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.