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.