a whale accidentally caught in a net made of Christmas lights.
Some of us can't afford to stay there, sadly, but happily we're only a ten minute walk from our pits, which are underneath the grandstand at the back of the track. We walked in as a fleet of buses lined up in our pitlane to unload the track workers for the day, much to the bemusement of the teams setting up for free practice. We were the first session on track for a change, and it was strange to walk over to the main pits and see the shutters down and screens off, as the F1 boys didn't need to arrive until much later in the day.
It's a little depressing to run around in front of empty stands, and to make things worse the drivers had to spend almost the whole session waiting for the track to hold enough rubber for them to do a representative lap: the last minute saw more changes at the top of the timesheets than the previous twenty nine.
But they stayed off the walls and came back to the pits to set up the cars for qualifying and for lunch, just making it back before the rain. The ferocity of the storm took everyone by surprise (not least the poor Porsche drivers, who were aquaplaning all round the circuit during their session), but luckily it stopped a little later, disappearing as fast as it appeared, just before the first F1 session.
And then they didn't want to go out on track, as the times would be unrepresentative without any rubber on the track: how quickly they forget their time with us. Or maybe they just wanted to work on their tans, as they'll be driving in the twilight this weekend.
Rubens Barrichello gave us a little present though: he stopped on the way back and his car had to be retrieved by truck, with the driver parking his vehicle at the top of the pitlane and blocking the entrance for the entire field until he could finally be persuaded to move over a little to allow the cars through. When it finally got under way, qualifying was great: with little left to fight for but pride, the whole field was throwing everything at the session until Oliver Turvey stunned them with a lap half a second faster than anyone towards the end, with no one having any answer.
So happy was he with his job today that he forgot to pick up his pass as we collected him for one of this weekend's signing sessions straight afterwards: the guy on the gate wasn't going to let him through until we pointed out that:
a. he is a driver
b. he was just on pole, so he should be at least reasonably well known
c. he was going to a signing session organised by his employers, the circuit
“I don't have my pass either,” Pastor giggled to me as we watch Oliver and Alexa argue with the man before finally being allowed through.
“I wouldn't mention it just now,” I suggested. “Besides, you're the champion: he can't really argue with that, I think...”
No sooner had the guys sat down on the stage then Jules Bianchi's phone rang: he looked ashen faced as he whispered something to Alexa and slunk away. “Where is he going?” Pastor understandably asked, and laughed out loud when told that he had been called to see the stewards. It wasn't much longer before one of the Rapax guys came over to collect their driver...
“I think I better go too,” Sergio Perez protested, “I think the stewards need to see me.”
“Keep signing: you two have to make up for the others now!” The Mexican kept checking his phone, almost willing it to ring as he rubbed his tired hand and he smiled for another photo. It's a tough life, being an almost F1 driver...
But I enjoyed doing a signing session for the first time in ages, even if Sergio grumbled a little: the fans love it as they get to be close to their heroes for a little while, and it's particularly great to watch the little kids shyly approach a favourite driver for a photo, with their fathers urging them on.
And with the sun dropping and the noise returning to the track, the rest of us got back to work as darkness fell around us and the buses returned to pick up the workers once again: it might be a different timetable, but Abu Dhabi's modern facilities still gave us the opportunity for some old school GP2 too.
I love coming to Monza: I always have. It was the first grand prix I ever came to, and then later it was my local circuit when I lived in Milan for a few years, so it's always been a bit of a homecoming.
I imagine that Ocean don't share my enthusiasm though: an accident in Spa left the Portuguese team scrabbling around for any way to get back up and on the road just to get here. Happily no one was injured, but with the truck out of action they needed help fast: Thierry Boutsen Racing stepped up to the plate, with the Belgian ex-F1 star lending Ocean a truck to get them to Italy and through the penultimate weekend.
It meant that they could deal with the insanity that is Monza with the rest of us, at the busiest weekend of the season. There was more work that usual when it was planned to unveil the 2011 car in a presentation in front of the F1 media, with the truck stopping over on the way from Mugello to the next test at Jerez.
Giorgio Pantano will be driving at that test, but unfortunately he wasn't able to come to Monza: with action photos needed for future press kits and the like something had to be done. Alexa drew the short straw and was soon put inside the car, helmet stuck on her head as Didier and Luca Pignacca (the Dallara car designer) pulling the car back and forth while Alastair swooped in and out for the dramatic “movement” shots until she couldn't take it anymore.
“It's so small in there!” she sobbed afterwards. “There's just no room to move, and when they closed the visor I was suffocating: I don't know how the drivers do it!” Luckily the photos were done before the media descended on the hospitality area: the launch was a great success, with the last journos finally leaving at 21.30, so that the car could be put back in the truck and sent on its way to the south of Spain.
There was another photo shoot set for the afternoon, between the two title rivals. Pastor was up first, with some shots in the paddock with his car (Rapax did a great job of converting a two car garage into Team Maldonado for the shoot) and out on track, with Alexa having to carry the “Pastor Champion” pitboard through the paddock behind him.
She obviously got a lot of people making inevitable sarcastic comments (“hey, he's not champion yet...”), but she also got one she didn't think about: Sergio came out early and asking why she only had one sign made up. Thinking fast, she replied: “Well it's just in case he wins this weekend, as we'll need the shot ready to go: you can't win the championship here, but if you have a good weekend we'll make one for you in Abu Dhabi of course...”
This morning was the usual craziness getting into the circuit: we followed a Maserati all the way from the hotel but didn't think about it until we got just outside the paddock, when the usual huge crowd there went crazy. We thought they were just classic car fans until we remembered that Fernando Alonso was driving the car...
Ho-Pin Tung was back in the paddock, although sadly not in the car as he still isn't quite ready to race again. He was his usual cheerful self though, and was wandering around to say hello to everyone. We were sitting on the pitwall ahead of free practice when he came over to say hi, and I noticed the brace he was wearing: it looks a bit like the kidney protectors you wear for karting, and although it looked a bit painful he was pretty chipper about the whole thing.
“I don't mind at all!” he laughed when I mentioned it. “It helps to keep my gut in, so I can eat lots of crap and no one notices!”
The Addax guys had a one-two in free practice, but Pastor was strangely off-song, struggling to keep his car under control as he constantly cut the chicanes, losing all his best lap times in the process. He had a similar problem in qualifying, cutting the first chicane once and then being thrown off the kerb and into the gravel next time round to put himself out of the running for pole.
Jules stepped up to claim the top spot, in what was probably the most popular result of the season after the Frenchman's battle to get back on the grid after Hungary. He just pipped his teammate too, albeit that the top three were split by less than a tenth.
The press conference was a laugh, with Sam and Jerome making jokes at each other's expense, or ganging up on Jules (“no one has won from pole this year – no pressure!”). Afterwards someone asked the guys if they had any problems seeing when the cars are so fast, and Sam was blasé: “I was doing about 336kmph, and it was like a drive in the country.” “How fast?” Jerome spluttered. “Over 330: it was really easy.” “Okay: I need to go now, I have to call Mecachrome...”
Sergio and Pastor couldn't stay away from each other: after following each other around for photo shoots, they now line up tomorrow on the grid next to each other in 7th and 8th respectively. Unfortunately we realised that, cynically, if Pastor was to take Sergio off, the points difference means the championship would be over.
Will Buxton came down to see how things were going, and immediately asked if anyone had mentioned this to Pastor yet. No, we replied, we don't really want to put those sort of thoughts into his head. “Oh, well I'll go and tell him then!”
Heading straight over he went to shake the Venezuelan's hand before being waved off: it turns out that he has hurt his right hand earlier today. “No problem,” Will smirked, “you only need one hand to take Sergio off tomorrow and claim the championship.” “I couldn't do that!” he gasped, shocked, “You would say terrible things about me in the commentary!” “No, I'd say that moves had shades of Senna...” “I could never do it! I would never know what to say to everyone, for a start!” “That's easy: you just say that you've always been a massive Senna fan, and learnt how to race by watching him on TV!” It's amazing how much some people change when they move to a new job...
The top three psyching each other out, with P7 and 8 at war: is it too late to put a bet on Grosjean or Parente claiming a win tomorrow? I think I need to find a betting shop with late opening hours...
“You're not going to have an easy job with the blog this weekend,” Alexa noted in passing when we spoke ahead of my flight to Brussels: when I asked her what she meant she would only state enigmatically that's I'd see when I got there.
But Spa is always a bit difficult: it's in the middle of nowhere really, so it's not the easiest place to get to, and it always rains, but after a few trips there you just assume it won't be easy and just get on with things and hope for the best. And I still love coming here, of course: it's Spa, after all.
It was only when I got here this morning that I spotted the obvious problem: Christian had set up the hospitality area at the Nurburgring by mistake. Well, Didier ended up in Spa one year when he was meant to be driving to the German circuit, so I guess these things happen.
We turned up in the paddock to find the Addax and Manor GP3 teams where the hospitality area has always been: some bright spark decided that it's not fair to put the GP3 teams down the hill and make them walk up to GP2 for lunch, and instead put hospitality outside the paddock and across the river on the way to Stavelot so everyone has to walk the same distance.
A much better idea, obviously.
The distance, along with the rain, meant that the only time we saw most people was in the pitlane for the sessions: drivers famously don't like to exert themselves outside of the car (or training), and with no television here (we're too far away to get the signal, apparently) they might as well hibernate in the truck between sessions, while a lot of the mechanics just got sandwiches and kept working in the pits, where it was dry.
The weather was causing its usual havoc: the rain started just as the cars got into the pitlane for practice after a typical sunny session for F1, fell a little heavier as they went out on track and pulled back slightly as Maldonado got a clear track to set the best time, then dropped like an anvil to stop anyone else having a go. When Fabio Leimer slithered into the wall at Blanchimont the red flags came out, and we watched the clock tick away to zero.
The sun came out for F1 again, naturally, and we got so excited that we were talking about taking sunglasses with us to the pitlane for qualifying, fools that we are: obviously the rain started up again just as the cars came into the pitlane. “Bernie pays for the sun for F1,” I sighed to Bruno Michel as we watched the teams' umbrellas get blown across the cars, “why can't we?” “You don't understand,” the series organiser smirked, “we pay for the rain: it's much more fun that way...”
And then qualifying happened.
So many stories, so little time. Pastor decided to take a gamble and put slicks on, rolling off with three minutes to go so that he was first in the queue to get out of the pits: just as he did this the rain slated down, the guys all slid around Pastor and ran away on their out lap before the red flags were shown, with the conditions too crazy, too treacherous even for our guys.
Almost half an hour passed before they were allowed out again: the rain was so heavy in between that the medical car was struggling just to stay on track as they went round and round to gauge the conditions. Luiz Razia won the race to be the first one back out – everyone wanted the position, as it gives you a clear view of the circuit – and promptly set the quickest time, but a little mistake put him into the wall and out of the running.
Another red flag, another race for pole position in the pitlane for the restart. Returnee Romain Grosjean won this one, but only after pulling out sharply in front of teammate Jerome d'Ambrosio, who was rolling down the pitlane after being weighed. One-two for Dams as the lights went green, one-two for Dams on the timesheets after the first flying lap, and another red flag period when Giedo van der Garde and Vladimir Arabadzhiev slid off track at opposite ends of the circuit.
Michael Herck was the first man back on track this time, just ahead of Leimer (for his first lap in the session, after his mechanics did a mighty job of getting his car running again after his shunt in the earlier session), Grosjean went fastest in the first sector and then ran long through the gravel, with the Romanian setting the top time ahead of yet another red flag, this one shown for Adrian Zaugg's accident at Pouhon.
Just under five minutes remaining, and Max Chilton led them out for their last shot: one warm up, one flyer, rain falling from the sky like the bottom had fallen out of the bathtub. Step up local hero Jerome d'Ambrosio, cutting Herck's lead to two tenths in wretched conditions after a fraught couple of months to put himself on the front row against the odds.
And when the penalties shook out he got pole, with Michael failing to slow enough in the treacherous conditions for a yellow flag. Tough break, but motor racing is a tough business: one mistake is all it takes.
Press conference, dinner, and they went home to bed: we haven't seen much of the drivers so far this weekend, we haven't got many funny stories to pass on about their antics outside of the car. But this is Spa, and Spa is always about the racing.
That's why we always love coming here.
It's been a while since we last gave you an opportunity to take a look behind the curtains. So for the last post before the summer break we thought you might like to follow us from the paddock to the pitlane. Buckle up!
We arrived in the pits to find the place deserted: it was as though someone had called a holiday and forgotten to tell us.
In fact they were just cleaning up after the flooding caused by the overnight storms before going out the back to watch the F1 session: our paddock is above turn two, and you can learn a lot about the cars from there. Rodolfo was one of the drivers taking advantage of the view.
A quick lunch and time to watch F1 qualy before the action starts.
Given the steep hill between our paddock and the pitlane, the guys are allowed to drive around: it means we've all got to be a bit careful about where we walk.
Up in the pitlane there was some inspiration for the guys: here's our last champion's new car.
Some last minute preparation and then time for the grid.
Another ex-champ dropped in for a word.
On the grid.
The queue ahead of the (eventual) start.
A familiar sight.
And then it was time to go.
Waiting for GP3 to clear the paddock.
A driver's work is never done. Waiting for the press conference.
After missing Hockenheim due to a maliciously timed explosive appendix suffered by my poor wife (now on the road to recovery, even if she has to make a lot of stops along that road to catch her breath) the rest of the circus did little but moan to me about the weather in the Baden-Wűrttemberg region.
And then they turned around and headed straight to Budapest.
We always get the worst weather of the year in Budapest: the city is beautiful, but Bernie insists that we have the race here in late July / early August, which means diabolical heat. The first season of GP2 Will Buxton and I alternated our time upstairs in the bus typing as sweat waterfalled off our heads and into the keyboards for as long as we could take sitting there (a Bridgestone engineer recorded the temperature at 50°C on the Saturday), and it's never been substantially better since then.
The forecasts ahead of the weekend were divided: half promised scorching heat, half promised extensive storms, and everyone just smacked their heads and said 'yeah, figures.' Turning up in the paddock on Friday it looked like the heat brigade were going to win out, but by the time we got up to the pitlane for free practice we all stared with dull apprehension towards turn one and the massing storm clouds headed our way.
Brilliant, I thought: both forecasts were right after all.
The clouds soon loomed overhead with the promise of pain, but we got through the session without incident and breathed a collection sigh of relief to have done so, with Giedo van der Garde just pipping teammate Sergio Perez and Sam Bird for the top spot: all three were split by just one tenth.
It's a great circuit though, don't get me wrong: it's a real challenge to drive and get right, and the guys love driving here. “It's really, really awesome to drive,” Sam noted afterwards, getting a buzz from his first time at the track, “it's nice and flowing, although it's very difficult! You've got to get everything right as all of the corners lead on to the next one, so if you get the first one wrong, you get the second one wrong.
“I had to make sure I got everything correct, and it's very difficult as well with all of the traffic here: thankfully when I got a clear lap I was able to mainly put it all together!”
He clearly liked it even more when qualy came around, although the Addax pair weren't too happy afterwards. Traffic is always a nightmare on the tight, twisty circuit, and Sergio was determined to get a clear lap in and take advantage of the F1 rubber, but he jumped the gun: he rolled into the pitlane with 5 minutes to go until the green lights came on, to baffled looks from the Racing Engineering crew (we're sharing the Force India pitwall with them this weekend), which turned to laughter as he had to be pushed out of the way with a minute to go after he overheated, eventually rolling out last by the time his team rushed over to get him restarted.
Sam took pole in a dramatic session, just ahead of the iSport pairing of Davide Valsecchi and Oliver Turvey, but a question mark hung over his last lap dash for the flag owing to a yellow flag at the final corner for Jerome d'Ambrosio's spin. That question was still unresolved as we wanted to start the press conference, but with the poleman still discussing the matter with the stewards we had little choice but to postpone the event until Sam returned to the paddock.
Unfortunately the delay coincided with the Porsche's coming out for their practice session, and being situated on top of turns 2 and 3 we became very aware of their presence. Not that it mattered much: by the time Sam returned, Davide had disappeared. “Is he missing?” Oliver asked bemusedly. “It can't surprise you much, surely! Everyone at the team calls him The Ghost, because he just disappears all the time: he even went back to the hotel between sessions today...”
It wasn't much of a surprise, admittedly, as Davide is known to prefer to sleep than to do pretty much anything else: driving is about the only thing he likes more, but it's a close run choice. Alexa made the inevitable call as the rest of us made jokes at his expense. “Davide, where are you?” “I am ... around. Why?” “Because you're supposed to be here now.” “Why?” “You know why: the press conference.” “Oh, puttana. I'll be back soon.”
It all worked out eventually: Sam got back and answered everything we asked, his usual cheerful manner exacerbated by pole (confirmed as we sat there) and his true love of my action sampler camera (an admittedly ridiculous camera that looks like it's made of Lego), Oliver was erudite and on message, and when Davide turned up halfway through he was as ebullient as ever.
And then it was time for transcription and a bite to eat before more work. I sat down with David Beck, Dallara's token Kiwi engineer and a keen racing fan, who was delighted to see a replay of some classic races from the 80s and 90s on the screens as we ate. “Those were the days: the drivers were real personalities back then.” “Yeah, not like today: I reckon anyone would agree with you. Let's ask the guys at the table next to us: oh look, it's Karun Chandhok and Sam Bird...”
Luckily Mark Glendenning from Autosport came over to save David's blushes: “I've got the worst present ever: do you want to see it?” Well, of course we do. He held out a small replica tyre with a Bridgestone logo on the top. “They just came over and sold it by saying 'we've been told to hand out some presents, and they are the worst ones I've ever seen: do you want one?'”
Mark put it down on the table and pushed the button. A voice said: “For drivers who want to get the most out of their cars, it's Bridgestone, or nothing.” He pushed the button again: it repeated the same phrase, again and again and again. We laughed, and I asked if I could have it. “I'm quite attached to it, of course,” Mark giggled, “but you are sponsored by Bridgestone: surely its rightful home is with you.” I left the tyre in its box next to Didier's computer and, as the internet wasn't working, there was nothing left to do but go back to the hotel.
We arrived back first thing this morning to see Christian and his gang cleaning up the sodden hospitality area after the floods caused by last night's storms, serenaded by Didier's megaphone proclaiming “For drivers who want to get the most out of their cars, it's Bridgestone, or nothing” over and over and over again.
I'm back in the paddock in Budapest, and nothing much ever changes.
I don't want to belabour the point, but maybe the Europeans are right. I was certainly starting to think so this morning after the GP3 qualifying session, when the second and third placed guys (Rio Haryanto and Nico Mueller) turned up for the press conference but the poleman didn't, leaving the rest of us all standing around and waiting to see what would happen.
The ART guys were in a panic trying to find their driver, to no avail: a collection of scooters were pressed into action as they tried to find their errant driver, but ultimately we ran out of time and had to have the press conference without the main guy.
It was only as we were having a coffee afterwards when the phone rang to ask where we were: 30 seconds later Estaban Gutierrez, for it was he, came rushing in, apologising profusely for going missing, as a meeting with his sponsors kept him out of the paddock.
And no sponsors, no racing: it's motor racing law number one. But next time, I'm levying a fine: an extra dessert after dinner, perhaps. This is the sort of tough treatment that means all of the drivers are secretly afraid of me, just between you and me.
Because of the overrun we had to run straight down to Rapax for the latest of the teammate interviews, this time with Pastor Maldonado and Luiz Razia. It was pretty funny – the guys never stop joking around with each other, and are always laughing together – but no matter how well they get on, I always enjoy watching teammates try to out do each other, no matter what they're doing.
So when one driver suggests another one is gay, for example, and that driver then decides to say yes just to out do his teammate, forcing the other one to then suggest that he is too: from there it is a race to see who can be the gayest driver ever. And that can only end well, for anyone watching.
And I can also report that Pastor is probably the most superstitious driver we've ever had in the series: name a superstition, and he's got it. So if the Venezuelan suddenly has a bad weekend, I'm going to immediately assume that Luiz has hidden one of his teammate's shoes. It would only take one to destroy his day.
Lunch time gave me the opportunity to sit down with Adrian Zaugg, who for one reason or another I don't seem to get many chances to chat with. The South African is a lovely guy, albeit a bit sad whenever anyone else talks about their national football team, and he's certainly had a lot of bad luck this season as he seems to have been knocked out of more races than he's finished.
But this week the team have come up with an ingenious solution to his woes: written across the back of the rear wing, as well as on both mirrors, is the instruction “Keep Your Distance”, an echo of the famous message on the back of Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams a few years ago after he lost a win when Jos Verstappen drove over him in Brazil.
“Yeah, that's exactly where they got it,” Adrian smiled when I mentioned it, “but to be honest I'm not sure it will help much today: there's not many guys behind me on the grid!”
It turns out that Charles Pic could have used the sign too: the Frenchman's strong qualifying performance was thrown out the window when Sergio Perez tapped him into a spin on the second lap, nullifying any hopes of a points finish at his team's home circuit. To his credit the Mexican went straight over to apologise after the race, and given his luck of late Sergio clearly knows how his rival felt.
Other than that the race will probably not go onto our classics list, but Adrian seemed fine with that: “It was a boring race, but I don't mind at all: that's a step forward for me!”
And the rest of my day went to plan too, other than a slight delay in getting to the GP3 race press conference. Inevitably Estaban was sitting there smirking, and pulled out his phone to make a point. “Look, you are one minute late! I've been waiting for one whole minute!” “Thanks Estaban, I'll take it off your tab: you only owe me 29 minutes now...”
Silverstone is always a difficult weekend – I don't know why, but it always seems to work out that way. And the Europeans obviously hate coming here – the money is wrong, everyone drives on the wrong side of the road, the weather is always a problem – and nothing ever goes right. Silverstone is always a difficult weekend – I don't know why, but it always seems to work out that way. And the Europeans obviously hate coming here – the money is wrong, everyone drives on the wrong side of the road, the weather is always a problem – and nothing ever goes right.
The weather is always bad, we'll be told – it's always wet and raining and cold. Personally I can't remember a cold, wet Silverstone since Bernie briefly moved the race to April a few years ago, but frankly that was always asking for trouble. It was this assumption that meant we didn't pack the air conditioning unit for the hospitality area – why pack something you won't need?
It's so hot here, they inevitably moaned – why don't we have any air conditioning?
But one group who weren't complaining were the Addax team, who arrived early to watch their crucial semi final against Germany – two hours later they were driving around town yelling and screaming, hanging out of the car and waving their flags madly, delirious with delight at their country's first World Cup final appearance.
Which gave the other Europeans something to moan about, of course. Apart from the fat kid annoying people this evening by riding up and down the paddock for no reason with his oranje shirt on, and the token Uruguayan at DPR who has hoisted his flag proudly on the portable workbench to share his allegiances in the pitlane.
Sam Bird was another happy camper, partially because we're at his home circuit, partially because he arrived off the back of a fun trip to Goodwood. “It was great, actually,” he gushed in the paddock earlier today, “I drove the 74 McLaren and the 2010 Williams – I do their straight line tests at Kemble, so it was nice to take a few corners this time!”
You might think that the opportunity to drive a championship winning car and the latest version of top end technology would be the highlight of the weekend. You might think that, but you'd be entirely wrong – better than driving these two cars, apparently, was the opportunity to enter an F1 quiz with Jonathan Williams and Karun Chandhok.
“Jonathan is amazing! There is nothing he doesn't know about Formula One – my girlfriend had a big F1 book and was randomly opening it and asking question after question, and he knew absolutely every answer!” I know from personal experience that Karun is a complete statistical geek about F1, and the combination meant that Sam didn't have a chance to get a word in.
“I am a huge F1 fan, obviously, but I didn't know any of the answers to these questions anyway! So I asked my girlfriend to give me an answer and then got her to ask the question – I just slipped the answer in quietly, they looked at me like they were impressed with my knowledge, and then I could just keep quiet from there!”
After which it was time for qualifying, but the less said about that the better: after dealing with the traffic on the way to the circuit and the over officious traffic wardens, the hordes of people walking up and down the paddock all day and the lack of air conditioning, it's a wonder heads didn't explode at the thought of the kerbs on the new part of the circuit and the endless traffic on track spoiling everyone's one clear lap.
But I don't want to make too much of it – after all, if it wasn't for the Europeans, we'd have nothing to complain about...
Didier likes to find new and entertaining ways to annoy us all on a race weekend: well, if you're good at something you might as well stick to it, I guess. You'd think that a major race series' technical director would be a fairly mature person, but as someone told him today, he's like an adult who acts like a kid without actually being an adult first. He tries, but he can't fight his natural attraction to nonsense.
Which is why, when we saw a guy selling all manner of plastic nonsense during dinner we all sighed instinctively.
Of all the products for sale, naturally the one Didier gravitated to immediate was the megaphone. Almost hugging himself with joy, he started yelling through it immediately, scaring the life out of the other customers in the restaurant and embarrassing everyone at the table. I'm not sure which response he was more pleased with, but either way he could not have been happier had Angelina Jolie materialised in front of him and said he was the only man for her.
The next morning Didier walked around the hospitality area, sneaking up behind people before saying “BONJOUR” into the back of their heads: Alexa must have hit the roof 3 times in a row, with Didier giggling all the way to his office afterwards. I grabbed it of him at one stage and said “SHUT UP!” into it, but he simply recorded it and walked around our office playing that on a loop for a while.
Thankfully, his fun was short-lived. And not because we smashed it, more is the pity.
This morning he looked despondent, and I noticed it was the first time he didn't have the wretched thing in his hand. “Tom from Ocean Racing took it,” he sulked, “John Gentry needed it.” The mild mannered engineer had almost entirely lost his voice after an operation on his neck, leaving him unable to talk.
I like to think that he used the “SHUT UP!” button if Fabio or Max got a bit unruly in the briefing. At least it's a better use than Didier came up with.
Later in the morning we sat down with DPR drivers Giacomo Ricci and Michael Herck, which was a lot of fun. Alastair set up the shots beforehand: looking for something new he got Giacomo to sit in the car and Michael to stand next to it. We told them to pretend to have a conversation for the photos, as usual (my favourite of these was last year, when Lucas di Grassi and Dani Clos sat there looking at each other and going “blah blah blah” “blah blah blah” to each other until the photos were done), but then had to try and stop them talking and come for the actual interview.
It's hard to know what was my favourite bit, although I'm partial to Michael's comments about being bribed ahead of qualifying by his team boss, and father, with a Big Mac, while Giacomo talked about how he could sleep anytime, anywhere, even by the side of the track while the F1 guys are running.
It worked, too: both DPR cars were in the top ten in qualifying this week, which we all thought was probably the first time ever (feel free to tell me we're wrong below, statistic fans). So clearly the pre-qualy ritual is going to mean naps and hamburgers in the blue and white pit for the rest of the season. Look out for the full interview here just as soon as Alexa can transcribe it: there's about an hour of recording though, so don't expect it up immediately...
We should have done another teammate interview, this time with the Arden pair of Charles Pic and Gonzalo Rodriguez: we turned up at 1.00 but the drivers were nowhere to be found, prompting Alexa to complain non-stop about how Charles had let her down again, didn't turn up where he was supposed to be, and so on for an hour.
Until, that is, he pointed out later that she had actually arranged the interview for 12.00, and he had been sat patiently in the team truck for 30 minutes waiting for us to arrive...
By then, unfortunately, it was too late as we all had to get ready and head down to the pitlane, where I got a lot of favourable comments about my new shirt: I've bought a few, shall we say, colourful floral shirts lately, of the type that Didier wears constantly when he's not in his uniform. It was half a joke, half because I like them, and I'm not sure which half is which in the Valencia heat.
“Wow! I have to say I really like this shirt,” Didier said admiringly as we walked towards the pits. “I did not think they had shirts like this in England. Can I ask where it came from?” “Sure,” I smirked, “it's a little label called Eurotrash, by Didier...”
The shirt meant I fit in quite well in the paddock today. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.
After the race there were still a lot of smiling faces in the paddock, even if some of them were a bit of a surprise. Sergio Perez was his usual happy self, even if he was slighly doleful at his treatment in the race. “Yes – it was a little bit too much!” he sighed, understating severely about a race which saw him lose power from turn two when Pastor Maldonado crushed his exhaust a little when they tapped, was spun to the back of the field by Davide Valsecchi, and then had to avoid a jack flying off the car in front of him after his stop.
Sam Bird was smiling for a different reason, after finishing a strong third from tenth on the grid, despite losing the nose of his car in a small collision with Giedo van der Garde on lap three. “My engineer said he's not going to put the nose on my car anymore,” the Briton laughed after the press conference, “because clearly I just want to knock it off again! This keeps happening, and I seem to drive better without it, so maybe he's right!”
It was about then, with the furnace-like heat finally starting to break, that the Coloni guys came looking for Didier's megaphone. Did they want to use it to have a talk to Vladimir, who picked up a grid penalty for causing a collision on the first lap, or Alberto, who was let out of the pits with the rear jack still attached to the car? No, they laughed: they just wanted to use it to wake up Dino, who had fallen asleep behind his computer.
Didier couldn't have looked prouder if his own son had made the request. It was at that moment that he knew the paddock had been reshaped by his actions.
The more I think about it, the more I think we weren't supposed to come to Valencia. Initially it was almost impossible to get a flight here: one airline on strike, another with no return leg on Sunday, until Marco finally found a flight from the wrong airport and told me I'd have to make do. And then when I finally got to the airport yesterday there were no planes.
I wasn't alone in that respect: unknown to me everyone else was struggling to get here too, because the French air traffic controllers were on strike. No reason was given at the airport, but the best excuse was given by one of the passengers, who figured that they had gone out in protest at the antics of their football team.
I've heard crazier excuses for a strike, so maybe it was true.
But it was causing no end of problems. Alexa organised a photo shoot with the six race winners so far this year for earlier today, and had to make do with only five (Charles Pic ended up driving from the south of France, but was stuck in traffic around Barcelona by the time he was supposed to be suited and booted in the pitlane).
Jerome d'Ambrosio had a plane problem too: he arrived early at the circuit, but his race suit was with Dams' communication boss Claire, who was stuck at the airport in Paris and unable to help. Until, that is, she came up with the brilliant idea of calling Renault and asking if they could lend the Belgian one of Robert Kubica's suits for the shoot.
“You can photoshop it afterwards, right?” Jerome dubiously asked Alastair as he was setting up the shot. “Sure, no problem,” came the reply. “But can you just push up behind Sergio there. And maybe roll your sleeves up a little. And the belt, just in case...”
And being stuck at the airport for a few hours meant I couldn't see the Italy match: frustratingly I could hear the reactions from the guys watching at the bar back in the terminal, but I wasn't allowed to walk back into the main area. It turns out that the Italians are not very popular in the UK: who'd have guessed?
They were much more popular in the paddock though, as all the Italian teams who had made it to Valencia were watching the game in the hospitality area with Marco, Christian and the catering crew. But the result didn't go to plan: the crowd shrunk with every goal, until Marco was left throwing (plastic) glasses around and swearing to himself after the final whistle before stomping off in a huff to annoy Alexa about the French team.
The Italian numbers were down too, as many of them were also stuck without flights due to the strike. Journalist Roberto Chinchero was in Milan and organised a convoy of GP2 personnel, including Davide Valsecchi and, bizarrely, Heikki Kovalainen. The group all headed for the coast, with the iSport driver tearing off into the distance in his Cayman, but being constantly overtaken by Roberto as Davide had to stop every 250 kilometres or so to fill the tank...
12 hours on the road, but they made it in time for free practice. Which made his third position look even more impressive that it had originally seemed.
Certainly more so that Sam Bird, who had a torrid time in the session, finishing early when he found the wall a few minutes in and prompting a red flag period while the marshals cleaned up after him. The Briton looked a little sheepish back in the paddock, when I noticed a large cut on his head. I asked him if it was from the crash, but he sighed and said no.
“I was on holiday with my girlfriend, and there was a great pool at the place where we were staying. I was swimming a lot, to keep up the fitness, but I was getting a bit bored with it, to be honest. So I started doing the worm, you know, going up and down with my head and body to get through the water. It's quite good for the neck muscles, actually.
“So anyway, I started really getting into it, really going for it, flying through the water. And I wasn't really paying attention to where the edge of the pool was...”
Back on track and Sergio Perez was picking up where he left off, topping the practice session and continuing the strong form which saw him invited to meet the Mexican president between races. Sergio has become really popular back home, and his father was delighted to show us a number of photos of his son with the politician.
But one photo had us intrigued, where the pair of them both had their phones out at the same time. “That's my favourite!” Checo's Dad laughed, “right at that moment Sergio went on Twitter and said 'I am with the President', and the President went on Twitter and said 'I am with the victor of Monaco'!”
Alistair spotted the giant sombrero the team had draped over the flag on the front of their quad bike (most of the teams have flags hanging off the back at the moment, showing their support for the remaining teams in the world cup) and made Sergio wear it for a quick shot after practice: after qualifying his father came over to find us, and laughed that the shot was already on the front page of the main Mexican news website.
It's a small world, but I guess if the Mexican President tweets then I shouldn't be surprised about anything. Now if only we can persuade the French to put their strikes online instead, so that the rest of us can get on with our lives...