"You know, it really looks like Chinatown here," he said as he was waiting for the barman to bring our drinks over, "except it just keeps going on and on." I was sitting in a bar in Xintiandi, the westernised, pedestrianised bar section of the city with a couple of people I'd just met who work in the Paddock Club, and my new companion was keen to explain how much he was enjoying his trip, but he wasn't really thinking it through too well. In his defense he'd been in the bar for a while.
To be fair, it does take a little while to realise that a sign in Chinese doesn't automatically mean the business underneath it is a restaurant. China is unlike any other location for a race, although Shanghai itself is poles apart from China – saying you've been to China after attending a race in Shanghai is like saying you've been to America after visiting New York City.
Shanghai is a beginner's guide to the country – it is populated by Chinese people, sure, but they speak English, drive foreign cars to department stores and earn more money in a week than most Chinese make in a year. Which is why it sometimes seems that the entire population of the country is moving there when you are driving around on the freeways at any time, day and night.
Chinese driving is like no other driving anywhere, and I've seen a lot of driving. My friend's mother used to run a factory for a year near Hong Kong, and she was told that she was not allowed to drive a car while she was there – they gave her a driver to help her get around, and she was put out about this until he picked her up from the airport and, as they were driving towards the city, one after another cars coming the other way started overtaking each other – one, two, three, four, five, six – and they had to take to the footpath to avoid the oncoming traffic.
I found it was better to catch up on sleep on the way to the track than to watch it, and just hoped that I would be woken up by someone telling me we had arrived at the other end rather than by an impact. It pretty much worked out, although every day I woke too early and had to watch the police at the track not allowing vehicles into the multiple car parks around the venue, necessitating a lengthy walk rather than being dropped anywhere close to the media centre. At least the weather was nice.
The Chinese are brilliant at big projects, but the details tend to get overlooked a little. The track was amazing – an enormous stadium section across from the pitlane the size of which I had never seen anywhere else, the incredible team houses out the back and the undulating, tricky circuit that took the best corners from around the world and joined them - the sheer scale of the place was breathtaking, but then they forgot to put any signs up to let people know how to get around the place.
I was reminded of that after taking a Russian built hydrofoil along the Yangtze River, noting that all the cities along it's length from Chongqing had moved themselves up the hill, leaving the lower sections (which all looked as though a skirmish had recently been through, not unlike my visit to Mostar and Sarajevo a year after the war had dribbled to a conclusion in Bosnia) to rot in the anticipated rise of water from the Three Gorges Dam.
The Dam was everything you've never seen anywhere – built to a scale that is so vast that it shrinks unbid in your memory just so you can capture some of its essence and is still the largest manmade structure you can remember seeing, but which has a ten kilometre long dirt track joining it to the nearest town. Vast things are good, but the Chinese seem to forget that humans inhabit them from time to time.
It does fill the people who witness these creations with awe though.
"This place is stupidly impressive," Will noted, in the paddock and squinting in the bright sun without the benefit of sunglasses on Thursday.
"I know what you mean," John agreed, "it's like the starship enterprise landed in a rice paddy."
"You could put the entire Imola paddock in the lower half here without touching the sides," I commented.
"You could," John granted, "but no one would thank you for it."
The sheer size of the place meant that people did things to try and shrink their surroundings to a scale they could deal with. The team houses had a small lake running underneath them, as you do, and Mark Webber's dad Al bought a radio controlled hovercraft to amuse himself with between sessions. Everyone went shopping for something in Shanghai, whether it was DVDs and CDs, sunglasses, or complete golf sets. No one could claim the economy of Shanghai didn't get a nudge when the circus came to this town.
But the team's mechanics took one look at the hovercraft and decided it was worth working on to give it a performance advantage – Formula One people want everything to run faster – spending three hours between work hotting it up for its maiden voyage. Unfortunately the run lasted three minutes, stopping underneath Renault, and Al spent the next couple of hours trying to explain to the local gardeners that he would like to get it back if it ever drifted back to shore.
The last I saw of it was underneath Minardi – they need an engine for next year, but I don't think that was quite what they were looking for from Cosworth.
Shanghai is a city of contrasts – it is the most European of Chinese cities, with Mercedes gliding between old men on ancient, rattling bikes, where the fastest train ever flies over the magnetic rail at more than 420 kmph from the airport to a subway station which then crams hundreds of people into each dawdling carriage for the rest of the trip into town, where giant advertising blimps float and bobble over the river as enormous fireworks displays explode around them while those watching on The Bund along the river are asked if they want to buy fake Rolexes and Mont Blanc pens or real sex ("Rollucks? Mon Blan Pa? Blue job?"), where Will and I took Bjorn to a ramshackle restaurant with a menu someone had transcribed into English in an exercise book which resulted in food that he declined (he had seen his race engineer fall foul of food poisoning at the expensive hotel they were staying at a few days prior, and was taking no chances) before Bjorn took us to the most exclusive restaurant in Shanghai for a Jaguar party for drinks afterwards, where BAR built a structure on a manmade lake to put on a light show for invited guests in Xintiandi two blocks away from some ramshackle dwellings that whole families lived in, where you get to the most famous nightclub in town with world famous DJs like Dave Seaman ("he looks very much geek in his bedroom," Will noted presciently as Seaman ‘danced') by walking through a darkened park with beggars asking for cents to make their lives a little easier.
It's the sum total of these contrasts that make Shanghai much more than any other city on the Formula One calendar. It's all of this disparity that makes Shanghai work like nothing else in China can. It's why Shanghai is Formula One when places like Guilin, with its sprawl and slow pace and children who reach up to touch your hair because they've never seen hair that isn't black and then pull themselves along by holding on to your shirt in the hope of selling you a fake rose, or Chongqing with it's appearance of New York under a sky that doesn't differentiate between smog and fog and its inability to organise any travel alternatives, or even Beijing with its locals who put their children into your hands for a photo for good luck before the police clear Tiananmen Square for the night, or Yichang where men write poems with a damp brush on park footpaths at night before the cleaners hose them down, are left behind.
China loves Formula One – they wear team caps in Yangshao at Moon Hill, in Beijing at the Forbidden City, at the Great Wall, at the Three Gorges and on the Li River – but only Shanghai is Formula One. It's fast and it's confusing and it's everything all the time, forever. Formula One works because they convince other people to give them vast sums of money to gain a foothold into a worldwide television audience, and Shanghai works because they convince companies to give them vast sums of money to gain a foothold in a Chinese one. The only surprise is it took so long to put the two together.
China works because, like Japan, like Italy, it has a few people at the top who tell everyone else what to do and they get on with it. Other than in Italy of course, where they complain about what they have to do before doing it. Everyone has their small area of responsibility, like the guard in the media centre who was surprised when I said I wasn't the person he had been told to find, apologised by stating that "all you westerners look the same to me", or the pond cleaners who relinquished responsibility for Al's wayward hovercraft as it gently floated into someone else's area, or the woman with the nametag Number 37 at the airport who couldn't answer a question for us, asking Number 23 before needing to call her manager, the improbably named Frank, over.
Which is to say that it works, but slowly. Japan works to a timetable – if a bus is late in China it's probably on fire on the side of the road somewhere; if a bus is late in Japan it's been cancelled, and you'll never know why. A bus through China is fast and hair raising and gives you the feeling that you are taking your life in your hands as the brakes (directly connected to the horn) are slammed on to avoid a wayward bike rider or a cow and slices through mile after mile of construction fencing and tumbledown dwellings leaning each against the other – a bus through Japan feels like a air-conditioned dream as you float by the small, neat boxes with their bonsai yards all trying to not draw attention from the next one.
In Japan, as in China, Will and I stood at least a head taller than everyone but, unlike China, Japan is built to a small scale, the scale needed to fit all those people into a very finite space, which means that anyone larger than the norm has to stoop to walk through a doorframe or a tunnel. China is built to American or Australian scale – vast and sprawling – Japan is more like Britain, with everything built together through necessity.
Japan is small but perfectly formed. China is large and unwieldy. I admire Japan, but I'm afraid of breaking it. In China, I can slouch.
You can still have fun in Japan, but you tend to need to find it yourself, or have someone else from the show invite you. Honda held their annual party in the fairground by the track, and it drew people from all of the teams like moths to a flame – it was a free meal, and those words are currency in a paddock that doesn't have anything like the parties it used to. The food was good – Japanese cuisine after a two week, mad paced trek around China was manna for Will and I – and the giant wooden barrel of sake provided its own amusement for everyone. The people I know best didn't mention me leaving the circus – it went unsaid, like so much in the show – but others had heard and wanted to know why I was leaving the faith.
A Swedish journalist I know slightly through Bjorn asked "but why are you leaving really? No one leaves – it's what we do."
"Yes, but I want to be with my girlfriend – I love this life, but I love her more."
"We all do that, but we all stay – look at how many divorces there are around you."
"Sure, but I've never liked being a statistic."
The conversation would have continued but for a rigger who had gatecrashed the party collapsing with a thud and a row of bubbles popping between his lips right behind us, bringing the event to an early close. We were just in time for the rain, started to drizzle as we left.
The rain was already heavy by the time we made it to the track the next day, but everyone got on with what they could do – the cars were ready if the track cleared up, lunches were prepared early, I walked around setting up my final interviews and talked to everyone as we tried to shelter from the rain. Last year Japan was the final race and everyone felt like they were waiting for the final bell in school to let them out, but this time it felt more like a bunch of kids mucking around inside because they weren't allowed outside to play.
As the rain got heavier and puddles grew larger, the reports of a typhoon started to dribble in as the radio masts were being taken down. Bjorn disappeared early – his team decided to get him onto an earlier flight to make sure that he made his test in Jerez in time – so I didn't get to say goodbye to him. Considering his mood at being flown all the way to Japan to sit in a wet paddock and not drive, it might have been a blessing.
Some time in the afternoon we had confirmation – the typhoon was headed straight towards us, and we were told to get back to our hotels and settle in. There were a lot of worried people as we walked out through the fairground, workers with plastic sheets draped over them pulling down all of the displays and merchandise stalls as we passed, but there were more who saw it as an adventure, or at the very least a day off work.
Back in Yokkaichi I took charge – "we're going to need to find a cash machine," I instructed Will and Ali, "and then we're going to need to buy beer." By the time we made it to the local convenience store the Toyota mechanics had invaded en masse, and the fridges were starting to run low. Germans obviously have the same basic instincts as we did, and their baskets were as overflowing with beer, instant noodles and potato chips as our own. On the way back we found a small restaurant for a last proper meal, and we settled in for the storm.
The next morning we opened the curtains, turned on the computer for music and the television for typhoon updates, put the kettle on and waited. It was strangely peaceful, and we told each other silly stories to make each other laugh as we worked our way through the refreshments. We each sent emails to our girlfriends to let them know we were okay, that the storm hadn't arrived yet, and got back replies each along the lines ‘I know what you lot are like with nothing to do but drink beer – it's not a fun idea to play in a typhoon when you're drunk.'
But mostly it was calm – it reminded me slightly of Will and I sitting on the banks of the river in Yangshao after dinner on the night of the Moon Festival, everything black around us except for the rafts on the river with lanterns that looked like fireflies headed toward the bonfires across the river as the occasional firework was launched, and we sat there eating our moon cakes and drinking a beer while Leftfield played in the background. The only difference was that this time I was supposed to be at work at the job that I was about to leave, and was sitting with the guys that I wouldn't be seeing for a while because of that.
We sat there until the television told us the storm had turned, and then we went for a walk. Nothing much was changed – Yokkaichi always looks closed, so it was much the same as ever. At the time the storm was supposed to hit we went bowling.
"This is the good life, huh?" Ali laughed between frames. "Who would have thought we'd have this much fun at a Grand Prix?"
"If life was anymore exciting I just might explode," Will smirked.
Sunday came and went in a blur – everything that was supposed to have already happened seemed to be shoved into a fifteen minute period, most of which was over by the time we arrived at the track – the traffic jam on the one road to the track ran for miles, and we ended up walking the final few because we could get there quicker on foot than by bus.
"Muddy car parks and long queues," Will noted, "remind you of anything?"
"They're just sending me off in a style to which I've become accustomed."
We finally left about 9.30, and headed up to the Log Cabin. We drank, we talked to everyone and anyone, we jumped through a window into a karaoke cabin, opened the door, and then we sang with them too. It was a good night, a Formula One night, a night where everyone was equal for a short amount of time, and everyone was just happy to be together. I wasn't the only one leaving – a lot of the people I knew from Jaguar were leaving too, taking real jobs and filing it all away as an adventure to tell the future kids about, but no one wanted to talk about it then because we were having too much fun.
"You know," one of them said to me later as he brought me a beer and draped him arm around me, "this is like the circus – everyone is trying not to go home, no one is saying goodbye."
"That's pretty good, you know."
"I've been practicing. I think it might be from a movie or something – I can't remember."
"So what are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to go."
"Oh – well, all the best."
"No, I mean I'm going to go for a piss – hold my beer for me, you dickhead." I know he said it with affection, and I smiled as I watched him stagger off to the hotel foyer where the toilets were.
And, as soon as he went around the corner, I drank his beer and went back into the karaoke cabin. I'm sure it's what he would have wanted.
Everything became a lot easier to deal with after I'd decided to quit. I'd been carrying a lot of things in my head without realising it - I was dog tired from the constant grind of plane-paddock-plane-desk-plane, the sheer unremittingness of it, and I needed a holiday that I couldn't take, I felt totally alone, with Bira being away in Israel and in Germany, and I felt like there was no option but to keep going, keep going, hoping that it sorted itself out.
And, as Sean once said, I missed the girl.
I hadn't seen Jennifer in months, and I knew she was fed up with it. She hadn't seen me in months, and I was fed up too. We both clung on to hope, but I knew there was only one solution to that particular problem, and it didn't involve keeping going. When I realised that I knew, and when I knew I decided, and when I decided I felt like flying.
So I flew to Belgium. Well, it was already booked, after all.
Having decided, ironically I felt closer to the paddock, closer and more detached, as though I was able to be a part of it and apart at the same time. I felt more in tune with the paddock - in a world full of secrets I now had one of my own, and even if I was one of the very few who would actually care about it, it still made me smile. And I found myself caring less about theirs, too.
Spa means rain and mud - the circuit is seemingly built on mud, and when they need some more the rain comes. They must need a lot of mud. The circuit is, without exception, the worst in the world to get into, and every morning we would park in Francorchamps and were funneled, along with every person coming in, down one small laneway to get into the track. We would split from the hordes right at La Source to walk through the Paddock Club entrance, which gave me a smile at least to see the rich and famous with their trousers brown up to the knees.
The second worst track for access is Monza, but unlike Spa it's not due to there being only one road to the circuit - there are a large number of them - but rather due to the Italian police decided to shut them all down and making everyone drive around until they've past every industrial site in the region before diverting them back to the track at last. At least they don't have rain with it.
Somehow it managed to rain every time we needed to get to or from the car in Spa. An example to show how it worked: Bira suggested she had no more work to do, and as I didn't either I went upstairs to the media centre to put my bag into the locker.
The paddock in Spa is split over a few levels - there is the top one with the Formula One pits, trucks and tyres, which is still open to anyone with a paddock pass but mostly no one but the drivers and pit crew go up there. Down three flights of stairs is the main paddock, with all of the teams' motorhomes cozying up to each other, looking across the path at each other or pretending not to notice, a cramp, functional place that felt as though the entire place was huddling under a single golf umbrella. From there, the media centre is out though the bing bong gates and down a path, left around the corner and up five flights of stairs. Right puts you into the Formula 3000 pits instead - for the only time in the year they have somewhere other than beside their trucks to build the cars.
I think you can see why the teams' media representatives looked so worn out by the end of the weekend.
When Bira had mentioned leaving, it was sunny, but by the time I'd gone back to the media centre, packed my bag and stowed it, said goodbye to Gary and returned, it was drizzling. By the time the media shuttle arrived it was raining. By the time it dropped us off it was pouring, draping down like curtains of water. We knew we weren't too close to the car, but had little option but to walk. We just didn't know how far away it actually was.
It was five kilometres. Bira counted, and groaned, most steps along the way. Did I mention the rain? It stopped about ten metres from the car. The mud lingered like the last guest at a party when all you want is to sleep.
In Monza the sun bleached the sky white as a paper towel. I was wearing my Yankees cap again, the world had revolved around the sun once more. I knew the date was coming around, but on Saturday it was three years and the pain lept out and caught me, much like a dog that waits until the postman got through the garden and up to the front door before attacking from behind. I read an article where a woman who had also lost a partner that day said that the first year was nothing but confusion and bewilderment, in the second the pain comes, and after that is acceptance.
Which is true, but anniversaries of the death of someone you loved still feel like a punch to the guts, especially if the media spends the day reminding the world about it. I spent most of the day trying and failing to ignore it - the paddock helped, giving me a quick glance and then going on about its business, and but for an email from Jennifer, promising me a hug that I couldn't claim right then, there was nothing said on the subject until later that night at the Ferrari dinner when Henrik, a friend of Fritz and not someone that I would have thought knew about Elisa, asked "are you okay today? I don't want to intrude, but I just wanted to know I'm here if you need to talk about anything."
"Thanks, I'm fine - it's not really anything I need to talk about, though."
I then spent ten minutes proving that was a lie, albeit a mild one.
Back in Spa, Minardi were hosting a dinner for the British press, and I arranged for myself to be invited as Bira had gone to Germany for the night for a wedding, and I was reliant of Gary to get me back to the hotel we were all staying at for the weekend. Minardi are the last remainder of what Formula One used to be - a collection of misfits who raced each other because it's what they know and because they can, rather than because they make a lot of money from doing so.
The pressures on the team are enormous - the budget is never there, and compared to the other teams the resources aren't either, but they press on regardless, and keep their identity while they do - they are the most Italian team on the grid, and the food and wine, the variety of courses and the talk between, around and through them, the constant fug of cigarette smoke and the coffee machine working overtime bearing witness to a small part of Italy traveling around the world, cloaked in black.
In Monza, our photo editor Ross came into the paddock for a day, and I introduced him to as many people as I could in the time he was there. On the way somewhere he turned to me and stated "I really, really want to go to Minardi. Do you think I'm the first person to say that in this paddock?" We found Graham, the affable British press officer for the team who had been my conversational partner for most of the night two weeks earlier, and he asked if we'd like to have a look around the garage - I managed to grab hold of Ross before he floated off into the sky.
As we walked past a collection of tyres in their warming blankets he giggled, noting "this is already better equipped than any other racing series in the world." Considering the time he has spent in the American open wheel scene and Le Mans programmes that was no small compliment. We turned the corner and there was the pit, the team's three cars in varying states of undress. Ross leaned back and said nothing, and I knew how he felt.
In my first visit to a Formula One paddock I had been invited into the Minardi garage for a session, and I felt then that I had perhaps died and gone to racing monkey heaven. If anything their garage was even better appointed now, and after Graham confirmed it was okay Ross went and stuck his head into anywhere it would fit, while we stood at the back chatting, and smiling at the enthusiasm in front of us.
"That's the bit that does it for me," Graham said, "I love to see the enthusiasm on someone's face the first time they see all of this."
"It reminds you of your own first time, doesn't it?"
"It does, and I think I'll miss it - I'm not sure that I'll be back next year. I love this life, but it's hard to do it for ever."
"I know exactly what you mean. But what do you do after this?"
"You find something else to do, hope that you love that life too, and keep a little piece of this in your heart, I guess."
Just outside of the paddock at the Minardi end there was a stand selling Formula One merchandise, the stand like every other one awash with orangey red hats, shirts and scarves with the prancing horse of Ferrari slightly interspersed with the occasional tepid blue product of Renault. As usual there was nothing of interest to me until I noticed, hung up on the wall, a black Minardi flag, cornered by the Australian and Italian flags. It reminded me that I'd promised to bring something back for Luca, the owner of my local bar, which happens to be an Australian pub. It was perfect, it was ten euros, it was temporarily mine.
That night Ross and I took the gang out for drinks - Sean was back, Cathy and Celia too, and with Will also staying over, the reunion tour was complete. Atlas F1's Michele Lostia was in town for the race, and our gaggle walked towards the pub with our trophy wrapped around Ross's neck, confident of taking over the place towards our own ends.
Which meant we were a little surprised that the place was wall to wall people and Foster's merchandise - the beer company had decided to hold a promotion for the race, and where better to hold it than an Aussie pub?
"What the hell are you doing here?" asked Vanessa, the Foster's executive Will and I had last seen in Indianapolis.
"This is my local - I live two blocks away."
"Oh - I figured you'd just sniffed out some free beers."
"Well, if you're offering," Will interjected.
It was a night like any other with my friends, and that was its own reward. We sat and talked about past races, past nights together, mutual friends, mutual enemies, all the things you take for granted, all the things you do when you can. Luca gave us a number of free drinks in thanks for the flag, another emblem among many on his walls. We may have been the first people to make a profit out of anything connected to Minardi. We drank to their health, to Graham and Paul Stoddart and the last of the true racers. And then we talked and laughed for as many more hours as we could.
"You're rubbish," was the last thing Will said to me before I left the bar. It was 2.30, and we were getting up at 7.00 to go to the track. Sean just laughed and went out to the side of the road to wait for a cab. It was everything every other race weekend with them had been, and I knew what would happen if I went to the club with them. It only took us 45 minutes to wake him after his return.
"It looks like Spa out there," someone said as we dribbled through the sodden streets of Monza on Sunday. "Even the traffic is on a go slow."
"It's Italy on a Sunday - you can't expect miracles."
"I thought that was the day for them." My stomach gargled loudly, and I wondered if we'd make it to the track on time for breakfast. We didn't, but Will and I managed to grab a slice of dry toast each at Jordan while Bira left us to our own devices.
"This weather is great, now that we're out of it," Will noted as his tea arrived. "It's quite chilled out really, if you don't have to do anything."
"Yeah," I agreed, "we could just sit here, watch music videos from the eighties and have the occasional coffee. Shame we've got to work."
"Do you think if we ask them nicely they'll cancel the race? That would suit me."
"We haven't had a wet race all year - it would be nice to have one at least once."
The race was the best of the year since the last one. Spa was the best of the year. Racing wise it was a perfect two weeks, company wise too. I knew it was coming to an end, and I thought about that for a while as I sat in the place it all began for me. Only two more to go - I am going to miss everything here, I thought, everything around it, but I opened my computer and saw the reason I was going smiling back at me, and knew that it was the best reason, if I needed one.
When the sun came out later it was like God smiling down and saying this is for the memories, and I waited for Bjorn to get out of his debrief with his girlfriend Ellen, basking in it. They were staying in Milan for the night and I had to give directions, although it seemed such a waste to have a Formula One driver at the wheel in that sort of traffic. That is, until he saw a shoe shop and advised: "I really want to buy a pair of shoes, actually," and threw us into a U-turn.
Unsurprisingly it was closed. It was Italy on a Sunday - you can't expect miracles.
"So where are we off to?" he asked over his shoulder, eyes forward and scanning.
"There's this Australian pub I know," was the reply. "Ross tells me they've got the CART race on tonight."
"Oh fantastic!" he blurted as Ellen rolled her eyes skyward. "Who is coming?"
"There'll be a bunch of my friends there, all over for the race. I have a little surprise to tell you all when we get there."
It was only on the drive back from a friend's wedding in Zurich the weekend after the race that the previous weekend became clearer to me. A race weekend is a hectic thing, a little bubble of intense movement and energy, and more often than not you don't have time to reflect on anything beyond your next interview, your next task - being proactive is a good thing, but the pace of the bustle in the Formula One paddock means you react to events and run with them, leaving the processing for a later date. Every time I walk into the paddock I get a mental lift as the gates roll around behind me - no matter what mood I've been in before that, as soon as I am back inside the clouds roll away and sun shines bright and strong in my head. It even worked last year when I'd had my bag stolen going to Budapest - as soon as I got inside I couldn't help but smile at my own misfortune. If Bernie could find a way to bottle this feeling he'd be even richer than he already is.
Hungary is a race of change - the drivers are scrabbling for a seat for next year before the music stops, the team members are weighing up the cost of their time away and working out if they can keep running for another year, and the team bosses are finalising details of the next deals with the sponsors. The freelance journalists are still clambering around for work of course, but that's a given at any race.
Bira wasn't in Hungary - she'd gone to Israel in search of milk, or at least I think that's what she said - so I had to troop around to find a few features to write by myself. In a way it's good to have that time to myself - sometimes it's good to just walk around and have a dig without distraction - but it also meant that I didn't have anyone there to laugh with about some of the more ridiculous rumours that pop up as a matter of course.
But with the extra time I got to do some of the things I always mean to do but never seem to get around to. I spent some time down in the Formula 3000 paddock catching up with the people I know there, talking to the guys who sit just outside the palace gates and consequently seem to have a better overall view on the games being played inside; and I sat for a session on turn two, just watching the drivers run through, picking out the lines, the braking and the acceleration points and the attitude of the cars while I made a poor attempt at photographing them with my digital camera.
Later in the day I went up to say hello to Bjorn, who was deep in conversation with his father in Swedish. Normally when I turn up they change into English for me, but they kept going for a while before his father finally turned towards me and said, "sorry about talking in Swedish just now."
"Yeah, we were just talking about something we didn't want you to hear!" Bjorn laughed before picking up my camera and looking through my photos. "So the rear wing of this car - is it me or Mark?" As he said this, another of a long stream of driver managers walked into the team principal's office, a process that was being repeated in three other team motorhomes all weekend.
"Did you get much of a holiday?" I asked John when he had a rare moment to himself - his team had made some big changes over the break, and the gaggle of journalists had made him more popular than usual.
"Oh, that's right - I didn't see you last week. About as much as you had, I suspect."
"My condolences. Have you found out where the Red Bull party is yet?"
"No, but I won't be going - we're flying straight back to the factory after the race. We've got a bit of work on at the moment - you may have noticed."
"And here was me thinking it was your new aftershave."
I got Will on the case - when it comes to finding out about parties there are none better. I knew I was in safe hands, relatively.
I told some of these stories to my friends in Zurich, these people that I haven't seen for a few years because I am always on the road, always somewhere that they aren't. "But what is it like?" they asked, "What have you been up to? I haven't heard from you in ages." I get this a lot, I write for a living, and emails consequently become a bit sparse.
Most of my friends travel a lot for work - there is a new class that has arisen over the last decade or so of people who spend good portions of their lives on the road, and while it broadens their horizons it makes it hard to be together very often. At the wedding there were friends from Australia, the US, Britain, Germany, Italy and Singapore as well as the locals, but none of them seem to know where they are from after a while.
"I wouldn't know where to go if I had to go home," said one. "I live in Zurich, but I have to go somewhere else most weeks. I have an English passport and an Irish passport, my father splits his time between Ireland and Spain, my sister is married to a Frenchman but lives in Australia, my brother commutes between London and New York, and my mother is in England at the moment."
"What do you do for a holiday?"
"It's tough. I had two weeks off recently, and thought I'd spend some time with my friends here - the first weekend I rang around and no one was in town because I hadn't told them I'd be here, and by the middle of the week I was climbing the walls. I called work just to see what was going on, and they had a problem in Houston - I told them to book a flight and I'll deal with it. I want to stay home and be in one place for a while, but I don't really know how."
My solution is to go on the road with some of my friends - there's a certain comfort in numbers. Will has found a website that professes to have all of the best bars in the world therein, and while it doesn't always work out there are times when it lives up to its claims. We collect strays, absorb them into our gang and play off each other's strengths - Will takes the lead in finding somewhere to go, quizzing the locals in great depth for the various merits of the places he has found to distill them to a few core choices, I deal with the locals from thereon, the cabbies and the doormen and the crazies scrabbling for change or cigarettes, and Ali follows the group to make sure we keep it all together.
Along with anyone else who wants to come along for the ride, we become a strong unit. Often we'll ask people from the teams if they want to come out for a night, but more often than not they can't do it - they've got to be up early, they've got work outside of the track, they're worried about the concept of telling tales out of school to a group of journalists. Quite a few of them want to come out, but they don't for whatever reason, and then when they hear about our adventures the night before they'll look a bit downcast at missing out.
I don't care about hearing gossip, but I do like stories. We found a club on Friday, one of two at the top of a shopping centre full of skateboarding youths, ordered our drinks and sat down at the edge of the dancefloor as a girl spoke to the DJ before standing up on a table on the other side of the room and started to dance. Hungarian women are very attractive, and if you sat ten of them down and asked them to come up with the most attractive woman they could imagine, then the results would have still fallen short. The local men treated her like a television showing a football match between two other countries, while the women stared and copied her moves.
"My boss is in Athens for the Olympics at the moment," Ali started in, "he's not very happy. He's been covering the 10m pistol shoot and the synchronised diving. The most amusing part of it so far has been the ancient motor scooter he has hired to get around - luckily he used to help out at his local garage when he was young."
"Are they allowed to lean towards the target in that shooting?" asked Gary, another journalist along for the ride asked. "I can't see how they could miss."
"I suspect they can't. Still, he said it was more interesting that Formula One at the moment."
"He just hasn't had Will to find the right places to go after work," I noted, downing my drink and directing everyone towards the dancefloor.
"Not that I can find out where this damn Red Bull party is - no one seems to be going at all. You wouldn't think it would be such a secret." We danced. I'll leave the resultant mess to your imaginations, but if you were to picture a scrum full of elbows and unpleasantly shaken buttocks you wouldn't be far wrong.
"Can you get up to Munich for Oktoberfest at all?" another friend asked me at the wedding. "I'll be in town for most of the month, and it would be great if you can see the new apartment. We've been hoping to see you for the last two years."
"That would be great, but it depends on what happens with the races, and whether the Chinese are actually going to let the journalists have visas - they've stopped the process at the moment."
"Isn't that their first race?"
"Yes - you'd think they wouldn't mind a bit of publicity."
The wedding was held in a grand castle on top of a steep hill just out of Zurich, and it was still open to tourists - we stood around talking, catching up on each other's lives and drinking champagne as a collection of people looked on wondering what all the noise was about. It seemed pretty normal after my day job.
Patrick, the friend who was getting married, looked almost obscenely happy, a serene sort of inner satisfaction that was finer than any of the times in the past when I've seen him chemically pleased with himself.
"Mate, I am happy," he replied to my unasked question, "maybe I should have done this years ago, but no regrets - everything we do adds up to our life. Look at you - could you have imagined living this life back when we were hitting the clubs in Sydney after work?"
"Not in a million years."
"And yet here we are. Sometimes I find myself thinking about that, and I just laugh at how things work out."
"Yeah - eight years ago I decided that I'd throw myself at the world and see if it would look after me, and I realise now that it will if you let it. It's a big world with a lot of gaps between the people - if you want to do something you can, as long as you know what it is, and you try."
"That's how I ended up in Switzerland, doing a job I only dreamed of back then, and married to this beautiful woman. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and dance with her again."
On Sunday in the paddock I found myself talking to Peter Collins, a man with more history in Formula One than most, who is currently trying to find a drive in the big game for Tonio Liuzzi. He has lived this life for so long that he makes it look easy.
"How have you put up with all of this for so long, Peter?"
"It's easy - you just get up in the morning and do it."
"But you've had so many people against you over the years - doesn't that eventually get to you?"
"Sure, but the way I figure it is that you just keep going - eventually the bastards crumble, and the last man standing wins. Sometimes that's one of the good guys. I've been here for a long time, and I love this life - you've been around for long enough to understand why. It's like anything - if you just keep going, eventually you make it. And this kid is good, so I've got a good reason to be here."
Peter waved over to Tonio as he was strolling along the paddock, his gait that of a horse riding rooster, secure in the knowledge that no one else in the area could carry off his outfit of puffy soft hat, vintage Italian football jersey and combat trousers quite so well.
"Ciao! How you doing?" he smiled, his hand in the air for the usual high five.
"I'm pretty good actually - I'm just trying to find out where the Red Bull party is tonight."
"Why you didn't come and see me? It's here," he indicated to the invite he handed over, which showed the address. "I'll see you there, yeah?"
"Yes, I think that's a safe bet."
Immediately after the race most of the teams left, heading back to the factories to get ready for testing, to prepare for the next race, to organise PR events, to do more and more. We stayed and crossed the river for a party. There were synchronised swimmers, the ones that didn't get to go to the Olympics. There was an Austrian violin quartet that wanted to be The Corrs but was unfortunately led by a man with a flamboyant moustache and poor English skills. There was Tonio dancing like a maniac, somehow still looking stylish while he did so. There were a large number of drinks involved, until the bar ran out of everything alcoholic. Twice.
It was a night of joy, a night where those who stayed knew they had something that the others who left were missing out on. It was not unlike the wedding, I thought as I was driving back a week later; I find these types of nights often. I smiled as I thought about the last two weeks, and I pointed the car south. I knew where I was going, and I let the road take me there.
I've completely lost track of time these days - I gave up looking at a calendar about eight races ago, and the events of my life are now marked solely against the nearest race to them, and the ensuing workload. For example, some friends got married in Germany during Canada, my sister got married in Scotland just after Silverstone, and another friend is getting married in Switzerland between Hungary and Belgium (all of which has gone some way to convince me that this year was nominated the International Year of the Wedding and I missed the press release). I mention this because I've just found out that it's August - someone mentioned it to me, and it was only afterwards that I noticed the great lack of cars on the road around my apartment. Europe is on holiday from itself, a concept which has all of the inhabitants of the landmass up and migrate sideways at once, and it had simply slipped my notice until I was told. Which went some way to explaining the monstrous traffic jams all around Germany when we drove there.
We were caught in the mass parking exodus of the autobahn because we drove to Germany rather than fly. I hadn't driven to a race for a long time, so it didn't seem such a bad idea at all until we had been staring at a highly moustached Bavarian in the car next to us for a few hours. It did, however, give me a chance to get away from planes, which lately have seemed to be the personal handiwork of one of the higher ranked minions of Beelzebub.
While heading towards Barcelona I was bumped awake to feel myself being lurched backwards by momentum; I looked forward and could see the pilots door flapping wildly open to expose pure panic and the ground rushing headlong to meet us, as everyone screamed silently. I woke up sweating, wondering if I actually had screamed and people were too polite to mention it.
Flying over the English Channel towards Silverstone I snapped awake as the plane took a rolling lurch to the left and I saw the sea rising to wave hello before I really came around. Somewhere over India, on the way back from Malaysia via Thailand, the plane dropped a hundred or so metres and air masks slapped me awake before I awoke. I need to sleep less on planes.
Coming in to land in New York on the way back from Indianapolis the plane drifted softly in as the water surrounding La Guardia airport was replaced by tarmac, which we were a mere ten metres above before the engines fired to maximum and we headed about as straight a line up as I would think possible. The pilot had us in a rotation of the city to catch our breath before telling us that we almost landed on another plane. I kept waiting to wake before I realised I hadn't slept.
I once asked a friend of mine, who used to travel for work more than me but now seems a comparative lightweight, if all the flying bothered him at all - my girlfriend of the time was the worst flyer known to man, or at least this one - he thought about it a bit and said it never used to, but the more he flies the closer he is to being a statistic on an air crash website. I'm starting to see his point, and it wasn't a reassuring one.
Perhaps it's just the unremittingness of the season - Germany was the last in a long line of arrivals and departures, and getting through it meant not going anywhere for two weekends. I wasn't alone in wanting to be alone.
"What are you getting up to for the next couple of weeks, John?"
"I'm planning on not planning for a bit, waking up and not getting up. You?"
"I'm locking myself in my bedroom to stare at the wall for a bit."
Of course we were doing nothing of the sort - I was going to be writing, he was going to be factorying - but it was the thought of not traveling out of your own postal code that appealed more than anything. It was obvious everywhere in the paddock - no one wanted to be there so the barest minimum of effort that was required was spent - people who were thanked for performing a task replied "it was the least I could do" and actually meant it.
Everyone wanted the weekend to vapourise. Time turned to syrup, and we all waded through it. The thought of not thinking for seventeen days seemed an unimaginable luxury, a reward of which we were unworthy.
Germany was the 25th race I had been to as a journalist, and it's probably remarkable how much of a cog in a wheel I now felt - everyone has their job to do, and mostly we all try to do it without disruption to the other cogs as they did theirs. But, as ever, there were herds of new people in the paddock gumming up the works. They're easy to see - they are staring everywhere at once, their heads swiveling like a top, omni directional and slow in a world that favours straight lines and immediacy.
And they always get in the way of the mechanics pushing tyres around on their trolleys - these are not men to annoy.
Everyone goes through it, everyone forgets what it's like once they're on the other side. Two years ago when I walked into the paddock for the first time I was bamboozled, my eyes held in by my sunglasses and little else, and I spent most of the time trying to will myself into the size of a paper cup. I didn't have media access that weekend, which meant I couldn't sit in the media centre away from the sun, so I generally stood shading between the team trucks and reading a book until I was either politely moved along (less politely if it was a man trolleying tyres) or Bira found me.
There are signs up everywhere to keep people out of places; they are for those in on a solo visit. That first time in the paddock had me nervous about being anywhere - the areas between the trucks are where the teams store their tyres and the larger mechanics, the team offices are for those with a better class of uniform, or so I had thought. When I needed to talk to a press officer I would generally mill around the doorway looking inside anxiously, and eventually someone would ask if I needed something.
The signs work - to this day there are always people standing on the outside staring in looking for someone famous, and they always stare at those of us who do stroll in casually, as though wondering were we slot in. I sometimes wonder still, but no one needs to know that there.
The world meringued. I sloped around its edges trying to stay out of its way while I went about my work. It was a weekend for getting through rather than remembering. Little was remarkable, nothing had changed - Jenson Button laughed and clowned with his father between sessions in his home from home at BAR, no outward sign of the firestorm to come. Michael Schumacher appeared from dust in his car, spending most of his weekend out of sight and away from the hordes of his countrymen who all wanted him to win and wanted him to be with them, not realising the discrepancy.
And, as ever, the important things happened away from sight. While Button was laughing his management was plotting the next storm in our teapot. Schumacher was working, working towards another win, another plate of steel on the suit of armour that is his Championship year. But Formula One has always had one side for the public and another hidden away, the better to beat the competition, whoever they may be. Those of us who work in the paddock might find out about these things sooner than the fans, but the time span is now down to minutes. The world has been interneted.
"Can I go home yet?" Will moaned at one stage.
"You've got approximately 53 hours to go" I sighed, looking around at the other journalists looking around at the other journalists. Hockenheim doesn't even give us the advantage of looking at the track - the media centre is a building stuck away from the track in the middle of the paddock complex with the curtains drawn, denying us a view of the toilets and a large mound of dirt. "This race is the worst - I'm going for more wurst" he noted, heading for the cafe.
"Making crap jokes isn't going to get you out any earlier."
The most exciting thing that happened all weekend was that the BBC commentators announced that they were leaving Formula One, with immediate effect, for football - whether it was the boredom of Germany that drove them to it was unremarked upon. BAR threw them a party, but I don't know of anyone other than the usual English open bottle smellers who actually bothered to go.
Not to be outdone Sauber threw a party that night too, but seemed to have forgotten to invite anyone - they had tiki torches fuming into the sky and giant speakers pumping ear-achingly bad Europop in front of their team area, a large spread of food and a chef serving exactly zero people. "I've had an idea," Will yelled as we rushed past the empty room, "let's go get drunk - if I have to stay here much longer I may hurt someone, and I'm worried it will turn out to be me."
I collected Bira and we drove to the nearby town that Will was staying in, bringing a young journalist, Ali, along with us for the numbers. Tall and beanpole thin, he has the nervous laugh of someone new to a group and unsure of the humour protocol. We wandered around until we found a Mexican restaurant someone had wrongly recommended to Will, and we Englished through the ordering.
"What is everyone up to for the next few weeks?" Ali eagered into the conversation.
"I've got a new computer game that I can't work," I stated. "I'm going to continue not knowing how to play it, at length."
"I'm going to bed," Bira woozed, dreamily. "I'm going to sleep, and then I'm going to continue to."
"I'm off to Spain for a week," noted Will. "My flatmates are all going out there, and I've got a place about half an hour away from them. Hey, remember when we came here last year?"
"Er," Ali stammered, "I don't. How was it?"
"It was crap then, too. Can I go home yet?"
"23 hours to go."
I thought about some of the goings on we'd gone on with at other races - drinking until the sun came up in a small bar to the sounds of Japanese pop music and constant giggling, laughing at Bira as she swooned over French movie stars, consuming questionable curries in Kuala Lumpur and Montreal, being invited to parties with the lights of Budapest or the harbour of Monaco as an active wallpaper, the seething mass of people in an Arabic market, drunkenly karaoking with poorly voiced drivers - and none of it was Germany.
A waitress Brunhilda-ed her way over to inform us that we could no longer drink outside, and then pulled all of the chairs away to punctuate her point. We didn't have the strength to argue, so we dribbled away. "Tell me Hungary will be better" Will sighed, without rancour, as we rounded towards the car.
"Hungary will be better."
"I'm holding you to that. You will be financially liable if you fail."
"But I don't have any money."
"Best make it work then."
We drove back to the hotel. We got lost. Getting lost has lost its charm.
"Welcome back – glad to see you could make it over."
"Thanks John – I hope you managed without me in France."
"We almost did. So what happened?"
"You remember how the French Grand Prix was cancelled at the end of last year?"
"No one told us it was back on."
Pause. "I wish I thought of that excuse." It was strange not going to Magny Cours for the race – it was the first time I hadn't been at a race since I started this whole curious adventure, and it felt like I'd been left behind by the circus. I had every intention of going to France, although I wasn't entirely looking forward to it after spending most of the weekend last year trying to find the track in the haystack of French Nothingness, Burgundy. Until Bira saw me upon return from North America and said "you look exhausted – I don't think you should go to Magny Cours."
You can really only appreciate the beauty of hearing that line if you've been there, I suspect - there were certainly a lot of team members who wished their team boss had decided against going to France too.
But the weekend off didn't go as I expected. I thought I'd get some rest, enjoy the time away and catch up on my relaxing, but instead I paced the apartment all weekend feeling that I had forgotten to do something, and when any racing was on television I sat glued to the screen, looking in the background for the people I would normally be talking to if I was there. All it did was make me keener than ever to get back to the next track, the next race.
I thought Bira was being kind to me by letting me take time off, but I suspect she was actually trying to let me know what it felt like to miss out. She's cunning like that.
Bira and I flew over to London on Wednesday and found our way to Will's place to wait for his return. "You'll never believe who I saw at the Lenny Kravitz gig tonight" he breathlessly challenged when he finally strolled into his lounge room.
"Lenny Kravitz?" asked Bira.
"Ho. No, Jarno Trulli. He was walking around out in the hall completely unnoticed, despite having the pineapple haircut up. I went over to say hello - he seemed pleased to have been recognised." The only winner this year other than Schumacher and no one recognised him - I guess Formula One isn't quite as popular as we like to think in the rarified air of the paddock.
In the Silverstone paddock I had a lot of people welcome me back – it's amazing how noticeable it is when one of the regulars is missing for a while. In a way it was a weekend of three families – there was the family of circus performers that is the paddock, Will's family at his parents' home, and my own family at my sister's wedding held just afterwards. My travels have made me able to feel at home almost anywhere, but it was unusual to have three homes in quick succession.
I do feel at home in the paddock after this long. I can walk up the paddock at almost any time and see someone I know and can chat with – and it is paddock etiquette to be either walking or talking, as people by themselves are somehow seen as lepers – and it was comforting, in a strange way, that even those who don't like me or the company I represent still made a point of saying hello and welcoming me back to the paddock. They may be unhappy about the competition, but they still respect our ability to last in a paddock full of political landmines.
Silverstone is the home race for a large percentage of the Formula One population, and as such it was a particularly laid back affair, with events unfolding it their own time. Unfortunately it meant that there wasn't actually much going on, and I found myself in the unfamiliar position of having to push the others along.
"Do we really need to get in early tomorrow?" Will asked over a beer at the annual English Pub Night put on by BAR. "There's nothing going on, and I really wouldn't mind a lie in."
"I'm wondering if I should bother going in at all," Bira replied, "there's even less for me to do at the track than you."
"I've got to be in on time, so you're both doing it too" I scolded over the top of my ale.
"Fooking hell," Ian raised his eyebrows in mock horror, "I never thought I'd live to see the day when you said that!"
"Wait a minute," I interjected, "did we just slip into an alternate universe where I am Dad, and no one thought to mention it to me?"
"I'll get the beers in while you lot argue about it," Ian wisely commented.
The discussion adjourned with us to Will's parents' house, where we were staying for the weekend. I'd been looking forward to seeing them again, as they are wonderful hosts, and also because it's always interesting to watch someone when they are with their parents after they've left home – in a lot of ways you only really become yourself after you've moved out on your own, had to deal with the adult world by yourself, although everyone seems to revert to an earlier default setting when they are with their parents.
Will always seems slightly reluctant to drink in front of his parents, which I can understand because I'm the same, but he has the advantage that his parents actually do drink, whereas my Dad doesn't drink at all and my Mum only rarely. I think it's a way of being what you once were with your parents, the kid they brought up and built in their own image, and also of finding a way back to a more innocent time when you didn't have the pressures that come with being a member of society.
When he is with his parents Will becomes a slightly different version of the man I know – he will fuss around things for instance, or follow his Mum around and help her carry things until she tells him to sit down, and then he sits back with a soft smile on his face as she brings food out for us, and he often defers to his Dad in conversation, allowing him to talk seemingly just to hear his voice. There is a comfort in becoming a child again, no matter how temporarily.
I'm much the same – up in Scotland for the wedding I would follow Mum around and help her down the stairs or out of the car, and I would often sit with my Dad just to listen to him talk for a while – in a way I was soaking them up, stocking up on experiences with my parents as I get to see them far too rarely.
When our parents have health problems we catch a glimpse of our own mortality in reflection – my Mum had a major stroke at the start of 2001 and, although she is mostly restored to health now, it was the first time I had to consider that my parents weren't immortal. Will's Dad had recently come down with a virus that makes him more tired than usual, and I could see it was worrying Will even though he didn't mention it.
"I worry about dementia now," Dad told me as we were driving up to Inverness to pick up the kilts we were to wear at the wedding, "your grandmother's not getting any better, and I find myself worrying when I can't remember a word, or when your uncle or aunt can't. It makes me worry that it's coming down the family line. Do you ever forget things like that?" How are you supposed to react when the man you've always looked up to ahead of any other admits to his fears?
Life in the paddock is easier, less emotionally charged – and in Silverstone, everyone seemed a lot more relaxed than usual, and some of that must come from being able to sleep in their own beds for once.
Bjorn brought his girlfriend Helen to the race - the first time since Monaco - and he always seems much more tranquil, more centred, in her presence. It can't have hurt that he only had to drive twenty minutes from home to get to the race either, along with most of the Jaguar team.
Bjorn was still in Formula 3000 the first time I met him. He was sitting in the back of the team's truck by himself, and he asked me if I would like some water before apologising for it being warm. This is what racing is, and he had no qualms about it at all – he seemed to be happy just to have got as far as he had given that he had no companies or money behind him.
When he won that championship a little later I saw him being guided through the Formula One paddock by his manager on the way to meet someone, and the look on his face was one of complete awe. At the start of this year he was given the opportunity to test on Fridays, to be part of the small band of drivers active in Formula One, and it was clear that he was a fish out of water in the new paddock. But over the year he has grown into the role, got used to the attention and became at home with the team.
I joined Bjorn and Helen at the team's canteen for the race, and looking at the faces of the team members around us, it was clear that they have taken Bjorn in completely. Helen - compact, brash and sunny - is an opposite counterpart to him in the way that my parents are, that Will's parents are; her sunshine fills around his Scandinavian reserves to form a perfect circle, and they form their own familial unit inside of the extended one of Jaguar.
The teams are like families – in Jaguar it was clear the affection the members had for each other, with their in jokes that had them in stitches which made no sense to someone from outside of the circle as I was. Bjorn sat in the middle of it, a favoured son that the others gravitated towards and around, looking for his response to racing incidents on the big screen before reacting themselves. It felt reminded me of going to family events with my friend Alex back in Australia, like I was granted some sort of status by association.
The journalists, on the other hand, are anything but a family, with the constant demands of getting information and relaying it before anyone else can. If it is anything then it is a social gathering for the older journalists, their replacement for an actual life, an opportunity to gather and talk but also to bitch and moan about the others outside their social coterie. Often the Italian journalists will work together, but they are the exception to the rule, and frequently I feel as though I'm on the outside looking in. The importance of family has become more obvious to me the further from mine I've gone, and the media centre is the complete opposite of the proceedings downstairs.
Which is why Silverstone was a welcome break, a holiday in the workplace. Will got to see his parents, to be their son and to be spoiled for a while. Bira got to sleep for a long weekend in the bed that she has dreamt about for the year she was removed from it, got to decide she wasn't going to the paddock for a day but rather worked from home and had someone fuss around after her. I got to soak up the unique atmosphere that only England has, to be reminded of the cocoon like surroundings provided by the combination of accents, weather and people in which I used to live.
And, after a long drive from Silverstone to the Scottish Highlands, I got to see my real family. My Mum saw me first, looked at me with those eyes that looked to be watering a little as I walked over to hug her, before breaking into the smile that made the long drive worthwhile. My sister followed over for another hug.
"Hello hello," Dad said. "How's it going?"
"Not too bad," I replied. "You?"
"Oh, not too bad." His eyes crinkled as he smiled, and mine replied in kind as our arms wrapped around each other.
"So where were you when it happened?" he asked me. Small, dark featured and well dressed, my companion stared expectantly at me through his stylish rectangular sunglasses that looked so new they may not have been released yet. I'd mentioned that I was staying in New York, that I used to live there, and the conversation had taken the usual next step. "I was in my office – I worked on Wall Street. I saw the plane hit the building from my window." His face dropped into a gasp, and I knew I was going to have to make him feel better by the end of the conversation.
I was talking to the personal manager of a Formula One driver; a man who earns a percentage of his client's multiple million dollar annual income for ensuring that the millions keep coming in. We were sitting at a table in the shade of a building behind the pit complex at the Indianapolis Speedway to get out of the midday sun, we were talking because he was waiting for his charge to finish his debrief and had time to kill, and because I was trying to avoid working. Formula One will work you to the bone if you let it, so it's always nice to take a break when you can.
We were talking about the subject because I'd already asked him about his background, and he politely returned the question, asking me how an Australian ends up in Formula One via America. He was listening because I told him something he didn't expect when I mentioned my version of the September 11 attack. It was an unusual paddock conversation.
"It was really nice to meet you," he noted when we were winding up our conversation. "It's good to talk to someone here about something real. There's not much reality in this place." He nodded his head towards the mass of people walking back and forth between the buildings, the stream of uniforms washing past us. I took his point, and I enjoyed the conversation, although I wondered how much reality a man who spends more in a year on clothes than I make is actually exposed to.
The reality of Formula One is that it exists – anything more than that and you might need to check your sources. For the Canadian and American races I had a reality I knew a lot about to compare it to – I was staying for the three weeks around the races in New York with Jennifer, my girlfriend.
We split up briefly at the start of the season because we didn't know what else to do, but it didn't take and we fell back together again. The situation was unchanged, but then so was the love, and we've existed on transatlantic communications and emailed photographs while waiting for another chance to hold each other for a while. It finally came, and we existed together again.
The reality of New York seems more concrete to me, but then I've had longer to get used to it than the shifting sands of Formula One. In New York I had a good job which paid me well, where I was well known and received in my industry and looked upon as the future, I had a beautiful and charming girlfriend who laughed at my jokes even when they weren't funny and who made me consider things I never would have otherwise thought about without me realising she was doing it, and I had a number of friends who were only a phone call and a cab ride away reminding me of this fact daily. In New York I feel as though I can always know what to expect, one day exempted.
In Formula One it's somewhat different, and the reality changes race to race. In Canada I was staying in a hotel with some friends with whom I have traveled to Montreal for the last few years. Sean was back and filling my room with his outrageously thick brogue and cigarette smoke, while Cathy and Celia were only a raucous laugh up the corridor and John was just past them. It was like a family reunion minus the strange uncle who smells funny.
In Indianapolis I shared a room near the track with Fritz, while Will scoffed at me from his luxury hotel downtown. Ultimately he may have had a point, but I think a part of his scoff was a hold over from not getting as drunk as he would have liked with him in Montreal. Which I refuse to accept the blame for – he is slightly scared of drinking with Sean, and not for no reason, and it's hard to get drunk with someone if they're not always there.
Montreal feels like my home circuit in a lot of respects, as I've been going to races there for a number of years now and meeting up with the gang every time. I did a number of the things that I always seem to do there – I made everyone troop up St Laurent to Schwartz's for a smoked meat sandwich, I went to a Grand Prix Tours event for drinks and to listen to a driver speak (or in this case not speak – Jarno Trulli still didn't have his voice back after his win in Monaco), I went to a couple of cool nightclubs with Michel and Jason, a couple of local friends – and it was as comfortable as putting on an old shirt fresh from the dryer on a cool winter morning.
Indy was the same as ever too, but without the charm of Montreal – the locals are always friendly and obliging, other than the cab driver who wanted $48 to drive me two miles to the track on race day, but without the circuit there is nothing to differentiate the town from any other medium sized mid western American town, with its endless miles of chain restaurants and malls – it looks like the kind of place that pulls the footpaths up at night to keep them clean. Perhaps it's just that I've always lived in big cities where you can walk around and see more than car parks.
Another part of why I'm keen on Montreal is that it reminds me of a dream I had for a long time. A few years ago I took a trip to Quebec City with my friend John, and it was the kind of town that has you thinking yeah, I feel just right here as soon as you put your bags down. We spent most of our time with a good friend of his who owns a bar near the centre of the town. Cousin Pete, lean, perpetually moving and consummately tattooed, took us under his wing and to a variety of bars where the owners all hugged him at the door and thrust drinks into our hands.
"So you're a writer, eh?" he asked one night among the blur of rooms that matched our moods. I wasn't, but I aspired. "Why don't you move here and write? You can work part time in my bar, take a small room down by the river and prove it." For the rest of the night he laid out my alternate future for me, down to the positioning of the tattoo he was going to buy me to celebrate. Life had other ideas, but Montreal always reminds me of this other life by proximity. When I saw a Nordiques hockey jersey in a small store, the team that should have brought glory to Quebec City but instead broke Pete's heart by renaming and selling itself to Denver, it seemed like a sign from God. All it cost me was money.
"That's a great jersey – I haven't seen one of those for years." Michel, small, edgy, perpetually wide eyed, was taking us to another bar in his role as tour guide while Jason moaned about the smoked meat I'd made him consume at the deli that he had originally introduced me to a few years ago. As tall as Michel isn't and with hands that never settle, he has the Quebecois habit of restlessness innate in his frame. With a word in the ear of the right man Michel waved us up a flight of stairs and in. Sean and Will followed John to the bar, where he continued his night's work of buying drinks while the rest of us went out on the balcony, me swinging an embarrassing plastic bag behind me self consciously.
"There are some great looking women here, eh?" Jason noted redundantly, his head trailing in her wake as another striking girl wandered past. "Of course, you must be used to that in your job." It was a misconception I'd heard a number of times, and one that I've never been able to refute to those saying it.
People tend to think of Formula One as some sort of heightened sexual utopia, as a throwback to the swinging sixties with drivers taking their pick of the hundreds of dolly birds and winking at smirking journalists as they disappear into their motorhomes. What no one seems to realise is that most of the drivers are actually extremely childlike in many ways, and don't think about much other than play time, or driving to you and I.
Back in Bahrain Ron Dennis was talking about Ayrton Senna, and he touched upon rumours put about years ago that the Brazilian was gay because he didn't have a girl hanging off his arm at every race. What he said explained a lot about a large number of the people in the pitlane. "In my own lifetime, not only did I get married very late, but girlfriends were of no interest to me for ages. My nose was up in exhaust pipes, and it was just unimportant.
"It goes back to something which you constantly see in drivers that had been dedicated to motorsport from day one: they go through karting, they go to Formula Ford, they become completely obsessive, and it's to the detriment of their development as a human being. It's to the exclusion of things."
It explains how someone like Juan Pablo Montoya, who Cathy and Celia insisted was gorgeous (and had our male bar staff agree), can sneak up behind Bira in a press conference, dig his fingers into her sides, and then run off giggling when she squeals – it's the equivalent of pulling a girl's ponytails in kindergarden, or declaring to your friends that you fancy the girl who sits in the front row in your class without really knowing what it means.
It's hard to imagine a more sexless place than a modern Formula One paddock, a place where Anthony Davidson holding hands with his girlfriend, a young press officer for another team, is noted with raised eyebrows and a smirk, where more conversation is spent on what information could potentially flow between the pair than anything else they might get up to out of sight of the chattering classes.
A large part of the supposed sex appeal of Formula One for the fans seems to be the girls who hold the signs in front of the cars on the grid before a race, on the basis that they get a lot of exposure on television and from the photographers. "Where are all the race babes?" a journalist drafted in for the first time by his news service asked me in the Japanese paddock last year, "I thought there would be loads of them here." When I explained that the closest he would ever get to them was to look out the window of the media centre and try and make them out in the swarm on the grid he seemed disappointed.
"I've worked out where we're going tonight," Will glowed as he walked into the media centre fresh from a Fosters lunch in Indy, "and it involves grid girls." "Count me in then," chirped Ian, a Yorkshire based journalist over in the colonies for a few races while others in his shop looked after the European football championships, "maybe it will cheer up this miserable lump."
I had been a bit moody – the back to back comparison between Montreal and Indy did the latter no favours, I was stuck in a hotel next to a freeway in the middle of nowhere and with dwindling funds, and maybe being reminded of what life with Jennifer was like again after so long away with the circus showed me what I had missed over the last few months. Whatever, I didn't think a night involving grid girls was the answer.
I may have been wrong. The night started inauspiciously – the event was to pick the American Fosters grid girl, the nightclub where the competition was held was a long way from anywhere, there were very few people there, and the ‘celebrity' guest judges were unknown even to the locals – but we were given free beers by a Fosters executive and told that the contests were great in Australia, so wait and see what happens.
What made the night worthwhile wasn't what you would expect – you can see photos of girls in skimpy clothing pretty much anywhere if you want to – but rather it was the interview section of the show. When the host asked ‘what is the most unusual thing you've done in the last twelve months?' ("I went to Europe all by myself!" – cue cheers) one girl replied: "I donated my eggs to an infertile couple so they could have a baby." The silence of dropping jaws around the room was eventually broken by Ian stating "I didn't fooking expect that answer, like."
Needless to say our new favourite didn't win – the cute one did – but at least we had someone new to talk to afterwards when the Fosters exec took us all out for more drinks.
Luckily Fosters bought most of the drinks that night. Luckily John bought most of the drinks at the nightclub in Canada. Unluckily I was staying in New York in between, in one of the more expensive cities in the world, in a town that I wanted to get to reacquaint myself with. On my budget that was hard.
Getting used to a lack of money is a lot harder than getting used to having it. I became used to having money when I lived in New York, and visiting only drove home what I gave up. I knew that I wasn't accepting this job for the financial benefits, but it was only in New York that I really understood what I was missing when I saw some old work colleagues, when I saw the life I used to be such a part of, when I had to explain that yes, I had escaped, but life is still life no matter what you do.
It reminded me of when I first left Australia and my friends thought that I was living the most glamourous lifestyle known to man, and they would usually tell me this during a phone call while I was washing my underwear. The grass is always greener.
I didn't have enough money to buy the beautiful suit I saw on sale when Jennifer and I went window shopping, so we went to Chinatown and bought silly t shirts and sunglasses instead. I found myself missing wearing suits, so she bought me a pair of trousers and told me they looked nicer. We couldn't afford to eat in the extravagant eateries in the Village, so we found fun dim sum or Vietnamese restaurants. We didn't have the funds for the snooty bars, so we laughed in a karaoke bar instead.
My realities seem to change constantly – in New York it was sleeping in late and making big breakfasts, in Indy it was having surreal conversations with millionaires and beauty queens, in Montreal it was sitting in a gay pub with two girls and a large tattooed Irishman and buying outdated sporting apparel – and I like it that way. As my former colleague told me, it beats working for a living.
What is Formula One? Sometimes it's hard to know. Is it Monaco, where the champagne starts on Wednesday and flows through to Sunday night, where they occasionally run the race cars through the ants' colony of a city in between the locals parading the streets in cars that were never meant for them? Where a Ferrari goes unnoted unless it's an Enzo? Where the boats get progressively larger the closer they get to the breakwater? Where the more you are charged for a beer the better it must be?
Is it the Nurburgring, where they cut a swath through the forest next to an old track in the middle of nowhere and tried to claim its fame? Where the two circuits combined are larger than the city they raced in mere days before? Where the price of admission rises year on year because the audience is dwindling but the overheads aren't? Where the height of luxury is schnitzel and local red wine before retiring to a hotel that looks like a German retirement home?
Or is it the people that populate it, the drivers and team bosses and mechanics and press relations officers and journalists and caterers and truckies and a hundred other jobs all running around so as to disrupt each other the least, all busying themselves with their work and trying to get through everything they need to do in an elastic four day period, all carrying out their duties in the hive so that everyone else can do theirs?
The paddock in Monaco is a jigsaw puzzle with trucks and motorhomes for pieces put together over a twenty four hour period due to space constraints. No one seems to mind much because it's Monaco, and Monaco can do what it likes. The new pitlane, built at astronomical cost because it meant reclaiming some of the harbour, happened because the existing collection of padlockable garden sheds was embarrassing to a city built on money.
The fact that Formula One cars outgrew the track decades ago doesn't matter - Monaco does what it likes, and if something doesn't work, then they'll buy a new way to make it happen.
In Monaco, I spent a lot of time in the Jaguar motorhome. It was one of the few facing back towards the media centre building, and the path on that side of the jigsaw was easier to navigate than the path on the harbourside, which was only a metre wide and full of people trying to negotiate their way past each other, most of them seemingly carrying boxes.
Monaco always attracts the largest collection of hangers-on of the various tracks, despite having the least space for them. More famous people attend the race than any other, and glamour attracts. Jaguar were hosting a collection of movie stars because of their one off sponsorship deal with the movie Ocean's 12, and it was fun to see a collection of people who have their photograph taken every other Sunday getting excited about some other people who are even more famous than they are.
The guy in charge of Jaguar's communications, Nav, was frantic all weekend. Wearing the ever present sunglasses that look as though they've been there since birth and looking like he wanted the cigarette I've never seen him smoke, he paced up and down, endlessly talking into a walkie talkie, trying to organise things the like of which he'd never been called upon to oversee before.
I think George Clooney and Brad Pitt came into the paddock for about five minutes, and there were a huge number of Formula One people gathering around taking photographs of them, while they themselves were being photographed. I say I think because I didn't actually see them - they were surrounded by a large number of black suited giants as they passed in from the harbour to ... somewhere (they certainly didn't go to Jaguar, but rather somewhere towards the other end of the paddock, obscured by a gaggle of people all the way) briefly before pushing their way back out five minutes later.
The team also had a one off deal with a diamond company to promote their wares, and placed a diamond in the nose of their three cars. I had gone up to look at the new pitlane on Wednesday, and the various cars were lined up for scrutineering, with a few disinterested mechanics milling around nearby to stop anyone getting over enthusiastic around the cars. I did see the diamond on the nose of the third car and it seemed too large to be real, although when I mentioned that to someone with the team they suggested that that was the point. Monaco logic.
At the Nurburgring it was back to reality - the cars don't come into the paddock and I didn't have a pass that allowed me into the pitlane, so the only time I got to see the cars was when they were running down the pitlane or main straight, from the large windows along the media centre two floors up and away from the garages.
The Nurburgring is a representative of what modern Formula One is: a sterilised concrete canyon in the middle of nowhere for the teams to install their multi-coloured, technology based village for a few days every year. The highlight of the weekend was BAR showing the movie Le Mans on a big screen for the media, which was enlivened by Jenson Button's father John jumping up after the biggest crash and applauding, saying "you don't get crashes like that anymore!" I wondered at the time if he saw his son's effort at Monaco the year before, but thought better of asking.
Driver's fathers are a diminishing sect in Formula One; not many of them actually come to the races very often, and John is one of the few who attends most races. He's an interesting character; heavily tanned and wrinkled, he looks remarkably like Monty Python's Michael Palin and has a similar twinkle in his eye, a look that says he's about to say something incredibly mischievous, which he usually does. He is great company.
Monaco brings out a lot of the families; all of the Jaguar drivers had at least their father there, and Bjorn Wirdheim also had his mother and girlfriend hanging around looking bored. During the first practice session on Thursday all of the Jaguar drivers had a problem; when Mark Webber's car caught fire his father, Big Al, a slowly balding grey haired man with glasses that look as though they are held together with tape even though they aren't, called out for "a small scotch please," holding his hands about 30cm apart and laughing.
When Bjorn clipped the wall his father, a shock of grey hair and sharp, pointed features, disappeared out the door in the direction of the pits; despite all evidence to the contrary he still believes he is a better driver than his son, and perhaps he thought he could show him how it is done. When Christian Klien had a large shunt at Casino Square his father, a generic, Germanic looking man with messy hair and a lazy eye which always makes me look into the wrong one, mumbled something in German and fetched another beer from the fridge.
Frank Williams once famously stated that Formula One is a sport for two hours every two weeks, and that the rest of the time it's a business; I see his point, but I don't know of any other business where the employees bring their family to watch them work, or that has any many fans as Formula One, as many people who want to know as much as is humanly possible about it. I can only assume it's the people that make it this interesting.
We had a four person crew for the two races, with Mark Glendenning flying over from Melbourne to follow the circus for a while. Mark is a little bit too real for Formula One; dry and sardonic, with a rock star appearance in that Australian sportsman way, and permanently worn orange Mika Hakkinen 1999 style sunglasses complimenting obscure reggae record label t-shirts in exactly the way no one in the paddock wears. He is the kind of person who stands out in a crowded room but never notices.
Bira, Mark and I picked up Will at Genoa airport on the way, slotted his tiniest ever computer bag and hand luggage sized green bag into the back of the car and headed towards the French border, stopping for a last real Italian coffee on the way. We make for a good collection in Formula One; Mark is the enthusiasm for the sport, even in the depths of a miserable cold. Will is the professionalism in the face of self inflicted harm, as well as the root cause of it. Bira is the amused sister, the one who knows when to hold the reins and when to say to hell with it. I'm still not sure what my role is; perhaps the occasional driver.
We work well as a unit, because our differences cover each other. Fosters had planned to have an Anzac day barbeque at Imola for all of the Australians in the paddock, in celebration of the public holiday back home which remembers those who fell in all of our wars, but they didn't manage to organise it in time so instead they were inviting people along to their boat for drinks in Monaco. Unfortunately they left the organisation in the hands of an English journalist, one of the few remaining who is against us being in the paddock, one of those who see our existence as a threat to his livelihood.
He made a point of inviting a group of his cronies but leaving us off the list, which was mildly annoying in the way that, say, athlete's foot can be. Mark managed to get an invitation from Big Al, who he knows from back home, and asked him if it was possible to rustle up a couple more. Will got an invitation through being English, but didn't ask for any more. Big Al caught up with me later in the day, apologising at length for not being able to find any more tickets, and so Bira and I headed off to get something to eat, telling the others to call when they were ready to be picked up.
Will redeemed himself by calling later to tell us he'd spoken to the Australian girl from Fosters who was running the show, who was amazed that we weren't there in the first place and insisted that we come down. By this time we'd had a nice dinner and a bottle of wine, and so a quick cab ride later we were sitting in the middle of a packed harbour drinking some good Australian red wine and talking over some loud music late into the night, remaining there until Juan Pablo Montoya sent someone over from his boat across to tell everyone to shut up because he needed to get some sleep.
The Nurburgring didn't have such distractions, and the problem with covering Formula One in a season where there is such domination by one team is that there is little to actually write about; Michael Schumacher won again, and there are only so many ways you can rearrange those words. A lot of journalists have been bored for the last few races, attractive harbours notwithstanding, and journalists can be dangerous when bored.
Rumours come out of boredom. Here's how it works: Journalist A will be bored, and while walking along the paddock will pass Team A and think ‘hmm, wouldn't it be funny if Driver A went to Team B', and later in the media centre will ask Journalists B and C for their thoughts on the matter. Journalist B will say ‘interesting idea' while Journalist C will note ‘ridiculous - that could never happen'.
Both of them will tell two other journalists, one of whom will mention the rumour to TV commentator B from channel B with a ‘what do you think?' caveat. TV commentator B will say ‘dunno', but mention it on the air to his co-host, starting with ‘I heard that...' and stating it as fact. Then someone from a website who happened to watch channel B will post this story in their Formula One news service, at which point Journalist A will think himself an astonishing judge of the paddock.
Rumours are Formula One's version of gossip. I remember last year talking to a Dutch journalist I knew about rumours, and we thought about starting a nonsense website where we made up silly rumours to see how far they ran. The thing is that it is far easier to start a rumour from the paddock; it spreads further and faster, and it's easier to get someone to deny it on the record. And denials only make fans more interested.
It drives Bira crazy, the amounts of increasingly odd rumours that fly around the paddock. "Did you hear about...?" Fritz will start, cut off with a hand up and a sour face that usually stops further conversation.
"I don't want to hear about it; if it's not confirmed I've got nothing to do with it."
"But you have to understand, part of my job is to tell my readers about rumours."
"No I don't have to understand, and I don't have to have anything to do with it."
It's an old argument, but something breaks it up most race weekends. In Germany we were sitting in the McLaren motorhome over coffee for the argument, and it was the team's press relations officer, Ellen, an enthusiastic, frantically busy blonde woman who belies the team's grey image, who walked past and noted my new haircut. "Wow, you look much better with short hair - you look ten years younger, like you're eighteen again!" I just smiled and thanked her, while Bira laughed.
In between the races, Mark and I had celebrated our birthdays two days apart, and we'd had an unintended big night of drinking, in the middle of which the idea had occurred to us that it would be an ideal time for Bira to cut my hair off. In retrospect it did need to go, but it may have been a better idea to wait until the morning. I had a clue to this when she had finished and said "hmm, you look like Rod Stewart now."
"Hey John," I greeted the grinning blonde man on Friday morning in Germany, "how's things?"
"I Don't Want To Talk About It," he smirked. "Have you seen the new issue of our magazine yet? Every Picture Tells a Story."
"Oh God; she told you."
"That you had a haircut? Sure. The problem with haircuts is that The First Cut is the Deepest."
"Do you need me for this conversation?"
"Don't be like that - I want to talk to you with Every Beat of My Heart."
"I'm pretty sure Bira is looking for me now."
"I don't think she is, but Maggie May be – Some Guys Get All the Luck."
"Right – I'm off."
"Is That the Thanks I Get? If you're around later you should pop back for drinks – play your cards right and Tonight I'm Yours."
"Why – Do You Think I'm Sexy? I know I have Hot Legs, but I didn't know you felt that way."
"I'm going to stop now – I'm feeling slight queasy after this conversation."
"I'll pretend it didn't happen if you do."
Bira was still pleased with herself at the end of the day, the story of my unusual haircut having done the rounds of all those we know in the paddock and Will, who hadn't actually noticed the great lack of hair after we picked him up at the airport the morning before, was still making a point of saying "lovely haircut, that" every time he bumped into me.
The four of us went for dinner that night in one of the ancient restaurants that have been in existence for 300 years, which Germany specialises in. We were served by the idiot brother of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, who brought over a few desultory pages which he claimed was the English menu. We got as far as the listing for "the inserted wine grower steak, the neck from young port" before realising something was terribly amiss.
"Excuse me sir?" Mark called.
"Yeeeeesssssssss?" replied the terribly lisping man, to a collection of vaguely muffled giggles.
"I was wondering if we could have the German menu please - we don't seem to understand the English one." He needn't have bothered - we all had schnitzel or steak anyway, although unfortunately there was parsley on them, which Bira didn't notice. Which was a problem, as she's rather allergic to it. As her face grew hotter, she bolted out into the main part of the restaurant after eating before returning several moments, laughing.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"I went to ask the waiter for some water," she said, taking a sip from the glass in her hand.
"That's comedy genius, that is," Will noted.
"No, no, no – I must have looked flushed from the parsley, so he filled a glass and, without warning, threw it at me!" As she said this, a furious looking middle aged blonde woman stormed past, dripping, with a highly animated, lisping waiter in her wake. "I ducked."
The weekend in Germany ended without incident. In Monaco, after a race to forget for Jaguar with one car crashing out on the first lap and the other catching fire again not long after, I was sitting with Bjorn and talking about our weekends as Nav stormed in, the lack of sunglasses on his face an outward reflection of the shock he felt, with Christian Klien in tow, looking chastened.
"What do you mean the diamond's not there?" he yelled into the walkie talkie. "Well look some more!" Bira had walked in just behind him, smelling a story.
"You've lost the diamond?" she asked.
"Yeah, bloody useless clods."
"So can we run that as a story?"
"Well, you..." his face changed, realising suddenly that there was a bright side to the weekend, "well, it's a fact, I guess." It's all good publicity, as long as they spell your name right. She turned around to Christian's father and said "I hope your insurance is up to date" – he just smirked and went to get another beer.
So what is Formula One? It's not Monaco or the Nurburgring, although both tracks play their part. It's not glitz and glamour, and it's not really the racing, although that's the excuse for everyone to be there. Formula One is the people that make up the circus, the people who love each other and hate each other and interact enough to carry it around and let the show happen eighteen times a year (and think that eighteen is too much).
These people are Formula One, and they are the reason I keep coming back for more.
I recently received an email from some friends asking me if I would attend their forthcoming wedding. He is Norwegian, she is German, I am Australian. I met them in Paris when he was working in the French office of the American company I used to work for, and they have since moved to Frankfurt. A lot of my friendships go like that; I have friends of many nationalities, in many other countries, doing many different types of jobs. I love the diversity, but it becomes difficult to keep them all close. They asked me if I would be able to attend, but unfortunately I will be on the other side of the world as it will be held on the day before the Canadian Grand Prix. My parents have their fortieth anniversary on the day of the Japanese Grand Prix. My sister's wedding will be held in Scotland in the middle of the week after the British Grand Prix, in part so that I can attend. Birthdays constantly fall on race weekends on the other side of the world.
Formula One doesn't leave a lot of time for personal relationships outside of the paddock. Formula One is a jealous beast. Formula One wants us for herself, wants our sole attention.
I recently received an email from another friend of mine telling me that he would be in Barcelona for the Grand Prix; he found a cheap flight from Ireland, he wanted to lead me astray, and he was really happy about coming over, whether at the thought of seeing me or drinking Spanish beer - I'm not entirely sure. Either way, Sean has worked out the best way to see me is to come to Formula One and wait; he has been to a number of races now, and apart from the resultant damage to my liver every one of them has been great.
I stayed in a just large enough room in an apartment block turned hotel with Will and Bira in an area of Barcelona near la Sagrada Familia, an area of the city that begins to calcify into suburbs within blocks of our hotel. A hotel room on a race weekend is half baggage storage, half bed, and with Will away at a function Sean, Bira and I started the damage to ourselves before she retreated ahead of our offense, which was a metro ride away at Las Ramblas.
The life of a Formula One journalist sounds impressive from the outside; following the circus around should give us all an opportunity of seeing the grand cities of the world, to experience lives lived by others, to see all that we miss by living somewhere else. The reality is more prosaic. So many of the races are held in the middle of nowhere, in a field far from the cities everyone has heard of but never seen. So when a race is held somewhere close to something interesting, an extra effort needs to be made to avoid missing it entirely.
Bira has a saying that she uses a lot: yom asal, yom basal; which loosely translates from Arabic to 'some days are honey, some days are onion'. Seeing these grand cities, seeing them with my friends, is the honey. I just wish she'd use a bigger spoon sometimes.
Sean and I walked all the way up Las Ramblas and then all the way back, swapping text messages like pizza slices on a hungry night with Will until we found him. We followed the instructions on his phone from bar to bar, searching for the fun that was already there, that was inherent in our being together in the first place, that didn't need yet another venue but merely more lubrication for our already moist tongues.
"I'm going back to the hotel," I stated in the fifth bar, the one that looked like the others but different, the one that had the misfortune of welcoming us in at three in the morning. "I've got an interview in the morning."
"No you're not," Will indignantly slurred, "we've only just got here. I'm getting you a drink, and then you and I will work out the questions you've got to ask tomorrow."
"I'm going back to the hotel now; I can be either tired or hungover tomorrow, but I'm not going to be both. You should really come back too, given that I have the keys."
"You are staying here and drinking; the interview will be better if you're still drunk."
Arguing with a drunk is like wading through a tank of molasses; mildly amusing at the time, but slow going and messy.
"Don't ye have to work tomorrow?" Sean asked, not unreasonably, at four.
"I give up - I'm off. Can you look after Will and tell him I'll leave the door open for him?"
"You're not going anywhere – I'm buying some more drinks."
Barcelona works to my timetable; no one goes out until eleven at night, then they stay up until the sun rises, and they can't understand why the rest of the world doesn't understand them. Barcelona doesn't know what nine in the morning looks like. Barcelona explains why no one did anything other than drink bad coffee and chain-smoke when I used to come over for work in my past life. Barcelona doesn't work to a Formula One timetable.
I walked back up Las Ramblas to Placa de Catalunya to find a crowd of people waiting for the taxis that weren't there. I moved on, headed in the rough direction of our hotel; it gave me time to sober up, it gave me time to think. Barcelona fell noisily out of bars and restaurants all around me, hugged itself and moved on to the next one, yelling to itself all the while.
Vamos al bar al que fuimos la semana pasada, el de la camarera tan mona.
No, quiero ir al otro lugar; ése era un asco.
John One wasn't in Imola because his wife was ill, and he stayed home to look after her. Imola was a bit onion in his absence; it was faintly blurred around the edges without our usual chat; no-one makes fun of my flat cap quite as well as he does.
Formula One doesn't have friends. Formula One is its own social life. Somewhere between the two is everyone in the paddock.
John rang me during the week before Barcelona to reply to my email, to talk about work, to see if I'd had a haircut, to shoot the breeze and to catch up with each other. When he saw me in Barcelona, he just smiled and waved me over.
"How's your wife?"
"Oh, she's fine now, but she was annoyed at being in hospital on her birthday."
"But everything is okay now?"
"Sure, no problems at all. Did I miss anything in the paddock last week?"
"We decided not to hold the race; there seemed little point doing it without you there."
"It wouldn't have made much difference to our results lately."
I wish I'd asked what had been wrong with his wife, but I didn't know how. I think he wanted to tell me, but didn't want to start it up in the conversation. I was just happy that she was okay now, and that he was too. Formula One doesn't like us to get too personal; Formula One doesn't do emotions. John is one of my Formula One friends.
No me puedo creer que ganara el Valencia; el entrenador del Barcelona es un burro.
Al menos por una vez no ganó el Madrid.
The damp boulevards of Barcelona dully shone, the gloom stirred slightly by the Gaudi designed streetlights suspended well overhead. Like so much of the city the lights were designed to be beautiful rather than functional, but with light seemingly spilling from every window it didn't matter much. I walked north until I reached Casa Mila, turned right and continued until I found Casa Batllo, and then headed north again. Antoni Gaudi left an indelible mark on his city, was more influential in Barcelona than any architect in any other major city in the world.
I'd been talking about Gaudi earlier that day in the paddock with Bjorn. One of the stranger aspects of my job is it allows me to talk to people I never would have met in my former life, back in the days when I thought Grand Prix drivers were untouchable gods who lived a life of unimaginable privilege and plenty. Bjorn is a smart, shy, thoughtful person who has a foot in the door of Formula One and is growing in himself to fill the frame, and helping him write a column has given me an insight into the workload required to do a job that I had previously thought required little more than the ability to steer well.
Bjorn doesn't get out much; his team has his every movement logged and accounted for before he moves. Sometimes I wonder if they put a barcode on him for ease of movement. When he talks about driving his eyes look up as though he is seeing the lap again and marking it for content, but I can't help but think about how many of his future memories pass him by unheeded outside the gates.
"Have you been to la Sagrada Familia?" I asked as he worked through the bland chicken, pasta and broccoli lunch that accounts for every meal I've seen him eat.
"No, I haven't had much time to see anything actually. Is it good?"
"It's one of the most astonishing buildings I've ever seen, and it's still not finished."
"How long have they been building it?"
"Well over a hundred years."
"That's amazing! Why has it taken so long?"
"Well, it is the Spanish building it. And the architect was run over by a tram, which slowed things up a bit. But even so, it's is an amazing building."
"I'll have to try and see it," Bjorn replied, knowing as he spoke that there was no way his timetable would allow it over the weekend.
Bjorn and I are opposites in so many ways; he is younger than me, and his life has been focused on performing increasingly better in a collection of cars as he has made his way through the junior ranks with an eye permanently fixed on getting to where he is now. My life has been completely unfocused, with a number of different interests and avenues somehow allowing me to end up sitting next to him in his team's motorhome. His movements are deliberate, with purpose, even if it's just to pick up the pepper; I sometimes feel like a random collection of ill fitting bones and flesh.
He knows that he has missed a lot, but he also knows that his focus has to be absolute if he wants to go further in his career. I've seen a lot of things in my time, but have always wished for some of the focus that he has in spades. He's got plenty of time to do the things I tell him about when we chat in the paddock, but for now he always laughs at the increasingly ludicrous stories I tell him about our nights away from the paddock. I could already imagine the wry smile he would have on his face when I tell him about walking across Barcelona at 4:30 in the morning.
Hey nena, ven aquí un minuto.
Lárgate borracho idiota; ¿Qué te hace pensar que quiero hablar contigo?
I had entered into a cramped area of Barcelona, the buildings looming into the streets, bending over the footpath as if to block out the inky sky. A theatre had finished its play and the patrons were mingling with those from the overflowing bars in the already cramped streets, everyone trying to talk over the noise of everyone else.
The streets no longer ran straight, preferring to mix with each other, mirroring the patterns of those walking on them. I had no idea where I was, relying instead on heading in the approximate direction of the hotel and relying on luck. There were few suggestions that there was a Grand Prix being held in the area; one desultory poster showing Alonso driving through what looked like mustard gas apologetically taped to a window was the only sign that it may have been a different weekend to any other.
The only place I did see any overt publicity for the race was at the Baha Beach Bar. The walls were covered in posters and images from the race, and they had signs in Spanish and English welcoming race fans. The location was picked because McLaren had held a function there the year before which Will remembered fondly, and walking in we spotted a few team members sitting at one of the bars, as though the team bus from last year had forgotten to return for them.
Will and I met up with Sean there the first night, with Bira having sensibly chosen an early night ahead of the weekend; she often worries about the balance of our relationship between editor and friend, and I think on occasions like that she defers and lets me get on with my friends, as though I wouldn't want her to be with us, as though they're not her friends as well as mine.
The first night back with friends you haven't seen in a while is about remembering the patterns that re-emerge, the jokes and the routines you use with these people and how they differ from those with others. We worked our way through the cocktail list as we drew each other in to the conversation, telling increasingly outlandish stories and trying to out do each other. Words spoken among friends are not as important as the way they are relayed, as the way that Sean will pull his mock outraged face before bursting with laughter, the way Will slightly smirks before pulling a dead pan face and then comes out with yet another outrageous comment, the way Sean will take off his watch before launching into yet another tale, waving his hands in illustration.
We ended up trying to sneak into a darkened hotel room, me ahead with my hands out in front of me like I was staring in a zombie film, and Will holding on to my belt to pull him along, banging into furniture and loudly shhing each other while Bira pretended to sleep and tried not to giggle.
The night took its toll on me; the next morning, after an hour or so sleep, Will was standing over me yelling to bring me back to the world. The shower was no help; there was only hot water for one person, and Will had helped most of that find the floor all the way out past the kitchen before mopping some of it up with Bira's t-shirt; and by the time I found myself downstairs choking down some Spanish coffee with the consistency of mud I was turning various shades of green.
"You look like crap," Will smirked, looking like an ad for a Swiss health tonic, a look he maintained all weekend until he filed his last report on Monday and then promptly passed out in a cafe over a cup of coffee.
"Shut. Up." I syllabled, slowly.
"Look, just go back to sleep, will you?" Bira stated as she bought me some water.
"No. I'll. Be. Fine."
"Seriously, get some sleep. You've got nothing planned at the track for this morning – I'll come back into town and pick you up after lunch."
"Yeah, yeah. Go on." I'd like to say that I thought about the balance between being a friend and being a boss. I'd like to say that I realised that she got the balance right, as usual. I'd like to say these things, but within two minutes I was back in bed and sound asleep.
Te digo que le gustaba; no me puedo creer que me hicieras irme.
Afronta la realidad; estaba hablando contigo sólo porque su amiga estaba hablando conmigo.
I was back at the hotel, sober and tired and happy. Walking a city is always the best way to see it, and despite thinking I wouldn't get a chance to do so I'd managed to squeeze a walk into a busy weekend, at the cost of mere sleep. I walked past yet another bar, the one that Bira and I had gone to the day before.
We'd been to a karting event put on by Bridgestone, and on the way the traffic was reduced to a 2km/h crawl that made Silverstone look like most organised circuit known to man. A few hundred metres in Bira said "just so you know, this has absolutely nothing to do with you," and began sobbing silently. It must have been the onions.
We missed out on the start of the karting race, and after hours in the cold she sat in the car and quietly fumed. At the end of it Will brought another journalist who took the death seat and offered Bira driving directions in overabundance while she glowered and sped off into the night.
"I'm going to the hotel," I told them as we stopped on the corner near a jazz bar, keeping my eye on Bira all that time.
"Oh, come on, join us!" Will demanded while Bira stared straight ahead.
"No, it's okay; I'll see you later."
"I wish someone would ask me what I want," she finally exploded, tears streaming again before suddenly pulling up to a halt and demanding "you drive!"
"You lot always expect me to be the responsible adult. I always have to look out for you – every time any of you have a problem, I try to fix it. I'm pigeon-holed as the mum. Well I'm not your mum! And what happens when I need someone to take care of me? Has anyone asked me if I want a drink tonight? Does anyone care?"
I flailed silently, uselessly, as the silence of her brooding descended on us while we circled around the hotel, looking for a parking space in a city full of double parked cars. "Maybe if I moved that road block we could park the car just here," I said, pointing at the construction barrier in front of a skip that was blocking a minute parking space right in front of our hotel.
"There's no way you could fit the car into that."
"No, I couldn't. But you could."
All elbows and shoulders behind the wheel, she conducted the car back and forth, a mantra of "excess damage waiver!" issuing forth each time she nudged the bumper in front until the car was sitting snugly inside a space that was just a couple of inches longer than the car itself.
"Nice job. I couldn't have done that."
"Thanks," she beamed. "I guess that's one thing I'm actually good at."
"How about we grab a drink in that bar across the road?"
"Yes... Thank you. That would be nice."
We sat in there for a while before Will and Sean found us from across the road. The drinks flowed; loud talk and rolling laughter ran with it. It took a while, but eventually the unhappenable happened – the owner asked us to leave, as he wanted to close the bar. We finished our drinks as the shutters were being pulled down, beaming with pride – we finally broke Barcelona.
The spectre of death didn't hang unspoken over the pits of Imola, the grey clouds didn't spread themselves ominously over the circuit like a quilt, there was no gnashing of teeth or wailing for what could have been, and people didn't spend the weekend quietly ruminating on the grim happenings of ten years ago. Racers don't look backward; Formula One doesn't look backward. And the considerations of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were mostly taken care of in Bahrain, to allow for deadlines to be met.
Anniversaries of death become more abstract the further away they get, and eventually it is only the ones that end in zero that get acknowledged. Perhaps it's easier on the living that it should be thus, that these reminders of our own mortality get tucked away for so long and only pulled out once a decade to allow us a brief period of reflection, to take the band aid off for a minute to poke at the scar below before covering it up again.
Ten years. Ten years is long enough to allow us to be living a completely different life, and maybe when these anniversaries come around we are really looking at who we once were.
A decade ago I was living a different life on the other side of the world, a life that was already subtly changing from the one I was used to. I was changing from my youth into an adult, even though I didn't know it at the time; I had a steady girlfriend, had moved out of home, and was even starting to take the concept of work seriously. I was becoming, slowly, my father, although I didn't realise that was a good thing at the time.
Things have changed a lot since then.
This was the first race that Bira was back in the paddock since Italy last year. I was glad for the help; two heads means more ability to cover everything that happens, and as a lot of teams hold press conferences at the same time it meant that we were able to divide and conquer. And it gave me someone extra to talk to in between.
We caught the shuttle into the paddock from the main gate, past what seemed like thousands of brightly coloured team trucks; the circus was back within driving range at last. It was strange to be back in a paddock that housed the teams' motorhomes; in Australia the teams worked out of the pits themselves, in Malaysia they had small temporary structures behind the pits and in Bahrain there were grand permanent structures to house everyone, but Europe means the teams are back to working in their own environments again.
The paddock in Imola is strangely laid out; there is a huge area opening out from the electronic gate and behind the main stand, about the size of one and a half football fields, that is left empty because there is nothing to put in it, and then immediately behind the pits the area is shrunk and the teams jam their mobile homes and trucks into this tiny section. It's as though the designer actively tried to make things as awkward as possible, although in reality it's just that the area wasn't built with modern Formula One in mind.
The press room is merely a reflection of that; one tiny room with journalists using both sides of the flimsy tables to work, everyone knocking knees and elbows as they do. Imola may have history on its side, but it doesn't have anyone in the paddock cheering for it. The cramped media centre meant journalists spent more time downstairs than usual, which just made the paddock seem tighter still. At least the weather was in our favour.
On a gloriously sunny Thursday after our work was done Bira and I walked through the park along the inside of the track in Imola to see the Senna memorial, the beauty of the grounds undiminished by the temporary fences that are a fixture of any contemporary mass sporting event. I don't think that we were looking for anything of note to happen, but it was a beautiful day for a walk.
Parents were pushing their children in strollers, grandparents were taking in the air, a young kid wearing a Nirvana t-shirt ran past kicking a ball with his friends. The brown, ungainly statue marks a spot across the track from where the accident occurred, and was surrounded by a collection of drying, patchy flowers. We would have stopped for longer except that a Japanese woman, talking either to herself or Ayrton and sobbing quietly, looked to need the space to herself more than we did. We left without a word spoken.
I've never been a person to have heroes; I know that a lot of people have those that they look up to and admire, those who by their actions stand out from the rest and provide examples of what we could all be, but for me I've never felt the need for this process.
Except for two people: Kurt Cobain and Ayrton Senna.
These two men were remarkably different in almost every respect, other than their flaws. Everybody has flaws, and this is what joins them to everybody else in the human race. And perhaps because of their flaws I saw more to admire in their achievements, something that allowed me to feel that if they could get past their own demons and achieve what they had, then perhaps there was hope that one day I could live out my own dreams.
Ayrton was everything that I felt I wasn't; he was driven to perfection, to achieve and achieve, and through sheer determination and self belief he found a way to get to the top of his chosen field and mold it to his will, to claim the ultimate accolades and to search for more. I could never understand the motivations that drove him, but his resolve was something I could admire and aspire to.
When I was young I used to be a fan of Nelson Piquet; I'm not entirely sure why now, but I suspect it had something to do with him winning, and doing so with flair. This lasted until the young Ayrton Senna came onto the scene, and something about his abilities and personality instantly clicked with me; I switched allegiances.
This was around the same time as I started watching races with my friend Eyman, who was a fan of Gerhard Berger. Being fans of different drivers made watching the races much more fun for us both, although probably more so for me as my driver won more often. It certainly led to some amusing arguments, usually settled when I asked ‘so who won again?'
This process just ran and ran. Every other Sunday Eyman would come around to my house and we argued about how the race would run, what the qualifying grid meant and how each of our drivers was clearly going to do better because of the track. And then Senna generally took the lead and ran away from everyone else.
Eyman obviously learnt something from those days, because he later switched allegiances to Michael Schumacher, which has given him more to cheer about since then.
Kurt was a different kettle of fish altogether. The first time I heard of him I was listening to the alternative radio station Triple J and this strangely muted song came on, with a lyric claiming ‘I'm so happy cause today I found my friends / they're in my head' before a sonic blast of a chorus made up of the word ‘yeah' screamed over and over, loud enough to peel wallpaper.
Before the song finished, I was hooked.
The announcer noted that the band was Nirvana, that the song was from their forthcoming album, and that they were going to tour Australia soon. I rang up a friend I had seen a few bands with and told him we had to buy tickets, and when he replied that he had never heard of the band I reminded him that I had tried to convince him to see another band the year before that he had never heard of – R.E.M.
When we walked out of the venue, our ears ringing, wringing with sweat and grinning like fools, he said ‘thank you' and hugged me, an action that never happened before or since, and meant more for that fact.
Kurt was the anti-Ayrton. Whereas Ayrton wanted the validity of continual success, Kurt actively tried to crush his own career. Ayrton was supremely fit; Kurt was a junkie with chronic stomach pain all his adult life. Ayrton was charisma; Kurt was anti-charismatic. Ayrton's self belief was evident every time he spoke; Kurt spoke for a disenfranchised generation that didn't know how to verbalise its pain.
Kurt and Ayrton were the ying and yang of my young Gemini life.
BAR are holding a competition over a number of races called Pitstop 4 Real, where the journalists have to form into national teams and, under instruction from the mechanics, change the three tyres from a rolling stop on the current car. It may be just a promotional effort to get their brand out before the public, but it's also a brilliant idea and I couldn't wait to be a part of it.
It was pretty unlikely that I was going to form an Australian team; I'd have been slightly overworked, for a start; so I joined the Italians and was told that my heat would be in Imola. Unfortunately it was against the second string British team, the old guard that the young guys didn't want slowing them up, and they didn't have enough members so I was thrown in with all the old fellows who were mostly there for the drinks after.
BAR made us all put on team shirts and hats for the photo opportunities before sending a stern South African mechanic over to give us instructions. He started talking, and one of the Italian team was translating for the rest of his companions until he was told “and you'll shut up right now”, which focused everybody's attention.
The person who was to be on the wheel gun had to be strong, we were told; it vibrates a lot, and it would be very easy to break a wrist from the force of the machine. Everybody seemed to lean back and look around at that, and after he finished talking we all fought over who would be the guy who puts the new tyre on. Being skinny has its advantages; I got to put the wheel on, and Garry Emmerson got the gun.
Bizarrely they gave us one of the actual cars that were racing that weekend rather than a dummy car; were it up to me I wouldn't have let a bunch of smelly journalists within 100 metres of my cars, apart from myself of course. Each corner had three journalists covering it; gun, wheel off, wheel on, gun; plus a mechanic to make sure we didn't do too much damage, and then they gave us two still run throughs before two moving ones which were for the competition.
Each time the head mechanic held the lollipop down and said something like “Jenson is two seconds behind Michael – go” and then put us to work. It's amazing how much tension is built up in those few seconds; no one wants to be the one the others are waiting for, everyone wants to be first to get their hand on top of the tyre, and even though there was no race the pressure would ramp up just before we were released to work.
After the first static run through our mechanic came over from the front wheel, showed us the nut that had been stripped through incorrect use of gun, and said "well, there goes 700 quid" before tossing it in the bin. Which only ramped the pressure up a little more.
All in all it was quite educational; I learnt that there is no room at all between the brake casing and the wheel rim at the back of the wheel for fingers, that the tyres are heavier than you'd think after you've lifted them up and down a number of times, that as a mechanic I make a damn fine writer, and that a team of Italians with girls will beat a bunch of decrepit Englishmen and a ringer every time they come together in competition.
Still, I was given a nice pair of driving gloves afterwards by the event sponsor, so I'll take that as the team suggesting I should look into driving the cars.
We stayed in Bologna, partly because it's a simply amazing city to see but mostly because it's not far away on the autostrada and the hotels in Imola are block booked by the teams about a year in advance. This gave us the advantage of having access to a number of fine restaurants, and we had been looking forward to devouring a fiorentine steak for about a week.
Driving back into town as the sun set we were anxious to return to a restaurant we had visited last year, which had the best steak either of us had ever tasted. But as we were driving around the ring road surrounding the heart of Bologna a fierce wind tore up, creating a duststorm that was actually moving the car around. Thankfully it softened as we found a parking spot and walked to the restaurant, but unfortunately we were still a little early as it wasn't yet open.
I decided we should find a cafe and have a coffee. It wasn't one of my greatest ideas in retrospect, given that as we walked across the large piazza toward a cafe the heavens opened and we were deluged in a storm of almost biblical proportions. It felt like walking through an ocean on a diet. In the twenty metres or so that we had to walk, we were both soaked to the skin; the guy behind the counter was already pulling out reams of paper towels before we fell through the door.
And then, of course, the restaurant was booked solid when we finally got back there. I had the Nick Cave song 'God is in the House' stuck in my head all evening. I'm sure he laughed, especially when He guided us to the empty trattoria around the corner.
Time throbbed. There wasn't a lot to do after the race; we'd been very busy all weekend, seemingly more than I had been when I went to the races without Bira, and with the race itself going as usual it allowed us to make a reasonably early departure. I had even considered the possibility of getting home as the sun set, a feat I had never been close to achieving.
The tourism department for Emilia Romagna obviously had other ideas.
The local police blocked off the usual route back to the autostrada, directing the stream down a small side street. It made little sense, as the road they blocked off had two lanes, but we figured they knew what they were doing. The traffic built up and up; sitting in a traffic jam is never fun; but when we eventually saw the autostrada we thought we were on the way home at last. Until the road went over a bridge and into the countryside.
It's more than likely that Imola won't be hosting a Grand Prix again, which would vastly reduce the number of tourists the region gets. So clearly our hosts decided to give us a small tour before we left for good. The diversions ran for about sixty kilometers, traffic banked up almost all of the way, and we were eventually forced to stop in the middle of nowhere to get petrol just to keep going on this ridiculous journey. It was either a tourism promotion from hell, or complete spite for taking the race away from them.
From a track that is usually 10 minutes away from the freeway, it took us four hours and a lot of scenery to get onto the main road. The sun well and truly set while we were driving on one of the endless country roads.
All it did was give me time to think. Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts, and some of them die when they get there. Kurt Cobain's death wasn't a complete surprise when it happened. By 1994 the heroin that he started taking to alleviate his stomach pain had taken him over, the adulation of millions was a burden too large for his tender frame, and after a practice run at topping himself in Rome I woke up on April 8 to hear that he had killed himself with a shot gun.
A month later, twenty points down in the championship and in a car that was unable to find its head with the removal of the electronic driver aids he had fought to lose from the sport before arriving at his new team, Ayrton Senna fell out of the lead of the third race of the season with the championship leader Michael Schumacher immediately behind him, struck an unprotected wall head on, and died shortly after.
Both times I was at my girlfriend's house, both times I turned away from her comforting arms, both times I didn't know what to believe, or how. It was a month too far, a month that killed off the concept of heroes for me, a month that was going to remind me of myself for ever.
Both men had their faults; Kurt was a drug addict, was unable or unwilling to listen to those who loved him when they wanted to help him, took himself away from us in a monumental act of spite when he pulled that trigger. Ayrton was too competitive, took too many risks with those around him on track, collided his way into a championship rather than risk losing it in front of millions.
But Kurt gave a new language to his fans, a voice in the dark that spoke to their hearts, he drove the dinosaurs, racists and sexists in rock music back under the skirting boards of existence, he gave hope to every geek in their bedroom that was different to those around them that they could make their voice heard. Ayrton won three World Championships through pure self belief, carried a less than ideal car around and won when he shouldn't have, created a foundation that has made life more bearable for millions of poverty stricken children in his native Brazil.
Heroes may be flawed, but so are most gemstones. And sometimes they shine all the brighter despite that.
The biggest threat to the Bahrain Grand Prix wasn't terrorism; it was British Formula One journalists. "They'll never run it," said one in Melbourne, "it's just too dangerous."
"Yeah, I agree," continued another, "what the hell were they thinking when they put a race in the Middle East? It's asking for trouble; they might as well have painted a large target and erected a sign saying 'aim here'."
"Your boss isn't coming, is she?" another asked me. "Having an Israeli there will make us all targets."
This sort of talk continued into Malaysia, and it was clear that they wished the race didn't exist because they just didn't want to go to the Kingdom, that they thought if they said it often enough it would become truth through repetition.
There's a certain irony to the fact that the biggest doomsayers are now raving about the country in their columns, telling the world how glad they are that their support helped the event come to fruition.
I was always looking forward to Bahrain because I'd never been there, and because I collect countries like other people collect stamps. The reason why I moved to London all those years ago was to see how other people live their lives, how they pass their time. But if emigrating is moving in with your lover then traveling to a new country is flirting with a potential girlfriend, it's that first dazzling spark when you circle round and round each other smiling and wait for the first pieces of the jigsaw to connect.
Remarkably I'd never been to an Arabic nation before. I say remarkable because my best friend of the last 25 years is an Arab, and it seemed an odd oversight. The closest I got was when he and I were in Paris on a cycling trip around Europe when we were both substantially younger and filled with vigour, and we noticed a cheap flight to Baghdad.
The only reason we didn't go was that he is born of Iraqi parents, and was more than slightly concerned at the very real possibility of being drafted into the war then being waged against Iran. I reluctantly took his point, although I'm surprised it took me 16 years to make it to the region, and then only because the Bahrainis had spent almost $200 million to give me a reason to.
There was a lot made of a story that ran not long before the race about some local firebrands destroying a French restaurant because it had the temerity to serve alcohol. Some young religious types, so the story went, rampaged through this restaurant, attacking people for drinking, causing mayhem and damage and torching at least one car. This story was pointed to by a lot of journalists as proof that Bahrain was at the very least an inappropriate host for a race.
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but mostly it's more banal.
Being attached to the mainland and known to be a relatively moderate nation, Bahrain often attracts a lot of Saudis for a big weekend or drinking and carousing. Presumably these actions are not irreligious if you do it away from home. It's not unlike under-aged drinkers near the borders in the US heading over to Mexico or Canada for a little fun away from their parents.
The French restaurant in question was one of the main draws for the Saudi crowd, although the owner was known for being less than an ideal host. It turns out that the 'firebrands' were actually disgruntled patrons, the only person injured in the scuffle was the owner (and even then only slightly), and the car that was torched was his. Strangely I never saw a follow up story reporting this version, despite the facts being widely known in Bahrain.
Will and I had flown in together overnight from London, tired and grouchy from trying to find a position that made sleep possible for more than ten minutes at a time. The customs check was slowed only by the guard trying to find a free space for the stamp in my passport, and minutes later we were in a coffee store in the foyer trying to break a large dinar note to buy a drink to wake us up.
"Are you coming for the race?" asked the man behind us in the line, wearing a racing jacket from a Middle Eastern team I'd never heard of.
"Yes, we're here to cover the race actually," Will advised him, stifling a yawn.
"Oh, that's great!" he smiled warmly. "Please allow me to buy your coffee, as they do not have enough change for you. I hope that you enjoy your stay with us." Nothing like that had certainly ever happened to me in a Starbucks before.
The cab drivers in Bahrain have a great reluctance to use the meter, which put them at odds with Will, who always wants to know when he is being ripped off in any deal he strikes. After stopping briefly at the hotel to drop our bags off and get changed we went downstairs to get a cab to the track. "My friends," a large beaming man said as he walked towards us, his arms outstretched, "I am the owner. Can I help you at all?"
I showed him the fax I had which showed that I had to pick up my pass from the Bahrain University, and he negotiated with the cab driver outside before advising us that the fare would be four dinar (approximately US$10). Unfortunately the owner assumed we wanted to go to the Bahraini Television studios. We sat in the cab for a while in front of the complex trying to explain that we were in the wrong place until a couple of large, heavily armed soldiers walked over to the car.
"Why have you stopped here?" one of them asked us.
"We're in the wrong place, and we can't explain to the driver where we need to go."
He reached in and surveyed the piece of paper in my hand before telling the driver how to get to the university in Arabic, stating "it should be okay now" and then walking back to his post. He was right; the driver took us all the way to the university next to the track, didn't ask for any more money despite the fare being far short of what he should have asked for, and wished us a good stay in his country as he drove off.
The track itself is amazing. It looks like someone built a Grand Prix circuit on the moon, and then turned the heat up. For as far as you can see, there is nothing but sand and sun and bleached blue sky. It looks desolate, dry, beautiful.
And, somehow, it actually looks like it belongs there. The spectator stands were built to reflect the tents that are the postcard image of the region, and like tents they provide shade while being open enough to the elements to allow any cool breeze to waft through like a magic spell. The main pit complex, and the office buildings behind it, looks like the old style forts that are still dotted around the region, albeit with a paint job that was still being completed as we arrived on Thursday. The only building that doesn't seem to belong there is the media centre, which looks for all the world like a large nuclear bunker.
The only problem was that the track was so far away from the capital city Manama, and we didn't have any way to get back there because we'd been told before coming that we wouldn't need a car. Which goes to show that you should never trust a journalist. Eventually Will had arranged for us to get a lift back with Agnes, the FIA's press delegate. I noticed she checked that everyone had their seatbelts on before taking off; I guess that their traffic safety project is being taken to heart by everyone in the organisation.
She dropped us off at her hotel, not far from the Natural Museum where a party was being held by the race organisers to welcome everyone attached to the race to Bahrain. Most of the races hold a small party before everything starts up in haste, but walking around the building to the harbour front we saw at least five hundred guests sitting around a number of large tables with fireworks, a number of bands playing and row after row of buffets piled high with local food.
Being the buffet master, Will was in heaven and almost ran towards them with his eyes on stalks. I've always loved Arabic food, and they had lamb with okra, humus and tabouleh, fish and fowl, shish kebabs and mezze, and dozens of waitresses bringing champagne, wine and beer to the tables to wash it all down with. It was astonishing in its surprise value; no one expected anything on such a grand scale, and it was a perfect reflection of how much the locals wanted to impress the circus with their abilities.
We ended the night drunkenly swapping loud stories with an Italian journalist. No one so much as scowled at us, and when we got to the carpark his car was unmolested.
Bahrain was probably hotter than Malaysia, but without the humidity it seemed like a relief, like a beach holiday from your youth is always hotter and happier than one in the present. Unlike Malaysia all of the team personnel spent a lot of time outside rather than in their refrigerated boxes, as the heat was less draining and easily avoided by sitting in the shade on either side of the promenade-wide paddock or under one of the dry palms along its centre.
"Go see the gold souk," we were told by approximately everyone in the paddock, "it's just amazing." Will and I caught a cab over that night after work to see what everyone was raving about. The market area is a lot of fun; you walk through a white fort styled building into a collection of narrow streets with wall to wall shops, all selling an ever increasing collection of goods that I had no particular interest in. The less useful the product was, the more intense the sales pitch; as soon as they saw the white boys walking down the street the cry went up; "mister, mister; yes?"
By the time we fought through the crowd and eventually found the gold souk (the signs were somewhat contradictory; I felt it was unlikely to be at both ends of the market, as two signs on one post suggested) it was closed, so we didn't get in. "What is it like inside?" we asked of one trader who was just leaving as we arrived.
"You want to buy jewelry? I have special price," he noted, his face lighting up at the prospect of an unexpected sale.
"Not really; we just wondered what it looked like," replied Will.
"You don't want gold?"
"So why you come here then?" he asked, not unreasonably. In the absence of any worthwhile reply we sheepishly wandered off.
We eventually found a little restaurant off the beaten track, and the owner rushed outside to tempt us in. "Hello my friends," he boomed, spreading his arms wide as though he was about to hug a long absent relative. "Please come in; our food is the best you will find here." Taking him at his word we ambled in, slightly embarrassed at the fuss being made of the token foreigners.
He was right, of course; the food was plentiful and good, as though prepared for an honoured guest in someone's home rather than in a cheap and cheerful restaurant near a busy market. There was in fact far too much food to eat between us, and we both waddled out later, sated and as happy as we could be, which pleased our beaming host.
We flagged down the next cab we saw and asked him to take us back to our hotel, and the driver haggled us up from 2 to 3 dinar before asking where it actually was, as he had never heard of the hotel.
"So why you don't dancy dancy, drinky drinky?" he asked over his shoulder, which kind of stumped us as that would be our usual motif.
"We preferred to see your city" I replied; expressing an interest in all things local that always goes down well.
"Very good" he smiled, showing both of his teeth. "It is a good race?"
"Yes, we're enjoying it very much."
"Okay. Ah." We had arrived back to our hotel. "You are staying here? It is a brothel." I had previously considered it as not entirely the neatest place I'd ever been to, but I thought he was being unnecessarily harsh.
The large Arabic gentleman deeply engaged in a seemingly very personal conversation with a heavily made up eastern European woman in the foyer made me think that the driver may have had a point.
The music blasting out from the restaurant in the back of the hotel was mind-numbingly loud, and being a veteran of any number of gigs in my time I'd like to think that I know loud when I'm pummeled to the ground by it. I followed the noise into the back room and saw a woman on stage singing to a gaggle of rich locals sitting at tables covered with glasses, but Arabic music at Metallica volume isn't really my thing so we adjourned across the street to the local cafe.
The cafe was one of many, just a hole in the wall with a television showing Moonraker in Arabic and plastic chairs scattered around some ratty old tables outside, with crowds of men leaning into them and slapping dominos loudly onto the tables, all laughing and waving their arms around while talking a million miles an hour or bubbling away on their hookahs.
Our arrival wasn't subtle; being the only white faces in a non-tourist area marked us out immediately; and almost everyone watched us walk in. "Salaam alecum," I greeted the young boy who was working there, with one of the few pieces of Arabic I knew. "Salaam alecum," he smiled, touching his chest and then shaking hands with us both and continuing in English, "would you like to take a pipe?" Will and I looked at each other and rejoined in the affirmative as everyone else turned back to their games.
The boy scooted off before returning with a large hookah, a domino set and two cups of coffee. We sat there passing the hose back and forth, commenting on the sharp taste (it was apple flavoured tobacco, from a long list of flavours on offer) and pretending we had half a clue about how to play dominos.
We sat there, the only pale faces in a crowd of Arabs, in a country where I'd been told we could never be safe. The thought was absurd; these people no more wanted to harm us than they wanted to smash plates over their heads. They greeted each other, and us, by saying 'peace be with you', and I felt safer roaming the streets there than I had in New York. Sitting back to back with these men and watching the plumes of smoke rise and mix together I felt complete tranquility, and the joy of being a stranger in a strange land.
We arrived early at the track on race day, and for the first time we could see something other than sand and endless sky. On the horizon, a squalling storm headed as though guided by GPS towards us. We made the restaurant tent just as the first drops fell, and the whole structure vibrated to the buffeting of a mass of loose sand from the other side of the island. The locals walked around with a grace lost to their guests, who all rushed around to file a story or cover some equipment.
It was strange how calm the majority of the weekend was; at most races there is an endless blur of speed and activity, as though everyone is hastening the end of another long weekend of work and thinking ahead to the next one. But in Bahrain it was as though we were all on a group holiday, with a race thrown in at the end of it for our own amusement. People stopped to talk to each other constantly, smiling behind the omnipresent sunglasses and soaking up the sun.
After the race I had the usual workload to deal with, but I cleared it away fairly easily before heading back outside to watch the sunset. Usually only the photographers watch sunset on a race weekend, and then only to get a mood shot to go along with their images of cars, but this time there were a number of others out to watch the sun fold itself away for the night. Describing a sunset is like explaining colour to a blind person, so all I'll say is that seeing the sunset in the desert is something that leaves you substantially richer in spirit than it found you.
All the dread and fear that was thrown at me before the race - of terrorism threats and a clash of Western civilization with the Islamic tradition - was shown to be a lie; I'd walked into the lion's den, put my head in its mouth, and it licked me on the nose.
The only moment that broke through this calm for me was just before the race, when the race sponsor Gulf Air flew one of their planes so low over the paddock that I felt its shadow. On its approach the pilot wobbled the plane's wings up and down a few times before banking steeply and gliding past the huge race tower looming over turn one. I stood bolted to the floor, completely unable to move as the hairs on my arms stood on end, having flashbacks to the moment a few years ago when I'd seen a plane fly into a tall building from my office window.
But this was nothing but a bad dream; a flashback to a life lived long ago and now kept in an empty photo box on a shelf an ocean away. Every conversation I had with a Bahraini revolved around their desire to do the right thing, to be as good as the rest, to be a part of the gang.
Arabic cloth makers have a tradition of weaving a single gold thread through their fabric to indicate the quality of their fabric; it's not something that will be clear or obvious to everyone, but in its existence is the proof of itself. If the tireless work of the Bahrainis - bringing their dream to fruition, ahead of schedule, and setting new standards for a Grand Prix track - is that gold thread, then the fabric of their society is sound.
We're constantly told that if we change our lifestyles because of the will of terror then the terrorists have won. Part of the process of not giving in to terror is acknowledging that not everyone is an enemy. Bahrain, a tiny group of islands in the middle of a tumultuous region, reached out in friendship when it opened its doors to the world and invited everyone in.
And the only way to have a friend is to be one.