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.