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…"
I woke up this morning to learn that the twitterverse was ablaze with desire for a battle blog (cheers Callum). Or something. "Yes!" cheered Alexa, far too excitedly for the time of morning. "It is on! Bring it!" So I fetched her a coffee before realising that wasn't what she meant, before asking what she was talking about (have I mentioned that I don't really do twitter before?). Afterwards my enthusiasm went through the roof, and I looked in vain for a croissant.
So here we go. Wait, so this means I have to share my blog?
Come on David. You have three kids now and you know the first thing you have to teach them is “learn how to share”. Be a good daddy and set an example. Thank you.
Now that that’s clarified, I have to say that I’m proud to be setting a precedent in blog history (although, admittedly, I have not googled “blog battle” to check whether we were making blog history per sey). But that’s the thing with staying for long hours at a race track: the strangest ideas pop in your head and you just run along with them. So whilst David was looking for his croissant, I sat behind his computer and typed these few lines and kaboom! Blog shared!
My kids are great at sharing: at least that's what I say when they try to steal my glasses ten times a day...
But, unlikely as it may seem, there's a chance that people are reading this to find out about the stuff that happens in the paddock. We got off to a great start with the GP3 press conference, when the back drop kept peeling off and falling to the floor, narrowly missing the drivers as they went. When we changed back to the GP2 backdrop, Alexa made me use some tape to hold them in place: personally I think it's a shame, as press conferences would be more entertaining with an element of jeopardy.
"So Sam, you were lucky to avoid the crash at the start, but how did you feel when the backdrop just fell on your head now?"
Well that would be if and only if Sam actually ended up in todays’ press conference (oh, he did…), but I don’t want you to think that I’m moaning… Speaking of which, Marcus Ericsson was in a foul mood when we met him to go to the F1 Game Zone at lunch time. Faithful readers of the blog know that we have been taking a selection of drivers each Saturday to the vending zone to meet with the public. Marcus arrived five minutes ahead of time and complained that we were late. “Should I teach you how to tell time?” I joked, but the Swede just shrugged and kept on sulking until Vittorio Ghirelli, Julian Leal, Stefano Coletti and Nat Berthon joined us.
When we got at the venue, Marcus’ spirits were barely lifted after he saw a group of bear-chested fans cheering for him only. The drivers jumped on the stage and the host began interviewing them, starting with local hero Vittorio who of course answered in Italian. When Stefano’s turn came, he was all too happy to remind the crowd that he’s also fluent in Italian. Then Julian who lives close to Monza also spoke in Italian to the crowd. The host turned to Nat and asked him a question in French. The Trident driver looked at me “Do I answer in French?” A small group of French fans eagerly encouraged him to do so and so came Marcus’ turn to answer a couple of questions…to which he started to answer in Swedish to his fans’ utmost pleasure. “What?” he laughed. “The other ones were allowed to answer in their mother tongue!”
You forgot to mention how much they were moaning.
Marcus: "Do we have to walk there?"
Julian: "Yeah, come on, it’s really hot!"
DC: "Sure, and you have to walk thru the fans. What a nightmare."
Marcus: "Yeah, that's right!"
DC: "Don't worry Marcus, Julian is here, and he's way more famous than you."
DC: "The guy standing next to you..."
Julian wasn't the only guy a driver didn't recognise today: Al and I went over to Trident as a huge crowd formed around their garage, because they had a big star turning up. Nathanael was dragged in next to me by Sabina, their PR representative.
"Who is this guy we're seeing?" he asked.
"Jovanotti. He's a huge musician in Italy. I used to listen to him all the time when I lived here."
"I've never heard of him."
"Dude, his name is on your car!"
Drivers were not the only stars at the F1 Game Zone though: I walked past a petite redhead who asked for an autograph. Eager to help her, I asked her whose she wanted. “Yours” she said. I had to make her repeat. Twice.
“But why me? I’m nobody!”
“I just love your blog. You’re so funny!”
My mom will be so proud….
I waved at David and told him to come and meet Renata just so he could also enjoy a moment of glory. After all, as this blog post proves, this is a team effort! Then our (only?) fan asked me to call Al to get his autograph too. That’s twice this weekend. The man is getting a serious fanbase!
“You signed an autograph?” Stefano asked David on the way back to the paddock. “Is it because she is a smurf fan?” he laughed. David turned to me looking bewildered and that’s when I saw that the top of his face was indeed blue. He had bought a hat the day before at the track: “Look”, he said. “It was only five euros. That’s so cheap!” he proudly added.
I guess quality comes at a price…
Which must be why I get paid the big bucks to write the blog!(You wish!)
You all saw the race, so you don't need me to tell you how exciting it was: the tension in the pitlane was palpable, particularly on the Racing Engineering and Russian Time pitwalls, so when Fabio finally crossed the line the men in red exploded with joy while the guys in blue shook hands and thought about what could have been. We all hung off the barriers at the end of the pitlane to congratulate the guys, but for some reason they send the top three around the corner here, and eventually we realised they weren't coming over so we drifted back to stand under the podium.
It's such a great podium here: I don't know why the other circuits don't build something similar. It's just amazing for everyone to have them standing overhead, leaning over the circuit they just dominated.
Alfonso had his customary cigar out and was ready to go, and leaned in laughing while we waited for the guys to come out. "Fabio's engineer has to run the circuit in Singapore now!" he chuckled, pointing to the robust chap in front of us. "He made a bet with Fabio that, if he won here, he'd would run the whole track in Singapore. And he hasn't run more than 50m in years!"
Unfortunately I won't be there to witness it - I have to miss Singapore, although I'll be back for the big finale in Abu Dhabi - but I'm sure Alexa will run the circuit too, just to document it for your entertainment. We're all about going the extra mile (or 3.148 miles, in fact) here at the GP2 Paddock Blog...
Then it was back to the hospitality area, more work and a bit of dinner, while the press conference backdrop packed itself away for us. Marcus was moping around at the coffee machine when I went to grab one, bemoaning what could have been ("a stone got inside the rim, and tore the tyre apart from the inside. You don't mind these things when you're nowhere, but when you're on for a certain podium... it stings") before drifting off to a fan club dinner.
Outside right now, in the dark, the teams are pumping terrible music and setting up the cars for tomorrow morning. There's five races left in the season, and they all want to score in them. While inside it's 9.15, a little lighter, and we're finished the blog way ahead of usual.
And if that's not worth a cheeky beer, I don't know what is. So excuse us while we head out.
I admit it, I was completely on Stefano Coletti’s mother’s side of the argument. Maybe it’s the new additions in the Cameron household (2 girls to add to the existing boy, for those keeping count) that have made me side with the parent of a racing driver, maybe it’s my advanced years, or maybe, just maybe, it’s that Stefano just got it wrong.
Perhaps I should roll back a bit.
So, I’m back in the paddock for the first time this year, and in Monza to boot: who wouldn’t be happy? I turned up despite the airline’s best efforts to keep me in London, grabbed a taxi to the circuit and a coffee in hospitality, then did the rounds to say hello to everyone. You forget, just a little, how much of a family the paddock is when you’re away for a while.
Alexa had just got back from the Spa winners photoshoot, minus James Calado who was, perhaps understandably, a little busy ahead of his first Friday free practice session with Force India. That said, Sam Bird was there early, and he’s the Mercedes third driver. Maybe he’s better, or simply more experienced, at juggling the two roles.
But he was genuinely excited about doing the shoot at the famous Fangio statue, an idea he’d put forward in Belgium. You’ll see the joy in his eyes when the photos are released, and the way that he was careful not to defer to Fangio, even though in statue form. “Well, he’s simply legendary…”
Somehow, time got away from us - it always does - and we didn’t end up going for dinner until 8.30 or so. By the time we got to the venue, a fantastic, family run restaurant nearby, Stefano, his parents and team were already eating at the next table over, and he couldn’t help but bring us into the conversation/argument. “So I’ve got my next tattoo planned. I’ve got a photo of it on my phone: do you want to look?” Who says no to that?
You may be aware that, after his home win earlier this year, he got a tattoo on his right foot which says “This foot won Monaco”. To be honest, I think it’s pretty funny (“but why is it in English?” “because it sounds stupid in French!”), although not as funny as the ‘tattoo’ he got earlier in the day.
“I fell asleep in the back of the truck after exercise, and my engineer has always teased me about my tattoo. So when I was asleep, he wrote “Push” on the top of my foot…”
Alexa looked at his phone, screwed her nose up and said “no, definitely no!” Marco also pulled a face, leaving Stefano looking crestfallen, quietly noting that his mother hates it too (as she nodded vigorously behind him). When I got a glimpse of the design, two chequered flags crossed above the famous Steve McQueen quote (“life is racing, the rest is just waiting”).
“I’m with you mother on this one: just imagine what that will look like when you’re old…”
“Who cares what I look like when I’m old? It looks cool now!”
“Well no, it doesn’t. And also, there’s your dad: imagine him with that tattoo.”
With that, my work was done.
This morning Marcus Ericsson came around as we were going through emails to say hello, and we told him about a new competition planned: I won’t go into the details now, but basically it involves getting fans to vote for the best helmet design. “I am totally going to win that one,” he laughed, “my fans vote for me in everything!” Sure, but there are more Indonesians than Swedes. “That’s right: please don’t tell Rio about the contest!”
Just then, Al walked in looking slightly confused. “Someone just asked for my autograph,” he stated flatly. “I had no idea what was happening, so I just kept walking: she grabbed my arm and stuck the GP2 book in front of me, and it was actually one of my photos on the page there.”
So what did you do? “What could I do? I signed it. It was pretty weird. And she was pretty too: I should have put my phone number on there!”
Rosana, all faux outrage, chimed in: “What? But you’re a future … married … to be!”
“Yeah,” I noted, “if only there was a simply word for that, something easy to remember, such as engaged...”
But honestly, the real outrage was that they went to a photographer for the autograph. Where was the love for the real stars of the show, the geniuses who wrote the thing? Kids of today, they’ve got no respect. Bah humbug.
Still, at least they all turned up for the press conference, which is still stuck behind the pizza oven in a side section of the hospitality area, to keep us warm in the cold Italian climate. “Which seat is P2 again?” Fabio Leimer asked, for about the 20th time ever, despite it never changing (and being the same as the podium). But the real star of the show was Luca Filippi, now working for Sky Italia between racing gigs and watching the show from the other side of the table.
“Any questions from the floor?” I asked, as always, when it was finished. “Come on Luca, I’ve always wanted to get a driver to ask a question: it must be your turn.” Cheekily he asked a question about discussions with the race stewards and their rivals after an incident, and smiled as Fabio replied “well, we better not name any names…"
Unfortunately my batteries died well before that, so I didn’t get to record any of it. But I’ve replaced them now and, if Stefano gets himself onto the podium tomorrow, the first thing I’m doing before the press conference is to fetch his mother.