I always hate doing a blog about Silverstone, largely because my mother always told me that if I can't say anything nice about something, I shouldn’t say anything at all. I’m sure you can see my dilemma.
And I’m always conscious of not being too nasty about the place, because this is the blog for one of the championships that runs there after all, and because it’s probably a bit boring to list all the many and varied problems with racing there. But it does seem sometimes like someone is going out of their way to make life more difficult for us, when really all we want to do is turn up, have a few races, and head back out again.
I mean, running on Thursday: what is that all about? Motor racing is largely about routine (I know, you thought it was about cars competing with each other on track, to which I can only respond that there are session and race reports elsewhere on this site, as this blog may not be for you), and everyone sticks to them to make sure that everything gets done: the teams, the drivers, the organisation, everyone.
But when we were preparing for Round 6 we found out that someone had decided to put our free practice sessions (for both F2 and GP3) on Thursday, instead of the usual Friday. For the fans, we were told, although the responding tweets didn’t seem to concur. But nevertheless, there it was in black and white on the schedule, and we’d all have to work around it, make the best of it.
Mustn’t grumble, as they say around these parts.
It meant that we had to shove all of the usual Thursday preparations into less hours, which was annoying. Particularly when Charles Leclerc is in any way involved. “So, where are we doing the race winners’ photo?” he asked on Wednesday afternoon outside the hospitality area.
And please allow me to spend a paragraph thanking the catering crew for their heroic work.
This close knit team arrived in Austria on Wednesday, set up the huge hospitality area, fed and watered us with some incredible food, tore it down again on Sunday evening, packed it into the trucks and drove it all the way across Europe to Silverstone before setting it up again in the new paddock only slightly behind their normal schedule despite having no rest, then fed and watered us again with some incredible food before packing it all up again and driving all the way back across Europe to Italy before they could have a break.
That makes poor little Mr Writer feel like he might want to grumble a bit less. Even if he’s still here writing this blog.
So anyway. “Where are we doing the race winners’ photo? Because I’ve had a few ideas…” This comment is always a worrying time in the paddock, but I tried not to show fear. I’ve learned to never let Leclerc see my naked terror.
“We could go on one of those indoor sky diving places: there’s one in Milton Keynes.”
“Or we could go to one of those indoor ski slopes: that would be cool! There’s one in Milton Keynes.”
“We’ll think about it.”
“Do you want me to email Artem? He’d love it.”
“Thanks, we should be okay for that…”
Cut to Thursday morning: “Are we going to do the sky diving or the skiing? We could even wear our helmets. The photos would look great.”
“1. We have more things to do than just your photos today.”
“The GP3 photos too? Bring them along, and you can pick one location for each series.”
“Shush. 2. It’s too far away. 3. We don’t really have the budget for it. 4. You have free practice today. 5. It’s in Milton Keynes. 6. You’re supposed to be the focus of the photos, not the backdrop. 7. We have more things to do than just your photos today.”
“You already said that.”
“It’s worth reiterating.”
Just as he was about to argue a bit further Artem walked into hospitality, wearing an amazing RT hoodie, along with his team boss Svetlana in a pair of sunglass that made her look like a cartoon spy from the sixties. In a good way.
“That’s a very cool hoodie: it looks like you’ve shorn a teddy bear and dyed it blue for the lining.”
“We’re Russian, we know how to dress for the cold.”
And then we went off for the photo shoot. As previously noted, we do try to make the drivers the stars of the photo, and being that they won at the previous track, not the one we’re shooting at, it doesn’t make much sense to do it in front of anything particularly noteworthy about where we are (‘I thought they won in Austria, but they’re in front of the Silverstone wing, so I must be wrong’), which means we shoot in as non-descript a place as possible.
Which made the area outside the old BRDC building perfect for our needs. And is why we were all delighted to see that Twitter likes our editorial decisions.
Callum Ilott joined our gang after agreeing to race for Trident, and we were delighted to see him again: the likeable Brit had tested in Abu Dhabi and attended races previously, so it was great to see him step up to a race seat. He might have regretted making his debut in Silverstone though, as he got a lot more attention than if he’d slid in at the Hungaroring, for instance. But he did a great job considering the lack of preparation time, and there’s nothing that really shows you what a race weekend is like as much as racing on one.
So anyway, the weather. If we were hoping for hot, summery conditions to at least make the walk between tasks a bit more pleasant, we were doomed to be disappointed: the usual overcast Silverstone conditions were in place when the teams took to the circuit for free practice.
Not content with running it on a different day to usual, they made us run it from a different place, too: with a fan walk due to take place in the F1 paddock at exactly the same time as our guys were on track, we ran instead from our own paddock, aka the old F1 paddock, but with the lap starting on the other side of the circuit, aka the new F1 paddock.
And there was more disappointment for anyone who was hoping for a change to the previous form book: Leclerc continued his imperious form at the Northamptonshire circuit, topping the times at the 10 minute mark and staying there for all but a few moments when Nicholas Latifi and Luca Ghiotto briefly borrowed the top spot until he reclaimed it next time through, and then ran quicker still later in the session to top free practice ahead of Oliver Rowland and Ghiotto.
The next morning we were due to visit the Fan Zone, but this time with a bit of a difference: before going to the sims to race each other and a fan, we had to take them for a presentation in front of the fans. And it was on the big stage that Travis had played the night before (who were great, even though I couldn’t go because we were too busy, but I did sit out on the steps and listen to them while tagging photos, and every song was completely different to each other, regardless of what some people who don’t understand music think), and which we live broadcasted on Instagram.
Unfortunately, Alexa forgot to save the file. Which means that you can’t see the amazing interviews with the drivers, before Charles was asked if he’d play a song, and he said he’d only play if Artem joined in, so he got behind the keyboards as Charles picked up the guitar, with Alex Albon joining in on bass and Jordan King sat behind the drums, and they played Shape of You by Ed Sheeran before Charles performed a spellbinding solo version of Adele’s Hello which brought the house down.
And because the file doesn’t exist no one can prove I made that paragraph up no one will ever be able to see it again. I can only hope someone in the crowd filmed it. But those videos never look very good, so maybe it’s better as just a memory for all of us there.
Then it was over to play the sims. Charles had been worrying about it, for reasons only he knows, and was hoping to get more track time. “Do you think we can have 2 laps for qualy, instead of 1? I can never get a good time on the first go on these things.”
“Don’t worry,” soothed Alex, “just do what I do and cut a bunch of corners: as long as you don’t do it for every corner, you won’t get any warnings…”
And then it was time to do it for real.
Oliver Rowland has long been vocal about the need to steal pole away from Leclerc, for the points as much as for the opportunities it presents to run the race the way you want. Unfortunately for the local favourite, he and the others were unable to stop the Monegasque man grabbing his sixth pole from as many attempts, an incredible, if difficult to sell, story of achievement at this level of racing.
Leclerc was untouchable: fastest on both sets of tyres despite the changeable conditions, he was competing with himself for the top spot while his rivals were unable to make any inroads on his time around the fast, flowing circuit. He finished the session almost half a second faster than his nearest rivals, Rowland and Norman Nato.
The next day we were still chasing our own tails, but at least we had time to bolt down some lunch before heading to the other side of the planet track for the feature race: Luca Ghiotto and Nabil Jeffri were chatting over lunch, and welcomed us to sit down with them.
“I’ve got a big problem,” Luca sighed as we started to eat.
“What is it?” Alexa worried, anxiety levels spiking through the roof. “Is there a problem with your car?”
“No,” he laughed, “it’s that the food here is too good if you’re a driver! I know I’m not supposed to eat this much, but I can’t stop: luckily my trainer isn’t here!”
“Hey, I started following you on Twitter, by the way,” Nabil announced. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to follow me or anything.”
“Why did you say that?” Luca laughed, “now he’s gonna have to!”
“Sorry, I didn’t notice,” I replied sheepishly, “we’ve been a bit busy…” It was only after they left that I realised he meant my own one, not the F2 feed, and that I hadn’t noticed it because I had only looked at the F2/GP3 feeds in the last month…
They were heading out for the first drivers’ parade, with all the grid rugged up against the daily threat of rain, waving bravely as they circulated more than a little slower than usual. But they were all clearly happy about the opportunity, as evidenced by the smiles on their faces when they returned to the paddock.
And then, finally, it was time to race. And, if your name is Charles Leclerc, time to win. Again.
The Monegasque driver led his rivals into turn 1, and that was about as close as it got: the usual string of fastest laps to build a lap on the soft tyres, with running in clear air allowing him to push a lap more than his rivals and build a bigger lead before he stopped on lap 7, re-emerging in the points and pushing forward, overtaking rivals on the hard compound with his fresher rubber before reclaiming the lead when Nobuharu Matsushita returned to the pits, and building a bigger lead for an eventual margin of 9 seconds over Nato and Rowland.
The main talking point of the race was on his in-lap, when oil and smoke started pouring from the back of his car: if his rivals were hoping for a mechanical problem they were to be disappointed once again, as it was simply a loose cap allowing oil to escape until it dropped below a certain level, after which it stopped leaking out, with Leclerc’s race entirely unaffected by the apparent drama.
Behind him were battles aplenty – Nato and Rowland scrapped throughout the race after the Briton’s poor start allowed the Frenchman through, Artem Markelov and Matsushita topped and tailed the race with fights, as did Ghiotto and Nicholas Latifi – but unfortunately for all of them, they were unable to get close enough to fight with Leclerc, who sailed serenely on to another victory, only briefly disturbed by the oil leak.
“I was nervous at that moment,” he confirmed in the press conference, “I think I saw it before the team did: I went on the radio and asked them if they saw on the screens that there was smoke coming out of my car, and I had no answer. A lap later I asked again, and they told me that they did see it, but they didn’t know what was going on.
“We had already stopped for the prime tyres, so I just carried on.”
With the two races for the two championships we had more than enough work to get on with, and the logistical issues around transport between the 2 paddocks meant that I ended up writing at least one report with my laptop on a garbage bin behind the FIA motorhome. Such is the glamour of motor racing. And because of it we worked late into the night: so late in fact that the caterers had finished the dinner service well before we walked into the hospitality area, gloomy from hunger. They took one look at us and made us both dinner from scratch.
Did I mention that I love our catering crew? Because I really, really do.
Waking up early is harder on a cold, dreary morning like Sunday, but we had a couple of sprint races to hold, the final events of a long couple of back to back rounds and a chance for Leclerc’s rivals to finally reclaim some momentum with him starting from P8. Latifi tore off into the distance from pole position in exactly the same way Leclerc had the day before, while his rivals squabbled among themselves behind him.
Ghiotto eased himself into P2 while Rowland made up for his poor start the day before with a great one to run outside Jordan King at turn 1 before heading off after the others, but King had other thoughts, fighting back until the pair came together at turn 3, with the MP man coming off second best and allowing Markelov to get a run on Rowland, who edged him onto the grass to stop the Russian’s march, keeping P3 but collecting a 5 second penalty for his efforts.
Leclerc had moved forward 2 spots and was looking for more, but Sergio Canamasas had other ideas, defending robustly for lap after lap against the odds until Leclerc finally found a route through and looked to disrupt the top 4. Late in the race Ralph Boschung touched the grass while trying to get past Alexander Albon, spinning across the track and crashing heavily into the wall at Stowe, prompting a safety car that few would have wanted to see.
If the front pair were hoping the SC would see them to the end of the race, Rowland was looking for an opportunity, thinking that backing his rivals into each other would force them to fight among themselves, giving him time to overturn his time penalty. But the move was in vain: Latifi sailed off into the distance, Ghiotto limped home on tired tyres, Markelov slid past Rowland at the restart to claim P3, and the Briton was given an additional 20 second time penalty for impeding his rivals behind the safety car and at the restart.
For Latifi, who let a win slide in the Barcelona sprint race when he ran wide late in the race, it was redemption, and proof that his recent improved form was no fluke: “I’m just really happy. I was on the podium in Barcelona and could show we were able to challenge for wins: that one unfortunately got away from me, but we managed to get this one back!”
We wrote it up and then it was time to go. The catering crew were packing everything away as some folks watched the F1 race in the shell of the hospitality area, but as I had to drive Marco to the airport we grabbed our bags and headed to the paddock gate, only to find it locked and with one of our truckies about 10 seconds away from punching the guard while swearing floridly at him in French.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m not allowed to let anyone leave,” the jobsworth intoned, “no one is allowed out until the F1 race is over.”
“But we always leave during the F1 race: the trucks have to get back to their bases, and we’ve got to get to the airport.”
“FOM won’t let anyone leave.”
“1. Half the paddock has already left, so you’re just stopping the ones who had a bit of extra work to do, and 2. we work for FOM so we know it’s not them, it’s Silverstone.”
Marco made a few calls to FOM, who called the Silverstone management, and eventually we were all released. Christian, who runs the catering crew, came over at one stage to see what was happening.
“We’re just trying to get them to open the gates,” I said, “we don’t want your guys to be stuck here for longer than they should be.”
“Don’t worry about that,” he laughed, “we’ll still be packing this all away when the guards are back home for dinner! See you in Budapest, brother.”
So if you’ve always thought that the drivers are the stars of the paddock, I urge you to reconsider your vote: for me it’s the catering crew, every time.
If I’m completely candid, Austria scared the hell out of us.
Maybe I should clarify. It’s not the place itself that scared us, although I’m not convinced they need all of those trees to cover the country quite so completely, but more that it was the first race weekend since Barcelona with 2 championships, and that it was the first of 2 back to back races with 2 championships, and indeed the first of 3 such beasts this month.
So it meant we were going to be more than a little busy. The timetable for the various interviews, photoshoots, press conferences and Paddock Club visits was cut down to the bone to ensure that everything got done, but with so many different activities back to back we were relying on 2 grids worth of drivers all being on time for their various activities, to make sure we got them all across the line.
So no problem then. Everyone knows that racing drivers are on time for everything.
We started with a soft ball – the race winner’s photograph. Charles Leclerc and Norman Nato are always professional, and there was no doubt that they’d be on time, and sure enough they were – Charles even brought a little bonus, his trophy.
“Why do you have your trophy?” I asked him as he came over to say hello. “We don’t normally have them for a photoshoot.”
“Angelina said I have to bring it to Austria,” he replied, baffled at the welcome.
“The email said to bring the trophy,” the PREMA communications maestra noted, matter of factly.
“Did it?” Alexa asked, surprisingly. “Oh sorry, I thought I deleted that! But … we’ll totally use it for the shoot!”
“At least you read her email,” I smirked as we all looked at a trophy-less Norman, “that makes a nice change.”
“What?” Norman spluttered. “I’m on time, aren’t I?”
She trooped us all out for the photoshoot, proclaiming that she had the perfect place before we walked down the hill and just out of the circuit, and as we walked around the corner we all caught the unmistakable waft of cow dung.
“This is it?” Norman asked, not unreasonably. “I finally win a race and you get me to take my photo in a field under a tree?”
“We were in an amphitheatre overlooking Monaco a few weeks back,” Charles smirked.
“I should have won a bit earlier!”
Zac the photographer soon took charge, instructing the guys on where to stand, where to look and so on, moving them around the field to find a shot he was happy with. “Look down,” Charles instructed, revealing to Norman a large cow pat between the pair of them. We usually have a shot which we’ve affectionately called the Smell the Fart photo – head raised, nose out, serious face and looking into the distance – but it was never so convincingly carried out as in this shoot.
And Charles was impressed with his friend’s abilities in front of the camera: “See? Here is a guy who practices selfies in the bathroom!”
“What, you think I stand around in my bathroom in my race suit?”
And then it was just a case of working down the list for the rest of the day. We had the GP3 race winner’s photoshoot with Arjun Maini, who somehow manages to mix being incredibly focused with having a bit of a hippyish outlook and being a mind management guru, and Nirei Fukuzumi, who isn’t. What Nirei is is ridiculously funny – whether it’s on purpose or not is not entirely clear, but is almost beside the point.
Having a chat while Zac set up, this time on a steeply slanting rock wall (and yes, it probably doesn’t reward anyone if we look too deeply into these choices, but at least they were close), Alexa noted that it had been a while since they’d last raced. “Do you still remember how to do it?” Nirei put on a thoughtful face for a few beats before brightening, slapping both legs in succession, and blurting “brake … gas. Yes, we are okay to go!”
Zac was soon ready and we got underway. At the end of the shoot Nirei wasn’t satisfied. “I want to do a funny one!” We had a think and came up with the concept of the pair running and jumping over their helmets, and they had a couple of goes but Zac wasn’t happy with the focus, making them go a few times more until he was happy with the final result. Which, to be fair, is a great shot.
“Okay, you can go back to the team now. Thanks.”
“Phew! I think I need to have a sleep now…”
And then there was the Campos team talk, which revealed Robert Visoiu cannot walk past food without eating it, that Ralph Boschung is an acrobatic pilot and has a sister, and that Robert is very interested in at least one of those facts. And Raoul Hyman for the Lightning Round, which lasted for over 20 minutes (“This is officially the longest lightning round ever.” “More of a thunderstorm, then.”) and revealed … just so much – you really need to read that one. And the Q&As, which featured teammates pretending to ask normal questions but actually being quite rude and a lot of questions about racetracks.
We call it Thursday.
Everyone had been worrying about the weather for at least 2 weeks before the weekend – they get so much rain there, which may explain why everything is covered in trees, but which is less good for racing, particularly if you don’t want trees on the circuit.
The clouds pour into the valleys so fast in Austria that it can be raining on your head before you even look up. So the thick, ominous clouds swirling around the circuit as the teams lined up in the pitlane for free practice had everyone on edge: everyone was waiting in the pitlane for the lights to go green, with everyone except Leclerc (who stalled before the lights, proving he’s human after all) straight out on track to get as many laps as possible.
And then the clouds disappeared as quickly as they’d arrived. Leclerc was quickest once again, grabbing P1 a third of the way in before they all concentrated on long runs. With 5 minutes to go a lot of drivers pushed again, setting fastest sector times until Sergio Sette Camara pulled up on track just ahead of the pits, prompting a VSC period and leaving Leclerc on top to kick off the weekend.
There’s been a lot of talk about Leclerc’s pole run, and it is indeed impressive to string so many poles together, not to mention the advantage it gives you in a race if you can dictate the pace and manage your tyres out front. But as Luca Ghiotto pointed out, it’s been a lot closer than people think: a red flag in Bahrain meant no one could get a second run in, in Barcelona Luca was a tenth off pole, and in Monaco Alex Albon was only a hundredth away.
But yeah, Leclerc made it five from five.
It actually did rain between the sessions, just as we were walking back to the paddock, and with more clouds overhead the drivers were immediately out to secure a time, with Leclerc soon holding the top spot again, by a tenth over Sette Camara as they returned to the pits. On the second set both ART teammates briefly annexed P1, but Leclerc was not to be denied: he grabbed pole by three tenths from Sette Camara (who finished in the gravel on his last lap) and Fuoco.
And somehow the Red Bull Ring, which is easily the smallest track on the calendar, has a press conference room further away than any other. Didn’t anyone ever mention that getting a gaggle of drivers anywhere is like herding cats? Except popular cats, cats that everyone wants to talk to.
Still, 3 drivers to a press conference is still considerably easier than 6 drivers to the Fan Zone. At least we had a build up by running the pitstop challenge there earlier on Saturday, taking a bunch of mechanics from ART and Campos over in golf carts which we all subsequently had to push up the hill where we’d had the photoshoot, now covered in orange-shirted Dutchmen, before they started lugging wheels around. And somehow they were happy about the whole thing, and thanked us for letting them do it.
We should get them to talk to their drivers. Or just bring the mechanics for the signing session instead.
That said, Norman was in a good mood – after telling everyone watching his Q&A that it was his birthday on Saturday, we arranged for them to play Happy Birthday on the stage, although we weren’t expecting the techno version they trotted out. Walking across to the driver challenge he was complaining about how he hates people making a fuss over his birthday, but he couldn’t hide the smile on his face because we did.
There was a reverse bungee jump next to the building, and Nobu Matsushita was eyeing it apprehensively. “Do you want to have a go on it?” I asked. “I’m sure we could arrange it.”
“Oh no!” he blurted out. “I couldn’t do that!”
“But you race cars for a living!”
“Yes, but this is … very different. No control.”
There was an obvious joke to be said, and I’m proud of my self-restraint considering I was surrounded by racing drivers.
And then it was time for the race. Fuoco was faster off the line, but Leclerc had a better path to turn 1 and the lead, pushing on in what looked to be the best strategy (prime/option) until it very nearly wasn’t – the options dropped off rapidly a couple of laps from home, and Leclerc just limped across the line ahead of Nicholas Latifi on the alternate strategy, having already overtaken his teammate Oliver Rowland and Antonio Fuoco on the way to P2.
“After the first 3 laps I knew my supersofts were gone,” Latifi noted later, “and when these guys were pitting there were a lot of laps to the end…”
Leclerc was sanguine afterwards, which I guess you can afford when you’re the race winner. “I don’t think we could have done any better with the strategy we had: we pitted when we had to because the tyres were done, and we finished on the limit with the option tyres, so I’m happy about the race.”
But Sunday was another day, and the sprint race gave his rivals a chance to grab something back. And Artem Markelov grabbed that opportunity with both hands – he blasting off unopposed into turn 1 before heading off for a strong win, unopposed by his rivals. P2 man Ralph Boschung bogged down off the line and was swamped, with Raffaele Marciello running blind into his rear wing and retiring on the spot, prompting a visit by the safety car.
The Russian easily controlled the restart, but behind him Rowland had made a tremendous start and was looking to usurp Albon, freshly returned from his broken collar bone, for P2. The Thai man was not having any of it: Rowland stuttered and Fuoco pounced, looking for a way past at turn 4 but being squeezed onto the kerbs and back into the path of teammate Leclerc, who had nowhere to go and was tapped into a spin and retirement.
A brief VSC period later and Markelov and Albon headed off into the distance, while Rowland used his experience from the feature race to protect his tyres until late in the race, when he tried in vain once again to demote Albon until they finished line astern behind Markelov.
The press conference was mostly filled with questions about how they’re going to deal with Leclerc for the remaining rounds, which seemed ironic since he’d spun into retirement, but it’s fairly understandable even if all 3 drivers are great conversationalists and could have been asked about something more interesting.
They dealt with it in good grace before heading back to the paddock, where most of them had bags packed and were headed towards the airport – the next race weekend starts so soon, and we’ve still got so much to do, that I don’t even have the time to finish this blog.
Arriving in the Baku paddock for the first time was different to anywhere else: sure, the city itself is interesting and kind of beautiful in its own way, and racing around the streets of a town is always pretty cool to be involved with, but it was the paddock itself that surprised me, looking as it did like an army camp dropped behind the houses of parliament.
Two rows of identical white tents, pegged cheek by jowl, lined up behind each other: the front one for the cars, the second one for the personnel, with a passage between them about 5 metres wide for everyone to get around. There was enough space for everything, just, and the location was pretty great, being separated from the F1 paddock by just a small, tree-filled park, and with car access to the circuit between turns one and two.
The tents had electricity and wi-fi and air conditioning and lights, so we had what was needed to go racing, but it felt more like camping, and with everyone sitting outside between the tents all weekend it felt more collegiate than most rounds.
And of course they all hate to waste anything, so it was only a matter of minutes before Sean Gelael and his trainer set up a small kid’s basketball hoop on one of the trees between the tents to fill the space, with Norman Nato, Nyck De Vries and anyone else who wanted to join shooting free throws (“from downtown!”) with their tennis ball sized ball, pretending that it was for focus and training because that way their trainers would let them play all day, rather than the real reason, that it was fun.
Plus, it kills the time. Thursday is usually about hanging around for the driver’s briefing, so they needed something to do. Other than all of the wonderful interviews we have with them for the website and the Insider, which is their real reason to be there, of course.
But teams always compete – they can’t help it, it’s in their DNA – and it was only a matter of time before another team ramped up on the sports arena aspect. It was PREMA, probably predictably, who set up a tennis court between their tents, surrounded by flight cases and a chain fence. They didn’t set up lights, but if we’d stayed any longer they probably would have.
One team who were happy to ignore the others was MP Motorsport, who set up their garage for the weekend and got to work: if their drivers wanted to exercise they were welcome to go for a run or use the hotel gym, just like anywhere else. Alexa went to pick them up for the Team Talk interview but Sergio wasn’t in yet so she walked over with Jordan, who brought fruit with him to get through the grilling we had ready for him.
“Hang on a tick,” he requested on the way, “I’ve just got to pop into the loo for a second.”
“No problem,” Alexa replied, “do you want me to hold your banana for you?” It took a couple of beats for him to look at the yellow fruit in his hand, and pass it over for her slowly.
The three of us chatted for a while as we waited for Sergio, with Jordan telling us that he has to do this every day at the hotel. Eventually the cheerful Brazilian sauntered in, wondering why we all appeared to be laughing at him before we started.
“Describe your teammate in one word” I began.
“Late” sighed Jordan.
“Early!” laughed Sergio.
Hopefully no one will notice the rapidly browning banana skins on the table in front of them in all of the photos…
Then it was time for Oliver Rowland to sit down for the Q&A: people seem have all waited to ask questions live for him, rather than send them in advance, but one of them seemed a little odd.
“Yeah, I have had a haircut actually,” he responded to the camera, “just this morning, over at the Hilton.” It was only when we looked at the screen that we saw what was going on: the question had been asked by a Mr Nicholas Latifi of Toronto, Canada…
We might have made a mistake with our venue though: we hosted it in our tent, but we hadn’t thought about the fact that the driver’s sign on page was in there too, so we had a string of drivers come in, see Oliver seemingly talking to himself, and come over to have a look / annoy him. So if you saw him flinching, or a certain driver gurning over his shoulder, now you know why.
A quick change into his race suit and Oliver was back, with Nyck De Vries, for the race winners photo shoot. It was while they were standing a couple of feet up leaning against a lamp post (as you do) that they revealed that they were teammates in 2010 when they were both karting, and mentioned that there was a photo of the pair of them on the podium together, so we recreated it for old time’s sake.
“I think this one will be a bit better, though,” Nyck suggested.
“He won the race back then, so I’ll look a bit happier this time!”
We followed up with another Team Talk, this time sitting outside with RUSSIAN TIME’s pairing of possibly the two most chilled out teammates ever, Luca Ghiotto and Artem Markelov. It was a great chat, and the results will be released soon, but Luca did wear his blue sunglasses through the whole thing, which kind of freak me out a bit.
“Whenever you wear those things I think you’re in the Matrix.”
“Maybe I am! If I’m on the podium on Saturday I won’t walk up: I’ll just float out of the car and up to the podium!” Unfortunately we’ll have to wait for another weekend to find out if he is really Morpheus…
Friday came along, windy and hot, and Nyck was looking to prove a point in free practice: the Rapax cars have been fast on race pace all year long, no doubt, and if qualifying remains under lock and key by PREMA then the Dutchman was determined to bring their speed to the feature race, rather than later in the sprints as had been the case so far.
The session was held up by three VSCs and a red flag, which hampered everyone’s ability to make full use of the track time allocated: everyone lost 15 minutes when Sergey Sirotkin’s car ground to a halt at the start of the long front straight and the marshals had to load it on a truck and drive it all the way down to turn one because of the lack of anywhere else to move it.
Such is the nature of street circuits, unfortunately, and it meant everyone had to push harder in the time remaining. Rowland had been last on the timesheets when the red flag emerged, and push hard when the track went green to set a competitive time: the Briton was P4 on his first full lap but lost the rear and found the barriers at turn one, shortening the session yet more. King and Ghiotto rounded out the top 3 behind De Vries, with Charles Leclerc a second off the pace in P7 and Rowland yet further back in 14th position.
The track was hotter still when it came time for qualifying, and with it came a return to normal service: the Monegasque man continuing his perfect form for his fourth pole of the year, ahead of Nobuharu Matsushita and Nicholas Latifi. The Japanese driver was on the top spot when Ghiotto found the wall at turn 15, bringing the session to a temporary halt, and Latifi stopped it again after the restart by losing some of his front wing on the incredibly tight turn 8.
None of which stopped Leclerc putting in the 2 fastest laps of the session after the re-start to lock down the top spot, despite the improvements made by his rivals.
“It was very, very emotional,” the Monegasque driver noted afterwards. “We have done four poles out of four and it’s amazing! I have never done that in my career, and I just have to thank PREMA for the amazing car. The 2 laps on the second set were quite good, and I’m really happy to be on pole. After what happened two days ago I didn’t feel as confident as in the previous races, and it was quite hard after the free practice we had this morning, but we managed the qualy well and I’m really happy about it.”
Saturday was hotter still, and with the wind dying down it certainly felt like it. If the lack of breeze made the drivers’ jobs easier, the fact that Leclerc was on pole more than compensated for it: the Ferrari Academy ace controlled the race from lights to flag for his third win of the season, ahead of De Vries and Latifi.
When the lights went out he simply drove away, easily leading his rivals into turn 1 with Latifi and Matsushita in his wake. A safety car restart following the removal of Johnny Cecotto’s car at turn 2 was simply dealt with as Leclerc tore away once again, with De Vries slicing past Latifi for P2 as the field shook out and waited for the pits to open so they could swap their supersofts for medium tyres.
Before the race there had been a lot of talk about the tyres: there was no question that the only choice was to start on supersofts and switch to the mediums (unless you were starting from the back and hoping for a Hail Mary play, like Ghiotto), but the wear last year was quite extreme and there were questions about whether they’d make it to the pit window on lap 6.
Luckily, they needn’t have worried: the conditions meant that all the main contenders bar De Vries could hang on until lap 7, with the Dutchman using the clear air for a further lap at the front to ensure his hold on net 2nd was maintained. Ghiotto, Ralph Boschung and Nabil Jeffri were the only drivers on the alternate strategy, and when the Malaysian found the wall just after the stops there were only 2 cars ahead of Leclerc on track, which became 1 after the VSC restart and before the safety car to remove Louis Deletraz’s car from the barriers on lap 12.
Ghiotto, whose gamble had now fallen over with the appearance of the safety car, easily controlled the restart from Leclerc, whose attention was behind rather than ahead as the net leader of the race. Further back Rowland was on a charge to get forward and minimise the damage to his championship challenge, blasting past Artem Markelov and picking up positions when Ghiotto pitted and Matsushita ran deep at turn 1, falling to the back of the pack.
With a couple of laps to go the red flags emerged when Sean Gelael’s found the barriers at turn 8 and blocked the circuit, and with 4 minutes remaining there was no time to make the repairs and get the drivers out for a flagged finish. The PREMA guys swarmed Leclerc’s car in the pitlane, all looking to be the first to congratulate him on the win before he made the long walk to the podium, stopped all the way along by well-wishers.
“I’m very, very, very happy,” Leclerc allowed in the press conference. “It’s good points for the championship, and I’ve said it many times before but I’ll never stop saying it, all thanks to my father for everything he did for me: I dedicate this win to him.”
Further back Rowland finished just off the podium in P4 ahead of Markelov, Norman Nato, King and Boschung, but a subsequent 10 second penalty undid his good work and pushed him down to 7th in the classifications. The Swiss driver was called to the stewards too, as it appeared that he hadn’t stopped during the race: he had, but it was on lap 25, while the results were pushed back 2 laps to lap 24, as is standard after a race ending under the red flag. They accepted that he had stopped during the race, and it was hardly his fault that the race was curtailed, so he was allowed to hold onto P8 and the reverse pole.
Meanwhile Ghiotto, who stopped on lap 18, must have been gnashing his teeth in anger at making an earlier stop from P1, thinking it was the only way to have any chance of pushing up the order…
If Rowland was upset about the penalty, he was soon looking to turn it into a disadvantage: the Briton would start the sprint race from the front row, and if he could dispose of Boschung he would be most of the way towards a win which would allow him to claw back some precious points in the title fight from Leclerc.
And when the lights went out that’s exactly what he did, leading the Swiss driver into turn 2 before streaking away. Nato following him through a lap later but not before losing some his right front wing on Boschung’s tyre, which allowed Latifi to sneak through into P3 too. De Vries was looking to add to his points haul and was moving forward too, making short work of Boschung and then Latifi to put himself in line for a second podium of the weekend.
Leclerc had a poor start by his standards to drop back to P10 but was soon fighting back up the order, and was up to P6 when Rowland and De Vries both stopped separately, causing heartbreak for the pair and delight for the Monegasque man, who could now entertain the idea of being the first driver to bring home a perfect weekend (pole, 2 wins, 2 fastest laps) in the championship. He was a second faster than anyone else on track, and put it to good use in dispatching King and Latifi to grab P2, some 7 seconds behind new leader Nato.
The seconds ticked down with the laps, and the timing screens suggested that another Leclerc victory was an inevitability until a message flashed up on lap 17: 10 second time penalty for Leclerc, for failing to slow sufficiently for the earlier yellow flags for Rowland and De Vries. Nevertheless he dispatched Nato, who put up no resistance and simply followed his friend and rival to the chequered flag for the victory, ahead of the championship leader and Latifi.
Every driver wants to win the race on track, but having done all the hard work earlier Nato was sanguine about the result: “My engineer told me maybe ten laps before the end that Charles was catching up and that I needed to increase my pace: I was managing my tyres in case of a safety car or another incident. When I found out that Charles was second I tried to improve my pace, which I did, but Charles was very quick! I just tried to keep the car on track and to push at the limit: I thought maybe Charles would make a mistake, and my main job was to take the car home.
“Then my engineer told me that Charles had a penalty, so I decided to slow down a bit and stay on track, and to be honest it was okay. I was a bit worried earlier for the first two laps, because the front wing was moving a bit, but it was good today, and we were the second fastest on track. I’m happy for the team: it’s been quite difficult these past two rounds, so it’s good to be on top today. We will enjoy it, and then keep on working to come back stronger in Austria.”
And if he’d done a tremendous job to overturn some poor luck over the previous rounds, naturally all the attention was on the star of the weekend, Charles Leclerc. After a terrible week at home, the Monegasque driver came to Baku and had a simply stunning weekend, a testament to his abilities behind the wheel and a great tribute to take home.
“It was amazing!” he smiled in the press conference. “Our pace was very fast, I felt good in the car, and I was doing the quickest laptimes. I’m still very happy about the second place, and we had the fastest lap which gives us two extra points. I also had a lucky star for the second race with the technical issue of Oliver (Rowland), which happened to me in Monaco. We caught back what we lost in Monaco: that is important.”
His weekend was the equivalent of scoring a free throw all the way from the PREMA tennis court into the Arden hoop. The field might be looking forward to going to Austria in a little over a week’s time, but one of them is relishing it just a little more than the rest.
We’ve seen a lot of things in Monaco, but a riot surrounding our paddock was a new one for all of us.
We were enjoying a coffee and the slow wind up to the day on Wednesday morning when suddenly we heard yelling coming from downstairs, and looking over the balustrade of the carpark we called home we saw a horde of young kids running past the entrance, worrying the security guards as they threw flour and eggs around on their way to the tunnel which links us to the principality.
As we were supposed to take the race winners photographs in a few minutes we were a bit worried, but Charles Leclerc turned up and laughed at our concerned faces. “Don’t worry, it’s just MNM. It’s kids from my school: they do this every year.”
“You did this too?”
“Oh yes, it’s a tradition now. They run around Monaco making a mess, and end up by jumping off the pier and into the sea.”
“Right where we were going to do the photoshoot, you mean.”
“You might need another option.”
We had another option, but as it meant making racing drivers walk up a lot of stairs we weren’t too sure about it. But when Nobu turned up and looked at all of the students covered in goo he was more than happy to walk upstairs to the amphitheatre, even if Charles was less keen. But once they got there they were soon admiring the view as Zak the photographer set up, with the local driver pointing out his school and where he lives to the Japanese man before we got started.
Charles had a one off helmet and suit for his debut at his home circuit – surprisingly he had never raced here before, despite catching a bus to school on the circuit on most days while growing up in Monaco. “Are we going to have loads of people coming up to you all weekend?” I asked, wanting to know how much our workload would increase.
“Oh no, no one recognises me around here, don’t worry” he assured, just before a man and his trainer who had been working out nearby came over and asked “Excusez-moi, vous êtes Charles Leclerc? Bonne chance pour la course ce weekend !”
We headed back for a bite to eat and for Johnny Cecotto’s quick fire interview, which ran a lot longer than you’d assume, before heading over to the pitlane for the drivers briefing. We were all standing around outside waiting for the team bosses to finish and watching Davide Valsecchi and Jacques Villeneuve talking to camera for Sky Italia when it occurred to me that they could interview all the future stars live, starting with Luca Ghiotto.
“No, they don’t really talk to us much,” he sighed. “They asked me to come over a lot in GP3, because I was winning all the time. It was right after the races, with the suit and trophy. But now, not so much…”
The next day everyone was in the paddock nice and early, including most of the GP3 grid: they might not be racing, but clearly they weren’t going to miss out on the unique atmosphere in the principality. And, just possibly, the parties.
Free practice came and went pretty quickly, with Leclerc leading the way: the bus lane might not be on the racing line, but he seemed to have caught on pretty well. Just behind him was Sergio Canamasas, who had spent a bit of time in the Dallara sim the week before to good effect, and Oliver Rowland, who was looking for a way to break the Monaco hoodoo which has seen him struggle for results every time he had raced on the fabled circuit.
Qualifying was split into two groups as usual here, odds and evens, to try to minimise the damage to laptimes by traffic: the practice session could have been very different, with the DAMS pair of Rowland and Nicholas Latifi in particular looking fast but unable to put a whole lap together. Leclerc was on fire in Group A, with Rowland hanging on a couple of tenths back, while Alexander Albon dominated Group B ahead of Artem Markelov, but missed the top spot by just one hundredth, merely a blink.
Leclerc was delighted to be on pole in front of his home crowd, setting up the first part of what he hoped would be a famous weekend for him, but the others were just as happy with their work around the tight circuit. “How did you find it, doing a quick lap round here?” Rowland asked as we headed from the paddock to the press conference afterwards.
“It was pretty amazing!” gushed Albon, clearly replaying the lap in his mind.
“Actually the first one, just to be safe, was not so good,” Leclerc disagreed, “but the second one, when you really push and can maybe go into the wall, that was incredible…”
Because Monaco exists in some weird Mobius strip regarding time, the Feature Race seemed to occur about 10 minutes later, with all the cars and trolleys waiting up on Avenue de la Quarantine and most of the drivers boxed into some metal stairs waiting to be allowed into the pitlane before the door was finally unlocked and we all flooded in.
Apart from Leclerc, who was still upstairs having his photo taken with a lot of local kids and thanking all the well-wishers who had popped out of their flats nearby to say hello.
The pitlane is so small compared to anywhere else, and so full of people, most of them with nothing to do other than take selfies. Eventually the security guards shooed them away as the teams concentrated on their last minute routines while the drivers stretched and tried not to look concerned that the biggest moment of their racing careers was about to open.
Everyone squeezed onto the grid, changing tyres and looking at their rivals choices before the siren sounded and we all prepared for the race. All the front runners were on primes, as expected, with Luca Ghiotto in P8 and Gustav Malja in P11 the first runners rolling the dice on options. Leclerc held everyone off at the start, and that looked to be the biggest part of his race done as the field headed up the hill in single file before their local guide.
But when Latifi stopped in the tunnel on lap 7, the only part of the circuit that can’t be accessed by a crane, it turned the race on its head: the option runners had a free stop and took advantage, and Albon decided to risk running for the remainder of the race on the option tyre for the advantage that track position gives on the twisty circuit, emerging just ahead of Ghiotto.
Leclerc tore away from Rowland, Matsushita and Markelov at the restart and was soon building a big gap as he tried to overturn the advantage Albon was banking on: he was getting away well, but it seemed unlikely that the gap would ever be quite enough to hold the lead. The Monegasque driver eventually came in on lap 22, hoping for the best, but unfortunately it was just as Louis Delétraz and Robert Visiou came together at Mirabeau, prompting another safety car period and handing a free stop to the rivals he just left.
Rowland led Matsushita and Markelov into the pits, with the Russian jumping the Japanese driver on the way out, and the trio emerging just ahead of the slowed Leclerc, who had even worse news on the next lap as he had to retire due to a loose nut on his suspension. The TV cameras caught every part of his heartbreak at his unravelled plans before he regained himself and went around to hug and shake hands with everyone in the team, who were just as gutted at the failure to claim a race that they all thought was in the bag.
The top three escaped when the safety car returned to the pits, easily leading the rest of the field away as Rowland overturned his hoodoo for a famous win in Monaco. The Briton, who is never usually short of a word or two, was strangely quiet as we walked back along the front straight on the way to the press conference, with all of the fans walking down to the catch fencing to applaud the three drivers for their day’s work.
“It’s been a while coming!” he laughed once we’d finally made it to the media centre. “Obviously it feels great, and to be honest I didn’t expect it so much after the start because it was quite processional, but the safety cars can cause anything around here! To win here is mega special: every year I’ve been here I’ve been slightly unlucky, whether it was last year in GP2 or previously, and even in karting I seized here with 2 laps to go when I was leading!
“It’s never been that kind before but I think today repaid me, but right now I can’t explain how good it feels to win this…”
Back in the paddock we were writing up everything as the catering crew laid out the dinner in front of us (the glamour of Monaco can sometimes seems remote when your office is a table behind the buffet in a windswept and cold carpark, surprisingly) when Nabil Jeffri arrived, looking for something to eat. “At least here I’m P1!” he laughed as we chatted about his race, which allowed Ralph Boschung to get ahead of him and up the line first. Nabil suddenly turned, smiling: “I had pretty bad start, to be honest…”
The Sprint Race didn’t have the heat of the Feature, coming later in the day as it did, but it lacked none of the appeal for the drivers: any Monaco win looks good on the CV, and the first half dozen drivers were all dreaming of how it would feel. But the Rapax guys, who filled out the front row, had the best chances to live it, even though their team were quietly worried about the potential to lose a famous result.
“We’ve never had a 1-2 in our history,” technical director Marco Galuppi noted on the way to the grid, “and in a place like this, it would mean so much. But everyone wants to win here, and the walls are so close…”
He needn’t have worried: poleman Cecotto made a good start but teammate Nyck De Vries made a better one, running around the outside of the Venezuelan but leaving him plenty of room to follow through at Ste Devote, before sprinting away for what looked to be a pretty processional victory. Behind him Cecotto had his mirrors full of the fast charging pair Gustav Malja and Luca Ghiotto: the latter two were clearly faster, but Cecotto used all of his experience to deny the pair as he rounded out a Rapax 1-2 on the podium, with Malja alongside them.
After the race Nyck was relieved but delighted, Johnny was depressed, Gustav was quietly happy, and Marco looked like he was going to faint in between bursts of cheering ecstatically for his two charges on the podium. Walking through the pitlane to the press conference Nyck was as quiet as Oliver had been the day before, soaking everything in for the mental hard drive, while Johnny clearly wasn’t ready to be told that a podium in Monaco is a good thing, so I wandered back with Gustav, who greeted everyone happily as we walked.
“It’s like that old line about the Olympics,” I suggested. “The gold medallist is more relieved than happy, the silver medallist is gutted to have missed the win, and the bronze medallist is the happiest of everyone because he is just pleased to be up there.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly right!” he laughed. “I’m just really so happy to get a result here, after the start of the season we’ve had!” We pushed through the press conference before heading back to the paddock, and I walked with Malja once again: just like every driver, once the excitement wears off he was already bored with the situation. “This is what sucks about getting the podium,” he smirked, “we have to walk all the way back. If you’re P4/5, you get a lift with the team.”
“Okay, do you want to swap with Ghiotto?”
We got back to the paddock with the teams already in full tear down mode, as they have to pack everything away and be out of the carpark on Saturday night to allow more F1 trucks to fill it up. The tear down is always pretty fast – everyone is ready to head home after a race weekend – but the added speed required in Monaco adds a degree of difficulty not found anywhere else. With the trucks removed it always looks a bit like a riot had gone through.
But apparently that’s not a problem for the Monegasques: they’re more than used to that around here.
It was standing in the queue to board a plane in Valencia that the fear of Barcelona kicked in.
Jack Aitken, young gun and all round nice bloke was boarding too, as we were both heading back to London after the final GP3 test in Valencia, and he’d had a pretty solid test after grabbing the top time (shared to the thousandth with Leonardo Pulcini) in the qualy-style session that morning, and was clearly looking forward.
“Finally, next time we’ll be racing, not testing,” he smiled, and fair enough too from his perspective: testing is only a means to an end after all, and that end is racing. And it probably didn’t help that it rained at literally every test, while it seems like races always bring the sun out (don’t think about that sentence too hard, I know it doesn’t stand scrutiny. And really don’t think about Spa). “I can’t wait!”
Now obviously I knew we’d have both championships in Barcelona – I’ve seen the calendar – but it hadn’t really occurred to me how much more work would be involved in handling twice the number of, well, everything really. Bahrain had been a lot of work and we’d got through it all pretty well, but this was going to be tough.
Arriving at the circuit on Wednesday it was clear how much our relationship with F1 has changed this year: the paddock, which was already pretty close, has been pulled even closer to their paddock, with hospitality right by the paddock gate and our office just behind the Ferrari one. We spent the afternoon drafting and releasing previews, scouting for locations for the race winner photos (not too far away – drivers don’t like to walk – but nowhere we’ve used extensively before) before settling on the pedestrian bridge from the pit complex, and getting ready for the storm to come.
We didn’t think that would be literal, though. It’s Barcelona.
“Good morning” Jack announced as he arrived to sign in for the weekend on Thursday morning. Almost as if on cue, the dark, looming clouds surrounding the circuit opened, soaking the paddock as the mechanics ran to retrieve everything that wasn’t under cover before watching the edges of their canopies as the water start to seep in.
Of course the torrential rain came just before the photoshoot, with Charles Leclerc and Artem Markelov sullenly slinking into hospitality to escape the downpour. “We’re not going out in this, are we?” Charles asked, his eyes in full puppy dog mode. “Of course we are,” Alexa admonished, “it’s in the diary”, before telling me to take them up to the bridge, as she had something really important to do. And it was really important: I just can’t remember what it was now. Honestly.
So we all trudged out, with Zak the photographer in his shorts and light jacket looking like the only one happy to get to work. “Do I need my race boots too?” Charles asked pleadingly, with Artem sympathetically replying “I’ve got mine on so yes, of course.” I held his umbrella and helmet while Charles impressively stood on one foot while replacing the shoe on the other: clearly all that balance work they do comes in useful sometimes.
We quickly got on with taking the shots, with Artem happy to go along with everything and Charles questioning our sanity before agreeing to whatever nonsense we suggested, and of course he’s the one who looks happiest in the shots: it’s quite a remarkable ability he has to transform in a second.
Of course the rain stopped as soon as we started the first interviews of the weekend, when we were all inside, with the bright sunshine instantly heating up the paddock, drying everything in minutes to destroy any evidence of inclemency.
And it then returned just as quickly when we were setting up on the front straight for the GP3 class photo. I’m starting to think Pirelli has somehow organised to bring the rain whenever anyone so much as thinks about the junior category. In fact, looking out my window, the sky is very grey indeed, so I’ll move back to F2 now.
Friday always sees time warp around itself as we try to keep up with all of the on and off track activities, with a visit to the pitlane generally a relief as we only have one job to do: watch and report the session. With the sun blazing down Leclerc set the pace early on in a quiet session at a circuit everyone on the grid knows well, before they all settled down to work on long run data. Alexander Albon was just off the pace, reigniting last year’s session-long battle between the GP3 championship contenders (and teammates), with MP’s Sergio Sette Camara and Jordan King best of the rest.
The paddock was busy for most of the day, what with Paddock Club tours and a number of fans having been given access to come and take a look around, but the weather was great and there was a general good mood pervading the place (apart from in our office, where Alexa and I wondered if we could petition for an additional 10 hours a day to get through everything).
In a blink it was qualifying, and the extra heat made no difference to Leclerc’s progress: he put in a solid banker for P2 on his first set by running out of sync with the rest of the field, and returned with teammate Antonio Fuoco as the remainder returned to the circuit on their second set. Luca Ghiotto nailed the top spot, teammate Markelov had his fire extinguisher pop on track, and Nabil Jeffri’s car rolled to a halt, bringing out the red flags with 5 minutes remaining, seemingly bringing the session to an end.
But that was to discount Leclerc, which you do increasingly at your peril. The Monegasque re-emerged when the track went green and, without the requisite time to optimise his tyres, just went and stole pole anyway as the Italian watched on helplessly from the pitwall. Ghiotto still held onto the front row at least, ahead of Nyck De Vries, King and Albon, but in the press conference afterwards all the questions were for the Monegasque man, who is clearly building a following in the main paddock.
GP3 qualifying came and went in a blur on Saturday, with Aitken showing how keen he was to get racing by running faster than everyone with a pretty impressive lap to thread the needle through traffic when his tyres were at their best, and he couldn’t remove the smile from his face back in the paddock, which was filling up fast once again with tours and fans.
I sat next to Gustav Malja on the way over to the Fan Zone for the simulator race and a signing session, and he was the reverse image of Aitken’s positivity: given his qualifying it was kind of understandable, but for a guy who is generally known for being upbeat it was odd nonetheless. But after talking everything down for the short drive, when I asked what he was going to do about the race said “you never know, anything could happen” then started to smile and wave as he walked onto the stage.
And then it was time for the race. Most of the time when you’re watching a race and you know what tyres everyone is on you have a basic framework in your head of how the race will unfold, and you’re watching to see who does better or worse against that, but sometimes things happen in a race that throws that out the window. Saturday’s feature race was one of those ones.
Walking the grid before the race it was clear that the teams were unsure which strategy was going to be best: generally you get most of the grid on the same tyres with a couple of outliers rolling the dice, but the mix here was about 50/50, suggesting the numbers had come up pretty close for either option. And then the race started, and it soon became clear that starting on options was the wrong call: on full fuel and with the blazing heat they just weren’t lasting, with Ghiotto being overtaken by Albon on primes but Leclerc building just enough of a lead to avoid that unpleasantness before his pitstop.
So it now looked like a straight fight for the win between Albon and Oliver Rowland, who was closing fast, but when Sergio Canamasas stopped on track it changed all the maths, and switched the advantage from one strategy to the other, on tyrewear and track position.
But that didn’t mean that Leclerc and Ghiotto now had everything handed to them: they would have to work hard to pass a lot of cars and gain that track position before the pitstops removed the front runners, now led by Rowland who had the bit between his teeth and was looking to reverse the hand he was given by sheer force.
The Italian later admitted that he didn’t push as hard as Leclerc because he was worried about his tyres, but the Monegasque was clearly unconcerned about such trifles, overtaking a number of drivers to put himself into P1 when Rowland eventually pitted: the Briton fought hard to get back to the front of the race but ran out of time, having to make do with P3 behind Ghiotto but ahead of Nobuharu Matsushita, who had stopped on the same lap as Leclerc, showing what might have been.
And to top it all off, Leclerc won the race without a radio. “It was really hard to know what the others were doing and where we were,” he laughed afterwards, “and if we were losing time to the people in front: I first thought Oliver was going to win easily, and when he made the pitstop he was in the back! It was a really hard race with the safety car, trying to overtake and make my way up without losing time, and most of all without losing the tyres!
“At 15 laps to the end I thought the race is going to be really hard, but the tyres handled it really well: towards the end we were obviously slower than Oli, but I have to thank the team for the great car they gave me.”
Over in GP3 poor old Aitken slotted in just behind teammate Nirei Fukuzumi at the start and was pushing him hard when a mechanical gremlin pulled him up, undoing all of his good work: I saw him in the pitlane afterwards and could only give him a “tough luck” as he clearly wasn’t ready to chat, but was soon tweeting positivity again, and looking forward to the next race. And his opposite, Malja, had managed to turn around a P18 grid position into 7th at the flag and a front row start for the sprint race, to his obvious delight.
Drivers. The more I know them, the less I understand them.
For example, Nirei. He’s a really lovely guy, and even though his English is pretty bad (he’s the only driver I can remember having to interview in a press conference via a translator) he radiates positivity, and it draws everyone to him. The other ART drivers, former and present, are all clearly obsessed with him: they all talk about him in interviews, I don’t think there is a photoshoot yet that hasn’t ended up with them all picking him up and carrying him around, and his win drew Leclerc and Albon back to the pitlane to celebrate with their former teammate.
It doesn’t make him any easier to interview though. You talk to him, you think you’ve got some nice quotes and walk away smiling, and then you transcribe it and it turns out he actually said almost nothing. He’s slightly magical, but at least he uses his powers for good purposes, rather than going to the dark side.
Apart from those interviews, of course.
Sunday morning opened to more glorious conditions, and Nicholas Latifi was looking to use the warming track to his own interests: making a tremendous start from P3 but blocked by a stumbling Markelov on pole, he simply slowed before scooting outside and around the Russian, kissing the grass with his tyres before storming off into the lead of the race at turn one: Malja had no answer for the Canadian’s pace, and soon had his mirrors full of Matsushita’s black and red car, with the Japanese driver soon up to P2 and on Latifi’s pace, but unable to close the gap he’d already built.
It looked like the race was done, other than another fight through the field by Rowland, but fate had other plans: late in the race Latifi’s mirror detached, bounced off his helmet and distracting him briefly on the fast turn 5, causing him to just miss the braking point and sail through the gravel before returning behind Matsushita, whose hard work in pushing all the way had paid a bigger prize than even he could have expected, with Rowland rubbing salt into the wound by stealing P2 too.
It’s a racing driver’s worst nightmare, making what appears to be a simple mistake to lose a win, and while most others would look to make an excuse for it, Latifi was at least owning it: “I know it was my race to win and there’s a lot of frustration, but I can’t do anything about it: it’s done and I can’t take it back. But there are also positives I can take away from it: it was the first reverse grid I got into since the start of last year, it was the first race I could get out in front and lead, and I was managing it fine.
“It was my race but I got distracted, that’s all: when you’re cruising out the front there’s a lot to think about and I just made a mistake, as simple as that.”
Happily there wasn’t much in the way of penalties to write up, so we could all head out to the airport in plenty of time for the flight: despite the extra workload of a second championship, we survived just about intact. I looked around as I was boarding but Jack Aitken wasn’t on my flight this time, so in his honour I put on my iPod, hit play on Why Does It Always Rain On Me by Travis, then put on my sunglasses and walked across the tarmac to my plane.
What do you know about Bahrain, the main thing you know, other than they have a grand prix? Probably that it’s held in a desert, right? And what you know about deserts? That they’re hot, and they’re bright.
I know that too. And yet, when I got dressed before breakfast on Thursday I realised to my dismay that I’d forgotten to bring my sunglasses. There’s a start you don’t want for the opening round of a new championship, when you’ll have more than a few things to get done outside.
None of the drivers forgot theirs, of course: in a shocking discovery, it turns out that all of the drivers on the grid are more sensible than me. And the few we needed for individual portraits all turned up on time too, making me feel that I was still in some sort of really boring but weirdly opposite dream. “It’s nice in here,” smiled Artem Markelov, not a man built for life in the desert as he enjoyed the air conditioning, “can we stay here all weekend?”
“I think your team might want you to spend a bit of time with them.”
“They can come up too! It’s much nicer than in the pits: it’s way too hot down there…”
And just to confirm that I was living in some alternate reality, every driver arrived in the pitlane early for the class photo, all in their race suits and sunglasses, before the chairs were even in place on the grid. “Why aren’t you wearing sunglasses?” Stefano Coletti asked, laughing, “is it for a bet?”
“It’s so bright here, I don’t know how I would survive without these.”
“You can go and sit out there now, thanks.”
Once Alexa had them all in order Zak the photographer took over as the F1 media and photographers lined up behind him. “Okay guys, I know it’s very bright out here, but we can’t have sunglasses in the photos. So take them off, close your eyes and look down, and I’ll call each time we take a shot so you can open them again briefly and we’ll get the shot. Closed, and open. Closed, and open. Closed…”
And I had to stand there, watching, to make sure things were running smoothly.
After lunch it was time for the first Facebook Live Q&A session, with Charles Leclerc arriving early and ready to go. More ready than us, it turned out, as we didn’t know how to set it up. Cue 3 of us looking on our various devices to find out before we could finally switch it on via a mobile phone and stick it in front of him, with Charles immediately answering the various questions thrown at him with aplomb. “That was easy,” he laughed afterwards before heading back out into the heat as we put on jumpers to deal with the ever increasing cold in our suite.
For once the drivers were delighted to be interviewed for the Insider and the other various things we put together over a race weekend. “Wow, I might stop here for the rest of the day,” Jordan King smiled ahead of doing the Lightning Round, “I’m happy to be interviewed for anything!” Gustav Malja and Louis Deletraz had a great teammate interview, possibly bringing more jokes than usual just to stay out of the heat, while Nyck De Vries was delighted to find out he was being interviewed for an upcoming feature.
But there was no way for them to avoid the heat on Friday, with the track temperature flagged at 46˚ as we arrived in the pitlane for free practice, although I was later told the thermometer is actually somewhere in the shade. There was no unnecessary movement as the oppressive heat bore down on us all, and the drivers were straight out on track as the lights went green, probably just to generate a bit of breeze for themselves.
Unusually for a first session there wasn’t much in the way of off track action, although the recent 3 day test probably ironed most of wrinkles out of the drivers’ approaches to the circuit. And most of them were afraid of having to walk back from wherever they ran off track, more than likely, even if it didn’t seem to faze Kimi Raikkonen. Although he’s Finnish: he’s probably quite used to saunas.
A couple of drivers stalled at the end of the pitlane as they waited to do a practice start, prompting sighs from the marshals and team members who had to push the cars back and get them restarted, but in a session otherwise so devoid of action that a remonstration by Leclerc on Malja was deemed worthy of a replay, Oliver Rowland grabbed the honour of topping the first F2 race session by less than a tenth from Markelov and Leclerc, with the top nine all within a second of the Briton.
With qualifying not happening until that evening there was plenty of time for all the meetings we needed to sort out the new practices: the press conferences are now held in the F1 paddock rather than back in ours, and we met with all the people now putting those together and promoting them for the F1 media, as well as the process of getting the drivers and our media there, finding out where we collect our radios and so on.
When darkness fell the temperatures dropped with it, making it almost pleasant to walk around to the pitlane, the huge circuit lighting rigs showing us the way. At only 29˚ on track it was a lot closer to a European round, and the drivers were all straight out to make their mark. Rowland was the first to set a competitive time, just 6 minutes into the session, but was almost immediately surpassed by Leclerc, whose teammate Antonio Fuoco grabbed P2 just before everyone returned for fresh rubber, the gap between the pair a mere 0.067s.
It was expected that the field would stop in the pits for a while, but no one told Leclerc, who was back out almost immediately for a second run. It was pretty unexpected, but the Monegasque driver clearly enjoyed having the circuit to himself as he improved his time, stretching his lead to almost seven tenths and showing the others what they could have done.
The rest of the field rushed out on track to replicate his efforts, but traffic meant that they were unable to improve in any meaningful way, and the damage was confirmed when Malja and Nabil Jeffri came together late in the circuit, prompting a VSC period that caught out a number of drivers and brought an early end to proceedings, with De Vries the only driver to move forward meaningfully, to P3.
Which turned into 2nd later that night, following a number of meetings with the stewards. The highest placed change was for Fuoco, dropping 3 spots for impeding Markelov, while Malja dropped 5 for causing the collision, and 3 others (Sean Gelael, Sergio Canamasas and Coletti) also being awarded 5 place penalties for failing to slow in time following the VSC. All three would start from the pitlane.
Saturday saw the first of a new regular feature, with a group tour for Paddock Club fans into a pit, this time over at PREMA. The tours are hosted by Sam Power, a young and enthusiastic Aussie who was racing Porsches back home before coming to Europe to follow his dreams. He’s already managed to pick up a new nickname when Didier misheard his name (“Same power? Like a dyno-test?”), and he made a lot of new friends over the weekend for his enthusiasm.
And then, at last, it was time to race.
After the race the guys on the right were unhappy about how dirty it was off the racing line, and with the wind picking up there would certainly have been a lot of sand blowing across the circuit. And it explains the start if you saw the overhead shot, because those on the left had a noticeable advantage, with Leclerc easily beating De Vries into turn 1, followed by Nato from P3, although the start of the race had to go to Markelov: starting in 7th, he slotted in behind the Frenchman after mugging De Vries at turn 2.
While the front 2 fought each other, the Russian bided his time in third, resting on his tremendous start and relying on tyre management to give him an advantage as the race came to him. Nato got into the lead, then Leclerc took it back, but both were eating up their tyres: the Frenchman was the first to stop, on lap 15, Leclerc stopped next time by to cover, and Markelov had clear track and life in his tyres, pushing hard for a few laps before finally stopping on lap 18, emerging in 3rd once again but with fresher rubber than his rivals.
Nato had mugged Leclerc the previous lap, and set a string of fastest laps to reinforce his advantage. But while the pair squabbled Markelov sat on his advantage, waiting for the closing laps to strike: circulating about 7 seconds off Leclerc for lap after lap, on lap 27 he finally struck, dropping a couple of seconds a lap off his times before scalping the Monegasque driver two laps later, dispatching Nato next time round, and stretching a lead over the final two laps to almost 8 seconds at the flag.
Hugs. High fives. Photos. Spray. Then on to the press conference. Or at least it would have been, if Alexa didn’t get them lost in the control tower.
I know, it’s easy to mock her for getting lost – that’s exactly why I’m doing it – but it is complicated to find your way round in there and, as I was collecting journalists and coming in from the other side it was hardly any easier, albeit that they’re more likely to wait for the drivers to arrive than some scribblers. Still, everyone made it, eventually, and we had a new feature with individual videos for the top three, which hopefully you’ve seen on social media. And Dyno had Markelov over for an interview at the Paddock Club, which was probably not what he was expecting when he set up the regular race winner’s interview.
The Russian was mobbed at the Game Zone later that night, when he doubled up by winning the race there too before signing loads of posters and other items, and being asked for endless selfies with the fans. It was one of the most enthusiastic fan meets we’ve had: they certainly love fast drivers in the Middle East, and it took ages to extract our guys and head back to the paddock.
The wind picked up substantially on Sunday morning, and earlier talk about a possible sand storm was taking an ominous turn. Arriving at the circuit we found that some of the barriers in the car park had already blown over, leading us to worry about the timings for the sprint race. But happily the race started to recede just before the race, and while it was still quite strong at least it didn’t seem to be quite so full of grit and sand.
And Luca Ghiotto, who had been one of those complaining about being on the dirty side the day before, made short work of starting from P2 to storm past Albon (whose path to the first corner from P3 was clarified when teammate and poleman Nobuharu Matsushita had to start from the pits after developing a problem on his outlap) and into the lead, with Leclerc and King behind them. A short safety car period for Nato’s puncture and off didn’t delay them much, with Leclerc almost immediately up to P2 to fight the Italian for the lead.
Sprint races are generally far simpler than feature races: you bolt on the tyres you have left, and you push as hard as you can to the flag without using them all up. But Bahrain made the teams re-think their approach: the heat, the abrasive surface, and some of them started thinking about the impossible, a pitstop in a sprint.
Markelov, un-noticed by most, started on options, and was soon slicing through the field as he made his way forward. The Russian made his way up to P3 by lap 9, when Leclerc struck and mugged Ghiotto for the lead, but had to pit for primes next time through. With Fuoco also pushing forward to P4, and Markelov soon setting the pace at the back, the race was already intriguing.
And then Leclerc pitted from the lead.
The pitlane erupted as the Monegasque driver came in on lap 15 for options. What was he doing, and how could he possibly get back what he’d lost? But the PREMA guys were serene, having worked all the angles, and felt he was on the winning strategy, having used up his primes before coming in on the right lap and heading back out to fight once more.
He came out in P14, ahead of Markelov. He was up to P9 within 2 laps, in the points next time round, on the podium 2 laps later, into the lead next lap, and won the race the next time round. Remarkable.
And every engineer in the pitlane will now be looking at the two teams to pit, PREMA and RUSSIAN TIME: the former had one driver start on primes, switch to options and win while the other stayed on primes, moved up to 4th before sliding back to P10 at the flag, while the other had one stick on primes for P2, and the other run option/prime for 8th place. The next hot sprint is going to be intriguing.
Ghiotto put a brave face on it in the press conference, but it was clear that he thought he’d done enough for the win: walking back with him to the paddock he was his usual outgoing self, offering me a drink of the sparkling rose water from the bottle I was carrying for him (which is lovely, regardless of what Alexa or his team boss Svetlana say) and giving self-effacing answers when most drivers would rather run away and hide, but there’s no doubt that he was gutted to see that red car appear in his mirrors, and then disappear.
And then it was time to write everything up, and then pack and go. Which is when I put on my travel jacket, which was hanging up since arriving at the hotel on Wednesday night, and found my sunglasses in the pocket.
I know. You can shut up too.