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.