You wake up early, too early, out of kilter with the timetable and time itself, which lays folded over your head as you stumble around looking for where you left your phone, just to stop the squall of the alarm. Shower and dress, pack your bag and you wait in ambush for the day to edge back towards you. Today is the day, you think to yourself, unless it’s not. That’s how championships work.
Downstairs for coffee and whatever they have that’s breakfast shaped, Alexa waving and walking over when she arrives, already thinking of the day ahead: you can see the wheels turning behind her eyes. You don’t think of this consciously, of course, but all season you have worked towards this day, unaware, and you know you just have to get through.
You pass the pool as you leave, another day in which you don’t swim to match every other hotel around the globe, down the back stairs and out into the already radiating street, and across and over to the circuit. Around the bus of track workers and past the milling queues at the metal detectors, one for men one for women, and the familiar beep beep the signal here that you are welcome, that you can re-enter this world, rather than the usual sign to stop, to retreat.
Upstairs you say the usual hellos to people you don’t know but who all do something to keep the circus circulating, even if only while it’s here, and a smile to match the hello in the FIA office for the guardians of the coffee machine, the men who control access to the track’s lifeblood, before you head into your office to fire up the laptop, check the messages, and prepare for the onslaught to come.
You know you’ll be fine - you’ve done this many, many times - but there is always that nervous flutter in your stomach, that nervousness betrayed in an involuntary flutter of your fingers, of an almost imperceptible catch in your voice and in those of the others here today, all of you sharing this load together. There’s so much that needs to be done, to be pre-prepared, to be ready for the one shot you have when it happens and you have to get it done, on time, live.
The paddock is completely empty, the teams huddling in their pits and synchronising their focus, dreaming themselves into another position, a better one, for the race to come, with the families of the drivers standing at the back of the pits, willing themselves small so they’re not in the way but secretly delighted to be right here, a mute witness, and the baking sun pushing any other stragglers into whatever shade can be found.
Soon, already, the call goes up and you’re collecting your machinery and heading for the door, the teams rattling past your window as they drag their own equipment towards the pitlane three corners away. It feels like we’ve only been here for 30 minutes, you say to no response as that steel factory heat blasts you from all sides as you walk slightly too fast across the aqua and white stripes to do what you do when you come to a place like this.
Despite the heat you delight slightly in the illicit thrill of walking on an almost live race track, a feeling which becomes more visceral as you hear the distant howl of 26 engines firing up and moving: they’ll be here soon, you stifle a smile as you pick up the pace, anytime now. You’ll make it in time, you know from experience, but those people behind better move: on cue the marshals yell at them, and they squeak as they break into a run.
A turn of direction and you’re entering the pitlane, a fresh blast of heat from another side just as the shade hoves into view, the blessed relief of the relative coolness before the noise arrives. Sometimes the pitlane can be friendly ahead of the war, but not here, not today, not with so much at stake: everyone has their faces set as they lean into their jobs, looking nowhere but the focus of their attention until the cars are fired up and gone.
The grid walk is usually the best part of the job, the relative calm before the metaphoric storm, but the heat and the atmosphere pushes you back sooner than usual, with the premise of one small preparation left undone the excuse to return you to the pitwall, to your seat for the next hour, for a dram of quiet to finish the task before everyone else returns and it all happens.
The stall of the three towards the back, and the resultant additional formation lap. The frantic waving of Sam Bird as the lights wink out, the stutter blurt of Alexander Rossi and the silk smooth rush of Fabio Leimer and Jolyon Palmer as they glide by, the remainder to follow on best terms. The calculations in Fabio’s head, the go easy, don’t risk of his first two corners and the return of the glide afterwards. The crash, the he’s lifting that wing off his helmet, the fingernails in the arm, the safety car to follow.
The lay mathematics in a pitlane of high priests as we try to work out strategies in live time using nothing but our heads and experience, while the engineers push their heads closer to their laptops, smiling or frowning before catching themselves and returning their faces to default in case of cameras nearby.
And in the end, the release.
You return the way you came, Carlin single-filing behind you all the way back, formulating this nonsense into human form in your head before your fingers put it down for you, and you head out for the quotes, the next part. You find Jolyon as F1 fires up, forcing you both into Carlin’s storage box to escape the noise.
Alexander next, on his own apart from his phone chirruping away to itself, and you point out that you need somewhere quieter, however remote that seems. Where? he asks, not unreasonably, and you wheel around before suggesting the toilet, his face responding with a mixture of bewilderment and surprise before meekly following you into the tiny room, acceptance the better course in the course of just getting it done.
Then Marcus, upstairs in the cafe with his engineer, the pair surrounded by broad grins and bonhomie earned in a fat-from-the-fire performance they’d just done, an I’ll show you style drive by the Swede at the end of a tough season of expectation demolition.
And finally Fabio, our champion, in a t-shirt made at the time in hope, now earned, of the performance that came, speaking endlessly to some German journalist who wanted more time with him than he should ever have expected. Fabio, ever charming, gave it to him, the not-yet-in-F1-ness of the Swiss driver who may have his free time cut to the bone next year, if his new dreams run to fruition.
You return to write, ever write, to try to shoehorn life into an easier narrative, a four-four beat to smother the free jazz angularness of the day, in the time between now and the soon to come GP3 storm, more of the same with a new fresh flavour, and the help with that load you will pay back.
It never ends, this motor racing business, you think to yourself as you weigh up a final few metaphors for their heft before reverting to cliche. Still, you rapidly realise, it beats working.
In many ways, every race weekend is the same as every other - we work to almost the same timetable every time, we’re obviously doing the same job, even a lot of the tracks start to blend into each other after a while - but it’s the differences that make the, ahem, difference for us, that mark out a race as a favourite or otherwise, that make you look back on it fondly or pull a face at the thought.
It’s these differences that come into play when you talk about the season as a whole and then try to break it up into bite-size pieces, that allow you to answer authoritatively with a two word response. Spa? Wet, long. Monaco? Harbour, stressful. Monza? Fast, crazy.
Abu Dhabi’s description? Let’s go with hot, blue. The latter mostly because I don’t seem to be able to look anywhere at the circuit without that aquamarine colour somewhere in my peripheral (or direct) vision. And I’m sure you don’t need me to explain the former.
“Mate, it’s roasting over here,” Leon from GP3 noted when we were discussing the travel details ahead of my flight.
“Yeah, I noticed,” I replied from the autumnal gloom of London, “I looked it up this morning. 35 today, 35 tomorrow, 34 the day after for a relief, and then back to 35.” Best pack some shorts, I thought, against the habit of a lifetime…
“Nice legs” Marco smirked when I came into the paddock, the 200m walk from the hotel early in the morning already wringing a few pounds of sweat from me.
“I’m a dad now: I don’t have to worry about how I dress anymore.”
“But I have to worry about looking at you!” All around us the detritus of a flyaway event filled the space behind the pits, with huge wooden cases left sitting slightly haphazard but near to hand, the massed evidence of a rush to get unpacked and out of the sun as quickly as possible.
Which goes someway to explaining why the top five drivers were less than enthusiastic about a photoshoot in full race suit straight after lunch, perhaps.
Alexa had asked the drivers and their teams to bring their pitboard with the driver’s name and one word to describe him (and after the latest Lotus kerfuffle, we specified it should be a word from outside the cockpit, rather than during a race). Walking around to Racing Engineering they were ready to go, with their word duly printed up and in place on the board already, while Rapax were similarly prepared (with Stefano picking his own word).
Carlin were still brainstorming for their word as Alexa put her head around the door, but were ready with a printed card on time. Over at ART, however, and James Calado’s engineer Fifou was a bit bemused by the whole thing: “oh, [press officer] Sandrine didn’t tell me. What can we put on it? Can we use some letters?” One his mechanics looked up and deadpanned “we have BOX, and IN: do they work?”
Over at RUSSIAN TIME, Sam Bird was spinning round and round in his chair: “I still don’t have a word, what should I put?” (looks in the letters case) “I could use the P for position, a 3 turned around, IN upside down, and a 5…”
He finally rushed over for the shoot with his word handwritten on a piece of paper, and then looked slightly miffed with James arrived with the PUSH card: “it was that or BOX…”
Sam: “There was one other word you could spell…”
James: “Yeah, P3NI5!”
Alexa: “I can’t believe you guys didn’t at least go with BOOBIES…”
James: “Right, yeah! I love boobies!”
Ahead of qualifying, a stroll along the pitlane was all it took to see who was in contention and who wasn’t with little more than a quick glance into each pit: half the teams were sitting back, relaxed in the freshish breeze from their giant fans, while the further up the pit you walked, the more intense the atmosphere as the teams and their drivers considered and reconsidered every possible set up. Four points for pole right now feels like it has the weight of a ten second victory, so who knows what emotions tomorrow’s win will generate.
Talking to Pat Coorey from Caterham at lunch, it was clear that many of the teams were enjoying the lower stressed environment: “It’s nice that we can work without the normal pressure, and have a bit more time between the sessions to really look into the various options we have, can plan our strategies for a bit longer.”
So, that worked out well.
Spare a thought for poor Marcus Ericsson, who thought he’d cracked it for pole against a tonne of pressure at the sharp end: the red flag came out at exactly the wrong time for most of the guys, just as their tyres were primed for a final tilt at the top spot, and those last two minutes when they got back on track were very highly stressed.
But Marcus got back to the pits with his name on the top of the screens: we all hugged him to show our delight, but in the time it took me to go upstairs to write the press release we found out that his best lap was removed for exceeding track limits, just before heading down to record his thoughts: he was still smiling, as always, but it didn’t quite make it all the way up his face to his eyes.
And so: seven points, two races. The championship has never gone down to the final sprint race before, so we might be breaking another record here and, although it will mean more work for us, I kind of hope it does.
But one thing is certain: I’m wearing long trousers tomorrow, and not because I’m worried about offending Marco. Frankly I enjoy doing that but, as hot as the action will be on track and the temperature outside will undoubtedly be, working inside means dealing with a very specific local problem, explained by Didier thus: “you know, they are definitely all air conditioning enthusiasts here…"