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."