I guess it’s the nature of final races that people leave: it’s the end of the season, the natural place to move or make a break, and when I was looking in my inbox for an email just now one popped up from 2007, written by a different communications chief for a differently named series, addressed to some teams that no longer exist, tyre suppliers who no longer do, people who’ve gone on to F1 or off to retirement (or both), but enclosing the same sort of media schedule as we still use.
The more things change.
But that didn’t make it any sadder to most of the paddock that Penny Whitaker had announced her retirement. Many people reading this won’t know who Penny is, or at best will have seen something we’ve done on social media over the race weekend, but everyone in the paddock knows her, and knows where to find her: the schedule I mentioned above included activities with the location Penny’s Office, because it’s so central to a race weekend.
Penny organised passes for the paddock, and she worked with the race stewards to distribute their communications, and if you think that doesn’t sound like much then I’m afraid you don’t understand how motorsport actually works, because she was at the centre of activity all weekend long. One example, just from this week: Paul from RUSSIAN TIME packed a new bag for Abu Dhabi, like most of us, because we were all going for a 2 week stint including the tests.
On the way out he grabbed the red pass out of his usual bag and headed off to the airport, and it was only when he got to the track that he realised it was his 2016 pass. He came up to see Penny, shamefaced at his silly mistake, to see if there was anything she could do: a couple of calls later and Paul was the only person in the pitlane working with an old pass, something that shouldn’t be able to happen but which did because of the respect everyone in both paddocks has for her, respect which has only grown over the 29 years she’s been working in various paddocks around the world.
Richard and Kenny from Arden turned up on Wednesday with some flowers to say thank you for all of her efforts over the years, and if the flowers were both not exactly practical in a paddock and quite probably shipped in with their cars then Penny was far too gracious to do anything other than smile and thank them profusely for their present before looking for something in which to keep them.
And Penny is probably the only person who could find a flower vase in a support paddock in Abu Dhabi.
Leaving the paddock that afternoon I noticed a couple of bikes from the local bicycle hire scheme leaning against the wall: waiting for the others to come down I fantasised about taking one of them for a ride back to the hotel, and was wondering where the docking station was when Charles Leclerc came down, said hello and jumped on one of them. “Damn,” I laughed, “if I’d known it was yours I definitely would have taken it!” It does seem a little lazy to ride a bike for the couple of hundred metres to the hotels, but I guess it’s better than driving over…
Thursday was as busy as ever, with the final round of media activities before the end of the season. It always means a lot of running around in the paddock, bumping into people at random. Sean Gelael and Norman Nato were walking past at one stage: I asked them if they had their party outfits ready for the end of season ceremony, and they didn’t realise they were supposed to dress up until I said “come on, do you really want to be shown up by me?”
Fancy menswear stores of the UAE: you’re welcome.
I was also going to round someone up for an interview when I heard “Alexa, Alexa” behind me: not being her I kept walking, but the “Alexa, Alexa” chant was getting closer until I turned around and Albert Resclosa, Sergio Sette Camara’s manager, was walking over. “Hi Alexa, I just wanted to ask…”
“Hi, I’m David.”
“Oh.” Long pause. “Hi, I just wanted to ask if…”
It kept going all day: at one stage I ended up having 2 drivers doing interviews at the same time in different rooms, because someone was late. I won’t embarrass the driver by naming him, but it had nothing to do with his FP1 run the next day. But as everything still needed to be done, I set up George Russell in one room for his live Q&A and then gave him the Dictaphone and a list of questions so he could interview himself for a forthcoming feature before going into the other room to set up Charles for his Q&A, walking back and forth between them until they were both done.
I haven’t listened to the tape back yet, but I’m pretty sure George just answered the questions as requested, and didn’t leave any rude messages at all. And he is probably the only driver I could trust not to do that. But if he did, I’ll put them into the interview. Keep watch for the last Insider issue of the year…
And then it was time to turn to the track. Charles Leclerc had the easiest job in the paddock, and he looked like it: his title was in the bag and his future was pretty much settled, so he could just enjoy his final couple of runs in the car and try to help PREMA take the double with the teams’ title. Every time I saw him he looked chilled, smiling and laughing with the team as he waited for the future to catch up to him.
There was more much pressure on rivals Oliver Rowland and Artem Markelov: both men were still fighting for their own ambitions, with the added needs of their respective teams and teammates as additional complications that the Monegasque driver didn’t carry into the weekend. Oli was in hiding, as usual, emerging only when instructed by the team, or when it was time to get into the car. Artem, on the other hand, was floating through the paddock spreading joy, always ready for a selfie with someone or a quick chat, as though the fact that he was pushing for P2 in the drivers’ championship (and P1 in the teams’) hadn’t quite sunk in yet.
The shape of the weekend was different, much more hurry up and wait, more hanging around making busy work until the timetable comes around to you. Free practice arrived on Friday morning, the heat of the circuit coming on but less intensely than previous years, with all of the drivers heading straight out to make the most of their time on track. The ART drivers led the way early in the session, with Norman Nato stealing it from them before returning to the pits with most of the grid around the 20 minute mark.
Alex Albon was one of the few to remain on track: the Thai driver reclaimed the top spot at the halfway mark before returning to the pits. With the field concentrating on race run data in the second half of the session, the fight for the top spot was over: Albon was first by over a tenth from Nato and Nyck De Vries.
Better late than never, for the Thai driver it was an indication that things were coming back to him after a tough season: his early form was strong until a broken collarbone put him out of action for a while, with set up changes and an undiagnosed broken chassis after an accident for replacement Sergey Sirotkin meant his year had not gone to plan, until now. This time last year he was fighting for the GP3 title with Leclerc, but it seemed a lot longer ago: maybe this was a chance for Albon to remind people of the form that was so clear not so long ago.
For the first indications of the teams’ battle, PREMA had a slight lead with Antonio Fuoco leading the way, finishing the session in P5 ahead DAMS and RUSSIAN TIME, but there was a long wait for qualifying that evening. All that tension in the paddock just hung in the air, with nowhere for it to disperse.
Then it was time to turn on the bright lights, and it was Markelov who came to the fore.
When the session open all of the drivers bar the ART teammates headed straight out on track, with the DAMS pair coming straight back after scrubbing a set of tyres. The times were soon tumbling but Markelov blew past everyone, annexing P1 by four tenths as most of the field returned to the pits. The ART and DAMS drivers headed out as their rivals came in to take advantage of the alternate strategy, and with the track to themselves Nobuharu Matsushita grabbed P2, ahead of Rowland (P4), Latifi (P6) and Albon (P8) before the first 3 returned to the pits.
But the Thai driver wasn’t satisfied that he had made the most of his tyres, staying out to improve his time and, surprisingly, on his second flyer went faster for P2. But pushing to get back in time to change onto his second set came at a cost: he ran out of fuel in the final sector, stopping on track and undoing his good work.
Markelov led his rivals back on track, showing his hand with his eagerness to improve on his second set. 3 minutes remained as they all hit their quick laps: the Russian improved further still, with Fuoco slotting in behind him on the timesheets until De Vries crossed the line and stole P2 from him. Rowland put in a late lap to slot into P4, ahead of Leclerc (P6), Luca Ghiotto (P7) and Latifi (P12), with Albon being pushed down to 10th in his absence before disqualification for his inability to provide a fuel sample twisted the knife further.
“I’m fighting for everything,” Artem later smiled, “and I’m pretty confident about what will happen tomorrow: hopefully this confidence coming into me will show in my results as well. The key is to just save the tyres, and we’ll see what will happen to the other guys around me!”
The points for pole sharpened the fight for the vice-champion spot: Markelov closed the gap to Rowland to just 8. And in the teams’ title the battle was white hot, with just 2 points between RUSSIAN TIME, PREMA and DAMS, the Italians leading but wearing a large target on their back with the Russians getting into the driver’s seat.
Markelov is a master at tyre preservation: this has been proven time and time again. A late change of tyre compound added a wrinkle that the teams would have preferred not to have to iron, but it was pretty obvious to everyone on the paddock what was going to happen in the feature race: Markelov would lead from pole, manage his tyres throughout, and the two championship battles would go down to the wire in the sprint race.
The difference between a race plan and a race result is the reason why we all watch them.
But with an entire day to fill on Saturday before dusk fell and they could return to the track, we did what we could to keep everyone’s minds off the storm to come. A surprise photoshoot for Penny with the GP3 and F2 championships was delayed, not as you would expect because one or both drivers slept in – George and Charles were present and correct in the pitlane on time – but because Penny forgot about it and went over to the F1 paddock to get to work. She was flustered and apologetic about keeping the guys waiting, but to their credit they both said they didn’t care, that it was just good that she could make it.
And later we had the final drivers’ parade of the season, herding cats in the pitlane as we tried to get all of the drivers in one place at one time that wasn’t a race. “Hi David,” Albert smiled, a little too broadly as he walked over to shake hands, “I made sure Sergio was here on time!” We piled them onto the truck and followed them on, and if we were worried about a lack of fans that early in the day we needn’t have, as they were out in force to wave to their favourites.
As usual we ran the live feed to our social media, and as usual Santino Ferrucci took the phone and interviewed everyone for us, entertaining and flummoxing his rivals in the process. He’s got a big future in broadcasting when he hangs up his helmet.
When the red lights went out Markelov made a brilliant start to lead De Vries and Rowland through turn 1, Fuoco made a dreadful one and fell behind teammate Leclerc as Ghiotto pushed up to P4, playing tail gunner to his teammate as everyone waited to see which way the tyre strategies would work: De Vries, Leclerc and Albon started on the alternate (soft) strategy and were pushing to take advantage, while everyone else hung on as long as they could on the supersofts before the pitlane opened so they could dispose of them and see where they were.
Markelov led his rivals in on lap 7, pushing the tyres hard as he absorbed the pressure from De Vries to pit from the lead, emerging just ahead of Rowland. The Briton knew he had one shot at the win and he grabbed it, attacking into turn 8 when the Russian was worried about not damaging his tyres, and a couple of fast laps meant he was away as Leclerc, De Vries and Albon (with a brilliant drive from the back of the grid) worked hard to hold as much of the gap that Rowland and Markelov were currently eating into as they could.
But their older tyres weren’t able to perform miracles, and when they started to lose their edge Leclerc’s pursuers were closing at a second a lap: the question now was how much time would he be able to claw back on the supersofts, and how long would they last? Rowland and Markelov ran like a train by Albon on lap 18 for P3/4, Leclerc and De Vries were in on lap 24 and were soon back on track in P3/4, and there were 7 laps to see how the race would shake out.
Leclerc was 14 seconds behind Markelov in P2, and he took 2.5s out of the Russian next time around: he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, wanting to move forward for the win but also watching his mirrors, with a small off in the marina complex an outward display of the pressure he was putting himself under. The gap was closing – 8.6s, 6.1s, 4.2s – but on lap 30 it went the other way – 5.3s – and Leclerc’s challenge was over.
With 2 laps remaining the gap forward was too big, and Rowland duly crossed the line for win number 3 by 6.6s from Markelov, with Leclerc slowing dramatically on the final lap to allow teammate Fuoco to take the podium by just centimetres. It looked like the Briton had one hand on his 2nd place trophy, and the attention turned to the teams’ battle: DAMS were 1st and 7th (31 points), RUSSIAN TIME were 2nd and 5th (28), and PREMA were 3rd and 4th (27) for a 3 point gap between the 3 teams, and the target moving to DAMS.
“Basically, for me, I wouldn’t be here without DAMS,” Rowland noted afterwards, “and I feel I owe them quite a lot. To give them the Teams’ championship would be great, especially with Nicky as well. We’ve pushed the team extremely hard this year and they have delivered with the car, especially in the races: everyone will have their reasons for their team deserving it and that’s mine, and I’ll do everything I can tomorrow to make sure we do it.”
But it wasn’t long before the news came through: Rowland and Fuoco were disqualified, the Briton for a skid block which was too thin, the Italian for low tyre pressures.
It turned the maths, and the weekend, upside down: Markelov was now the winner, his 5th victory of the season, Leclerc was in P2 and Ghiotto rounded out the podium. The Russian was 17 points ahead and, with more wins that Rowland, Markelov was the 2017 vice-champion, while in the teams’ title RUSSIAN TIME were almost certain of victory, 20 points ahead of PREMA with DAMS a further 10 points behind: the Italians would need both drivers to score big points, and their Russian rivals to score none.
Which isn’t how it went, but that didn’t mean there was no drama.
Sunday morning was pretty quiet, the last day of term, and with the test to come there was nothing to pack away so there were loads of team members sitting around, some in the sun out the back of the pits, more in the shade in the pitlane chatting, filling in the hours until it was time to go. The races were largely meaningless, with the title fights in both championships all but mathematically resolved, so it felt like the last day of school. At least no one was doing any practical jokes, or writing on each other’s uniforms.
Eventually we traipsed back over to the main pitlane for the final time, the set up already under control and everyone waiting to get the race over and to get back to the hotel, for a drink, to relax and get ready for the end of season party. When the lights went out Albon made the most of his front row start, already a great turnaround from his qualy disappointments, by storming into the lead when poleman Jordan King bogged down, with Latifi in hot pursuit.
Behind them Markelov and Ghiotto chased down Leclerc to finish off the teams’ battle in style: a few laps later the pair swamped King, with the Russian just tagging his rear as the Briton stopped with a puncture, but they were unable to close on Leclerc, who was moving forward and looked to close his great season on a high.
As the laps rolled down, so did the scalps for Leclerc – De Vries, Matsushita, Latifi – leaving him 4 laps to close and pass on his GP3 teammate and title rival. Albon was looking for the win to bring home some sort of redemption from a tougher season than he expected, Leclerc was looking for a cherry on the top of his championship cake, and the fight was on.
The Monegasque was clearly faster, putting himself all over the rear of the Thai driver almost immediately, but debris on the straight down to the marina meant yellow flags and no 2nd DRS area, which most of the drivers had been using for passes, handing an advantage to the leader. On the final lap Leclerc, frustrated for a couple of laps, threw his car up the inside into the sharp turn 7 entry to the long back straight, clattering into Albon and setting up a drag race all the way down to turn 8, with the Monegasque driver on the inside line.
Leclerc needed nothing more, leading Albon to the flag with Latifi a few seconds back, screaming with joy as he crossed the line. I walked from the podium to the press conference with Albon and Latifi: the Thai guy may appear to permanently happy go lucky, but there are times when it’s clear that he’s not open for a chat, and that was one of them.
Leclerc was still overjoyed by the time we got inside, and if he gave the usual quotes you’d expect in a press conference and perhaps thought he was going to pick up a penalty, as he later confirmed on his social media, it was clear that he was still happy to take the win on track, to get one over on a long-time rival however he could.
The Monegasque driver was whisked off to the F1 paddock once again, leaving the rest of us to walk back to our paddock together, sharing the load of helmets, drinks, trophies and bottles. Albon was already back to his usual self, assigning the race to a mental shelf and moving on, and we had a few laughs talking about the season now finished, and how it differed from the one they saw ahead of them at the start of the year.
During the ceremony there was another surprise for Penny: a specially-built Dallara Award awaited her, with Bruno coming on stage just to present it to her. The moment was enormous, overwhelming for her, and we all pretended not to notice as she quickly wiped a tear from her eye as she thanked everyone for their time, and their thoughts.
“Everyone’s leaving,” Angelina Ertsou, the PREMA head of PR and team coordinator, had said to me at the start of the weekend, and so it proved at the party where so many people were admitting as much as everyone did the rounds: it wasn’t a goodbye as such, what with the test to come in a few days’ time, but more of an update for each other, just to let them know the plans.
Sadly, I was not exempt this time either: for a number of un-noteworthy, personal reasons I’d come to realise over the weekend that it was to be my last in the paddock too. It added a piquancy to the event, a desire to see everything, to remember it for later. But that’s not how life works: you have to be involved, be active in it, if it’s truly to be a life.
And as most of the guests started to file out, so did we: to go on into the night, to do other things, to spend time together and enjoy each other’s company, and to live our lives.
I’ll admit, when we were first talking about a standalone race I thought it would be great: none of those F1 types filling the planes and hotels, we get to work in the big paddock and have more space for everything, we might even get to stay at the fancy circuit hotel for once. What’s not to like?
And that turned out to be exactly how it went. The end. Short blog this week.
Okay, so maybe that wasn’t exactly how it went. It turns out that all those FOM people actually do a lot of work, and that our handful of brave warriors at F2 would have to replicate the work of hundreds of dedicated, full-time employees. But that shouldn’t be a problem, should it?
By the time the race weekend finally came around, I was worried some of us wouldn’t actually make the plane, so much work did we have to do before getting there. And part of me thought that might be a good thing, considering what faced us. We had more journalists, by a factor of five. We had the circuit’s PR folks to deal with. And TV and timing and regulators and banners and hospitality and media and photographers and parking and tabards and …
But it all got done, like it always does. Turns out we’re not bad at this job. And sleep is largely overrated.
We had a pretty constant queue outside our office, though. Jack Aitken was first up, and if his mind was on the title battle to come (and it was) then he didn’t allow it to show as he gave us one of the best Lightning Rounds we’ve had, and which I highly recommend. There’ll be a big interview to come too, between now and Abu Dhabi.
And a new feature starts this week too, Gear Box. We started with Alex Albon because he was the inspiration for it: so many times he’s told us about the lucky charms and other items that his Mum makes him bring with him that we just figured it would be interesting to look at what the guys always bring with them to a race. Let us know whose bag you’d like us to peer into next time.
It wasn’t until we got onto the roof that we realised just how hot it was in Jerez. “It’ll be great,” Zac the photographer assured us, “good views all around, lots of light, it’s got everything.” And it was great, unless you were wearing a race suit like Monza winners Antonio Fuoco, Luca Ghiotto and George Russell.
“Oh man, do you really need to use that up here?” Luca asked as I blinded him once again with the light reflector.
“Can I wear my sunglasses?” asked George.
“Are they sponsors?” we reverted.
“Um, they could be…”
“…” said Antonio, squinting.
And then we ripped through the list: Sebastien Philippe for ART’s latest teams’ title and their group photo, the Facebook Live interviews with Tatiana Calderon and Sergio Sette Camara, get George Russell to drive us around the outside of the track to find a place for his photoshoot (“are you sure we can’t drive on the circuit?” “No, Alexa had a dream about that: even without F1 on track it would be too traumatic…”), Lightning Rounds, Trading Places.
We finally got around to interviewing Charles Leclerc for a forthcoming feature too, which was really comprehensive and quite interesting. I know, we’ve had him all year, but we didn’t want to rush into it. Hope it will be worth the wait. Got some nice shots of him for the championship, too.
Once the track activities came, time took control: in retrospect it felt like we shoved 2 free practice sessions, 2 qualifying sessions and 4 races into the same time we had to do all the Thursday activities. And it was strange to watch it all on a tiny, dark television set in a fake wood panelled office with no windows, after spending so many years sitting on a pitwall. First world problems, indeed, but it meant that we were removed from what was going on, not seeing the teams with our own eyes, which made writing the reports a lot harder than usual.
Still, it’s not like there were any championships in the balance or anything. Oh, wait a minute.
Speaking of which, Charles was clearly looking to wrap the whole thing up this weekend. He mentioned putting Monza behind him in a manner which betrayed the fact that he clearly hadn’t done any such thing, and even if his default emotional setting is calm and measured, partially because he likes to be sure he is perfectly correct about everything before he opens his mouth to speak, there was obviously more going on in his head than usual, dealing with a championship which was so important to him in a season which has been an emotional rollercoaster for him.
At least the weather wasn’t going to affect anything: the glorious sun shone down all weekend long, warming all of us from more temperate climates who had been dealing with the harsh truth of autumn and the turning of the seasons.
Leclerc grabbed the top spot in yet another free practice, setting the tempo of the weekend and denying his rivals even a crumb of hope. Oliver Rowland and Nobuharu Matsushita set the pace before Ralph Boschung got caught out behind traffic, beaching his car on the kerbs and destroying his own weekend at a circuit on which he had never previously driven and prompting a red flag period to remove his stricken car.
As soon as the track was green again all the other drivers were straight back out, trying to pick up as much data about the newly resurfaced track as they could, and Leclerc wasted no time in grabbing the top spot before getting to work on his race simulations, holding it all the way to the flag ahead of Rowland and Nyck De Vries.
And then, as soon as the session report was written, posted and promoted, it was time for qualifying. On a track where everyone thought overtaking would be impossible, it was clearly the most important moment of the weekend.
Leclerc grabbed the top spot early before returning to the pits while Ghiotto and Sergio Sette Camara bickered over P2, with the Monegasque re-emerging to improve on his best time at the halfway mark. But he clearly thought Ghiotto was too close: Leclerc strapped on a third set of tyres before heading out again, with the Italian improving once more but Leclerc raising the bar again to claim pole by just two tenths from the Italian and Sette Camara.
An extra set of tyres was a huge risk to take, but it was a gamble Leclerc was willing to take: “We went for a bit of a strange strategy for this qualifying, because we went for 3 sets of new tyres: we went on prime first, and we were quite impressed because we were the fastest at that time, and then we went for softs, which was very good. After the 2nd set Luca was very close, so we decided to go for a last set of softs, and it all went very well.
“We worked a little bit on the car and I am very happy with my lap, but I definitely think it helped to use 3 sets and to be sure of the references I took for the last lap. We did this strategy because here in Jerez it’s quite difficult to overtake, and we want to win the championship this weekend, so we have maximised our chances by doing a good qualifying to be well placed in Race 1.
“Now we have to work on the start to make sure we keep it tomorrow.” Going unsaid was that he needed it to work, because if the start didn’t come off and he got caught out, the tyre problem would potentially bite him in the sprint race.
But outwardly he didn’t look phased, having his usual game of football tennis with Fuoco afterwards and settling into the race weekend routine that had got him this far. Although it seemed that he was pushing the normality angle a little further than it wanted to go when the pair were still playing as we left, the sun already down and the bright orange moon huge and fat and low in the sky.
We followed it to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on the coast just down the road from Jerez, at the invitation of Alfonso de Orleans-Borbon, the gregarious owner of Racing Engineering: it is their home base and they were keen to show it off to the paddock, with most of the other team bosses and some of the drivers making it along for a bite to eat and a drink or two.
It was a beautiful night, warm with a slight breeze carrying the last of the summer’s crops (or something less pleasant from some nearby horses if it was blowing the wrong direction), just perfect for having a chat and catching up with people that we see often enough but don’t really get to speak with about anything other than whatever is happening at the track at any given moment. A few of us went into town afterwards to keep it going, taking a little of the local ham and some wine to unwind before the storm to come.
But the next morning was back to work, and if the paddock’s attention was briefly consumed with the GP3 title battle between Russell and Aitken, not resolved but clearly listing heavily towards the former, it was soon focused on Leclerc. He had 2 jobs to do: hold onto the lead at the start, and stay ahead of Rowland at the stops.
Whatever he and the team worked on overnight, it worked: Leclerc easily contained Ghiotto at the start before heading off into the distance, while Rowland took some risks but squeaked past Sette Camara and Alex Albon on the first lap but was unable to do anything about Ghiotto until just before the stop, where an uncharacteristic error gave the Briton a line through for P2.
Most of the grid was on the expected tyre strategy, soft/medium, with Nicholas Latifi and Fuoco the most high profile abstainers, pinning their hopes on something unusual happening to propel them up the grid after a poor qualifying session for both. The title contenders were more conservative, naturally, but it was Sette Camara who was the first driver in the points to pit, coming in early to get the undercut and making himself the target for the majority of the field as he did so.
Ghiotto soon followed, emerging just ahead but unable stop the Brazilian coming through on warmer tyres, as did Rowland (who soon made amends by re-passing): out in front Leclerc held on for a few laps and had a big enough lead to stay ahead after his stop, re-emerging in P5 and soon moving forward through the 4 drivers on the alternate strategy ahead of him.
If it was impossible to overtake on the tight, technical circuit, no one told the leaders: Leclerc, Rowland and Ghiotto were soon putting that view to the sword, overtaking at will (albeit with a tyre advantage) as they moved back up the field. Latifi was the last man to cede, handing the lead back to the Ferrari Academy driver on lap 19 before pitting himself to see what he could salvage from the remainder of the race, leading Antonio Fuoco on the alternate strategy.
And then, a collision between Santino Ferrucci and Matsushita threw the whole race into the air.
The safety car was soon out, packing the field back together again as the marshals removed the cars from turn 1, and the race was on its head: the few drivers on the alternate strategy now had a huge advantage, sitting on fresh softs right behind the other drivers on old mediums as the race ran live again, with a few brave souls chancing a second stop to see what they could do.
Leclerc and Rowland pushed hard to break from the rest of the field when the race went live, forming a small but crucial gap back to Ghiotto, whose tyre disadvantage was soon working against him: Fuoco stormed past Sette Camara and the Italian, as well as impressively mugging Latifi on the same strategy, to put himself in a podium position as the laps ran down.
On the final lap Leclerc tyres were spent: he slowed dramatically, bunching up Rowland and Fuoco just as they found a battle between Sean Gelael and Louis Deletraz on fresh tyres and running at a pace the top 3 couldn’t match. The pair were tripping over each other as they tried to stay out of the podium fight but were also looking for an advantage over each other, handing Leclerc a moment of luck as Rowland and Fuoco were unable to get around the backmarkers in the final sector: Leclerc tumbling over the line first, owing more than a little to good fortune as he claimed his 6th victory of the season by just 0.2s, and with it came the 2017 F2 title.
Leclerc was delighted, naturally, but it was a gamble that ran very, very close to falling flat, and he knew it. “On the option tyres we were very, very quick, but then we were struggling more than Oli on the prime tyres: I don’t really know why for now. I pushed a lot, and when he was doing quite quick lap times I told myself he maybe just wanted to catch up a little bit and he might not be keeping the tyres, but actually he stayed on this pace until the safety car!
“Just before the safety car I started to pick up the pace also, and we were more or less equal: he was a little bit quicker, but not as much as the laps before. But when we saw the safety car I thought okay, it’s going to be a lot harder now! I was pushing to keep the gap up, and when the safety car came out I had no tyres left and I was a bit scared!
“After the restart the tyres seemed to cool a little bit and the team told me ‘last lap’ so I thought perfect, only 1 lap to do so I will push like crazy, and then they said ‘no, 1 lap more’ and I thought another lap, okay, I can push again. But there was 2 laps more, and I had absolutely no tyres left! That made things very, very hard but I managed to stay in front, and I had Sean behind me who was cutting the gap between me and Oliver, so he lost a bit of time.
“But I’m very, very happy overall, and we just need to work for tomorrow on the prime tyres…”
Would it matter to him? Maybe not, but given how close the PREMA team are the words he spoke about wanting to help them bring home the Teams’ title sounded true, and the team were burning the midnight oil as they worked on maximising their returns once more in the sprint race deep into the night.
The temperatures were soaring once again on Sunday, and with the GP3 title resolved in Russell’s favour attention returned to the F2 race: with the drivers’ fight done and not much to lose (although the teams might disagree), the chances of a good race were high once again.
Newcomer Alex Palou had done a tremendous job to grab P8 in the feature, claiming pole for Sunday and defying the pressure of expectation from the home crowd (as well as a delay caused by a technical issue with the safety car) to tear off into the lead when the lights went out, easily containing Ghiotto into turn 1 for the lead.
The Italian was burning for a good result, after dropping from 3rd to 7th on old tyres because of the safety car on Saturday, but his Sunday was soon looking even worse as he and Jordan King came together out turn 2, with Ghiotto nudged into the gravel and falling to the back as Latifi, Artem Markelov, Rowland, Leclerc and Fuoco followed on behind the Briton.
King, who had stopped twice in the feature to move up to a creditable 6th at the flag, must have thought his recent bad luck has dissipated, but he was wrong: he was soon looking for a lift back to the paddock when his engine let go spectacularly on the back straight on lap 3. Palou flew off into the distance, Latifi and Co were using their experience to preserve their tyres, and a number of drivers were weighing up the benefits of a pitstop, as had been flagged as a possibility ahead of the race.
Fuoco and Leclerc made it real, coming in around the halfway mark and making the others reconsider the option: Ghiotto had spent his tyres trying to fight his way back up the field, and was soon in too, on lap 18.
Palou was already falling back to the pack, with Latifi weighing up his options as Markelov sliced by the Canadian on lap 22, grabbing the lead at Dry Sac and flying away, once again proving his mastery of the Pirellis as Rowland caught up to his teammate: the DAMS pair were soon through Palou but were unable to do anything about the Russian out front, who won by almost 12s.
Leclerc and Fuoco were slicing back up the grid, but the Monegasque’s tyres were not up to the job, having worked too hard in qualifying: after overtaking his teammate along with much of the field, his last lap saw him drop like a stone, handing P4 to Ghiotto after a stunning recovery drive ahead of Fuoco and De Vries, with the new champion just holding out Palou for P7.
Markelov was his usual chilled self in the press conference when asked about his ability to get the best out of his tyres. “It’s a secret!” he laughed, smirking at his rivals’ inability to stay anywhere near him in the closing stages of the race. “I don’t want to say too much, but it’s a feeling I have with them: I know some lessons on how to save the tyres for the whole race.
“Actually yesterday was a bad race for me, but I had some experience from this and saw how the tyres were working all the race: today we looked at a pitstop as well as going the whole race on one set of tyres, and we chose this as Plan A. I was just trying to chill for the whole race and get some game later in the laps…”
Leclerc didn’t look much like the new champion afterwards, sullenly disappointed as he was to have been mugged on the last lap by so many of his rivals, but that lap was the shape of his gamble made real: if Ghiotto had been a fraction faster in qualifying or he’d made a better start, if Gelael and Deletraz hadn’t stopped twice for fresh tyres, if Rowland or Fuoco had found a way past, if the safety car had come in a lap earlier, if any of a number of things hadn’t gone perfectly, the championship would be still on.
But they did: he was champion, and motorsport is all about these fine margins, these calls that come off, this pushing everything to the edge and just hanging on. And if the price of a championship is a few lost positions after it’s done, well, that seems like a price worth paying, even if the F1 paddock wasn’t here to see it.
There’s plenty of time to catch up with them in Abu Dhabi. We might be happy to see them back too.
I know, I didn’t write a blog for Spa, but here’s the thing: when on earth could I have done it? I couldn’t write it beforehand, obviously, and we were in Belgium from Wednesday to Sunday and then back home to start the Insider. So, writing Sunday night, all Monday and most of Tuesday, and then on a plane on Wednesday again to go to Monza.
Oh, and there was that pesky car launch: that filled up any time left over, and then some.
So by the time Thursday came around Alexa and I were basically hearing white noise, with that just-chewed-a-piece-of-aluminium-foil head buzz to top it off – we knew there were a lot of journalists in the paddock, all of whom wanted to ask us very pertinent questions before the launch (to be held at just after 1 o’clock), but to be honest I’m not sure that either of us could actually hear what was being said at that stage, or indeed what we were saying in reply.
It went pretty well though.
The launch was held in front of the Pirelli motorhome (and blocked off the Mercedes one from the rest of the paddock, amusingly) with a gigantic banner, huge speakers, a live TV crew and hundreds of people crowding round to take a look at the car of the future. And my oh my it was popular: you always hope for the best in a situation like this, but the number of views, photos, posts and so on were off the scale from anything we’ve had in the past, and all we could do was ride the wave as far as we could and then step back to watch it all unfold.
And then we had a race weekend on top of it all.
We still had all the Insider features to organise, and on the F2 side we were pretty lucky with the choices we’d made ahead of time: the Trident guys are probably the most chilled out pairing in the paddock, and with someone like Santino Ferrucci you really don’t have to do much to get him to talk, with Nabil Jeffri laughing and playing along with him. Somehow we covered such diverse topics as the uniformity of American smart-casual clothing, sports bars and who is worthy of them, and some inflammatory discussion of Nascar drivers, so I highly recommend that one to you.
We’d also managed to agree a photoshoot and a Live Q&A at the same time, which is an indication of how busy we’d been before Monza: Alexa took Luca Ghiotto for an amusing live chat on Facebook, while I took Artem Markelov (fresh from his Lightning Round, where he revealed himself to be a Hemmingway fan, endearing himself even further to us both) and Sergio Sette Camara to the old banking for the traditional race winner’s photo.
I arranged with the RUSSIAN TIME guys to get their mule – drivers will moan endlessly if you make them walk more than 100m, so it just wasn’t worth contemplating getting there any other way – and Artem sat behind the wheel, helmet on and looking like a hallucinogenic Daft Punk member as we waited for Sergio, who was playing to stereotype by arriving late, with a cup of tea in hand.
“What time are we going for the photos?” he asked innocently.
“10 minutes ago.”
“Oh, did I miss it?”
“Can I bring my tea with me?”
Sergio is a racing driver: he should have known better.
As soon as we were all mostly on board the Russian Stig floored the pedal, spilling tea all over Sergio’s suit as Zak and I held on as best we could and pointed directions as we broke all speed records to get to the banking. To be fair, his team had asked us to be as quick as possible, as they needed Artem for the drivers’ briefing straight afterwards.
Taking drivers to the banking is always interesting: normal people will stand at the bottom of the huge complex, look up at the steep incline in front of them and then follow it around into the distance before saying something like “can you believe people used to race on this? They must have been insane”, while drivers will look up and follow the very top line around with their eyes, and smile.
It was the second time I’d been out there that day: we’d taken George Russell and Giuliano Alesi out for the GP3 shot earlier in the morning, with the Frenchman clearly horrified at being so high and the Briton laughing and taking selfies, forcing Alesi to pretend he was comfortable there too. In the afternoon some security guards told us we weren’t allowed to climb up, but the guys did so anyway and the guards soon came over to take some photos and laugh at the drivers, who were delighted to be arranged on the edge of the banking however Zak wanted for the shot.
I woke up the next morning and wondered why I hadn’t packed my bag, before realising it was only Friday. The forecast had declared that it was going to be a wet day as we wondered how it would affect the weekend if either of the sessions were interrupted, but at least we had a little time to get everything in order before trooping over to the pitlane for free practice.
There were a few clouds overhead as we got there, the remnants of a brief shower earlier in the morning, but the track was dry as all of the drivers made their way onto the circuit for their programmes. Artem Markelov grabbed the top spot at the 15 minute mark, with championship leader Charles Leclerc falling in just behind the Russian before being nudged back a spot by Luca Ghiotto, putting his local knowledge to good use.
Luca had told us in Spa that he was determined to get a good result in his home race: he provided the warm up section of the preview for Monza and it was clear, watching him as he spoke, just how much he loved the place, and how much it would mean for him to win there. All the Italians are the same: the circuit seems to be a part of them somehow, to be contribute to their racing DNA.
I can hardly question it: Monza has been my home track since I attended my first ever F1 race there, and even more so when I later lived in Milan. Even though I’ve moved countries since, I still feel it’s personal to me.
A few hours later and it was time for qualifying, with the circuit now bathed in sunlight: a regular Monza day. If everyone was fearful of the usual Leclerc roadshow in qualifying, they were to be happily surprised for once: Nobuharu Matsushita grabbed his first pole position at this level, and stopped the Monegasque driver taking P1 on the road for the first time this season with a stunning early lap.
The McLaren-Honda development driver claimed P1 on his first flyer, taking advantage of the F1 rubber laid down in the previous session to set a target to which his rivals could only aspire. Alexander Albon and Leclerc had both briefly claimed the top spot with their first competitive laps, but a bit further back Matsushita ran faster, setting the pace in sector 1 and 2 and missing the top spot in sector 3 by just a thousandth, grabbing pole by less than a hundredth of a second from Nyck De Vries and Louis Deletraz. Tight.
“It is a really special day for me,” Matsushita smiled after the session. “Last week I had a really big crash in Eau Rouge, and it was a really difficult, really tough weekend for me, and actually this morning I had really good pace and we spoke a lot with the team about set ups for qualifying. My qualifying first lap was really good, no mistakes, really calm and not pushing: I think it was the best lap in my life!”
“At Monza it is easy to overtake because of the DRS and the long straight, but I’m in the best position to start and my main target is to get big points tomorrow, not make a mistake at the start and then take it easy, but not too easy! I think my pace will be very quick tomorrow, and then it’s all about degradation. It will be a good day, I think.”
Good? Not so much. Crazy? Yeah, a bit.
We woke up on Saturday to heavy rain and ponderous skies, the storm finally arriving in force: we were probably assuming it would slow down on the drive to the circuit and stop as we walked to the paddock, as has happened in the past, but it kept going all the way to the pitlane for a washed out GP3 qualifying, with the younger drivers grumpy about losing track time (apart from Nirei Fukuzumi, who picked up pole courtesy of running quickest in free practice: the FP session in Jerez promises to be completely over the top now) and everyone else wondering what it meant for them.
The rain kept up, on and off, all day, with the track waterlogged (albeit not as badly as in 2008, when the water backed up so much that our paddock was flooded for an hour or so after a torrential storm) and getting almost no use during F1’s free practice too. The start of their qualy session came, a few of them chanced their arm for a laptime until Romain Grosjean aquaplaned on the front straight (newly resurfaced and now the main villain for all of the drivers) before hitting the barriers on both sides of the track before retiring.
Cue a stream of messages on the screens constantly noting further information to be advised in 15 minutes, and international broadcasters going crazy with nothing to fill their screens.
We took a few of the drivers over to the F1 paddock to be interviewed by their home broadcasters, so at least something positive came from it, but drivers tend to be quite grumpy when they’re not driving, particularly when they are supposed to be. They become the (marginally) grown up version of kids in the back of the car repeatedly whining are we there yet?
“Can we race yet?”
“Shh, why don’t you take a nap dear, there’s a little way to go yet.”
Eventually the schedule got under way once more, with most of the broadcasters complaining about having to fill a 4 hour broadcast (I’m not convinced it was, but they tend to moan almost as much as drivers), and the news was announced: F2 pushed back to the GP3 slot, GP3 Race 1 pushed back to Sunday morning, and Race 2 was to be cancelled.
Rain was still falling when the F2 grid formed, allowing the race director to utilise the new process of running a string of formation laps behind the safety car until it’s clear enough to make a standing start, reducing the race length in the process. After 6 laps the safety car eventually pitted, plus another formation lap for a stall by Santino Ferrucci, dropping the lap total to 23 for the race, and the lights went out.
Matsushita was slow off the line, handing De Vries a clean line into the lead at turn 1, with Markelov missing his braking point and clattering into the Dutchman, breaking his front wing and forcing an early stop for a replacement while allowing Leclerc a line through to attack Matsushita on the back straight for P2, with Louis Deletraz, Roberto Merhi, Oliver Rowland, Ghiotto, Nicholas Latifi and Antonio Fuoco following the pair across the line at the end of the lap.
Rowland soon made short work of the 2 drivers ahead of him, showing his need to get on par with his title rival, with Ghiotto following his lead just behind the Briton. Ahead of them Leclerc clearly had more speed than De Vries but was unable to use it: the Monegasque driver ran deep a number of times, with De Vries making the most of it each time by pulling away.
Matsushita was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in on lap 17 just one ahead of Leclerc, which left De Vries, Rowland, Ghiotto and Fuoco little choice but to stop next time through to cover. Racing Engineering made a great stop to help De Vries maintain his lead as he emerged ahead of Leclerc, and battle recommenced for the win, with Rowland just behind the pair. Unfortunately for the Briton his left rear only made it to the Roggia chicane before detaching, stranding him by the side of the road and bringing out the safety car while the marshals worked to remove his car.
The race was live again with just 2 laps remaining: Leclerc got a good jump on De Vries but ran too deep at turn 1, taking to the escape road while Ghiotto snuck past the Dutchman for the lead. De Vries got a great tow all the way from Ascari and ran inside the Italian at Parabolica, reclaiming the lead for the final lap as the trio ran tightly together to Variante Rettifilo for the final time.
Ghiotto cut the chicane and re-emerged in the lead, Leclerc attacked De Vries at the exit and the pair came together behind Ghiotto, with Leclerc running wide and De Vries picking up a puncture as Ghiotto pulled away from Fuoco for the win by 2 seconds, with Matsushita (who also cut the corner) just behind them in P3.
There was never any doubt about what the win meant to Ghiotto: “It feels amazing! We’ve been working hard all through the season, we’ve been through difficult moments in the second half, and we definitely needed it. It was a pretty crazy race, but wet races are famous for this! I was expecting that at the beginning, and after the safety car came out I was wondering if I could have a go for the win when I was P3: the other 2 drivers had a pretty bad first corner, and I could overtake both of them.
“It’s not easy on cold tyres in these conditions, especially at this track with the hard braking: you really need to have the tyres and the brakes ready! The last 2 laps were really long for me but I’m really, really happy to win my home race: it’s my first feature race win, because I won a sprint race last year but I was missing this, so I’m really happy.”
But it didn’t take long for the dreaded news to come through: Ghiotto was under investigation for the move at the first chicane on the last lap, the second feature race in a row where the leader was called to the stewards, and a long night loomed ahead of us.
Obviously it’s always possible to be called to the stewards and for nothing to come of it – there are loads of examples of that, but as they don’t get publicised (because driver didn’t get a penalty isn’t a story, it’s the norm) the general mood is always gloomy for the prospects of the investigation, unless you’re one of the drivers who will gain from it, in which case you pretend to watch the Italian football match in hospitality so you can hear about it first.
We just tend to get on with the usual work, posting all the reports and transcribing the press conferences and generally being busy while we wait for the news. And when it came in around midnight (thanks rain delay) it was bad news for the popular Italian: he was given a 5 second penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage, dropping him to P4 and handing the win to countryman Fuoco.
I woke up the next morning seemingly before I went to sleep, with the GP3 race now starting earlier than planned, and at least when the sun eventually rose it was shining once more, promising a glimpse of well needed normality after one of the stranger weekends on record.
The GP3 drivers hadn’t been in their cars for 2 days, and it showed: the ART guys (apart from Nirei Fukuzumi, the poleman who heartbreakingly broke down ahead of the race) tore off for their own race while everyone else went doolally behind them. But it was exciting to watch, and gave their big brothers something to aspire to in the entertainment stakes.
It was a challenge they were up for.
When the lights went out poleman Gustav Malja bogged down, leaving a clear run for a fast starting Sean Gelael to blast into the lead ahead of Louis Deletraz, Sette Camara, Malja and Ghiotto, with the Swiss driver back ahead of the Indonesian on lap 4, just before Ghiotto dispatched Malja on the inside of Parabolica for P4.
Ghiotto was on a charge to reclaim his home win, and his job was made a little easier when Sette Camara cut Roggia next time through and had to cede position to the Italian, who now had just Deletraz between him and victory: the inevitable pass came on lap 11, when Ghiotto mugged the Swiss driver at Lesmo 1 for a lead which he would hold tight for the remainder of the race as he eased away from the squabbles behind him.
Sette Camara was determined to show that his Spa victory was the start of a purple period for him, easing by Deletraz on the front straight for P2 but unable to close down the leader. Behind him was mayhem, with drivers swapping places throughout the rest of the race with Fuoco somehow emerging from the scrum and using his home advantage to dispatch the Swiss driver late in the race for a second home podium, much to the delight of his vocal fans in the main straight.
They had come all the way up from the south of Italy to support their driver, about 100 or so fans crossing the country for a moment to remember. One of their number sadly passed away on Friday night: a man in his 80s suffering a heart attack and turning what would have been a glorious moment for the whole group into a bittersweet celebration of their friend along with their favourite driver, screaming out songs in their honour.
After the emotional rollercoaster of the previous 24 hours, the effects were clear to see on Ghiotto’s face as he discussed the race afterwards: “as I said on the radio after the finishing line, this is probably the victory that feels the best of my career. When they take away a win from you and the day after you win again, it is just the best feeling in the world!
“I think we proved that we were really quick yesterday, and we didn’t win just by luck: I’m really happy about that, and we also proved to be quick in wet and dry conditions, which is really good I think. It’s very good to know that we are competitive in both conditions, even if I don’t think it will be raining in Jerez and in Abu Dhabi! We made a good step forward since Spa, and the momentum looks like it keeps on going. I feel really good right now, because it’s my home race and I really wanted to bring home a trophy.
“I think I slept three hours last night: we were at the stewards’ until almost midnight, then I found it hard to remain calm and it took a while to fall asleep… This morning I was not 100% ready because when you don’t sleep enough you don’t feel ready for the race, but my emotions were in check once I jumped in the car: the rest just disappeared, and I was ready for the race. After that, everything went my way, and I’m really happy.”
It felt like an apt explanation of the weekend: hard work, drama and emotion, but it was difficult to say it hadn’t all worked out okay in the end. After a bit of sleep, we might even be happy about it too.
Everyone’s a little afraid of Budapest.
It’s not the people, who are stern but helpful once they know what you need, and it’s not the city, which is beautiful in a ‘could use a power wash to remove the grime to show how stunning it is’ kind of way, but it’s more about the weather.
Every time I come to Budapest I think of 2005, when the hospitality area was a couple of awnings off the double decker bus that was our office: we worked ludicrously long hours in the sweltering heat, and when ART were disqualified for an infringement of the technical regulations, meaning Nico Rosberg (whatever happened to that guy?) and Alex Premat were relegated to the back, it caused a huge uproar.
Luckily that sort of thing couldn’t happen these days.
But on that Saturday the heat was so extreme, so overwhelming, that Will Buxton (whatever happened to that guy?) and myself would take it in turns to work upstairs, sweat literally dripping off our heads and onto our laptops, until we couldn’t take it anymore and had to swap with each other. A tyre guy came up to see us and had his thermometer in his pocket, and measured the temperature at over 50˚.
I’m surprised we didn’t have Heikki Kovalainen move in for the weekend. I guess we didn’t have towels, so it couldn’t technically be a sauna, but that and the wood was all we were missing.
So everyone knows it’s going to be sweltering, dry and oppressive, and also that it’s almost always the last round before the summer break, so everyone has one eye on getting a bit of a holiday in before Spa. And it’s a tough place to race anyway given the tight, technical nature of the circuit, despite the new asphalt at least making it a bit more predictable, so there’s always a bit of fear getting onto the plane to go to Budapest.
But everyone expected to at least arrive there.
My flight was late to take off - so far, so August in Europe - but it was a really rough flight once it got off the ground, and it didn’t take long to see the clouds forming as we headed towards Hungary. The pilot warned us that there would be further delays because if the weather, and it was a pretty tough landing, but at least I arrived eventually.
It was only on Thursday that I realised that some people had only just made their flights (including Esteban Ocon, who was wait listed until the airline was advised who he is) because of overbooking, while others (including a lot of Williams staff, and a fair few F2 folks too) were diverted to other airports in other countries to avoid the storm sitting over Budapest.
The storm was so heavy, and traffic so bad, that there was no choice but to go to the hotel and work from there, instead of going to the circuit. I have a heavy rain jacket as part of my uniform but I always leave it in the truck, just like most of the rest of the paddock. Wonderful, I thought, we’re all going to look like drowned rats tomorrow.
But, as if by magic, the storm disappeared overnight, and the usual sun was installed on Thursday, albeit with temperatures initially well down on usual. It was actually pretty glorious by the time we had to take the race winner’s photos, with Charles Leclerc doing his usual complaining about how far we had to walk, and how he wanted to do something interesting for once, something different to the usual.
So we put him and Nicholas Latifi into a drain in their race suits. That seemed to keep him quiet.
To be fair, we usually have this discussion about boring vs funny photos, and since Leclerc is usually in the photo he’s generally leading the discussion. He doesn’t want to have a boring photo, but since the shoot is at a different circuit to the one on which they won we can’t really use any landmarks, as they won’t fit.
I quite like have really well shot but otherwise dull backdrops, because I think the drivers should be the focal point. But drivers tend to be a lot more shy than you would imagine, and want to have something to take the focus away from themselves, or to at least make it funny so that’s where the attention goes. Leclerc usually questions why we want to do something funny too, so we can’t win.
We took a couple of standing shots, but they didn’t do much for us. And then we saw the drain, figured we could have Latifi pushing Leclerc into it (because why not), and from there it was only a small step to putting them both in and pretending to bobsled. Job done, and on the walk back Nicholas regaled us with stories of his favourite donut Instagram site (@therollingpinto if you’re interested, and currently they have a picture of a cake with a football with Nicholas written across it…). He’s more than a little obsessed even though, amazingly, he never eats them.
Then it was time for the Pertamina Arden Team Talk, in which Sean and Norman spent more time talking about Batman than racing (or girls, remarkably), and Nabil Jeffri’s Lightning Round, in which he bared his soul about his year to date, and then it was over to the drivers’ briefing, which was all going swimmingly until Jordan King’s phone started to ring, and his church bells ringtone broke the meeting up as everyone started giggling uncontrollably, except Jordan himself, who tried to switch it off as though nothing had happened.
On Friday the weather wasn’t the only return to regular service: Charles Leclerc hit the ground running to top the morning session, overturning his own quickest lap 3 times before grabbing P1 a third of the way through the session. Nyck De Vries had the only notable incident, juddering over the new larger kerbs at turn 11 and into the wall, with the Rapax team sighed in unison at the thought of the extra work they now had in the few remaining hours before qualifying.
To be fair, Oliver Rowland was close: less than a tenth off Leclerc, with the same gap back to De Vries, and had held a little in reserve, as usual. Would this finally be the end of Leclerc’s pole run? Could Rowland finally take the spot? Unfortunately for his rivals the answer is both yes and no, but not in that order.
The Monegasque driver was simply untouchable in qualifying, despite a red flag on his hot lap for a spin by Sean Gelael: Leclerc simply returned to the pits until the track opened, headed back out to set the pole lap by almost half a second and returned, to the astonishment of his rivals. He went back out on his second set behind everyone else, ready to play clean up, but there was no need: no one could get close to his time, so he returned without needing to make a second run.
He might as well have gone for a nap, or back to the hotel for a swim. And when he got out of the car, he looked like he had.
Leclerc sat in the press conference with Rowland and Artem Markelov, and it was a bit of a glum affair for the others. “PREMA gave me a great car,” Leclerc noted, stating the obvious, “and I’m very happy about the lap this afternoon: this morning I was not happy with the way I drove, but this afternoon I’m happy with the lap I delivered.
“It’s a good pole position, and we knew that the position would be very important because here in Budapest overtaking is quite hard, so we will have to do a good start tomorrow and try to keep the lead.”
It wasn’t until a while later that Leclerc was called to the stewards’ office, and he had left the circuit before the news emerged: he had been disqualified from qualifying for using a part on his diff which was made from brass rather than steel, and as such did not comply with the material requirements in the Dallara User Manual, which is a breach of the technical regulations.
We got the message via our phones so we could draft a story up for the announcement, and it’s always a bit weird to know something like that before everyone else: the world seems slightly different, but sitting in hospitality everyone looks exactly the same. You know that there will be uproar, so you just want to enjoy the relative peace for a while.
And then you draft the story, and redraft it, and make sure everything is going to be exactly, precisely correct, as you know that a lot of people are going to read it: it’s not like this blog, it actually has an effect on the weekend in real time.
And then you release it.
Neither Leclerc nor new poleman Rowland were available for a quote, which is probably just as well: Leclerc would have had to decide which language to swear in, although Rowland wouldn’t have that problem, and could be relied up to utter something suitably Anglo-Saxon and robust in his delight.
Saturday saw the blast furnace conditions arrive in force, just in time for race day. Following on from Silverstone we had another driver parade and, while they all now love doing it, they are less enamoured with waiting around next to the pitlane for the truck, particularly given the heat, and the fact that I’d pulled a few of them out of the food line in hospitality.
“But I’m hungry!” was the uniform response, to which I could only remind them that all of their teams were aware of the timings, and would have told them to either go and eat early or wait until after. To which they all replied, “but I’m hungry now…”
They’re all troopers though – they have to be, to be racing drivers – and they sat diligently outside the pit entrance, waiting for the overrunning Porsche session to finish and moaning intermittently (or in Oliver Rowland’s case more or less constantly, at me) until the gates opened and they could file onto the truck to wave to the fans and to say rude things about each other when the TV camera wasn’t on them.
The heat was only rising during lunch, and after F1 qualifying but before our race all of the drivers were hiding away out of the sun as their cars baked in the forecourt of the paddock, waiting for release. When we finally got into the pitlane the screens noted that the track temperature was 52˚, but no one blinked at it as we all went through our pre-race routines and got ready to go. And there was nowhere to hide when the lights went out: Rowland might have collected the points for pole but Markelov was P2 in the championship and looking to close the gap to Leclerc, blazing away when the lights went out to lead Rowland, Jordan King and Nicholas Latifi into turn 1.
Budapest rewards the prime strategy (start on softs and switch to mediums), which is why so many of the field use it: there is often an early safety car, and even if there’s not it’s still generally quicker, as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of drivers using it. Alex Albon was the highest placed gambler to start on mediums in P11, with only 3 drivers towards the back chancing their arms: Sergio Sette Camara, Louis Deletraz and, of course, Charles Leclerc.
The Monegasque driver, on full tanks and harder tyres, ate through his rivals like a lion breaking fast, finishing the first lap in P12 and looking for more: unseen by the cameras concentrating on the front of the pack, Leclerc and Albon were engaged in a fierce battle for supremacy, the former teammates reopening last year’s blazing title fight from GP3 as they locked horns over who would have a clear track when their rivals pitted.
King was the first to lose his tyres, with Latifi sneaking past him before the Englishman could pit for fresh rubber, while at the front Rowland made a great stop on lap 11, Markelov came in next time through to cover but lost time in the pits, emerging 2 seconds behind his rival and with everything to do all over again. The Albon/Leclerc fight was now prime time, at the front of the pack: Leclerc clearly had the better car, but a moment of wildness when he tried to go around the outside of Albon at turn 4 but got airborne off the huge new kerbs instead would have worried his team, advising him to call time on the war to make sure his car was still intact.
It wasn’t long before they re-engaged, with Leclerc eventually muscling his way past at turn 2 after Albon braked slightly early at the corner before, but the fight had come with a price: Rowland was now only 10 seconds behind and closing, leaving the pair with no way to pit and return before the Englishman and his entourage were through and gone.
And so it proved, with the prime strategy demonstrating its worth (Rowland was about to overtake Leclerc for the lead when he pitted), but good fortune was to smile on Leclerc once again: re-emerging in P11 behind Robert Visoiu and Sergio Canamasas, the pair soon came together, retiring at turn 1 to promote the Monegasque driver by 2 places and prompt a safety car, bringing all of his rivals together right in front of him just as his tyres were at their best. At the restart he passed 3 of his rivals at turn 1, and he could smell the fear as the others tried to stay away.
Out in front Markelov had been biding his time, and he thought it had arrived at last: on better tyres he launched up the inside of Rowland out of the final turn and was closing fast, with the Briton seeing the threat in his mirrors and slamming the door closed, leaving the Russian with no choice but to brake heavily and get swamped, or to keep going and hope. Markelov, ever the optimist, kept his foot down, found the grass at the pit exit and jumped the kerb before launching across the track and into the wall at turn 1.
Rowland slowed to let his rival fly past, and Latifi saw his chance and went for it: Rowland had just enough tyres left to direct his teammate wide at turn 2 before the safety car came out, staying there until the final corner for a DAMS 1-2 ahead of De Vries, who’d made a great start before wisely staying away from everyone, with Leclerc forging up to P4 from the back of the grid.
All the talk in the press conference was about Markelov’s huge shunt, which was still under investigation by the stewards, but Rowland was satisfied with his part in it, with the stewards soon agreeing with his perspective: “He got a pretty good run out of the last corner, and I was struggling a bit with my tyres: he got a good run up the inside, I defended, and I’m not sure where he was going to go.
“I went all the way to the inside, and I guess he was expecting me to maybe leave a car [width] but there was nothing there, and he went on the grass. I think the rule is if there is any part of the car alongside you’ve got to leave a car, but he was still behind me when I closed the gap. He had quite a lot of momentum when he committed to it, and he went on the grass: he couldn’t go left at that moment.
“But we’ve been on the podium consistently since Monaco, and I think the qualifying recently has been extremely positive: we came second here, and only Charles was better than me, so I’m quite happy. I’m second in the championship, I’ve closed the gap a little bit to Charles, but we’ve still got a bit of work to do on qualifying. As a team and a car the result of the 1-2 shows we’ve come a long way, and done a good job.”
Sunday morning is always a rush, with 2 races to be run through before F1 wakes up. The track was substantially cooler than the day before, but it made no difference to Nobuharu Matsushita, who made a stunning getaway from P4, running inside and around Norman Nato before stealing a match on poleman and teammate Albon, who was soon squeezed between Luca Ghiotto and De Vries, with the pair running down the hill behind the Japanese driver and in front of Rowland, hungry to steal anything he could for his title fight.
With tyre management uppermost in everyone’s mind it was a while before anyone was willing to chance their arm: De Vries finally spotting a chink Ghiotto’s armour on lap 21 and pouncing at turn 2, leaving the Italian in the clutches of Rowland: the Briton later advised that he recalled a move Daniil Kyvat had made on him a few years back and emulated it, sliced inside Ghiotto at turn 6 (albeit not hitting him as the Russian had) and leaving a line through for Leclerc to use too.
A VSC period gave everyone a breather after Visoiu slid into the side of Nabil Jeffri and retirement, and at the restart the Malaysian ran over the turn 4 kerb and launched into Canamasas, with the Spaniard spinning into retirement and prompting another VSC period to remove his car from turn 5, with the restart being less eventful this time around. On the penultimate lap Rowland was able to use his superior tyres to run around the outside of De Vries for P2 but Matsushita was gone, and the top 3 were once again trailed across the line by championship leader Leclerc.
“I always have confidence with the start,” Matsushita noted afterwards, “and today I knew it would be good because of the grip. This morning there was a GP3 race so I put down more power, and it was a good start! We’ve had some difficult weekends after Monaco, where we always had the pace but I couldn’t make it work, but I think Spa and Monza are our favourite tracks, we were quite quick there last year, and I hope it will be another podium like these guys and we can continue like that.
“I want to be in the top 3 this year, so I will push!”
Rowland was unsurprisingly delighted with his weekend, having closed the gap to Leclerc in the title fight with a huge haul of points: “after Silverstone race 2 I was disappointed with myself as there were too many errors on my part, probably because it was my home race and I was enthusiastic. But it was starting to get to the stage where Charles was gone and that I was fighting for 2nd, and I didn’t want to believe that.
“Obviously anything can happen, and after this weekend we’re right back in there: we’re not quite with him but we’re closing, and if we keep this pace we can challenge him to the end of the year.”
It was a good moment for the Briton, and great for the championship to close the fight at the front, but Leclerc still managed to finish P4 twice from the back of the grid: if normal service resumes in Spa-Francorchamps it’s likely that he’ll start a little higher next time out. And if it’s not normal, then who knows?
But then again, no one is going to be afraid of a bit of weather in the wilds of Belgium: it’ll be expected.
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.