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.