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.