The hotel’s front door, a wall of glass in a slim metal frame, silently glides open as we walk towards it and the temperature raises gradually, the first confirmation that today is another hot Barcelona day, and everyone’s sunglasses slide into place as though in a movie as we walk towards the car. It’s Friday and the waiting is over, the race weekend has begun.
You take shotgun I’m told and I do as I’m bid, and we’re soon heading towards the track, slicing through the usual Friday peak hour traffic, heading to the place that most of the rest of the freeway wishes it was going to instead of their workplace. And we’re soon there as Marco crests the rise, slices through security and glides down the hill towards the parking lot as the huge puffs of pollen common to the area floats down from the sky like fat snowflakes at the start of winter to meet us there.
We walk into the paddock and the teams are all hard at work, finishing the set ups and practicing pitstops and setting up their tool trolleys and tyre frames and talking, the mood still light as the mechanics joke with each other but keep working, the pace relaxed but constant as they get ready for the day ahead.
As we walk around we are greeted by a series of bonjours and good mornings and holas, by handshakes and head nods and smiles, by a quick joke or a sly ribbing or a can I just ask you about this, by a common cause as the circus sets itself up and waits for the stars of the show to arrive, by the sense of camaraderie regardless of dress code or allegiance.
More hellos at the coffee machine and then it’s back out into the paddock to chat with the others, to feel the warmth spread across our backs and seep into our bones, that perfect just-so heat without yet the sting in its tail, the warmth that says don’t worry about my big brother waiting for you later, just stop here with me for a while as we unwind and soak it in.
And then the drivers start to arrive, alone or in groups, and they separate and head to their trucks to hide away, to plot and plan for the sessions ahead, to dress and emerge fully formed after the teams have headed towards the pits, race suits halfway on and helmets casually carried in hand as they stroll after them, a quick pitstop for a safety pee and then off to work.
In free practice the heat has a small sting, a prickle of intent in it as we walk down the pitlane, the drivers pulling their suits up and on, the helmets down and the slide into their cars, the engineers tipping their heads towards their charges despite the radios, the last minute check of tyre pressures and track temperatures, the get ready and the release.
By the end of the session the heat is fully present, oppressive, and the drivers re-emerge and strip down quickly, a few practiced, fluid movements and it’s back to the paddock to regroup, re-examine, reconsider in the face of the new data: the prize is pole, is points, is bragging rights for getting it more right than all the other right answers up and down the pitlane. There can only be one, they think, and please today let it be me.
The F1 free practice sessions are on and the drivers emerge and gather in hospitality to sit together, to chat and laugh and pretend that they’re not watching, learning, thinking as their predecessors circulate, because none of them want to let the others see that they’re watching: there’s Mitch and Richie and Artem, there’s Alex and Pierre, and they all do it, let their eyes dart to the screen and back just as quick, the furtive glance they hope the others don’t notice.
Drivers are bigger racing geeks than fans. They have to be, considering what they have to put in to get to where they are.
And then it’s back to the pitlane, the heat a dragon’s blast across us all, but the urgency below is a match for the force from above. Out they all go again, one by one as they ramp up to the quick lap and go before red red, box box and the pent up frustration as they trickle back to the pits and are released once again minutes later, the path clear and the delayed gratification of a fast lap let loose as they push and push and push.
Soon enough they’re back, they’re out, they’re walking towards the shade. There’s Arthur, his hair flattened to his head with sweat and frustration at a small mistake which cost him dear. There’s Stoffel, another pole and not a hair out of place as he answers the photographers demands with a smile. And there’s Alex, a front row and a slightly rueful smile split evenly between happiness at what he’s achieved and puzzlement at what more he needs to do.
They’ve got their answers by the time of the press conference, after a cool down and a drink and a change of clothes, a discussion with the engineers and a breakdown of what they did and the result, and when it’s finished the sting has been plucked from the heat like a rose thorn, and they congregate in small groups in the bitumen piazza formed between the trucks and hospitality, and they’re trying to convince each other of their views as they laugh and smirk and tease, pushing each other with their words as I head back into the cabin, feeling the dull swipe of the low air conditioning as I close the door behind me to write about them.