The circuit at Monza is one of my favourite places in the world. There is the history, sure, but for me it's much more personal: to me, Monza is a geographical representation of much of my personal history, and every year adds a little more to my own story.
The first grand prix I ever came to was here, back in 1997: I had just moved to London from Sydney, my friend Alex had got married and was having a honeymoon in Italy, and he asked me to fly down to Milan for a long weekend to meet up with them and go to the race. Princess Diana had just died, and Belinda stayed in the hotel to watch the funeral while we stood inside Parabolica and pointed out Michael Schumacher to a small boy so he could honk his air horn at the right Ferrari.
In 2000 I moved to New York, briefly switching allegiances to Montreal, but when my girlfriend Elisa passed away on that horrible day ten years ago it was a friend's gentle coaxing to come over and watch the Monza race on TV the next weekend that helped me tentatively re-engage with the world outside my apartment.
The next year, in 2002, I was in the F1 paddock in Monza for the first time: my friend Bira thought that I had to escape from New York, and the best way she knew to do it was to make me a journalist and bring me over to interview Mark Webber. Back then he was driving for Minardi and eating food made by Christian Staurenghi and his crew, and now he is a GP3 team boss and in our hospitality area all the time. The more things change...
For the next few years I moved to Milan and covered F1 for AtlasF1, with Monza being very much my home track. I remember driving over for an interview during midweek testing at the circuit, and even now the memory of the sound of a lone racing car barking through the trees in the park makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
At the end of 2004 I was supposed to go back to live in New York: a miscalculation in timing for a visa meant I missed the window, which is why I was in the GP2 media centre for our first race in 2005, and why I've never left. One of the most vivid memories I have of the year is of Nico Rosberg desperately trying, but failing, to catch Neel Jani here for the sprint race win, on the way to becoming the first ever GP2 champion.
Monza always feels like it's the end of the season: even though it doesn't always work out that way, the atmosphere here always seems to be the friendliest of the year. The best years are the ones like this year, where the championship is over and everyone can really go for it, let their hair down and just fight for the hell of it, like in 2006 when Giorgio Pantano showed Lewis Hamilton the way round his home turf, finishing off by doing a few donuts, getting out of the car to throw his gloves into the crowd, and returning to the pits to rapturous applause.
And it's the place where we have had some amazing parties. We've been to the Sporting Club of Monza a number of times, a beautiful old building in the middle of a huge garden, a rarity in this land of apartment living, and we've had jazz bands, live artists and racing drivers DJ-ing over the years to entertain the masses.
It's also the place where, in the pouring rain and rushing to get to the venue to set up, I put the trophies down on a motor scooter in the car park to keep them dry while we brought the car around: with the traffic wardens screaming at us all for even thinking about stopping, we all forgot to pick them up again. Which is why Bruno Senna is memorialised holding the trophy for best female fisher, and why I had to talk Giorgio into giving us back the best male golfer trophy after the ceremony. Hopefully they liked the replacements.
And it's the place where random things seem to happen, with nobody batting an eye. It's where Jules Bianchi and ART team boss Fred Vasseur are happy to pose in the most strikingly colourful clothes on the planet, and then tell everyone that they are the 2012 team uniforms. It's where Valtteri Bottas and his engineer can be taped to a trolley and then wheeled through the hospitality area with a giant speaker playing We Are The Champions at full volume while everyone queued patiently for dinner, to the amusement of all.
And it's where the Italian drivers find that little bit extra, to give something back to the local fans. I know I'm supposed to be impartial, but I was so happy when Luca Filippi won the race today: he's a guy who has had so much bad luck in his career but always manages to find a smile and a nice word for everyone he meets, no matter how he feels inside.
For Luca, he would swap all of his other wins for the one here, today, at his home circuit, at the track that he loves as much as I do. He's been racing here for years, and you know that he will keep coming back here each year when his racing career is over, because he just can't bear not to be here. Because for him, like so many in the paddock here, Monza means racing. And racing means something different, something special to every one of us here.
Wherever my life takes me, a little part of me will be standing right here next to him, wearing my old Yankees cap, and talking about all of the things that have happened to us to put us right here, right now, the things that have made us the people that we are today. The things that make us racers, the things that make us love Monza like it is home.
It was a strange feeling to be back in the paddock after a couple of races away (albeit for the best reason ever – my son Arthur is the best thing to happen in my life since I met my wife): I've never missed two races before, and you sort of wonder how things will be after a break away from the coalface.
As it turns out, I only had time to put my bag down before Alexa had me writing up a race preview and some other items while she organised a bunch of things for the end of season party on Sunday. Some things never change.
She was also running around madly because she had to organise something different this year: the teams had all congregated at the football pitch just behind the Variente Ascari for the first annual (hopefully) GP2 teams tournament, and like everything else in this paddock, they were taking it very seriously indeed. Well, apart from the ones who used it as an opportunity to get a few early beers in, anyway. Yes, you know who you are.
Needless to say, the GP2 staff team was entirely useless (if only I didn't have all those reports to write up for Alexa!). And, perhaps inevitably, the final came down to iSport vs ART, one of the big grudge matches in the paddock, and with so much at stake it was always going to end up with a penalty shoot out to break the deadlock. And we all know what the English are like at penalties...
There was also a photo shoot organised for the five guys in the fight to be this year's vice-champion. Unfortunately they were all getting along a little too well, cracking jokes and looking a little too happy to be there. “Come on,” implored Alexa, “I need you all to look mean, like you'd do anything to come out on top.” “I'll try,” Sam Bird sniggered, “do you have a prayer mat I can borrow?”
This morning there was another challenge for the drivers: they had to sign all the photos for the competition from earlier this year. A few of the guys took it as yet another contest, and were racing each other to see who could get through their stack the quickest (Jules Bianchi put in a notably huge performance), but Romain Grosjean deserves a special commendation for getting through almost 1000 signatures before free practice.
I can't help wondering if it made the difference in his performance today – he only missed pole by a couple of tenths, after all. It would be ironic if his fans lost him pole position...
We were heading back to the paddock after a fairly quiet free practice session only to see Jules heading back towards us on a bicycle. “I like the changes the team have made to your car!” “Yeah, for sure I can get pole on this!” His teammate Esteban Gutierrez and Davide Valsecchi had come together during the session, and I couldn't help but wonder if he had been called up to the stewards because they saw a collision between green and yellow cars and just figured Jules was involved.
Even though Stefano Coletti was out for the weekend after his accident in Spa, he still turned up to support his Trident team: his denim patch printed back support brace was a questionable fashion accessory, though. He popped his head around the door when he saw me setting up the press conference backdrop: “I don't think you'll see me in here for the press conference this weekend.” “That's okay, you can still come and ask some questions.” “Really?” he asked, delightedly. “I just might do that! I can come and ask them something funny, or really embarrassing!”
Unfortunately he didn't come in – he definitely would have had a laugh with Luca and Fabio, as they all get on really well – although it was embarrassing enough for Alexa as it was. “I spent the whole press conference thinking about the Rapax teammate interview, when Fabio kept going on about his lucky underwear, and I was wondering if he was wearing them. Were you thinking about that?”
Obviously I wasn't, because why would I? But now that she's put the thought in my head I am actively hoping that Fabio misses out on a podium finish tomorrow. I'm sorry Fabio, but none of us want to be thinking those thoughts in the cauldron-like (it is right behind the kitchen) heat of the press conference room.
I'm sure you understand: let us know if you've burnt the offending item, and you'll be welcome back any time.
The day started with a signing session for all of the drivers, and they were really looking forward to it.
But as ever Giedo looked on the bright side, and saw it as an opportunity to reach out to his fans.
Max saw it as a chance to make new friends too.
While Luca just wished he'd listened to his mama, and packed a jacket.
The marketing people at the track were really grateful though, and gave us some presents for all of the drivers: you guys can come to the truck to claim it after reading this.
We got back to the paddock to find out that the helicopter filming the F1 qualifying session came just a little closer than usual to the paddock.
And then it was time to head up to the pitlane for the race
There seemed to be a hidden message for Giedo on the grid.
While Fabio hoped no one would notice his turbine boosters.
And Luiz had a little message from his team: Drive it like you stole it...
But the race was going to be between 2 guys.
And only one could come out on top.
While the rest of the guys had to find their own way home.
And Luca prepared for the media.
At least the action is hot on track! I like the Nurburgring, but it's never the easiest place to work. We had possibly the best race I've ever seen here (the sprint race in 2005 when, after Gimmi Bruni's engine was “eaten by a crocodile” as Paolo Coloni famously put it, a five way battle saw a lead change at every corner: it was amazing, until I realised I had to write the race report), then the next time we came here there was snow on the edge of the roads, and the time after that it was blazing hot.
So obviously it's cold this weekend. At least it hasn't rained yet, he said hoping desperately that he hasn't just jinxed it.
A few of the drivers were put to work early as taxi drivers: the AirAsia duo of Davide Valsecchi and Luiz Razia had a pair of Caterhams provided to promote their link up with the fabled marque, and the pair were soon squabbling over which one would get to drive the one painted in their new green and gold colours and which one would have to make do in the plain blue car, before settling down to the real task at hand, namely scaring the hell out of a bunch of lucky contest winners.
And Jules Bianchi was soon out on track too, driving round in a Ferrari road car as part of his junior driver role for the F1 team. He did lap after lap before rewarding photographer Lorenzo Bellanca, the colleague of Alastair and Drew who take the brilliant photos in our gallery, with the last lap of the day.
“Loz” as he is nicknamed took a couple of snaps before sitting back to enjoy the ride: with the tyres struggling after so much work the car was sliding around a lot, much to Jules pleasure, spurring the Frenchman on to see how much he could scare the photographer in the one remaining lap.
Unfortunately the weather was no better today, with the few brave souls to risk leaving their truck for long were tucked up inside a bibendum of team jackets and fleeces each. The hospitality area was a bit of a ghost town, even during the F1 free practice sessions that usually draw everyone like a moth to the flame.
Free practice came and went in a blur, with most of the pitlane casting a rueful eye skywards in fear before getting on with their tasks for the session. Romain Grosjean kept up the pressure with a lap time well ahead of his rivals, but to be fair most of the teams were concentrating on a variety of race set ups (tomorrow's weather is the great unknown of the weekend, and everyone needed to test as many different set ups as possible) rather than looking for overall speed.
Luca Filippi was looking quick at his old new team of Coloni: the ever cheerful Italian had moved over from Super Nova after a deal between the teams ahead of the race, and he slotted in as though he'd never been away by claiming P4 in practice despite losing a lot of time in traffic.
He was hardly the only man to suffer from it, of course: pretty much everyone lost time somewhere over the practice and qualifying sessions, and it was probably always going to be that way given the twisting, technical nature of the circuit that folds around itself like a snake around its dinner. And it meant there was no end to the drivers complaining about traffic, despite them all being part of the problem as well.
(And it meant that there was a lot of talk about what could be done to avoid the problem in qualifying in the paddock, with one guy suggesting a mini F1-style session with half the field getting cut halfway through, and another recommending 2 periods with half the grid each. If you've got any thoughts, feel free to leave them below)
Filippi didn't seem to mind about the traffic too much though: he was on pole after timing his runs differently to his rivals and taking advantage of an almost clear track as everyone else pitted for fresh rubber, and it held until a couple of minutes from the end when Charles Pic stole the points from him.
The Italian jumped out of his car at the end of the session to greet his delighted countrymen on the Coloni pitwall, but also snuck back over afterwards to see his old Super Nova team (who he stills races with in another series) to let them know that he thought it would have gone exactly the same thing if he was still with them, too.
And then in the press conference he said he doesn't actually like the circuit that much, as it doesn't suit his driving style. Despite being on the front row for tomorrow's race. I can't wait to see what he's got for us in Monza.
After that it was time to slink back to hospitality and write everything up for us, huddled together at one table for warmth, and out the back to the paddock for the teams to set up their cars for tomorrow's race. Although it sounded as though the teams were firing up the cars a lot, far more than is usual, in fact: I'm sure that there must have been some valid excuse for it, even though it seemed excessive.
Because after all, they wouldn't just fire up the cars to keep warm, would they?
Sandra Bullock? Simon Baker? So Beautiful? A metallic element having four allotropic forms? A bachelor's degree in science? Small Business? Sound Blaster?
Today started with Alexa and I annoying a couple of motorbike cops: the day could probably only improve from there.
Maybe I should go back a bit. Driving in to the circuit (much earlier start, much less traffic than yesterday) I looked over to see Alexa waving at the car next to us. It was only when the occupant made one back and zipped in front of me that I realised it was Sam Bird.
He stayed there for a few miles before suddenly pulling back into the other lane and slowing quickly. “What's he doing?” Alexa quizzed, seemingly unable to understand why a driver would ever slow down, but a quick look in my mirrors showed the dayglo colours of the British constabulary.
Unfortunately Sam filled the only gap in the other lane: I figured the police wanted to get through, so I accelerated slightly just to get ahead of the guys in the left lane and let the boys in iridescent yellow go through. Which only prompted them to zoom ahead of me and wave their fingers at me before sitting on 39mph all the way to the track.
No good deed goes unpunished, clearly. I think they only failed to pull over and nag me because it would cause a big tailback in the traffic. We finally got into the paddock, and Alexa switched from complaining about the local police to moaning about her foot: she was proud of the fact that she was down to just one crutch at the start of the weekend, but it was already clear that she was overdoing it and had hurt her foot again. We got her upstairs to the office to put her foot up and I took my chance: I locked her into the office, but GP3's Amanda ruined it all by opening the door to ask a question, giving Alexa the chance to limp to freedom.
Not wanting to be responsible for the inevitable increase in foot pain I ran off (well, actually I walked: Alexa is really, really slow these days, so anything over a dawdle works like a fastest lap) before she blamed me.
We had a few interviews set up, and this week's teammate interview soon came around: it was Carlin today, and it's great fun to talk to Alvaro and Max about what they get up to. I found out that Alvaro is the Portuguese James Bond, Max found out that the Portuguese fans are very, very passionate about his teammate, Alvaro found out that Max is a complete golf junkie: the only thing we didn't find out was Max's ideal car, as it turned out to be an impossible choice for him to make.
I'm half expecting an email in the middle of the week from him asking if it's too late to tell us his choice for the interview...
At lunch I found myself in the queue just in front of Giedo van der Garde, who has been incredibly laid back all weekend considering the dramas he's suffered: it's almost as though each new problem has allowed him to relax a bit more, to take a little more pressure off his shoulders.
“It should be a good race,” he noted. “The quick guys are at the back, we've got nothing to lose, so I think you're going to have some fun watching it today. Wet or dry, I think it will be fun.” It was about this time that he noticed Sam sitting at one of the tables with his back to us, and that he was wearing a shirt with a giant SB on the back. “Hey, is that shirt from Sebastien Buemi? I didn't know you were a big fan of him...” Sam glowered a bit which made Giedo laugh, and he reached over to pull the Englishman's ear, which annoyed him even more: when he stomped off the Dutchman laughed out loud, happy that he had managed to annoy one of his rivals so easily.
And then the race came, preceded by yet another torrential downpour. I am so glad I brought my thick jacket this weekend.
But if Giedo has been unlucky this weekend, we should spare a few thoughts for Michael Herck, who seemed to combine a season's worth of bad luck into one race. He couldn't get off the line when the safety car led the rest of the field away, and had to be pushed into the pitlane to be restarted.
He then went to leave the pits only to find that the red lights were on, and was stuck there fuming until just before the safety car came back around, losing almost a complete lap. Coming in on lap ten to try and find a strategic advantage he left again on wets, and then came back two laps later to get slicks when it was clear that this was a better choice, just as Marcus Ericsson and Stefano Coletti made their well timed stops.
When the Romanian set the fastest lap next time by it was clearly a vindication, but unfortunately he soon had a message that he had picked up a penalty for speeding in the pitlane, undoing all his good work. He was soon back into the pits, but hadn't been told that it is a 10 second stop go penalty in Silverstone, given the time advantage in the pits, and so had to come back in once again to serve the penalty correctly. I've never seen anything like it before: it was as though he'd run over a black cat. I wanted to go and ask him about it, but I was worried I might make him trip down the stairs and knock himself out or something.
Then it was back to try and find a way to squeeze as much of the race as possible into a press release, and then catch the GP3 race: I missed the start because we don't have a TV in our office, and when I looked at the screen next door and saw them in the pits I thought I had an installation lap to come, and I missed the last lap because Al rang me to say that our drivers were in the press conference room waiting to be interviewed.
With all the delays to our race and the following GP3 event, we'd forgotten to push the time back a few minutes: I walked around to see all three drivers patiently sitting there, waiting for me to arrive, with Al and the journalists looking back at them. We've got our boys trained so well. I was so proud!
And it was great to see Marcus Ericsson back in the press conference after so long: he's a great guy who just lives for racing, and he was so happy to be back at the front again. He hung around to chat to me and a Swedish TV crew afterwards, and he couldn't stop smiling. “I'm so happy to be back in here again,” he laughed, “it's been way too long! I'm so happy to show what we can do: we're so fast here, but we still had to gamble to do it.”
“But I am going for a podium again tomorrow: I love all this, I want to be in the press conferences all the time!”
I'll be wishing him good luck as he goes for it. But Marcus, if you're reading this, you might want to wait until you get into the track before you put your foot down: you'll be risking some seriously wagged fingers if you don't.
It's always easy to tell when you're in Silverstone: it's generally cold and wet, and even if it's not the French contingent will be complaining either way. Raining? Complaints. Too sunny? Complaints. Too many people in the paddock? Complaints. Not enough people? You know the rest. And the thing is, it is ridiculously easy to complain about Silverstone – it is always the most difficult weekend to get through, from a work perspective – but the Brits hate it when the French moan about the place, mostly because they see it as their birthright to whinge about the place. Want to complain about a race? Go moan about Magny Cours.
Yeah, that's right.
So the traffic was awful this morning, as usual – actually, it was much worse than usual, but let's keep that between us. We were sitting on the main road to the circuit going nowhere when Al and Drew, our photographers, rang up to say they couldn't get into the office to get their cameras: how can we get in there? We're sitting in traffic: what do you want us to do? Cue two grumpy photographers.
We have the old pitlane this weekend, shared between the GP2 and GP3 teams, and our office is in the old Race Control building. When we finally arrived, just as another shower started, I assumed I'd see the pair sitting on the front steps looking depressed and half-drowned, but they were upstairs and working away as we walked in.
I wandered over to find out what had happened, and one of the guys who work here noted: “They got in without any help from us: you should give them a bonus, just for showing initiative!” But how did they get in? “He climbed through the window.” Oh well, they've probably done you a favour: now you can let security know about the problem. “Oh no, we like it that way, just in case we need to get in that way...” I take my computer back to the hotel every night, just in case you were wondering.
Silverstone always does things differently to every other race: it's part of their ... well, charm is probably the wrong word, but it's what they do. Normally we have silver Mercedes Benz people carriers to get us back and forth to the pitlane if we're not out the back (and we're definitely not here: it is about a half hour walk to get there). Here we have local buses.
I can't help but wonder if there is a little old lady standing at the bus stop in Towcester, staring down the road and getting absolutely livid. I know how she feels: after free practice I sat around for ages, waiting for the bus to turn up. I put the time to good use by writing the session report at the bus stop, but still. And when it finally turned up, I automatically reached for my Oyster card (bus ticket) before catching myself. I guess I should be happy that they're not charging me for the journey. Yet.
We got back to the paddock just in time for another huge downpour, and the inevitable moan from the French contingent: I wasn't so fussed as I was already in hospitality eating lunch, but Sam Bird was clearly more annoyed as he was looking out, weighing up whether to dash back for his briefing or to stay inside.
There wasn't any choice: if you're a driver, you go when your team want you. Heading out into the torrential downpour, he was polite enough to hold the door open behind him for a couple of marshals, who recognised him and wanted to congratulate him on topping the session. Standing there getting soaked, his dilemma was etched across his face: be rude and head back to the truck, or be polite and hold the door while getting wet for a couple of motor racing fans?
Of course he stayed, holding the door open. Because his mother brought him up well.
Then it was time for the teams to make the long, long trek back to the (other) pitlane for qualifying: the truckies and mechanics on the quad bikes towing everything round, the engineers jumping onto a bus to get out of the rain. I saw a spot and jumped onto the Arden convoy, hanging onto the pole holding the tyres in place as we went round.
It's one of my favourite things to do in the paddock: it's just fun hanging on as we wind our way slowly around to the pits, trundling past all the fans (Silverstone has way more fans than any other track, even on a sodden Friday afternoon) as they take photos of the procession. And we were held just outside the pits until the F1 session finished: as I walked in I overheard the security guy's radio crackle: “We've got a woman here asking to be let through. She's on crutches. What do I do?”
Alexa was soon hobbling up from the other end of the paddock, and sat next to me just before the rain started up again. It stopped for two laps, and then absolutely bucketed down. And that was qualifying over.
. “I don't really care,” Luca Filippi noted back in hospitality, “I'm really here to entertain the crowd anyway, so maybe it's better that I'm at the back: I can give them a real show from there!” It was a shame though, as he'd shown good speed in free practice, but he was hardly the only one to get screwed over by the weather. And he was thinking about the bigger picture, anyway.
“I've come up with the solution for here, and I am going to talk to Bernie about it. Have you seen that movie The Truman Show? I think we have to do something like that, and build a big roof over the whole circuit: Bernie is very rich, I'm sure it won't be a problem for him. And they could make it sunny here all the time!”
It sounded like a brilliant plan to me, but we were in the middle of the sixth storm of the day at the time. I'm sure the French would still find something wrong with the place though, even if The Filippi Show was brought to life. And maybe that's what the locals like about Silverstone: sure, it might be a rubbish weekend, but the French hate it way more than the rest of us.
And anything that winds up the French that much can't be all bad.
I'm sorry if you came here yesterday looking for a new blog from Valencia: due to reasons beyond our control, I couldn't put one together. And the biggest reason was that, quite simply, nothing happened.
Let me explain. The track in Valencia is in the old port area of town, a quiet and very, very dusty part of the city, and the GP2 paddock is about as far away from the pitlane as its possible to be and still be at the track. It's the dustiest, driest part too, away from the water and built on compacted dirt and a loose layer of asphalt which is there just to stop the dust moving, and to increase the temperature.
So the drivers, quite sensibly, stay inside their air-conditioned trucks all weekend until they have to get into the cars, and the engineers stay in there with them. We don't have an air-conditioned truck, so we mostly sit in hospitality on the heat radiating asphalt, and dream of being in the trucks.
Maybe I could have just made up a few of those dreams into a blog, but you probably expect the stories you read here to be true. Plus, it's generally easier to make fun of things the drivers actually say or do rather than invent something that didn't happen: the course of least resistance is the term that comes to mind and, frankly, someone usually say something stupid without any help from me.
So, as exciting as it might have been to read about Carlin's search for a cloth Pirelli badge for Alvaro Parente's race suit yesterday (“that's the thing when you've got a driver like Alvaro – you always run the risk of being on the podium”) or Luca Filippi's cunning plan to race in GP2 forever (“I love racing in GP2, but I can't come back if I win the championship, so if I get close I will wave the other guys through so I don't get enough points”), a one paragraph blog probably isn't really good enough.
But it didn't stop me from feeling guilty about it. The problem was simple: no material = no blog. I needed to clear my head to think about it a bit more: in the paddock Alexa was quietly sitting down alone (she is still on crutches, in case you're wondering), deliberately not saying anything to me about the blog. But what she doesn't realise is that after all these years I can actually read her mind, and she was saying “what about the blog?” over and over very loudly inside her head.
So I walked the track.
There are hundreds of people working at a race circuit to put together the show everyone watches on TV, and a lot of them were packing up for the day as I circulated. When you walk the track you can see the camera positions on each corner (and Valencia has a lot of those), with furry microphones just peeping over the wall to pick up the noise. There were a couple of guys covering or collecting equipment as I started, but mostly they were done for the day.
There were guys repainting the kerbs where drivers had inconsiderately scraped their cars over the paintwork, and other guys were reattaching advertising hoardings damaged or destroyed by a crash. Not that I'm thinking of anyone in particular, Romain.
In the pitlane there were guys working away under the seats on the pitwall, and others cleaning every speck of dirt off the immaculately white garage floors while the cars were being weighed. There were others at either end of the pitlane marshalling the fans on the front straight, directing them to the areas they were allowed to enter, and denying them from the others.
There were also guys whizzing back and forth on scooters as they dropped bits and pieces from one end of the circuit to the other, and in between there were people running the track, either for charity (UBS pays an amount for every lap time entered on http://www.runthattrack.info/) or for fun.
I'm guessing they were as annoyed as I was to find out that the bridge was open for boats, so they had to go back the way they came. Thanks for letting me know, guys.
And when I came back to the paddock, there was still no blog. Alexa's brain was still saying “blog, blog, blog”, but the sound was scrambled by the last 2 hours solid of tagging and uploading photos for the website, so all I could hear was white noise, and a strange whistling sound. With nothing else to do I brought the car around to hospitality to collect her, dropped her back at the hotel so she could collapse into bed, and I went across the road with Amanda from GP3 to try and drown the guilt in beer.
Then Will arrived.
Will does a lot of work for FOM, including the GP2 commentary, and he stays with a lot of FOM guys at circuits around the world. And he told me about one of their camera guys, Milton, who is one of the kindest, wisest, funniest guys Will knows. Always quick with a joke or a laugh, Milton is one of the guys who makes Will's job in the paddock a little happier, a little better at each race. Will fills the same role for me, so I can relate.
Milton's not here this weekend: he's back in south London, having treatment for cancer. His family and girlfriend are with him, helping in any way they can: it's the second time in a year they've had to go through it, as his sister sadly lost her fight with cancer last year (just before I wrote that paragraph my email pinged, and I got a weekly update telling me that my wife is 32 weeks pregnant today, and that the little fellow is growing by half a kilo a week. It was all I could do to stop myself weeping out loud in the middle of hospitality).
Milton will be in Silverstone to catch up with his mates, and to judge the winner of the Mil-vember moustache growing contest they're having in his honour. Will won't win, as he's obviously still waiting for puberty to hit, but like everyone else he's got a donation page for Cancer Research UK in Milton's honour: the URL is http://www.justgiving.com/willthef1journo if you want to take a look. And Milton's blog page is http://kickingcancerinthenuts.blogspot.com/: he is funnier than any man has a right to be in his condition.
His current catchphrase is Think Strong, and he is the living embodiment of that. He's got bigger balls than me, that's for sure.
I've been writing this blog for about 6 years now, and one of the things I enjoy the most is talking about people, trying to work out a little bit about them, and what makes them tick. Mostly I write about drivers, because that's what racing fans want to know about, naturally, but I started the A Day In The Life column to give you an insight into some of the other characters in the paddock.
Because life in the paddock is a bit like a giant moveable family: we don't always get along with each other, but a lot of the time we do. Work loads are tough, and we can't always get through it alone: we all have someone we lean on in the paddock, just when we need a hand. I do, Alexa does, each and every driver does too. We all know it, even if we don't talk about it much.
I printed out his catchphrase: I'm not entirely sure why, but I did it anyway. A driver saw it and asked what it meant, I told him, and I took a photo. Then another driver saw that, asked and was answered, then another, and another. Sometimes, that's how things work in this place.
And then we go racing, because that's why we're here. We may not always know whose shoulders we're leaning on to do it, but they're all a part of the family.
Nothing ever quite runs the way you expect it in Monaco: that's both the excitement of the place, and it's curse. Drivers are never where they're supposed to be, things don't happen at the same time or in the same way, and the routines you develop over the years just don't work here like they do everywhere else.
Take photography, for example: Alastair always goes out ahead of any session or race to photograph the drivers and teams, to get some atmospheric shots of the boys that get used in magazines and online alongside articles about them to illustrate the subject.
You may have wondered, like I used to, why the drivers always seem to staring off into the middle distance in photos, seemingly scanning the horizon for something vitally important to their well being. The reason for this is that, generally, they goof around when they first arrive in GP2 until Al shows them a few shots of them smiling, and they then realise that they look much better with the serious, intent pose you see most of the time.
I can't imagine it's a surprise to you that racing drivers tend to be posers...
But I digress. With the teams lined up out the front of our car park paddock, Al went off in search of a few drivers to shoot, expecting them to be sitting at the bottom of the cliff looming over town and waiting to be let into the pitlane, as usual. But when he got to the end of the road there was no one in sight, and he rushed up and down the street trying to find some clues.
It was only when he was heading back to the paddock to ask the teams where their drivers were hiding that he noticed a race suit heading into the building that separates the road from the F1 paddock: following downstairs, he ended up in the famous Stars and Bars restaurant, overlook the paddock, with most of the grid leaning against the bar and watching one of the many televisions around the walls, killing time until their show began.
Giedo was one of the few drivers not to be at the bar: he was relaxing upstairs in the hospitality area with some friends, and when he saw Alexa he called over for a chat. “So am I going to sign your cast today? It's about time.” The pair had discussed it in Barcelona: it's in Addax colours, and Alexa promised to bring in her gold pen for him to sign it in Monaco.
And then the floodgates opened, and we all washed into the pitlane. It's tougher to cover the race here than anywhere else, as the F1 teams have their pitwall upstairs in their pits, so unless you have an invitation to go up you have no access to live timing. I followed free practice from the pits but qualifying is all about timing, and had to be done back in the paddock.
I figured that the feature race should be calmer than the sprint race – there's more to lose, so generally the guys are calmer in the first race, whereas on Sunday they can afford to risk more to get some points – and so I thought it would be better to go to the pitlane today, and stay up in the paddock tomorrow, with our screens.
I know. I should have known better, really.
But the elements were determined to ruin my plans anyway. Standing in the pits, watching the measured calm before the storm from the wall overlooking the exit from the swimming pool, I had my spot lined up and my computer ready to go, when suddenly rain started to fall. Knowing that my computer couldn't last through a storm in the open air, I had no choice but to run all the way back to the paddock before the race got under way.
Only for the rain to stop when I got back. Of course.
But it did give me a chance to hear Karun Chandhok and Will Buxton's commentary for the first time: I know the pair very well, and I've been curious to hear their race call all year. I knew that Will was quite hungover, and it was clear that Karun was laughing at him throughout, but he probably just got away with it.
Karun, however, was clearly firing on all cylinders: along with commentating on what was a quite eventful race, Alexa noticed that he was also tweeting in between comments. She tweeted him back and got him to say a word of her choice, which was couscous.
+30 seconds: “Yes, Davide is making a big effort on his fitness this year: he's exercising a lot, and has replaced pasta with couscous...”
“You are a god!” she wrote back. “I know” came the immediate reply.
And then it was all over, with different drivers having very different feelings about the race. Didier Perrin spotted Romain Grosjean on the way back from the pits, and went over to congratulate him on an amazing drive from last on the grid to fourth at the chequered flag. “Well, that was good!” he smiled as they shook hands: Romain laughed and corrected him “no, that was VERY good!”
Giedo was less enthusiastic, as you might imagine, having been taken out of a certain point scoring opportunity when Jules Bianchi failed to stop at the chicane: when he saw Alexa he quipped “I knew I shouldn't have signed your cast: you brought me bad luck, and gave all your energy to Bianchi, not to me!”
iSport's marketing manager Christo insisted on changing his team's accommodation plans for the rest of the season: after learning that Valsecchi was staying at our hotel (and in the room next to logistics manager Philippe), he stated that his drivers would be staying wherever we stay for the rest of the season.
Well, it can't hurt.
And back in the paddock we were informed about Oliver Turvey's time penalty: the Englishman had failed to come in to serve a drive through penalty for a jump start, and had 30 seconds added to his time to correct the result.
Normally a failure to comply with a penalty within a few laps would bring out the black flags automatically, so he was lucky that it happened in Monaco: given the positioning of the F1 timing and message screens, the stewards had no way of knowing if an electronic message would reach the team, and instead had to print up a note and send a runner out to find the team, with the clock running down in the meantime.
It's another example of how Monaco just doesn't run like anywhere else.
Fashion TV started the weekend off in surreal style by requesting an interview with Romain Grosjean, Sam Bird and Jules Bianchi to discuss the fashion of GP2.
Well, of course.
Jules was unable to make it, having a prior arrangement to spend that time with the stewards instead, but the other two were up for it and turned up on time, as requested. Unfortunately Fashion TV didn't have anyone available to do the interview, which meant Alexa had to step into the breach.
Which wouldn't be too bad, except that they wanted the footage to have a Monaco backdrop, which meant she had to limp up 3 flights of stairs on her crutches to get to the amphitheatre above our paddock, and then wedge herself into the corner to get things started.
“That's a lovely microphone,” Sam laughed as he saw the rhinestone encrusted fuzzy cover, reaching over to touch it and making the heavy object even harder for her to hold in place, before moving on to the topics of the day. “Yes, it's important to make sure your overalls fit well for the podium. And to make sure your hair looks okay after you take off your helmet, even though you put on a hat straight away...”
Unfortunately the Englishman wasn't entirely ready for an interview with Fashion TV (some people, of course, may suggest that no Englishman ever could be...), as he'd forgotten his sunglasses before Barcelona, and had to resort to buying a pair from a petrol station for £15. “You can't mention that!” Alexa admonished. “This is Fashion TV: you've got to say they were £500! What about your clothes now?” “This shirt was free, the shoes were cheap, but the trousers cost £100, I think.” “Okay, let's talk about those...”
If this was an unusual way to start a Monaco weekend, the traffic this morning into the Principality was unfortunately completely normal: we drove less than 5 miles in an hour and a half, as we crawled along with the peak hour traffic. Which put Alexa into a great mood when the security guards in the paddock, located as usual in the car park underneath the Prince's palace, refused to allow her to use the elevator to get up to the hospitality area. “But I've got a broken ankle! What do you want me to do?” “Well, you shouldn't come here with a broken ankle, should you...”
It turns out that French people like to yell at each other. You learn something every day.
And because of her injury, she obviously couldn't come up to the pitlane for free practice: I walked up with my friend Guy, who is here for the weekend and more excited than a bear in a fishmonger's shop, taking photos of everything that moves, and most other things besides.
It's a great opportunity to take in the cars, all lined up and waiting to be released. Walking past Luca Filippi's car I noticed that they'd taken the dot off the rear wing between the numbers: when I asked what had happened, chief engineer Andy Roche came over and sighed: “Yeah, well it didn't work, did it?”
Racing Engineering were much happier, pointing out a massive banner on the cliff overlooking the final turn at Anthony Noghes next to one for Fernando Alonso and cheering on Dani and Alvaro, while featuring their mascot Torrito. Team boss Alfonso de Orleans Borbon was delighted: “The fans bring it every year, and every year it gets a little bigger: next year we might be even bigger than Fernando!”
Kevin Mirocha came back with eyes like saucers: the German had never driven in Monaco before, and couldn't believe what he had found on track. “Everything they say about here is true!” he laughed after the session. “It's crazy: it's like driving down a tunnel! You can't go 100%, even if there is no traffic, or you will be in the wall, for sure!”
And then qualifying happened.
There's not a lot for me to say about the session at this stage: a lot of drivers are talking to the stewards, and until we hear what will come out of that there's nothing much I can add at this stage. I had to rush around to get quotes from the top three before they went back to the pitlane to see the stewards, and I didn't want to be accused of delaying them.
But it was interesting to see the different moods: Giedo was bubbly, ecstatic at his pole position despite nursing a very sore hand from his accident with Oliver Turvey, Jules was fine, even though he didn't have much to say, as usual, while Sam angrier than I've ever seen him, his face like thunder even though his answers were erudite and informative, as always. And when we finished he apologised for being upset!
Which was fine, even understandable: he'd only just got out of the car, he was having a drink and trying to cool down, so no problem at all. But what is a problem is everyone going nuts on circuit, forcing me to wait in the paddock now to see if there are any penalties to write about, rather than go out with Guy and have a lot of beers for my birthday.
Bloody racing drivers. They never think of anyone but themselves...
Trident hosted a dinner for journalists at El Trabuc, a lovely restaurant near the circuit last night: it's now become a tradition, with the drivers and team spending an entertaining night with writers from Italy and all over, and it is always a highlight of the Barcelona weekend for so many of their guests. So when we were also invited to attend, we didn't need to be asked twice.
When we finally arrived (Alexa takes a lot longer to get anywhere these days, because of the ankle) I walked around until I saw my name card opposite Stefano Coletti, and it didn't take long for him to launch into his questions.
“Where is the teammate interview? I thought you said it was going to be on the website, but I couldn't find it.” “Yeah, Alexa hasn't transcribed all of it, because you were talking so much.” “When is she going to do it? I want to see it.” “Soon. But you're on the blog today: I just wrote about you, and there's a photo of you with your new shirt.” “Really? Cool! [pulls out his phone, takes a look] It says there's no comments: why not?” “I guess you just don't have any fans...”
It was a great night, and topped off with an amazing magician: I realise what that sounds like, but he really was astonishing. Stefano and Rodolfo were raving about him all night before he performed (he'd done another party for the team back home), and were straight up to the front to see if they could work out how he did everything.
It didn't work, and Stefano couldn't stop talking about the tricks afterwards (especially the card trick which ended with a card inside a sealed CD case). “I'd be a bit worried if I were you,” I said to team manager Luca Zerbini just as we were leaving, “I think he's still going to be trying to work this out at the start tomorrow...”
The next morning Kevin Mirocha had a problem of his own. “Did you see the German reports for qualy yesterday?” he asked me when he got to the circuit. When I said no, he continued: “I usually take a look to see what they have to say. They never write about me: I think they forget that I'm German! I wondered if they noticed my different strategy, but no!
“I kept reading, and they said that the top guys did one run but couldn't improve on the second set because of the rain: I had to rub my eyes, I thought I must have read it wrong!” “I guess it's not just you're they're not paying attention to! But be careful when you go to the truck now: it looks very slippery out there, and I wouldn't want you to hurt yourself!” “Okay, I'll try!”
It wasn't long before Pastor Maldonado turned up again: he's been spending a lot of time with us this weekend, getting away from the pressure in the big paddock and of course eating Christian's excellent food. So when the Venezuelan did a great job by getting into Q3 this afternoon we clapped Christian on the back and told him that it was his food which made all the difference, as he beamed proudly.
Pastor wasn't the only visitor we had this weekend: Dani Clos was at the centre of a whirlwind all weekend, first when legendary footballer (and father of his girlfriend) Hristo Stoichkov made an appearance in the Racing Engineering pit. This was compounded by an event by the Spaniard's fan club: after the race about 50 people in bright yellow t-shirts came back to the paddock, all looking for a photo with their hero in the tiny area in front of hospitality just as the press conference was about to start.
Charles Pic turned up and looked very worried: the charming Frenchman is incredibly shy, and I think he was concerned that they had all turned up to hear him talk until we pointed to Dani at the centre of the storm. He was much happier after that, and laughed when we suggested his new haircut brought him luck: “I think so, yes! Maybe I have a haircut before each race, so I can win them all!” “Yeah, but you'll be a skinhead by the end of the season!” “It would be worth it!”
Luckily he hadn't looked at your twitter feeds: how many puns on his name can there be? Maybe we should host a competition on our feed, to see if you can pick your favourite pun...
One guy who wasn't laughing after the race was Luca Filippi, yet again the innocent party when Luiz Razia spun into him just off the line. The placid Italian somehow hadn't let the accident get to him, even when I asked if he had run over a black cat lately. “You know, I think I have worked it out,” he smiled as he queued for dinner. “My car is number seventeen: this is a really unlucky number in Italy.
“I said this to Andy when I came back, and he has found a solution: he has put a dot in the middle of it on my car, so now I am number 1.7!”
And after dinner Alexa was talking to Thomas Couyotopoulo from Racing Engineering when Alvaro Parente came over and, with his best fake annoyed voice, said: “Come on, stop chatting up the nice lady and drive me home!” Tomas just smirked and replied: “Have you done your debrief paperwork yet?” When the Portuguese driver dropped his shoulders and admitted he hadn't finished, Tomas just laughed and said “well go and do it then: maybe you can take the team car after that.” “What, I can take the GP2 car for a demo run?”
I don't think he was really planning to drive his race car back to the hotel, but you can never be too sure with racing drivers. So if you happen to see a bright red race car driving through Spain, please put a comment below: we do sort of need to keep track of these things.