9/22/2012 0 Comments
Last Man standing
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.
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