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.