Sometimes motor racing is like being in the army. Okay, hear me out.
Ask anyone in the paddock and you'll find out there's a lot of "hurry up and wait", the need to be somewhere urgently, immediately, only to be left hanging around for ages before you're allowed to go in and do your job.
Today was a perfect example of this. GP3 qualifying was really early so it was a case of watch that, then find a scooter and quickly head over to their paddock across town to interview the top three for the website. Of course I had to find them first, which took longer than it should because they're not in our paddock, so you can't just go to the hospitality area and find them at the coffee machine.
So round them up, get them photographed and interviewed, then tear back because the GP2 race is about to start. Back upstairs to drop off the scooter and dictaphone, then straight back down the road to sit just outside Anthony Noghes for ages, because there was some problem in the Porsche race which meant everyone's timings were pushed back and we were going to start late again.
But it does mean you get to talk to everyone, as everyone is looking for a distraction from thinking about the next job they have, which is the feature race in Monaco, which even people who don't follow racing have heard of. This means pressure, and talking about something else means no pressure, so talking is what they do.
Johnny Cecotto was surrounded by so many friends and family, and as this was his best qualifying session so far there would be pressure on even if it wasn't the biggest race of the season. I kind of assumed he'd be stressed out and worrying - most racing drivers worry, it's how they deal with it that differentiates them - but he was smiling, laughing, looking like he didn't have a worry in the world. For a young guy about to head into a defining moment in his life so far, he was amazingly chilled out.
Davide Valsecchi was another driver not letting the size of the moment overwhelm him. It probably helped that he won here last year - there's nothing that relieves you from the stress of racing like winning a race - but I suspect the size of his lead in the championship helped too, as it's easier to think about how a few points would be nice, rather than worrying about how to engineer a win from further down the grid.
It probably didn't hurt that he had the Valsecchi Fan Club in full effect. These slightly strange gentlemen were soon entertaining everyone when they unrolled a giant banner (it might have been more useful affixed to a wall somewhere, but it's the thought that counts) and walked over to the Dams team with fluffy lions on their heads. Yes, you read that right.
Davide couldn't help but laugh when he saw them, and was straight over to shake hands, sign autographs, and generally take advantage of a friendly crowd to talk about himself loudly and at length: the Italian almost looked disappointed when his team motioned that the gates were finally open, and it was time to head into the pitlane.
In the pitlane Stefano Coletti was mobbed like the local star that he is, and although he asked me why everything was running late he didn't seem even remotely bothered. Until, that is, Dani Clos came over and gave him a hug that didn't look like ending any time soon: clearly Dani misses our close knit community since he moved upstairs.
And then it was race time: time to get in the cars and go if you're a driver, time to wait for the end to see how it all worked out for everyone else. Even when the race was over and we'd all run out onto the track, we still had to wait for the top three to come back round, wait for the trophies and the anthem, wait for the champagne, the release.
Afterwards Caterina from Addax couldn't believe how long the wait had been: "I feel like it's the end of an exam," she laughed after a slow start to the season by her team's illustrious standards. "I feel like I can finally relax and breathe again, like the weight is off." And back in the paddock she was not alone: the ever-growing Venezuelan component had grown even further,with more people coming out of the woodwork, such as Pastor Maldonado's father dropping by to give his congratulations to Johnny in person.
Rosana, who handles the orders for parts in the paddock, was crying in the truck: "It's just really emotional: I know you will make fun of me, but it's so wonderful to see one of my people winning here, to hear the national anthem played for him and the flag go up, to see all the people out there who have come to see Johnny now. It's really emotional for me..."
And then we were supposed to wait to get the top three photo session done after lunch, but when Johnny asked if he could leave early because he had an important lunch with his sponsors and supporters, we had to hurry up Marcus and Giedo to accomodate. Marcus was upstairs at the coffee machine, of course, but Giedo was still in the truck in the middle of a debrief. I stuck my head around the door and asked if I could borrow him for 2 minutes: the team were fine with that, and as we left we could hear Giedo's (Venezuelan) teammate Rodolfo Gonzalez clearly state "no problem, you can keep him, actually" as we walked down the stairs.
And now it's time to wait again, for the media party Stefano is hosting at his villa up the hill, so I thought I would pass the time by writing another blog: it's an efficient use of time, of course, but as the party is Stefano's it's quite likely that a lot of what happens won't be suitable for a family-friendly blog anyway...
Monaco is a special weekend - you don't need me to tell you that - but it's also a very tough place to work, mostly because everyone is squeezed into places they don't quite fit, making everyone feel slightly like overripe fruit. I can't count the number of people who have been impressed that I was coming here this week (Monaco? How glamourous!), all of whom looked slightly nonplussed when I said sure, but I'll be based the whole time in a car park under a cliff.
But Didier did something about this. Didier brought his new car to Monaco. When I say new, I actually mean a 1931 version Model T Ford. And it's a convertible, just to make it better. There are a lot of supercars in Monaco, but I'm pretty sure we get more attention than any of them. Driving around in his car is like carrying a baby in a chest carrier: people can't help but look, and smile.
We even get to park next to the hospitality area, which is drawing attention from all the drivers and teams: Esteban Gutierrez has offered to be our chauffeur for the weekend, although I can't see Didier ever letting anyone else drive his pride and joy. All day we have heard that famous car horn, the one you've heard in so many old movies, as people can't stop themselves from pushing the button.
But back in the modern world, some of the drivers have more current problems. Sitting outside in the sun as we waited for Davide Valsecchi to arrive for the race winner's photograph (some things never change), Giedo van der Garde talked about how he is trying to push up his Twitter followers: the Dutchman has been stalled just under 10,000 for a while, and this morning decided that he going to do something about it. He has started a new competition: when he gets to 10k he will pick a follower at random to give them a prize, the gloves he wore for his win in Barcelona, signed and delivered. So if you fancy a nice piece of GP2 history, you know what to do.
Five drivers finally in situ, we walked around to the giant stairs / sunbathing area on the outside of the harbour, and Al was soon bossing everyone around, putting the drivers (and us) where he wanted them as his fellow snapper Dan held the reflector towards their faces. The sun was really beating down, and some drivers were suffering more than others: James Calado was really struggling to keep his eyes open in the bright light as he stood with Luiz Razia for their joint shot.
"It's not fair," he complained when we asked him to open his eyes wide, "he's Brazilian: he's used to the sun!" Eventually Al took pity on the Englishman, told him to close his eyes, and he would count him in to open his eyes for the shot, leading James to scrunch his face up until the last second as Luiz laughed and opened his eyes even wider.
The sessions were soon rolling round, but we decided we should stay in the paddock so we could have access to the timing screens: we need them to write the live comments / session reports, and with the F1 teams putting their pitwalls upstairs we wouldn't have any access to them in the pitlane. But it meant that we had a different audience for our ... unorthodox commentary.
During the sessions Alexa and I sit next to each other and we say everything we see out loud so the other one can write down anything they missed, but we talk in a shorthand we've developed over the years we've worked together: we know what we mean, but not many others would. So when Fabio Leimer set the fastest laptime in free practice, Alexa blurted out: "Fabio P1. I gave him drugs yesterday, so I guess they worked!" I knew that they both suffer from severe headaches and the drugs were simply pain medication, but a lot of people swivelled round on the spot to see who had said such a thing before whispering conspiratorially to each other. Sorry if you ended up with a random drug test this afternoon Fabio: it's probably our fault.
Then it was time for lunch, and we sat down with Marcus Ericsson just as Luca Filippi arrived in the paddock, and he made a beeline over to eat with us. "I was reading the blog the other day," Marcus started in, "and it was nice, but you said that I was goofy: what does that mean?" There followed a long and complicated explanation about how it means funny but a little bit silly, using our respective family members as examples, and finally ending up referring to the Disney character "you know, the one with Mickey with the big nose and long ears: Goofy", at which Luca turned around from another conversation and said "what does Goofy mean?"
But it was a lovely lunch, despite Marcus insisting that his plate "it's only fruit" even though there was clearly a big spoon of tiramisu right on top of the melon, and the guys made plans to one day team up in a GT car ("wait, you know Kenny Brack: can you bring him too?"). It was only after we tweeted a photo of the pair (mostly as part of our long standing twitter battle with Karun Chandhok, who is jealous of our access to Christian's famous tiramisu) and someone replied that they had been teammates the year before last, which we had both completely forgotten. To be fair, we are trying to concentrate on our current jobs. But okay, duh.
Then it was time for the new qualifying session. Did you enjoy it? We all thought it was pretty exciting, and you can't argue with last lap screamers to top both sessions. Johnny Cecotto was basically floating in mid air when I found him to get some quotes, having done an amazing job to top both sessions, while Max Chilton was equally pleased to put himself on the front row.
The only one who was slightly disappointed was Marcus, who thought he'd done enough only to be pipped for the top spot in the one lap dash after the red flag in the second session. "They told me over the radio when I was coming back, and I thought they were joking with me: I had to ask them five times before it started to sink in..."
Still, as anyone who read the blogs from Barcelona knows, he owes me a podium. "I know," he laughed as we talked in the truck, "and maybe tomorrow is the day..."
Press conferences are strange things: people get very stressed ahead of races, and if they succeed that stress drops off in as many different ways as there are racing drivers at a circuit.
Before a race you don't want to get in the way of a driver until you know him well enough to have an idea how he'll react: Marcus Ericsson will smile and say something slightly goofy if he sees you, Giedo van der Garde will say hi and shake hands on the way through, but I don't know James Calado so well, so when I saw him striding back and forth from the pitlane to the holding pen before the race I just stayed out of his way, in case nervous pacing is his thing.
Besides, it was nice standing next to Enzo Coloni and listening to him singing Fernando to himself. When he realised he wasn't alone he blushed a little and said "sorry, but I like Abba", but I'm pretty sure it was actually a subconscious reaction to seeing Alonso on the big screen out of the corner of his eye.
In the pitlane and on the grid, you pretty much just stay out of the way. You can return a thumbs up from Max Chilton in his car, though. That is just being polite.
Our press conferences come at a slightly strange time: in F1 they get out of the car, upstairs to put on a hat and shake a bottle of champagne, and then straight in front of the cameras and then the journalists, but here they race, have the podium, then back to the paddock to hang out for a while. In the meantime I write the GP2 race report, try to watch as much of the GP3 race as possible, then do the GP2 press conference and change the back drop, and then GP3 press conference.
I like asking a driver a question just out of the car, because you get a very honest answer, especially if he was involved in an incident with another driver, but with our press conferences all the emotions are gone after an hour, and they're a lot more chilled out and funny. Mostly at the expense of the others.
James was late to the press conference today. It happens, and sometimes we can wait, sometimes we work around it. We waited for a while, but in the end we had to start without him: it's not the first time, it won't be the last. So I started the usual spiel, introduced Giedo, and he then turned around to the empty chair next to him and loudly stated: "Hello James, how are you!" Stefano then piped up. "I can do both driver's quotes, if you want!" Sure, I smirked, but only if you talk like him: can you do the accent? "Okay, no I can't..." First question in and Giedo starts answering, only for James to sheepishly slink in. "Hey!" Giedo laughed. "How are you doing? Are you alright? Have you been up to much? It's been a while!"
In many ways the GP3 drivers are much better trained than the GP2 guys: maybe they're younger and more eager to do the right thing, or maybe after a while they're just trying to annoy us. For example, Alexa wants the guys to wear their hats in the press conference, but only James bothered to bring one with him (GP3 trained), so she had to track one down, and threw it over for Giedo to wear. Obviously Stefano took this as an invitation to steal it, before splurting: "wow, you've really got a small head!" The Monegasque driver was in great form: when a journalist asked about the drive through penalty for Fabio Leimer, the others sensibly replied along the lines of it being a bit harsh but that's the rules, while Stefano couldn't help saying: "it's a shame for him, of course, but it's good for the rest of us though!"
Technical boss Didier Perrin had been waiting for an opportunity to take a shot at Giedo, and finally he saw his chance: "at the end of last year you said the GP2 car is like a rally car - do you still think this after your win today, and are you considering a new career in rallying?" Giedo struggled manfully to give a serious answer, spluttering about how last year it was quite hard and everyone was struggling but this year it is quite nice to drive and it is a lot better, while all around him everyone laughed out loud at his obvious embarrassment.
So Giedo stole the hat back from Stefano to distract us, and burst out "Wow, you've got a big head man!" I had to ask: "Is it ask Giedo embarrassing questions day? In that case, do you still wear those stupid colourful boxer shorts?" He laughed out loud and replied "No man, today I'm black!" before pulling his shirt up to give us a better look. "You know what black underwear means, on women? Stefano, you know what it means, come on! It means, you know, they like a bit of jiggy-jiggy boom-boom. Come on Alexa, you know - let's see!"
But luckily by that stage, I had switched off the recorder. So our press conference secrets will stay that way for a bit longer yet.
If you write something and put it on the internet, you should be prepared for it to be read. And not always by someone you'd expect. As someone who has been writing for GP2 since its inception, I've become quite used to being surprised (mostly in a good way) by who reads my work, but most other people seem to forget that everyone has access to the internet these days, and they use it.
"You have to stop getting so many penalties this week!" Alexa said to Felipe Nasr as they chatted yesterday afternoon, while the teams set up their weekend homes around them. "I know! If you look at all the forums, there are loads of people saying you're trying to find ways to penalise me and hold me back because of where I came from," he replied laughing "But you know we're not!" Alexa protested. "I know, of course! You're even giving me the onboard camera this weekend, so everyone can see me!" "Actually, no," she laughed back, "that is just so we can watch you more carefully, to catch you for your next penalty!" "
Barcelona always means a return, one way or another: in past years it's been the opening race, this year it's the start of the European season (and my return to the series), but given the number of miles the teams have put in here, it's a sort of homecoming either way. The first ones to make themselves feel at home were Trident, who asked if it was possible for them to have a cake for a surprise birthday party for Julian Leal. I'm not sure it will be much of a surprise, I smirked, as I'm pretty sure he knows it's his birthday, but the surprise was actually on us: after arranging for Al to come over and take some shots they forgot to call us, and we were surprised to hear the team applauding the shy driver next door, instead of in our side of hospitality. We rushed around just in time to see Julian become the first driver in history to have a cake presented to him in the paddock and then not push it into someone's face. Al looked particularly gutted, as he wouldn't have any exciting cake-on-face photos to share.
Free practice came and went in a blur - no one expected any surprises, and none were presented - but there was a frisson about qualifying for once, as the single set of soft tyres (which the teams hadn't used before) meant no one really knew what was going to happen. "Free practice will be pretty quiet, because everyone knows what to do with the primes here" as one of the engineers said to me while we waited to get into the pitlane, "but qualifying should be ... entertaining." And so it proved.
Esteban Gutierrez smiled and said hello as he walked over to his team in the pits, the small espresso in his hand a new part of his preparation, while Fabio Leimer leaned against the wall in the shade drinking from his bottle and preparing for the lap to come. Well, I say it was his bottle, but it had a giant number 6 covering one side of it. When we pointed out that his car number is actually number 5 he blurted "I know! But we were rushing to get ready, picked up the bottle and poured the powder in without looking, and I only realised when I shook it!" Racing Engineering Team Boss Ines was only saying the other day that she's never had two drivers who are as close as Fabio and Nathanael, but this is probably closer than even they meant to be...
The iSport pair were also walking up to the pits together, and Marcus was obviously a bit concerned about his qualifying: when I suggested it hadn't been particularly wonderful, he sighed "I know" before promising to be in the top three, so we could talk about it in the press conference, and give his fans something to write about on the forums. Jolyon, meanwhile, had other things on his mind: as soon as he saw Alexa he said "I was in the top ten this morning: how come I wasn't in the results?"
"Really?" she asked, mortified, before continuing "Well, everyone keeps asking me for your Twitter account - even someone who went to school with you has asked me! So there's a new rule: No Twitter, no mention in the press release!"
"I know," he laughed, "but I just don't know what to write on it, so I haven't got around to it...But I will soon, I promise!" "Just do what I did," I added, "start an account and then ignore it. Because if you don't, she'll have to airbrush you out of any podium photos..." She then checked as soon as we sat down, and his name was right there after all, and she was delighted to tell him so back in the paddock.
I won't be drawn on who is right: I will simply point to the fact that Alexa signs off my expenses and leave you all to realise on your own that she is obviously correct. Feel free to add your comments on who you think was right below, but just remember that you might be surprised at who reads what you write there.
Speaking of which, you now owe me a podium and a press conference Marcus, if you're reading this. And let's face it: we all know that you are.