"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.