It’s the waiting that does for you.
You wake up a couple of hours later than usual, but you feel tired, discombobulated, because you went to bed later so everything is just … a little off, like the ghost of a tune in your head that you just can’t name. You get up and dress, and you’re down for breakfast quicker than usual, disappointed that you didn’t manage to waste more time, that the clock will be longer than you wanted when you arrive at the track.
The hotel isn’t any help: it’s such a short walk to the paddock no matter how much you dawdle, and what is normally an advantage works against you when the timetable is as delayed as today. You walk in and say your hellos, you open the laptop and read your emails, but the piece of paper on the wall can’t be denied.
It says 18.40: Feature Race. It feels like a lifetime away.
You go downstairs to see who’s here, and the teams are just arriving too: they don’t need to be here this early either, but they come in just the same, because coming to the track is just what you do. You take a coffee at one of the teams, you swap small talk, they say I know, it’s crazy that we’re here so early, and you swap embarrassed smiles in acknowledgment of each other’s nameless, illogical need to be here.
More emails and correspondence, more things to fill the time, while the teams reconstruct their cars after dismantling them last night after they were returned from parc ferme, when they dropped the floor, pull apart the gearbox, made sure there were no surprises before closing up and going back to the hotel. They reverse it all this morning, no rush, clean as you go, take your time and stretch out the tasks, tinker until it’s time to screw it all back together, tighten by hand and make sure.
As the pitlane fills with GP3 cars and equipment their senior paddock mates look on with envy (they’re the lucky ones, not having to wait around all day, like us), and the race gives everyone left behind something to do, to fill the time, to stop them tinkering and re-tweaking strategies, to stop thinking and just absorb for a while.
The heat of the day is making its intentions clear. Everyone ignores it and stares at the screens, slinks into the shrinking shadows, waits out the clock.
The GP3 teams return, the drivers as well: quotes from the top three shows Dino to be happy to finish on a high but still conscious of correcting his grammar, Dean seems simultaneously delighted and furious, as though the win couldn’t make up for the disappointment of finding this car just too late in the season to push to the end, while Marvin smiles his face-wide smile, passing around the podium bottle of rose water to his family and team, declaring it’s really nice, it tastes like Sprite!
The GP2 teams go back to hurry up and wait, to lunching in groups upstairs in the catering area, to pitstop practice and strategising, to filling in the time somehow: it’s better when there’s no gaps really, one of the engineers acknowledges ruefully, otherwise we’re just second guessing ourselves all the time. It’s better not to have the time to think too much.
Eventually the drivers arrive, slinking in when they think no one is watching or counting the hours they sleep, every driver’s favourite (in)activity. There’s no point sleeping to lunchtime, another engineer notes, it doesn’t do any good. But there’s no point in them being here, in the dust: we keep them in the hotel, in the air conditioning, to swim, to use the gym, to not be round here.
And in the pitlane the golf carts standing guard in front of the pits, the fallen wall of tyres spread all around, the cars still up on the trestles in the back of the pits. As the lights come up and the sun starts the long, mazey wash to dusk everyone is standing around, talking, killing time: the young local guys are photographing each other doing handstands, Johnny Cecotto and his wife are leaning against each other, not moving, Conor Daly is sitting by himself in a golf cart, thumb and finger horns waggling to say hello, Jon Lancaster is leaning against the catch fence with his family, Evans wrestling with the mechanics and laughing, ART and DAMS are around their computers as usual, while old faces you’ve known for years wave hello, still here, chatting until an engine fires up, stating there’s the noise, I guess we’re starting and heading back into one pit or another.
F1 qualifying comes next, a distraction for which they’ve no longer got time as the teams build up to their time under lights. It doesn’t matter how much time you have, you always end up against it, whether it’s 3 hours or 12, don’t you? Piling the tyres on to the carts, the pace picking up, you can feel the atmosphere building as everyone goes about their jobs. No one is watching F1, just ten metres away: at least it’s not loud anymore, so we don’t need to wear ear protectors.
Everyone ready to go, the teams are either waiting by their golf carts or standing next to the cars with starters: the signal comes and they flick the switch, the cars roar awake and the drivers nonchalantly flip their visors and roll into the pitlane, a cruise around the circuit to the pits as the remainder of the teams run for the bus to meet them there.
It’s night time now, the strange green wash of the lights bleeding out blues to black as the teams descend on the cars for last minute tweaks, fingers busy to ignore the ticking clock before they’re rolling again, down the pitlane and into the tunnel as the teams run to meet them on the grid and more standing, waiting.
You chat without hearing what’s being said and then the cars are here, the colour without the noise as they roll through the throng, and everyone is doing lengths, checking tyres and being seen, the clock almost audible in our heads as we wait for the siren that tells us it’s time to go, to leave the track to the drivers, to let them breathe.
Sitting on the pitwall everything is done, and it’s when the nerves start to come, the fidgeting hands, the jumping feet, the inability to sit still. It’s now you think as all eyes are on the monitors, showing the cars, the helmets and visors, the lights going on, on, on, and off.
The waiting is over.
You need to understand, it’s all Alexa’s fault.
Large numbers of the paddock have been wandering around the place for the last two days wearing sunglasses with GP2 and GP3 logos on the lenses, as though that was something normal people do. At first it was strange, and then a little unnerving as more of them did it, before it became a reason to hide away in the offices upstairs and hope it all blows over. And when I mentioned it to her, she seemed bizarrely pleased about it.
“Oh yes, I have a pair for you too,” she smiled, as though that was a logical answer to my query. “They’re the pass into the end of year party: all the security guards know about it, and I thought it was easier than tickets, which everyone loses. And cool, too.”
“They’re not cool,” disagreed a passing Will Buxton, on his Dame Nellie Melba Farewell Tour around the paddock, “they’re actually really geeky.”
Alexa looked briefly shocked, probably at the thought of Will thinking something is too geeky even for him, but quickly regained her composure: “Actually you’re wrong, and the teams love them.” I didn’t have the heart to say that our teams liking something probably increases the geekiness of the item, but it’s certainly true that they love them: Rapax have even done a photoshoot wearing theirs.
Luckily no one was wearing them for the Pirelli Pitstop Challenge, a timed competition between all the drivers for changing a tyre. Each team got 2 goes each, with a time as a team rather than per individual and judged by their Pirelli boss Mario Isola and a few of our guys. A few takeaways from the afternoon:
- Stoffel Vandoorne was seriously quick (5.88: ART practiced during the week at the factory!) but Takuya Izawa preferred not to do it so as to avoid injury, so the Belgian’s time didn’t count. “But I’m the quickest!” he protested insistently. “Maybe, but next time you need to find a teammate so your time can count: your team has a bunch of guys in GP3, for a start…”
- Caterham practiced all afternoon, and Pierre Gasly was really getting into it, going faster all the time. Someone from another team asked if they could roll the tyres to the drivers, and when they were told no complained “but Caterham are doing it” before going on to whinge about Johnny Cecotto picking up the tyre from the middle (“you said that wasn’t allowed…”) and proving that my 3 year old son may have a future in the paddock.
- Nathanaël Berthon took Conor Daly aside for a talking to, as the American was being his normal chilled self, and that just would not do. “I’ve done this twice before, and I am quick!” the Frenchman insisted, “so you better be on it” before screwing up both times and having to sheepishly apologise to his highly amused teammate.
- “Did you practice, Jolyon?” “I saw this was going to happen, and I thought that maybe I should practice, but then I thought I’m happy enough with the big trophy…”
- Stefano Coletti hurt his finger in Macau, so Raffaele Marciello didn’t have a partner at Racing Engineering, but neither did Johnny Cecotto so they teamed up, with Stefano sitting in the car. During the event Lello told Johnny in Italian “if you put the wheel nut in the gun first, we can gain some time”, not realising Mario was standing right behind him, who laughed “it’s a shame the judge speaks Italian too…”
- Campos also trained ahead of the event, and Kimiya Sato was really quick, leading to some big expectations within the team. Arthur Pic struggled with the pressure and was slow on the first go before choking on the second go, much to the amusement of his engineer Emilio, who was laughing away inside the car. “I’ve written the time down,” Alexa smirked afterwards, “but there wasn’t much point because, honestly, you’re not going to win… Good effort though!”