It’s strangely difficult to go back to something you’ve done at length after a break away: everything is innately familiar but only as it occurs, like recognising a song that you used to adore after a minute, rather than on hearing the opening bars as you used to when it spoke to your soul.
Turning up in Abu Dhabi was like that for me: I arrived at that familiar airport and jumped into the queue at passport control, recognising all the faces in the Fast Track line but being unable to join them as I didn’t have the paperwork or a paddock pass, and giving them a smile as I overtook them to the baggage hall because their line didn’t have enough inspectors.
I recognised the late night heat as I waited outside for the hotel driver to arrive, and the disjointed, jagged feeling from the early start to get to the airport and the lack of sleep on the plane, the meat locker cold of the air conditioning on arrival in the hotel room, and the familiar smiles and embraces of Alexa and Didier and Marco as I arrived for dinner.
But when I unpacked my bag I realised that I forgot things too, because I’m out of practice, which meant that I would need to go through a week without a belt, or a razor, and with blue rather than black socks under my black uniform trousers.
I remembered to set an alarm though, and was up early on Thursday for my first day back, dragged myself into the shower to wake up with the constant loud drone of the shower head singing a reminder of what lay ahead of me in the paddock.
It was good to catch up with everyone. Some things don’t change.
“Oh, hello David,” was the recurring theme of the morning, “where’s Jake?”
“He won’t be here: he’s quit.”
“What, before the end of the season?”
“Evidentially.” Repeat ad infinitum.
I shared their surprise – why leave with just one weekend to go? – but I could hardly speak for him, as the only role I played was to replace my replacement, albeit temporarily.
“But it’s good to see you back…” they usually remembered to blurt out, just as I was moving on to the next pit to say hello to the neighbours.
It was soon time to start the various interviews that are a factor of getting the weekend underway, with Jack Aitken’s Facebook Live the first cab off the rank, an easy start into the usual race weekend mayhem made easier by his constantly smirking face, by the return of the mutual sarcasm, by the knowledge that this was the simplest of starts I could hope for.
Until I checked social media for the hashtag #AskJakeF2, and found no questions at all.
With 30 seconds until we went live I panicked a bit: how could there be no questions for Jack? Everyone knows how funny he is - that’s why he has one of the biggest viewerships of all previous interviews - and everyone wants him to give a sly, dry response to their questions. And it was only as we were pushing the button to go live that I realised I’d mixed up the names.
Still, we couldn’t get it to work live anyway due to internet restrictions, and ultimately recorded it on my phone and uploaded it later. So much for an easy start.
Next up was Niko Kari, for the Gear Box interview, a description of the 4 essential items he brings with him to every race. And Niko, as ever, decided to live down to Finnish stereotypes about taciturness: I urge you, for your own entertainment, to follow this link to see how well the interview went http://theinsider.fiaformula2.com/f2/issue-24-f2/gear-box-24/
Annoyingly, as soon as the recorder was off he started to chat away happily. “I’ve had to join the army: I’m Finnish, we all have to do it. And that’s why I’ve got this new army haircut. I know, it’s a bit shit.”
“Isn’t that’s sort of the point?”
“Yeah, maybe, but there are always loads of photographers here. I’ll have to wear a cap all weekend…”
While I was knocking off all the interviews, Alexa was employed full time in freaking out about the new Formula 3 car launch to be revealed that evening in the Formula 1 paddock. At least she was playing to her strengths: no one worries better than her, despite all previous evidence suggesting there was nothing she hadn’t already planned multiple solutions for to contain any and all obstacles thrown in her path.
And, needless to say, it all went without a problem.
We even got to use the huge new LED screens F1 uses for the winner and his car after the race: Didier spoke for everyone when he saw it in action and blurted out “wow, cool” while Daniel de Jong spoke for a more select audience when I pointed out that it had recently started to be used in the senior category, to which he noted “I don’t watch F1, just the others: they’re much better races...”
While Alexa decompressed from the previous month’s stress being compressed into 15 minutes before moving on to freak out about the end of season party, I went for a run around the track, promising that I wouldn’t be too long so that we could go for dinner. And, more importantly, a few drinks to celebrate the launch. While I was out I bumped into Robert Kubica, fresh from his Williams F1 announcement earlier in the day, doing a track walk while new boss Rob Smedley also ran past, fist bumping the sky in the Pole’s direction.
I also saw Sergio Sette Camara on his track walk, and yelled “push” as I passed him to his confusion, either at my reappearance in the paddock or for the random comment I know not. I had intended to take the shortcut to make sure I was back quickly but couldn’t find it, which speaks volumes about my observational abilities. Or my tiredness.
For some reason, when I got back to my room I found an ironing board leaning against the wall, and the water bottle supply had doubled. This sort of thing always seems to happen in Abu Dhabi, so I switched the air conditioning back off and went to sleep. At least I did until a fire alarm went off in my room at 3.00, prompting around 10 hotel employees to come in and keep me awake for half an hour while they chatted among themselves while looking at the finally silent detector with a mixture of confusion and suspicion, before eventually moving out into the corridor to continue their pointless discussion on the other side of my door.
A few minutes later I was dragging myself out of bed, listened dutifully as the shower performed it’s new remix of the earlier alarm, which set me up perfectly for spilling coffee all over myself at breakfast, damning me to a day of sniggers, arch comments and the occasional whiff of coffee for the next 12 hours.
At least free practice was boring.
At lunch we ran into Jack Aitken, who had a bone to pick with me. “We’ve had hundreds of people messaging us because you weren’t live yesterday” he complained as I queued for my food.
“That’s nothing,” I deadpanned, “I had a lynch mob at my hotel. The staff had to sneak us out.”
“Fair enough,” he sniffed. “You can’t deny the people what they want.”
The alarm’s delayed effects were kicking in later in the afternoon, as we were all waiting for the sun to drop and qualifying to arrive. So tired was I that I almost fell asleep while transcribing interviews (and it’s probably not fair to Niko to say whose it was), and then latter tried to correct a typo in a Damon Albarn interview before realising I didn’t write it, and was simply reading the news to try and keep myself awake.
It’s about now that I should probably say something about the championship, which was coming to a head over the final weekend of the season. In theory Alex Albon could have overtaken George Russell for the title, but no one really believed it was possible, including Alex. The young Brit/Thai driver was more preoccupied with his future, given that he had a factory drive in Formula E signed and a F1 team looking for him to break the deal and, with George needing to screw up entirely to give him any chance, the potential title fight was probably over before it began.
And it was even closer to completion after qualy: as the lights blazed above them Russell came out easily on top, Nyck de Vries and Nicholas Latifi improved on the alternate strategy to their competitors, while Albon had a wild ride over the kerbs in the final sector to ensure that he was out of the running for pole.
Then it was the usual hurry up and wait of the press conference, before and after, when I upset Nicholas but blurting out “I forgot how much you talk in these things, and how fast.”
“I don’t talk a lot!” he exclaimed, hurt. “Do I guys?” Silence from George and Nyck, who looked away awkwardly. “Do I? I mean, I do talk fast, that’s true.” He then went on to talk about his conversational abilities at length, but to be honest I stopped listening as I couldn’t keep up.
Eventually we walked back across the circuit to our paddock, watching the repairs being carried out on the broken kerbs and realising just how hard Alex had actually hit them, while George stayed in F1, his soon to be new home, and soaked up the early congratulations on his almost complete title run. I wrote it all up and eventually we went off for dinner, where I spilt salsa on my trousers before heading back to the room for some long overdue sleep.
At least the number of water bottles had further increased, were I to have had the wish to clean them, rather than burn them in effigy to the gods of clean uniforms.
The GP3 title race was close too, and much more tense as Anthoine Hubert and Nikita Mazepin were teammates at ART, bringing a certain atmosphere to their section of the paddock that most unthinkingly walked around to avoid, like a subconsciously noted fart. The first race ramped the tension up to astronomical heights until the Russian picked up a penalty for running wide and gaining an advantage, whereupon the entire pitlane slumped slightly, the physical release of the tension we were all carrying, as Leo Pulcini led David Beckmann and Hubert home.
After the podium celebrations Anthoine sat and absorbed it all in the green room while Alexa and I stood around, wondering what to do. Eventually we just sat and chatted with him, watching him come to the slow realisation that the effort was over, and that he was actually the champion. “I had to ask my engineer if it would still be done even if he didn’t get the time penalty: he said yes, but I didn’t believe him! But now … it’s really done. I’m so happy: tired, but happy!”
“What are you going to do tomorrow, in the race?”
“Donuts! I think I’ll spend 20 minutes doing donuts to see how long the tyres and engine last!”
Back in the paddock I caught up with Richard Verschoor, suggesting I interview him now to get a later appointment out of the way. I got through the whole thing before noticing that the recorder wasn’t on, and had to ask all of the same questions again, both of us sniggering as he said exactly the same answers each time.
After we were finished I couldn’t apologise enough, but told him that it reminded me of sitting in the back of the truck interviewing Nico Rosberg, a few rounds before he became the GP2 champion. When we finished he asked me why I’d asked the questions I had, as he knew I knew the answers. “I do, but no one cares when I make the point: it’s only powerful when it has a quote from you, supporting the position.” I then went on to point out that, when he goes upstairs, he’ll need to answer the same questions loads of times, and will need to say the same answer each time, as any difference in the answers will be picked up, and turned into a story itself.
“So what you’re saying is that you’ve done me a favour, and this is just good training for the future?” Richard laughed.
“Well let’s see,” I smirked. “You might need to start with a podium tomorrow first…”
And then it was almost time for the main event. The teams were milling around in the paddock, laying out all the tyres and parts they’d need to take with them to the main pitlane, while the drivers sat around trying to look bored. Niko was chatting away to a friend in his team’s golf cart until he saw me coming over to take shots for Instagram, when he straightened up and pulled the classic, stare into the distance driver pose. “Nailed it” I smirked as he sniggered to his friend, and before long we were all heading over for the race.
De Vries made a great start, Russell slotted into P2, Albon stalled along with teammate Latifi, who was hit on the grid by Arjun Maini, prompting a long safety car period via the pits as the marshals cleaned up. The Dutchman held on at the restart, Russell grabbed the adjusted top spot after their stops ahead of Artem Markelov but behind the alternate strategy drivers, led by Luca Ghiotto, with the Italian scaring everyone with his speed and poise until a 5 second penalty for cutting the circuit killed his shot at a surprise win, with Markelov holding off his former teammate for P2 behind the new champion at the flag.
In the green room Luca couldn’t stop talking, amazed at how well his gamble had worked out, while Artem was clearly happy but wondering what could have been if he’d managed to jump George, who sat with a face that betrayed the emotional carousel spinning around his head, from joy to delight to satisfaction to relief. Champions never say it, but by the end of a season mostly they are just happy to win because it means they can stop fighting, for a while at least.
The difference between the two champions was interesting though, particularly seeing them in private just after they won, and before they had to talk to anyone else: Anthoine was simply satisfied, happy that he’d put all the intra-team pressure behind him and got the job done, having watched all of his teammates from 2017 win races and titles and finally pulling himself up to their level, while George’s brain was whirring faster than he’d raced, ticking the box that he had mentally promised himself (and his paymasters in the big paddock) but as yet unable to sink into the pleasure of it all.
Both drivers had slotted into champion mode the next morning, however, seeing the wreath stickers on their cars before pulling on their suits for the customary photoshoot and putting their self consciousness (Anthoine about his glasses, George about his gangliness and his inability to set his face when the cameras are on) behind them as they took to the track, soaking in the blistering heat and trying to avoid sun blindness as they took instructions from the photographers.
It was clear that most of the paddock was already in holiday mode: a group of drivers were sitting together chatting about anything, with a few of them relating tales of the previous night’s cycling race for those with access to bikes. Roberto Mehri laughed about how he would join a group on track for a few minutes before challenging them to push and then just killing them off one by one before moving on to the next group and repeating the process.
A few people were thinking ahead though: one of the Arden guys came over to ask whether or not Marco had any tickets for that evening’s Guns and Roses show. It was a fair question, in part - Marco does tend to have tickets for all of the shows across the season - but there was a bigger issue to consider.
“You want tickets for tonight’s show?”
“Yeah, if you’ve got any.”
“The show that’s on at the same time as our end of season party?”
“Oh.” Pause. “Yeah.”
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Oh.” Pause. “Do you know anyone who could get tickets for us?”
“No. But I am looking forward to the small acoustic set they’re playing at the party, though.”
“Oh.” He wandered off looking very confused, and I tried not to smile until he’d gone around the corner.
Both of the champs were looking for a win to round out the season in style, but were both unable to bring one home: in GP3 Mazepin soared to victory as he almost put his disappointments from the previous day behind him while Hubert was nerfed out of the race on the first lap, while in F2 Antonio Fuoco jumped into the lead at the start and tore off into the distance as Russell narrowly avoided a big moment on the first lap and settled in for fourth at the flag.
Back at the hotel I pushed a few of the new bottles of water out of the way so I could lay out my outfit and thought to myself how useful it would have been to have had an iron to go with the ironing board, before having all thoughts purged from my brain from the ever louder howl of the shower, and then got dressed for the party. Unwilling to repeat my tartan suit triumph from last year I had packed my kilt to wear, the one that I used to wear every year to Monaco until Alexa cruelly denied me the option of wearing it with an F2 shirt last season.
It turns out that no one thought Jake would have worn an outfit like that. Nice to have some way to tell us apart, I guess.
The one thing I hadn’t considered when deciding on my outfit was the huge number of security stations around the circuit, everywhere we went. “Give me your bag,” the first guard demanded as I approached, causing confusion until he pointed at my sporran and repeated “give me your bag.”
“It’s not a bag, it’s a sporran: it’s tied into my kilt.”
“Give me your bag.” The demand came endlessly all night, causing Alexa and Didier to stand and giggle every time as I extricated myself again and again before they x-rayed the sporran and walked through the metal detector, which was set off every time because of the sgian dubh, a small traditional knife kept in the sock, that they all overlooked.
At every stop Alexa and I would look at each other and say “I can’t believe that we’ve got to write the Insider tomorrow” before ordering another drink and toasting each other, or Didier, or the season, or the song now playing that we remembered from seasons past, or the fact that we would have one last chance to spend the day hungover and write about Formula 2. Because as difficult as it can sometimes be to return to a previous life, sometimes things never change that much.