In the end, it always comes down to two guys: every season the others fall away until the fight between the title challengers ends up with just two drivers remaining, and all of the media's focus is on the pair of them until one vanquishes the other. Everyone else becomes a back story, the blurred images in the background of the photos of the protagonists.
But no one is a bit player in their own story, and everyone was still looking forward to the race today for their own reasons: some were looking to claim a lower position in the championship with the fight for third still wide open, or to help their team move up the order, or just simply for themselves, for a good result after a bad season to give it all some meaning, some reason for all of the hard work behind the scenes.
The hours here are a bit screwy: everyone knows that the F1 guys stay on European time and only appear when the sun drops, and because we're used to being on almost the same timetables there is a temptation for some to stay out a bit longer, to have that one more beer than becomes more, to think that it's the end of the season and it's time to cut lose.
But we're not on their timetable here: we're running in the sun, qualifying notwithstanding. And we are a bit later to leave at night, a bit later to arrive in the morning, but only a bit.
I woke up a bit later than usual this morning, but only a bit later, and I didn't realise I didn't have a voice until I had to tell the woman at the restaurant what room I'm staying in, and I couldn't. I came here with a cold, and the constant switch between humid heat and frigid air conditioning did the rest.
It meant that my life was going to be a bit harder today, trying to interview drivers in an environment that is loud at the best of times; but if you want an easy life, racing isn't for you. The teams started to dribble into the paddock, walking in from the various hotels around the circuit, and if some of them had had a few beers last night it was soon put behind them as they took the covers off the cars and got to work.
The paddock here is different to any other: we're in a car park, as we are in Monaco, but it's lower and flatter, with all of the teams on the same floor and with temporary walls erected around them. Most of the teams realised that the place was pretty dark and soon removed a few panels to let some light in, but DAMS took that a step further and didn't bother with any panels, leaving their pit open to the outside world and hoping that the monsoon doesn't come early.
With no F1 sessions to watch, and with our races a little later than usual, there was little in the way of distractions for the drivers, who eventually filtered into the paddock and wandered round and round in the car park, looking for someone to chat to, to swap jokes and stories of races past, to while away the time while they waited to pull on the helmets and head back out. Being squashed together in one big room means they are cheek by jowl for the weekend, and most of them take advantage of the fact to spend time together. Most of them were convinced that it would be difficult to overtake anyone on this circuit, so their positions would be secure, but were also convinced that they would be able to move up the field and show what they can do. Racing drivers can often hold contradictory positions simultaneously, and not understand why anyone would think that's a problem.
Looking in on the racing world, you will have heard the adage that you're only as good as your last result: it makes sense, because the media always talks about the last winner, so they will be upper most in your mind when thinking of racing. But racing drivers hold a different view: in their minds they are only as good as the result they are about to make, and nothing you say can convince them that their view is even slightly unrealistic.
It's why you can walk around the pits and see Marcus Ericsson and Jolyon Palmer joking and laughing with each other ahead of a race, or find Stephane Richelmi in the middle of a debrief with his engineers and he will still look up and smile when you point a camera in his direction (while Julian Leal will slink back a bit, trying to get out of the way of the shot, not realising that he's supposed to be part of it), or find Luca Filippi and Fabio Onidi waving their hands at each other and they discuss something next to the team's coffee machine. They can do it because, in their hearts, they all believe that they are about to beat the other on track.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the pace picked up as everyone got ready for the race to come: the cars were lowered off their stands and the mechanics started to pack for the pitlane, the Rapax guys walked back from catering a little faster than they walked there, the Caterham drivers started their routine with Giedo using the giant rubber bands as a resistance tool, first on his forehead as he put his body weight against it before holding it in his hands and repeating the process, while Rodolfo and his trainer stood outside, bouncing a ball between them to sharpen his reflexes, looking for all the world like an over eager dog straining to be let off the lead. The teams loaded up the golf carts loaned to them with parts and headed away towards the pitlane, a slightly surreal image in a pitlane used to gracing cars valued in the millions, and the drivers went the other way with their cars and a guy manning the starter, waiting to be given the thumbs up from a marshal and fired up for the trip around the corner and into the pitlane, the trip that lets them live for a while.
I often forget how little time they actually get in the car, how little time they are allowed to do the thing that defines them. Every race driver loves driving their car as fast as possible: some of them are more competitive than the others, but the one thing they all share is the passion for driving a car designed to be fast on the very edge of what it can do.
And it's at an extreme edge, driving them in the Singapore heat. Davide joked about it afterwards, saying how hard it is to race here, how you get to a stage where all you want to do is have a drink but the water is too hot to swallow . Esteban did too: "It's a hard race here, so hot, and you lose a lot of weight in the race. I lost 2kg and, considering my weight, that a big percentage to lose!"
After the race finishes, it's history: there is never much time to reflect on it if you win, and none at all if it went badly. A race seems to be packed away and stored on a shelf as soon as the last drop of champagne hits the ground. The winners can spin a story about it, claiming to have pushed a Sisyphean weight to claim a win in a race where they led from lights to flag, but you indulge them because it is difficult, it is a rare and wondrous thing to win a race, and it is a much harder thing than you can imagine ever being able to do in their place.
Davide was magnanimous in victory, praising his rivals and his team in equal measure after achieving the biggest honour in his short life. Luiz was too, leaning in to hear my husk of a voice and then patiently explaining the new lengths that he'd gone to in devoting his life to racing, putting aside everything else in pursuit of a life in the big paddock next door, a life driving slightly faster cars in front of many, many more people, a life where his monastic life is the bare minimum expected from a driver.
There's another race tomorrow, and they'll all have a reason to be in it, even if that reason is simply to drive a car as fast as they possibly can. The championship is decided but there's always a reason for them to be out there, putting everything on the line once again as they go round and round in pursuit of whatever drove them to be here in the first place.
I don't know if it's the heat, but things are just a little ... different here. Okay, so obviously a race in South East Asia is going to feel different from a race in Europe, just because, well, everything we do, see and eat is different to back home, but everyone is certainly behaving slightly oddly.
It might just be that it's the end of term, and everyone is thinking about the break to come. Luca Filippi and Davide Valsecchi, for example, were out at the last corner of the circuit for the Monza race winners photoshoot, and Al was asking them both to smile. They both beamed widely - they're Italian, after all - but Luca was whispering something before each shot.
Getting a little closer, it was clear that he was saying 'sex' over and over.
"Well, you want me to smile!" he laughed when asked about it. "One time I was being photographed, and he said to say sex every time, because it makes you smile. And it was true, so now I always do it!"
"Really?" Davide queried. "I will have to try it too!"
And that is how we ended up with two Italian racers whispering sex over and over again until the shoot was finished.
It wasn't much easier in the championship rivals photoshoot, when Davide and Luiz were told to stare fiercely at each other ("you know, moody like Senna and Prost"), but were unable to stop giggling. "Come on guys," Al sighed, "why can't you keep a straight face?"
"We can't help it!" Davide stuttered. "We've got a competition going: whoever is the last one to laugh gets to slap the other one in the face!"
"But you guys are supposed to look at each other like you hate him!"
"But I don't," Davide replied, "I like him."
"And I like him too!" Luiz laughed. Which is why the shoot ended up with the pair of them saying "one, two, three: TAKE THE PHOTO NOW!"
Hopefully it wasn't influenced by a shopping trip the Coloni team made earlier in the day, which ended up in the big Abercrombie and Fitch store in the middle of town, and features an enormous photo of a bare-chested male model wearing a pair of their trousers. It was all a bit much for one of the mechanics.
"I don't know why," Luca continued, "but he looked at the big picture and said 'I am much better looking than him', and he tore his shirt off right there!" Cue much laughter ("he is Italian, so he is very hairy!") as he sucked his stomach in and walked up and down the aisle in front of his teammates (and some suddenly worried shoppers), promising to call his wife to settle the matter as to who was the better looking of the two.
Davide had a much easier time, comparitively: you might think that someone fighting for the championship might have a few things on his mind, but there was only one thing worrying him ahead of today's sessions. "I went for a run, but it is too hot," he started, "and so I had to get a haircut. The only place I could find was a Chinese place next to the hotel: it was cheap too!"
"So I give them the money, a few dollars, and they come with this machine: no washing, no scissors, no combs, just this machine and whoosh! whoosh! around my head a few times, then in with this tube and boom! it sucks all the loose hair out and I am done! Two minutes, maybe, and they push me out the door! Nice, eh?"
Yeah, nice, except that he no longer looks the same as he did in the championship rival photoshoot from yesterday...
They both had an easier time of it than Nathanaêl Berthon, who was really just looking for a nice, relaxing weekend to round out his season. Instead of walking from the hotel to the circuit, he decided it would be easier to get a cab.
"So we get close, the fee is maybe $6, but the driver says no no, we can do better: I think he wanted to give me a tour of the city! He keeps going round and round, I start to complain that I have to race, and eventually he says ok, you get out here: I can't go any closer. Now I am further away, and the bill is $20!"
"I said no way, I'm not paying, this is ridiculous, and he goes to get a cop! We talk, time is running out, I said ok, I'll pay $10, everyone is happy. Except I don't have any cash, and he won't take my card! So he made me go to a machine, it doesn't work, then to a hotel: finally I can get some cash, but now I'm even further away, and I had to run to get here!"
And then it rained. A lot. Luckily it tapered away a bit at the start of the session, but it still had a big impact on some of the guys: Esteban Gutiérrez's engineer Gaytan Jego took a huge fall in the wet pitlane just moments before the start of the session (luckily you didn't fall on the car, I smirked afterwards. No, he smiled ruefully, I spun a bit and saved it by landing on my elbow!), while Paolo Coloni put his shopping trip to good use by buying some fluorescent sneakers ("I thought it would be useful: I can just stick my foot out and the drivers know where our pit is!").
But according to Lotus, the most remarkable thing that happened is that Esteban actually used a tear off, which he hasn't done all year. They were all talking about it when I went to get some quotes from the Mexican, as they watched the guy diligently fit a new strip onto his helmet.
So, like I say, things are just ... a bit different here.
No one likes to be confused for other people, but it must be particularly galling for a race driver, especially one trying to make a name for himself in the F1 paddock. Fabio Leimer has been one of the more unlucky drivers this year, which doesn't help, but he thought his moment had come when he was walking into the paddock this morning and a TV cameraman saw him, and started to follow the Racing Engineering driver.
He has been wearing a selection of baseball hats with the flat brim this year - everything that the F1 drivers pick up trickles down to us eventually - and he was proud (but remembered to put on his neutral, didn't-notice-the-camera-right-next-to-me, driver's face) as the usual huge crowd camped just outside our paddock saw the camera and opened up for him, helped by the marshals. My big moment has come, he thought to himself as he walked through the barriers, right up until the moment the crowd started chanting "Kimi! Kimi! We love you!" at him...
Alexa has been having her own moments of confusion in the paddock this weekend, too. Rushing around to get all the details for yesterday's new GP3 car launch (Mop the floor: check. Polish the car under the cover in the scorching temperatures: check), and things never go easy when you're running out of time.
"Oh, just call me Bernadette," she blurted at one stage after fumbling something: it's a French saying, apparently. Considering the number of French team members at Racing Engineering they obviously know that, which is why it's funnier that they have said "hello Bernadette" every time they've walked past her this weekend.
The launch went off well: Esteban was there as the first champion, most of the current drivers came for a look, and a huge media contingent was here to see Mark Webber fire up the engine, pleasantly surprising everyone with the huge noise in the confines of our hospitality area.
The only people not thrilled to be there were our catering guys, who were all wanting to play in the GP2 team in the football tournament that Alexa Bernadetted to start at exactly the same time as the launch. Eventually the room thinned out and the boys could run out to the car park and head over to the ground (along with Leon from GP3) where the tournament was well underway.
"We are the Italy of the paddock!" Marco laughed afterwards. "We didn't score a goal in the first two games, but we went through because we lost by less goals than the others!" But the GP2 team was eventually knocked out by Lotus, while the real Italians of the paddock, Trident and Coloni, had possibly the most epic game of the tournament.
Poor Leon drew the short straw and had to referee the game, which saw every touch of an opponent draw howls of protest of the "Sir! Penalty! Please!" variety as they fell over. The game was finally settled in Trident's favour thanks to their goalkeeper scoring not one but two goals from his own penalty area.
It didn't help: they got crushed by Lotus in the final. So just another trophy for their cabinet, then.
The nice thing was that DAMS, who were knocked out in the first round, decided against heading back to the hotel and instead went out to pick up beer and pizzas for everyone for after the final. They were helped in this by their driver Felipe Nasr: "I used to live not far from here, so I always love coming here. And it helps to know my way around!"
And just as I was about to wrap up this blog, Ines from Racing Engineering came over with Nathanael Berthon to say hello, and I mentioned that I was writing this. "How do I get in the blog?" the Frenchman asked, and I told him it was simple: just say something funny or interesting about the day, and I'll get it in there.
"Today? Oh, nothing much has happened today. It's a shame we're not still in Budapest: I have a great story from there..." And he lived up to his word: he proceeded to tell me a brilliant story from his weekend in Hungary. But unfortunately it's now Monza, so I can't include it.
Shame, that. It really is a great story.
"Okay, I promise that if anything interesting happens tomorrow, I will come straight over and tell you. Goodnight, David. Bonne nuit, Bernadette."
And just after he left, we could hear the crowd roaring just outside the paddock: "Fernando! Fernando! We love you!"
Strangely, it was only when I found myself tweeting information on Alexa's phone while standing immediately under the lights on the start line while she went off to get more news during what should have been lap 21 that I realised that today hadn't quite gone to plan. I've never been the quickest at realising when life has taken a turn off piste, probably because over the years this job has taught me to deal with things first, reflect on them later (mostly for the blog).
But I should have picked it up earlier. Looking back, it was strange to open the curtains and see the sun (and can I just apologise now for the title of yesterday's blog, which had a lot of people in the paddock assuming I was writing about their love lives: I should have gone with a movie title pun as usual, something like Once Upon A Time In The Wet), and to then have to dig my sunglasses out of my bag.
It wasn't strange, however, to be kept waiting by a driver. In this case it was Luiz Razia, who had 2 photographers, Alexa and I hanging around in the pitlane waiting for him to get to the track for a shoot, with only a few cameras to keep us entertained (and I apologise in advance for anyone who has to see our Facebook pages), before finally arriving to find us all photographing our reflections in each other's glasses.
Well, we were bored.
Then it was time for F1 qualy and a couple of our boys getting into the top 3, before hiking up the hill for the race, and the craziness that ensued. We went through all the usual routines, the lights went out, and off they went.
Esteban has possibly been the most interesting driver to talk to in the paddock this year. There's no question that he was going to be under a lot of pressure this year, and the general feeling is that he will be up in the big paddock soon, but to get there you've got to get the results. And for a number of reasons, they just weren't coming in the first half of the season.
But a break in Mexico turned it all around, and it all seems to come from within him: drivers always say they aren't looking at the championship tables (and then correct you when you get their points wrong), but when he says he is really just looking at the races for the enjoyment they bring, I can look into his eyes and see that he really, really means it.
So when Rio and James were slow off the line when the lights went out, he went right to get around them both. At most other tracks that would be a painted bit of track, but here it was grass, and a wall. And he kept his foot in, even though he was sliding for want of grip. It was one of the most foolhardy, beautifully brave moments of the season.
And Marcus was on fire behind him. Quick into and out of turn one, immediately flat at Eau Rouge and a gust of wind past Esteban: P3. Straight after James, who hadn't run here in a proper car in the dry before, braked too early at the bus stop: P2. Immediately onto Rio's rear wing, clamped to him down the hill and flat at Eau Rouge again, Rio had to lift: P1.
To the press conference: "Then Haryanto only changed the rears, so we lost that position in the pitstop, but lucky for me he spun behind the safety car..." - the entire room bursts out laughing - "Hey, that's not nice!" - even louder laughs.
And then Nigel crashed.
Poor Nigel, who at least didn't suffer more than bruising on his ribs and a bit of a headache, and joins a long list of drivers who have a lot to thank Dallara for. An immediate safety car, and they roll around for a few laps while the marshals tried to pull the battered barrier back together, and then I look up the pitlane and see the cars coming towards us.
Debris on the front straight, I wondered, or maybe a red flag in the pitlane? Oh no, I realised when I looked at the screens, it's lap six. Pitstops.
The noise, the wind, the anxiety, the fear and adrenelin of almost the entire field pitting at the same time is something almost beyond explanation. We're terrified, up on the pitwall and typing rapidly, trying to keep track of the untrackable, knowing that all that ...chaos is going on behind us. We hope, for ourselves, for everyone else, that nothing goes wrong, that everyone's training works, that they all leave in a few seconds and get away safely again.
You can't look behind you, because it might just break the spell. You can only look at the screens and, when the noise dies down, you can breathe again and chance a glance backwards.
Davide Valsecchi had a bit of a moment when he was released and Fabio Onidi was closing in on him and looked to brake hard. They got away with it, but it looked close. Esteban had a slow stop when his right rear stuck, more bad luck after squeezing inside his teammate as they ran side by side down the hill to pick up a position, just as a yellow was waved for Rodolfo Gonzalez's earlier crash into the barriers there.
Rio had his spin and then, with the barriers still broken, they red flagged the race. And suddenly, nothing happened.
The cars were stopped at the bus stop at first, and then waved onto the front straight. Unfortunately not everyone realised this, and a number of guys had shut down their engines, meaning the marshals had a lot of work to do to push the cars around the corner and up the straight.
The red flag came at 16.04, the restart was scheduled for 16.27: a pretty amazing repair job, all things considered.
The crowd were determined to have fun, no matter what happened in front of them. When the cars were stopped they booed, when the screens showed the restart time they cheered, and anything anyone did on the grid got a reaction, one way or another.
Restart at 16.27 behind the safety car: Woo!
Safety car stops 10 metres later: Boo!
3 cars storm past, then stop: Woo!
Mechanics run up the road to pull them back: Cue laughter.
The restart couldn't happen because they suddenly realised that the medical helicopter had taken Nigel to Liege for check ups, so they had to stop everything at the last second (Boo!). And the guys got back out of their cars and looked around to their teams to see what happens next.
James ended up sitting down with his girlfriend, chatting to pass the time. Marcus stood around with his team. Luiz did a few knee lifts to keep warm, and then dropped down to do some push ups (Woo!) while Stefano Coletti watched ("why don't you do some too?" "I would, but I really don't want to start a big competition now, and you know that would happen..."). Some drivers went for a wee in the pits, some just went against the barriers in front of the crowd (Woo!). I'd probably better not say which was which.
And then finally, at 17.04, the race started again, and everyone was determined to make up for lost time, as you no doubt saw on your television. The race ran so long that the F1 teams had to push their cars out of parc ferme during the race, and the GP3 drivers were waved into the pits while the trophies were presented: a couple of the MW Arden cars were covered in champagne because they drove through just as Marcus sprayed the champagne towards his team.
With time in short supply, we rushed to get the press conference done as soon as I finished the race report, with Marcus standing over me for the last minute of it. He and James were huge fun, but unfortunately Davide couldn't make it because he was called to the stewards (the video showed that it was a safe release, that he spun his wheels a bit but Fabio said he didn't feel it was a problem: case dismissed).
And now we have Luiz and Davide on the same points in the championship, with the Lotus guys also on equal points in third, and the paddock has been buzzing in the setting sunlight ever since.
Apparently, it rained yesterday.
So I got up this morning, rubbed my eyes and open the blinds wide to help me wake up properly, and peered out at the low hanging rain on the other side of the window. The place we stay at near Stavelot is lovely when the sun is out, but unfortunately we're in Belgium, so it never is. The trees all round hold the rain close, the clouds seemingly at head level. It's beautiful, if you're of a mind to appreciate it for what it is, for the gauze it drapes across the landscape.
I've got a specific Spa outfit that I first put together quite a few years ago: a thick shirt and thin jumper, with some waterproof jeans lined with flannel are the base layers, with strong walking socks under neoprene boots, and a thick waterproof jacket along with a baseball cap to keep my head warm. The boots are the most important bit, to keep your feet dry despite the constant running water in the paddock.
We're on a slope here, around the first corner and on the run down the hill in the old pits: they're atmospheric, but anything you drop floats downstream to whatever team draws the short straw and ends up in the bottom pit. Assuming it rains, that is.
And it's Spa. Of course it will rain.
Rain is a constant at Spa: I have never been here when it hasn't rained. Another constant is Alexa complaining about wet feet at Spa. And everyone complaining about the cold. And every driver hiding in their truck unless they actually have to be on track. Along with their teams.
Hospitality is a ghost town here: we could probably make do with a Portakabin. And if we did, I'm not sure anyone but the catering crew and GP2 staff would notice.
We drove through the grey, atmospheric fields of southern Belgium, stopping just to pick up some pain au chocolat to keep Didier quiet for the morning, and pulled our hoods close as we walked into the paddock. There was none of the usual greetings and banter, because the only people to be found in the paddock were the local marshals getting an early beer at the bar to set them up for the day.
We opened our computers and hit the espresso machine for the first of many visits as the rain picked up outside: I thought I saw Julian Leal running over, but it was actually one of the Trident engineers looking for a coffee too. And we sat down and waited for free practice to come.
When the rain was finally heavy enough, it was time to head up to the pitlane: Marcus Ericsson waved as he ran from his truck in the lower half of the paddock up to the iSport pits in the top half, and we hugged our coats closer to us as we trudged up the hill through the gloom.
The pitlane is a bit of a ghost town before the session: obviously the F1 teams aren't hanging around, considering the weather, but with our drivers having to do a full lap of the long, undulating circuit we have the place to ourselves for a few minutes before the noise arrives, along with more rain.
Free practice in the rain is a fraught affair: you want to push enough to get a sense of what your car will take in the conditions, but not so much that you tip over the edge into a crash. There were drivers running wide all through the session, particularly in the complex at the end of the top straight, but mostly the barriers at Spa are far enough back that you can get away with it.
Mostly. Johnny Cecotto ran slightly wide into Pouhon, lost the back a little over the kerbs, and then a lot when he aquaplaned backwards into the wall, removing most of the back end of the car. It brought out the red flags, with 3 minutes to go, and the Addax mechanics groaned at the rush job ahead of them to get the Venezuelan into qualifying.
Back in hospitality, the usual lunch lines were muted, with the teams waiting for a break in the clouds that never came to sneak across from the pits to eat. I thought I saw Jolyon Palmer sitting at one of the tables, but it turned out to be a guy in a blue hoodie. Outside the F1 teams sat out their practice session, and we ate in peace. I chatted with someone's dad for a few minutes, and he mentioned that every day in July had been as wet as today around here.
Soon the rain picked up again, and it was time for qualifying. The teams sheltered in their pits as we slunk back up the hill again, with the session delayed for 15 minutes to wait for the conditions to calm down a little.
"Who's on pole?" Al asked when he came back, soaking wet after standing at Eau Rouge for the session and not having access to the times. "Rio? Fantastic: he looked really fast today. And I like him too: he's really..."
"Yes. He photographs well!"
We saw most of the drivers on the back of scooters as they made their way back to the main pits after the session - they had to drive the cars back to our pits, then head back up top for the weigh in - and then Rio and the Lotus boys actually came to hospitality for the press conference. They had to speak up so they could be heard over the sound of the rain on the canvas roof.
I was going to go for my usual run, but the rain picked up just as it was time to go, killing that idea off. Dinner instead, and the presentation of a birthday cake for Ludovic from the catering crew, leaving me just enough time to put together a blog.
And now that it's done and it's dark outside, I'm hoping to head back for a quick beer at the hotel. Hopefully the rain will ease up soon, so we can dash back across to the car park without getting too wet.
So it's hardly a surprise that it's hot in Budapest - it's always hot here, every year - but the sheer viciousness of the heat always seems to catch us off guard somehow. Even if we're not sweating directly into our laptops this year as we write race reports, it's still tough to get through.
And unlike Hockenheim, where the rain and weather kept everyone in their trucks, this weekend ... the heat kept everyone in their trucks.
And their air conditioning just made it worse for the rest of us.
So, we're left with nothing to write about again. Okay, so this year we're not being kept in the paddock until midnight while the race stewards considered penalties for naughty teams (you know who you are), but rather because we lack the imagination to come up with 600 words or so making fun of mad Swedes or Swiss drivers.
But still, you like photos. We like photos. It's not that bad, is it?
If a picture paints a thousand words, then I'm out of a job as a writer. And Al is one of the more eloquent people around. So clearly that can't be right. Okay, I'm just filling time now until Alexa finishes uploading the shots. And here they are. Enjoy!
Saturday is the work day in the paddock, the day where you get your head down and get through. Throw in some weather, you don't know what's going to happen to the timetable. We were in early for the GP3 qualifying (set at that time to clean the track for F1, seemingly), and there's nothing to be done but down another espresso and plough on.
Qualy down, press conference to watch Mitch Evans put a shine on his day despite losing pole by less than a tenth, then strip and re-assemble the press conference room for the GP2 race: better to do it now than run out of time. Back in for a coffee, and Marcus Ericsson's fan club organiser has a bunch of questions to ask. It's why we're here.
Cue Marcus himself, his fist clutching a bunch of passes tightly as though protecting them from yet unseen ninjas. His fan club hired a couch to bring a horde of them over (the Finns come to Hungary, because they seemingly speak the same language: the Swedes come to Germany), and he's been running around all weekend after them. I thought it was supposed to be the other way round, but then I don't have my own fan club.
"Don't forget the signing session, sweetie," Alexa reminded the slightly manic driver (has he had more coffee than us? It seems unlikely, but theoretically possible) as he was running back towards the door. "What! When?" he spurted, panicked, and was not soothed by the response. "But I've got to go back to the fan club, and see the team, and..." Telling him to bring them along was greeted but a suitably horrified look. Everyone needs some space.
At least yesterday's rain held off, with just one small grey cloud in an otherwise pure azure sky. Obviously, it was over our paddock. But we donned our sunglasses, cat-herded the drivers into a fleet of paddock vans, and drove over to the big stage in the fan zone for them to be stared at, and have a random assortment of goods thrust under their noses to sign.
Which is when the rain came.
The rain was so heavy that everyone - drivers, workers, fans - all had to squeeze into the back couple of metres of stage space and wait it out. The girl running the show couldn't understand what was happening - all round us the sky was still blue and clear, and yet we had a biblical level storm flooding the stage. "It's just GP2," I noted, "we bring our own weather with us."
Eventually it slowed enough that we could peel ourselves off each other and stretch out slightly. Luiz Razia kept trying to hide from Alexa, hoping if she can't see him, he won't have to do anything until it was time to go. She ruined his plan by getting the German announcer to interview him, while Davide Valsecchi sat in the corner looking miserable, because he's Italian and it was clearly time for lunch.
Get the drivers back to the paddock, repeat the process with the GP3 drivers, except with blazing sun instead of rain. Go figure. Gulp down a bite of lunch, watch a bit of F1 qualy, head out to the pitlane. More of the same, but with added rain. I'd spoken to Johnny Cecotto while we were waiting out the storm on stage and he was pinning all his hopes on changeable conditions: "I'm P17, it's all the chance I have." When it rained and then stopped just ahead of the race, I swear I could see his smile through his helmet.
It worked out perfectly for him, with Stephane Richelmi following suit: I spoke to an engineer afterwards who admitted yeah, he'd considered it, but a race is always a toss up between gambling for a big win and claiming the smaller results you know can come if you are conservative. Racers are defined by wins. Race teams are judged by their results. Sometimes it's Hobson's choice.
Even more rain, a GP3 race behind the safety car, time to write a report in the meantime. Then the GP2 podium drivers split between wanting the press conference to start on time, and wanting to watch the last 2 minutes of the rain-delayed GP3 race. Richelmi won. In, talk, change back drop, talk, look at watch, and it's 8.00 somehow.
Quick bite, and back to work.
Saturday is the work day in the paddock, and we're still going. So are all of the teams, of course, and this week we've got Carlin next to us. It turns out that they like AC/DC to help with the workload: Alexa, not so much. It could be worse: in Silverstone, Jenzer were playing Kylie Minogue all weekend. Say what you will about her singing ability, Can't Get You Out Of My Head is aptly named.
And now it's back in my head. Bugger.
Sometimes, nothing much happens in the pitlane. Many times, this is because of the weather. Take today, for instance: it basically rained all day, so everyone stayed in their respective trucks to wait it out.
Which is pretty boring for everyone concerned - you've only got to look at iSport's Twitter feed for proof of that - but it's also boring for you, because there is nothing to write about for the blog.
We've sat here talking about it for a while now, but we've got nothing. Seriously. The most exciting thing that I've heard all day is that Marcus Ericsson has a bus load of fans here. And they're not even in the paddock, but were stuck out in a stand all day, getting endlessly rained on. The poor bastards.
I'll level with you: I'm pretty good at waffling on about nothing, but even I have my limits. We found them today. And yet, we have the ever-present demand for a blog, to explain precisely how little happened behind the scenes.
And so, because we love you so, we are upgrading your backstage pass to show you the randomness that is our Instagram accounts. Because we are totally up with this whole social networking thing, and not at all because I'm running out of words and want to go for a beer, or because Al is refusing to let us use his photos.
So please enjoy our photos of a very wet day in Hockenheim, and let us know below if this is something you'd like to see us get away with, er, I mean put together again in the future.
Silverstone is not the easiest place in the world to get to, being as it is in the Middle of Nowhere, Northamptonshire, but sometimes the process becomes a bit ridiculous.
Technical Director Didier Perrin had an ... interesting journey to the circuit. Arriving at the airport in Paris yesterday, he discovered that his Canadian passport, the one he prefers to travel on, was out of date. His French passport was at home, of course, so he had to storm back home to find it, time ticking against him the whole way.
If only he hadn't packed it away in one of the boxes in his house, somewhere, ready for his forthcoming move.
About the same time, the photo shoot for the Valencia winners was supposed to be getting under way. Esteban was there, ready and waiting and happy to do whatever Al had planned, but Luiz was nowhere to be seen. "The photoshoot for Luiz is now?" Debbie asked, stunned, when Alexa rang Arden to find the wayward Brazilian. "I'm so sorry, but he's not in the paddock. I think maybe he's going around the circuit? I'll give him a call, and send him to you..."
Eventually, after becoming sick of waiting and worrying that the scarce light was going to disappear into the rapidly approaching gloom, Esteban was taken out onto the circuit for a photoshoot, with Al working on the age old "a driver in the hand" adage.
They were only a few shots in when Esteban said "oh, here he comes" as Luiz trundled around the corner on his bike, smiling widely at his friends from paddock as he sailed by with his iPod firmly in place.
When Al started waving frantically at the Brazilian, Luiz just waved back and rolled away.
It was only when he walked over sheepishly 10 minutes later, after being sent across by his team, that he realised that Al's gesture hadn't been entirely as friendly as Luiz had originally assumed...
After finally finding his passport, Didier did a quick search online but soon realised that there were no flights left open for him to get to the circuit yesterday evening: a quick call to Silverstone later he was behind the wheel of his car and starting the long drive towards Northampton.
It was about this time that the regular dinner for all GP2 staff got under way, with Didier providing us with something to laugh about, er ... I mean, something to talk about. When I heard about the epic journey he was undertaking, I immediately texted Didier to invite him (only slightly facetiously) to break up the journey by sleeping at my place, conveniently located about halfway, in London.
Politeness itself, as ever, Didier thanked me for my kind offer but noted that he would take a nap on the ferry across (shunning the train for the longer nap time), and then push on to Northampton to meet us in the morning.
Getting ready to leave this morning for the GP3 free practice session, we learned that he had pulled over in a rest area to take another nap, but would shortly be at the hotel, where he would take a quick shower to freshen up, and join us for the end of the session. And then we left for the track. Google Maps advises that the distance from Northampton to Silverstone is 15 miles. We left the hotel fairly early, at 7.45. It took us 2 hours to get into the circuit, and we were the quick ones.
As we had a coffee before heading out to the (other) pitlane for free practice, Jolyon Palmer's father Jonathan came running in to hospitality. "Can I please borrow one of the GP2 scooters?" he blurted out. "It's just that Jolyon and Marcus are still stuck in traffic outside the circuit, and we really need to go and get them out..."
If you take a look on Twitter, you will see a photo of the iSport pair, along with Rodolfo Gonzalez and Fabio Onidi, running across the circuit to get to the paddock. The four made it in time, just, got to the pits where the teams had their overalls and helmets ready, so they could jump in and get out before the pitlane closed.
The rain continued to fall, the session rolled out despite 3 red flags for spins - I read that there was only 86 laps in the session between the 26 drivers - and we waited for ages for a bus to take us the couple of miles back to our paddock. If only there was a timetable somewhere for track sessions, so that the track operators could know when people might need transport.
Didier, meanwhile had been directed off the main route to the circuit, and was being forced down a collection of ever smaller country lanes. He was no closer to getting to the paddock, but he did get near enough to pick up the circuit radio to listen to the session, which was nice. Jolyon made his way back to hospitality for lunch, and we had a collective moan about the diabolical traffic all around us. "If Didier ever gets here, you should stay away from him," Alexa advised, "he hates everything British today."
"Don't worry," he laughed back, "today, I do too!"
The messages from Didier's car were getting increasingly worrying as time floated past on the streams forming in the paddock as the ground water rose. Before GP2 free practice there was a solid stream of florid abuse towards anyone responsible for the mess all around the circuit, which after the session turned into long, random strings of swear words. During lunch it turned into random animal noises, probably not helped by Alexa sending a string of photos of everyone's lunch plates.
Eventually it turned into quiet weeping, and we didn't know where to look anymore.
We picked up our computers and headed to the end of the paddock, where the circuit was supposed to have buses supplied to move us all down to the other paddock. Needless to say it wasn't there, and when I saw a bus in the distance outside the paddock and ran towards it waving my arms high in the air, it took off without a glance back
I'm not 100% sure, but I think Luiz Razia may have been driving it.
Another bus came along just before we gave up all hope, but he wouldn't let us on because he was pointing in the wrong direction: we would need to wait for a bus to be pointed towards the pitlane before we could board. When will the next bus be going that way, I asked. Oh, I'll be turning around in a few minutes, he replied flatly.
Didier finally made it to the paddock as the cars rolled out for the start of qualifying. Naturally, he couldn't find a bus to get him to the pitlane for the session, as it had already started, and he sat and watched in silence in hospitality.
I only noticed the big brace on Stefano Coletti's left hand after the session, when we were back in the paddock and wondering how we would be able to get away. "Oh yeah, I broke my finger in that crash in Valencia," he replied matter of factly, pulling the brace off as he did. "Here, feel the finger: you can really feel the break."
Take my advice: if someone makes this offer to you, just say no.
How do you drive like that, I asked queasily, and he showed me the way he now has to hold the wheel, with his first finger pointing straight out. But the gap between the wheel and the tub is really small, I pointed out: surely that means you're hitting it all the time? "Oh yeah," he laughed out loud, "I screamed all through the sessions, every time my finger hit the chassis."
It was after dinner that I noticed Stefano's engineer talking to Didier. At first I thought no good could come from that, but then I realised that, as much as Didier would be moaning about his journey through hell to Silverstone, it's still marginally better than listening to blood curdling screams for 30 minutes at a go.
But only just.
The heat affects everyone in different ways, here in Valencia: you just have to realise that you won't necessarily get the response you expect, depending on who you're talking to. The race winners photoshoot is a perfect example: Giedo van der Garde and Luiz Razia were standing together in a park, waiting for Al to direct his photoshoot, and they were getting ... a little bored.
"So, how do you want us?" Giedo asked. "Do you want us standing up, sitting down, or lying down like a porn star?" Luiz couldn't resist: "Well you better go first: you Dutch sure know a lot about what porn stars do..." "Yeah we do!" Giedo laughed back. "And I don't care! I can lie right here." He threw himself down on the grass immediately, before sitting back up in a hurry. "Wait, you don't think that a dog has been here to pee, do you?"
Jolyon Palmer was enjoying the scene too, waiting for fellow Monaco winner Johnny Cecotto and talking to Alexa about Twitter: she has recently nagged the Englishman into starting an account after fighting her off for ages. Unfortunately, he's got all the fervour of any new convert: "Yeah, I really like it: I'm on there all the time. You should make everyone else join too: no twitter account, no mention in the press releases!" Alexa was happy to comply - she has even started a new campaign on twitter to see who fans think should be the next person she nags, I mean convinces, to join up. But the results have been a little surprising: the main votes have been for Madonna and Michael Schumacher. To be fair, the German has tested for us in the past, but I'm not sure that even Alexa has that type of power.
"Yeah, I'll vote for them too!" Jolyon laughed. "Make it happen! In the meantime, make Cecotto turn up: he's late! He should definitely get a 3 place grid penalty for this!" Which, after qualifying, actually happened. So any of the other drivers reading this should remember: be careful not to get on the wrong side of Jolyon, as he has clearly has some sort of weird power...
At least the heat bled away a little before the guys took to the track, and no one was happier about this than the cooks in hospitality, especially the guys on the grill: "At least we can just do our jobs normally today. Yesterday was so much worse: we didn't even need to grill the food, we could just put it outside and it cooked itself!"
It was still hot enough, as was obvious in the shuttle bus back to the paddock after qualifying. We were sitting there with Max Chilton and his dad when Giedo and Josef Kral bounded in: unfortunately Giedo was left standing, and decided to sit on my lap instead. "How's that?" he laughed as he sweated like a river, "is it nice and wet?" Well, not yet sweetheart, I smirked.
We started talking about what everyone else had done in the session - it's amazing how much they watch the big screens around the track, and didn't need me to fill in many gaps - and someone asked about what Rodolfo Gonzalez had done in the session, which prompted Max and Josef to start laughing out loud.
"We were talking to Marcus yesterday when he came over to say hello," the Briton smirked, "and Marcus told us how he had gone fishing last week, back home. Rodolfo turned around and asked if there was a lot of snow, and how thick was the ice! When we all started laughing he didn't know why, and Marcus said 'you know it's summer, right?'
Rodolfo just giggled and said 'oh, I thought Sweden was always covered in snow!"
I just laughed and replied that I didn't know where he had finished but at least he'd stayed off the wall, unlike this morning. Giedo started to giggle, to which I smirked and said "I don't know what you're laughing about: in the blog I'm going to make you say that" as he looked horrified and yelled "No! You can't do that! I'll get in trouble!"
Next time, pick your seat a bit more carefully, porn star.
We were all set for the press conference, but unfortunately the only driver ready for it was Felipe Nasr, as the Lotus drivers had been called up to see the stewards: in their absense I brought the press conference to Felipe, who was sitting in hospitality with his uncle. We might as well come to you, I told him as I explained what had happened: the air conditioning is better here, apart from anything else. His uncle thought it was hilarious, and laughed all the way through: I don't think he had ever sat next to his nephew during a press conference before, and he made the most of it.
And with a bit of time to kill until everyone came back to the pits I went for a run: everyone's doing the track run these days, but it's always a lottery here because you never know if the bridge will be open or not, but I was lucky. I've never interviewed anyone sweating as much as that, though. Esteban didn't seem to mind: he was sitting by himself in the back of the truck, and when I explained I had literally just finished a run he smiled and said great, before proceeding to explain what he has been up to in the last month or so.
Drivers are under a lot of pressure - sponsors, the team, family, friends, supporters, all want to see the results that justify their belief - and they all deal with it differently. Esteban is no different in that respect, and he is smart enough to know that, but sometimes even the smartest guys struggle to switch that pressure off and just deal with what they do on track.
Between races he had returned to Mexico, and clearly it was important for him to do so: the pressure has been piling on, as his results aren't what anyone expected this year, and he knew it. Usually in a situation like this, everything gets on top of a driver - we've seen it a lot of time in the past - but Esteban has taken a different approach.
"I have to hit the button, I have to reset everything, to go back to how it was in the beginning." This is generally a platitude, but with Esteban it's clear that he is actually doing that. Ignore the results, he said, and focus on what counts: make it fun for the mechanics, for the engineers, for me. Find the enjoyment that I had when I started racing, and maybe then the results come back too.
I sat down with his engineer Gaytan later in the night, and he confirmed the different approach they were taking : don't think, just feel. And P3 in such a tight qualy suggests that it's working, not that Esteban is even mentioning it: even a 3 place penalty didn't seem to phase him. Everyone is under pressure, he said, no matter what you do: in business, in school, in day to day life. I'm under pressure too, because I'm racing driver. That's what I do, but it doesn't mean that I can't enjoy it too.
I came out of his truck inspired, wanting to do more of everything, to run the circuit again, to find the joy. It was precisely then that Davide Valsecchi came over, swearing and confused, unable to understand how a 3 place penalty turned P4 into P6, even though his team had already explained that the penalties are applied in the order that they happen chronologically. We gave him the same answer as his team: "Okay, I will take it. For sure six is better than seven!"