You wake up and wonder where you are. You hear the traffic noise outside and try and decipher it – was that a tram? Is that siren American? Are they speaking Japanese outside? Some mornings it's too hard to open your eyes straight away, and the only evidence you have comes aurally.
I based myself in New York for the final rounds of the championship because I could, because amore mio is there and I missed her like crazy all year, because it's easier than being based in Italy for the flyaway races, because, because, because. I spent a month on the road and in planes, and it all gets a little confusing sometimes. Culture lag is worse than jet lag any day of the week.
New York is so huge that it becomes small again. The buildings are so big that you don’t notice them - all those buildings on top of each other cancel themselves out, and all you see is the street and the people. Nobody but tourists look up, and even they soon stop. Against that the circuit at Indianapolis is wide and spacious, and as such the buildings look bigger somehow.
I was amazed by the sheer scale of the place: there is nothing like this anywhere else in motor racing. The Bombardier Pagoda towers over you, over everything - walking under it and the stands nearby is similar in scale to walking through an oil refinery or a power plant. The media centre is a four storey building on the front straight, the other side of the pagoda and hundreds of metres away from the paddock. I felt sorry for the various teams' press officers who had to walk back and forth a number of times a day - they must have walked at least ten kilometres by the end of the weekend between their offices and us.
The paddock itself is huge too. There are the front pits which house the cars and run alongside the pitlane with rows of buildings behind - the engineers having the first floor and the management upstairs in the first row. The teams created cafes on the next row while using the other side for storage, with the remainder going unused all weekend. The smaller teams have never had this much space available to them at any other race - it's probably more than the grander teams are used to as well.
The Suzuka paddock in Japan, on the other hand, is tight and contained with a large open area behind it. It's a great paddock, and with no motorhomes for the teams in either Indianapolis or Suzuka, the final two races offered a refreshing change from the European season, as the team members had nowhere to hide.
Not many journalists actually make the long trip out to Japan; it's an expensive ordeal and quite difficult to arrange logistically. As such, it seemed like there was a lot more space for everyone who did make it to Suzuka. There is a path all the way along the back of the actual pits where all the team members hung out, and everyone seemed a lot more friendly than usual - it felt like the last day of term and everyone was just waiting for the headmaster to ring the bell and let us all go home.
Including me. When I was first offered the opportunity to follow the Formula One circus around the world I jumped at it - what racing fan wouldn't? But everything that seems too good to be true usually is, and the downside of seeing the races is that I've spent the whole year in flux, either traveling to a race, being at a race, or writing about it. Or doing my laundry.
It's been brilliant, of course, but tiring. And as such I was actually looking forward to the end of the season, to stopping somewhere and doing nothing for a while and remembering what that's like. But before that happens, I was too busy storing up interviews from the last two races like a squirrel stores nuts for winter. For two weekends I spent most of my time walking back and forth from the media centre to the teams to organise an interview or to do them, to transcribe or discuss them.
La redattrice wasn't at either the US or Japanese Grand Prix, so I had to cover everything myself, which didn't help. This meant that I spent a lot of time either talking to her via computer (Indy) or trying to get my computer to work to do so (Japan). Not being at the track meant she was going crazy trying to control everything remotely, which isn't ideal.
To ease my first solo Grand Prix, La redattrice arranged for BMW North America to loan me with a car for the US Grand Prix weekend, and they must have thought I was someone important to the company, as a Laguna Blue M3 was waiting for me in downtown Indianapolis. I felt like I was on one of those hidden camera shows on television, that it must have been a practical joke or something, but they handed me the keys and ushered me on my way without a second glance.
Somehow I managed to put 400 miles onto the car. It was great.
Indianapolis is nothing but freeways, endless strip malls and wide open space. Every long block looks like every other one. It looks like Wichita, like Sioux City, like every other mid western town in the United States. Ian, the friend I was staying with, could find his way around because he lives in Phoenix, and it's much the same as Indianapolis, but hotter. The endless driving made me feel jetlagged even though there's only one hour difference from New York. One hour and a world away.
It was a quiet weekend in Indianapolis, because I was working so much and because there was no one there to talk to – no la redattrice, no Will Gray. I would drive in to the circuit every day, stopping at Starbucks for a cup of burnt espresso and wishing I had my coffee machine with me, then Ian would stand around for hours at the end of the day, waiting for me to get out of school before finding something else to do.
Fosters put on a kart race the first night for the assembled media - we missed the start but made it in time for the food. All of the journalists there probably felt that because they write about racing they know how to do it, but the final race was lined almost only with photographers - maybe all those years of watching the real drivers hit their racing lines lap after lap left them with racing knowledge imbedded in their hands, feet, and head.
The food was good - lots of Buffalo wings and thick steaks - and the portions were American sized. Unfortunately my stomach has become European sized, so it was all a bit too much for me. At the end of the night I noticed a couple of guys sneaking some cases of Fosters out to their car – obviously they weren't Australians.
On the other side of the world in Japan all of the journalists, as well as many team members, were staying in Yokkaichi - a 45-minutes trip from the circuit - and the race organisers put on some buses to ferry us back and forth. The ride in to the circuit every morning was long and dull, and the Brits spent most of the time amusing themselves by making fun of each other's reports in the previous day's newspapers. It was either that or look out the window.
The first time you see one of the walled houses with the sculpted trees that look like real sized bonsai trees it seems impossibly exotic, but they soon tend to blur into each other just like houses anywhere else do. And I'd already seen more of the country than most of the others anyway.
I've always wanted to go to Japan - something about the place has always intrigued me, and any movie that was set there, even something as bad as 'Black Rain', was guaranteed to get me through the door. I saw 'Lost in Translation' just before I left, and it made me even keener to get there.
I flew from New York to Tokyo a few days early so as to see the place before work started, and it was as baffling and as brilliant as I expected. In Europe I haven't had too many problems - I speak small amounts of a few languages, and if that fails at least I can guess what a sign might say - but Japanese might as well be Sanskrit as far as I'm concerned.
Luckily the Japanese people are completely the opposite of their portrayal in the movies. Friendly and approachable, they are only too happy to help you out in any way they can. I must have looked completely baffled looking at the subway map in Tokyo station as an elderly gentleman came along and asked, in English, where I need to go before walking me to a guard and asking for directions on my behalf and then leading me to the platform I needed.
That doesn't happen in New York.
Using my new found navigation skills I had locals lead me almost to the door of my hotel and met up with Will, my partner in crime for the week, before heading straight out to Shinjuku for sushi on a conveyor belt and a bottle of sake each. He didn't fall for the wasabi / avocado joke, sadly, but we laughed a lot and the city seemed even better, brighter after dinner.
The next day we caught the commuter train out of town (the Japanese seem to treat trains as their bedrooms - every single person fell asleep almost as soon as they got on, always managing somehow to wake up as their station approached) to the outskirts of the city and Mount Takao. We climbed a mountain, walked through a stream, looked at where Mount Fuji would have been if it wasn't so overcast, strolled through a temple complex and saw some monks walking on their wooden flip flops, caught a gondola and another train, went to the Bridgestone press conference and watched Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and Jean Todt look as bored as I've ever seen them.
This doesn't happen every day at the other races, I can tell you.
Afterwards we went for dinner with Alan Baldwin from Reuters and their local sports writer Alasdair Himmer at a really funky little restaurant near his hotel (Japanese people look hilarious with dreadlocks, but they're happy and that's what counts) before being pointed towards a good bar in nearby Roponggi. It's easy to become lulled into the prices in Japan – after a brief period you start thinking that anything under Y1000 is quite reasonable, and it's only later that you realise that $10 is actually quite expensive for a beer.
We didn't realise until far too late. Not that we would have cared if it had been pointed out to us - we were having too much fun watching the ex-pats dance like idiots to cheesy Japanese versions of Europop. Talking later to a few of them we mentioned our jobs, and one guy drunkenly proclaimed that Kimi Raikkonen was definitely going to win the World Championship. I was having none of it - I declared that if he did I would shave my head on the spot.
Drunk people tend to say stupid things like that.
The sun started to rise through the high-rise buildings around us and we realised we still had to get back to the hotel to check out before heading to meet Alan at his hotel. Will had never been to the circuit either, and without Alan to point us in the right direction we may never have made it, no matter how friendly the locals. Eventually we made the bullet train with minutes to spare, and promptly passed out.
If you wake up and your girl is next to you, you're in New York. If you wake up and there's a guy in another bed near you, you're in Japan. If you wake up in bed alone, you could be in Italy, could be in Indianapolis. If you wake up on the sofa you could be anywhere.
It was freezing in Indy, which surprised the hell out of me as most of the races this year have been scorchingly hot. I guess autumn is on the way. Rain hung in the air like an inadvertent insult all weekend, looming over us like something we said and wished we could take back but couldn't. Every single session was affected by rain - either by a fresh fall or through the track being damp, and at times the rain was so heavy that you could see the spray coming off the cars four flights up in the media centre as they headed down the main straight.
I hadn't actually packed any warm clothes, which meant I had to walk up to the museum and donate some money to the Tony George Benevolent Fund for an IMS fleece, but at least I was warm thereafter.
Two weeks later, the weather in Suzuka was a marked improvement on Tokyo, where it drizzled most days and the low clouds meant you couldn't see very far if you were up high. Tokyo makes New York seem small, but from Alan's hotel room on the 23rd floor it was hard to tell. As though by design, Suzuka was mostly mild and dry, and there were parties every night, seemingly as much to fill in time before the end of the season as to promote the various hosts.
"You look dreadful," Toyota's press officer Chris Hughes exclaimed upon our arrival in the paddock on Thursday morning.
"Thanks, you're the tenth person to say that," I sighed, explaining that I've been spending the last few days with Will in Tokyo. "Ah - that explains it," he smirked.
I would have that same conversation about twenty times that day, but at least everyone knew that it was entirely Will's fault - I had no part in the beer purchasing process, other than actually buying half of them.
Honda hired out the funfair next to the track (and it must be said - walking to work through a funfair in the morning must make this Grand Prix the most surreal on the calendar), put on food and drinks and opened up some rides for our entertainment requirements. Riding on a rollercoaster is not good for a hangover. Riding it twice because everyone else demanded another go is cruel and unusual.
But it looked beautiful from afar. It was a cool, clear night with a fat yellow moon hung like a ripe pomegranate over the huge ferris wheel, lit bright with green neon covering the wheel and yellow lights on the carriages. The whole scene was reflected in the large pond next to the pits and soundtracked by the many cicadas chirruping all around the circuit. It seems strange now to associate such a peaceful scene with a Formula One circuit, but it was without doubt the most serene weekend of the racing year.
Most people assume that the Japanese run to immaculate timetables, but the reality was that often the buses were very late if they turned up at all, and the cancellation of the bus most of us were going to catch back to our hotels meant that we could go to the party the circuit put on after the Honda do.
The party was in the main restaurant of the Circuit Hotel, and there was a large group of locals standing around outside waiting for a glimpse of someone famous. The advantage of looking different to the locals is that security allows you access to anywhere without question, and we walked in and out with impunity. After a few more beers the British journalists came up with the great idea of yelling out to anyone they vaguely recognised as they walked into the restaurant to see if the locals would photograph them.
It worked, and there must be a lot of Japanese people who looked at their photos later and wondered who the hell I am.
Every track this year has had fans camping nearby, and the flyaways are no exception. In Indianapolis there are fields near the track for parking and camping, with the locals in their mobile homes and tents stretched to the horizon. The Japanese version is to park their car in a small asphalt carpark and build a tent-like structure attached to it. This looked uncomfortable but it allowed them to bring far more belongings with them - they all seemed to have enormous barbeque plates and full kitchen supplies, for a start.
The Americans seem to be the keenest fans I've come across. Anywhere else, almost nobody turns up before Friday testing (including most of the journalists and team members), and yet as I walked towards the Indianapolis paddock the grassy knolls along the back side of the track were already covered in fans, keen not to miss a second of the action.
They walk everywhere during the breaks between sessions - at other tracks the fans mostly find their spots and stay there throughout the weekend. But looking down from the top of the media centre at Indy, the circuit seemed like an ant colony with people walking here and there and back and again, disregarding the weather entirely in pursuit of a different view, a different photo of the cars when they return.
The Japanese fans are different. Every morning I had to walk through the funfair to get to work, and it's strange to walk through a heaving crowd of people who are almost all a head shorter than me - it's like wading through a sea of black hair. It reminded me a lot of Italy, although the Japanese actually understand the concept of queuing. Not that it helped - the lines went back for miles as the guards methodically worked through the tickets.
Living in Italy meant I had no guilt whatsoever about jumping the queue, and because I wasn't local no one seemed to mind at all.
The Japanese also seem to work in a similar manner to the Italians, throwing a number of people on a job rather than having one person do it efficiently, as shown by the large number of people working to organise the phone lines in the media centre, none of whom managed to allow me to get through to the outside world for two days. Alasdair from Reuters mentioned that no one seems to realise that outside of the big cities Japan is a third world nation, and I was starting to see his point.
Still, there's no other race in the world where I can watch a rollercoaster from the media centre, so that's something.
Motor racing in America is different to the rest of the world, which is probably why they don't understand the appeal of Formula One in big numbers. Most towns have a midget racing track, dirt or asphalt, and the fans go there because they can relate to the drivers, maybe even get to talk to them for a while between races, a concept that Formula One left behind years ago.
BAR organised a suite for the journalists at the local midget racing track for Friday, but the rain meant it was deferred until the next night. The event was great fun, a reminder of what racing can actually mean outside of multi-million dollar budgets and worldwide feeds. The irony was that I was reminded of this via a team that spends more on promotion for a race or two than the guys on track spend on their cars in a year.
BAR always have a photographer on hand at these events to record it for a website they provide to the journalists, and he seems to be obsessed with taking shots of us eating. This week's victim was Autosport's Jonathan Noble, who was being instructed on how to eat a burger: "Put it in your mouth. That's it. Use both hands. Now take all of it."
"You know," smirked one of the girls who works for the team as she walked by, "he says that to all the girls too," bringing the impromptu shoot to a close as Jon started choking with laughter.
Having been out every night we'd been in Japan, Will and I decided to take a night off from the parties to sample the many and varied delights of Yokkaichi. The problem was that we worked until 9:00 pm, and by the time we actually got back to town it was mostly closed. I guess they don't get many foreigners around there too often - an hour or so inland from Nagoya and substantially off the beaten tourist track - so they understandably cater to the local hours.
We wandered around for a while looking for a noodle bar, and at one stage saw a guy standing alone on a corner in front of a door, all signs behind him as usual in Japanese. I wondered if maybe it was a restaurant, but as I looked over, the guy used what was presumably his one word of English, forlornly asking: "sex?" We moved along quickly.
Eventually we found a noodle bar that had examples of their food made from plastic in the window, which was a stroke of luck because the waitress couldn't speak a word of English and we had to order by walking outside and pointing, adding our one word of Japanese - arigato.
Sunday mornings are always a balancing act - there's nothing much happening at the track so there's no need to get in too early, but nobody seems to have mentioned this to the fans and there's always a lot of traffic to negotiate if you leave too late. In Indianapolis, Ian and I figured we would leave reasonably early to avoid the traffic, but our daily coffee stop showed us that people were out in force already. "Don’t worry," Ian said, trying to hold his coffee at a safe angle to avoid spillage, "I know a short cut."
Over the season there hasn't been a race where la redattrice and I haven't got lost and, while I don't wish to point a finger at anyone, I was actually looking forward to this being the first race where I could report a 100% success rate at getting directly to the track. Needless to say, I'm not able to do that.
"Are you sure?" I asked Ian dubiously, looking at him and wondering why we hadn't actually picked up a map anywhere. He turned and said those two words that are guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine no matter the context: "trust me."
We got off the freeway and started heading east, past endless strip malls with their vast parking areas, chain restaurants and petrol stations that line the minor highways that cross the area. This was fine - so far so good - until he directed me onto a residential street.
"I'm really not sure about this Ian," I said. "I have to get to the McLaren press conference in 45 minutes."
"Don't worry," he assured me, "I've been this way before - it'll cut out all the traffic."
He was right; all the traffic was headed towards the track, whereas we were driving in circles around some houses.
Eventually we went back to the main road and joined the queue.
"I know what the problem was," Ian stated categorically. "I was looking for a street that doesn't exist."
If you wake up in Indy, the bathroom is to your left and all yours. If you wake up in Japan, the bathroom is by the door. Mind the step. If you wake up in New York, the bathroom is out the door to the left. If you wake up in Italy, chances are that you're dreaming.
Will and I caught a cab into the Suzuka circuit on Sunday morning because the random timings of the bus meant we missed it. This may also have had something to do with the party the night before, most notable for BBC5 commentator (and party MC) Jonathan Legard's horrendous orange shirt. Jon Button, the figure of refinement in comparison with his black shirt with flames, remarked that "I also went through that stage when I was young." There were also copious amounts of alcohol and the resultant travesty of karaoke (I kept my head while others around me fell to temptation, I'm pleased to say). It certainly explained Will's champagne hangover.
"You are American?" the cab driver asked, keen to engage in conversation despite the linguistic difficulties. "English and Australian," Will replied, before strangely adding: "you know, Beckham?" The driver beamed. "Ahhh, Beckham! Hair!" he exploded, smoothing his own down and pinpointing for me the somewhat nebulous appeal of the high voiced ball kicker.
The circuit owners must have rubbed their hands with glee when they heard that Jacques Villeneuve decided not to compete in what should have been his final race with BAR, and was to be replaced by Japanese Takuma Sato. Certainly, the Sato effect was in evidence as soon as we got to the funfair - it took about half an hour to make our way through the melee to the stand on the other side of the track from the pits, watching the fans being told through a megaphone to sit down in their own seats as we walked past them down the stairs in the middle, under and in - not to mention the thousands more we left stranded by walking into the street to hail the taxi in the first place rather than wait in the queue.
Once we got in I spent most of the day wondering if I was going to keep my hair through the night and trying to keep busy. Mostly I transcribed interviews and chatted with the other journalists about what we expected from the race and drank a bottle of the local energy drink Pocari Sweat for amusement value. It's much better than it sounds.
A few hours later, the 2003 season was officially over. I kept my hair.
After the race the Ferrari pit was teeming with red clothed team members - Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher came out and were hoisted onto shoulders, everyone singing "ole ole" and spraying champagne as they pulled down the shutters to have a private moment, much to the chagrin of the swarm of photographers around them.
Walking back up the lane behind the pits, Olivier Panis was standing at his end with a large cigar in his mouth and a fire extinguisher in his hand, letting it off towards his team members with a beaming smile. Eventually someone snuck up behind him and threw a bucket of water over him, earning him the remainder of the extinguisher's contents for his troubles.
After the dust had cleared a little I walked on before an almighty explosion sounded right behind me. "What the hell was that?" I asked Toyota's Richard Cregan, who looked as stunned as I felt. "Who the fuck knows - could have been someone being shot, for all we know." It turned out to be the extinguisher exploding from overuse. My ears were ringing for hours, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one.
We were distracted just after that by a small crash coming from Bernie Ecclestone's hospitality office two doors down from Toyota. I'd looked through the window on the way up and saw that most of the high placed Germans in the series were inside, covered in a mixture of beer, champagne and eggs. Panis, having now run out of distractions (and drink) in his pit had gone in to join the Schumacher brothers and raid their bar, and it looked as though they were having an impromptu rugby match in the tiny room, with the drivers bouncing off the walls and the various BMW and Mercedes personnel laughing fit to burst.
I watched for a while before heading back towards the stairs to the media centre, only to come back at the sound of the louder crash. "They've gone through the window!" someone shouted, and running around to the other side of the building there were chairs, tables and a small refrigerator hanging through what remained of the glass. Willy Weber came around to see the damage for himself, tutting as though at the behaviour of a bunch of mischievous school children before kicking some glass closer towards the window.
Corinna Schumacher arrived at the scene at this stage but went to Weber rather than risk heading in to see her husband, who eventually emerged grinning and wearing Panis's shirt and cap before being led off by his manager as some track workers turned up with straw brooms to set about the mess.
We left the media centre at 10:30 pm and headed to the famous Log Cabin bar at the Circuit Hotel. The place was full to overflowing, with various team members and journalists taking one last chance to unwind and have fun with each other before it was all over - it may have been the last opportunity for some of them to see each other, and they made the most of it. Will went to get the beers for Alasdair, Alan and myself and squeezed past Mark Webber on the way back. Will offered him a beer but he refused, which seemed very un-Australian of him. Perhaps he still had a deal with Fosters and couldn't be seen taking an Asahi in public.
BAR boss David Richards had no qualms about accepting one later on – he stood talking to us for about half an hour, and the smile (and huge cigar) never left his face after his team's tremendous achievement earlier in the day to tie up fifth place in the Constructors' Championship. I thought all those extra millions the result brought him would have stretched to a beer for us, but he was conveniently led off by a team member when it was his turn at the bar.
At one stage Alasdair came over and asked me if I knew Heinz Harald Frentzen, as the Japanese girl he was talking to was a huge fan. "I don't know him personally, but he's standing just over there," I pointed, "tell her to go and say hello." She couldn't bring herself to interrupt him so I dragged her over and asked Frentzen if he would say hello to a fan. "Sure," he said with a bemused expression on his face, so I pushed her in front of him and watched as she froze like a deer in the headlights. He looked over at me for help but I didn't know her, so after a few painful minutes he returned to his conversation and I slunk back to mine.
All along the decking around the original log cabin there are tiny cabins for karaoke, and the various teams took them all over. They were built for about ten people to sit in comfortably, but most of them had thirty or so people in each. I squeezed into a couple of them to see what was going on, but after hearing Michael Schumacher slaughtering some song I realised that Alasdair was right to try and catch the final bus at 4:00 am.
Will obviously disagreed, as we couldn't find him anywhere.
After what felt like two minutes sleep, Will blundered into the room back at the hotel and announced that we had to run for the train. As usual. We saw a few of the other gang members on the way to the station, nodding as we passed. I felt exhausted, but not as bad as he looked, and the train journey passed in silence, interrupted only by random snoring.
* * *
All the people you know, they add up to your life. You tell the stories of the people you know to others and you're telling the story of yourself. You might be sitting in the pub on the weekend with some mates and you start telling them about another friend, and you all laugh as the stories start to flow all around, the stories of them, the stories of you.
Everyone I've mentioned in this column over the year is doing something else; now that the season is over, now that they have the time to do something other than follow the circus around the world. Will is climbing Mount Everest with his girlfriend. Chris is getting married back in the rain of Wales. Ian's looking to set up a new business, a new future. Alex is starting work at a new company. Mike Doodson is looking for somewhere else to write. Jackson is back in Canada and dreaming of the future. Silvia, Ellen, Bradley, Severine, Agnes and the many other hard working press officers are all on a deserved vacation. La redattrice is sleeping during the day and watching movies all night.
Everyone in Formula One is taking a break, going somewhere or going home, doing something or doing nothing.
I'm back in Italy, but I'm meeting amore mio in London soon to show her one of the towns I used to live in, to show her a part of my past before going back to New York for Christmas.
I'm sitting here now at my desk and I'm thinking about the year and about me, about how it seems so completely unreal and therefore so much a part of my life. My life has been complex and confusing, but it's mine and I wouldn't trade it with anyone. I don't know yet who will be back next year, among the team members and the journalists and the others who play their part in keeping it all going. I don't even know if I'll be there again.
Formula One is such a huge undertaking, involving thousands of people and tonnes of equipment to give millions of people something to watch every other Sunday. The people change, the equipment too, but the show runs on and on. At the start of the weekend in Suzuka it felt like the end of school, but the difference is that unlike school you don't know who your classmates will be next year, or even if you're going to be studying again.
Maybe you leave school and go to work instead, leaving the Peter Pan life for others. Maybe you become a prefect. Maybe you join a new gang, become one of the tough kids at the back of the class, join the computer club and move to the front, or just become one of the ranks somewhere in between. Formula One is big enough to take them all in, to find room for one and all, and if they don't want to come back there's always someone else who will fill in and move on.
Tomorrow never knows. I wouldn't have it any other way.
For me, Monza is a box full of memories.
It's the memory of going to the track for the first time in 1997, freshly ensconced in London when the phone rang and my friend Alex told me to meet him and his wife Belinda on their honeymoon in Milan; of Alex and I getting drunk and Belinda yelling at us as we drank slivovic from the espresso cups we had stolen from the too expensive bar nearby (the cup that I still use to start my heart every morning); of Alex and I going out to the track and finding out the hard way that the track is a long way from the town of Monza, while Belinda stayed in the hotel and cried over the funeral procession of Princess Diana.
Of standing inside and up from Parabolica; of the small child with his grandfather's ancient Ferrari cap perched precariously on his head and the airhorn held lovingly in his too small hand which he only wanted to blow for Schumacher. The red cars were following the procession around, there only to make up the numbers that year, and each time the child saw one, he would stare up at me with his saucer shaped eyes and ask beseechingly, Schumacher? If I replied no, Irvine his bottom lip would stick out in a pout until I said si, Schumacher, at which he would blow the horn for all he was worth. He did this every lap, scarcely noticing that the airhorn had run dry by the end.
It's the memory of Alex and Belinda staying with me in London two years later, in the apartment I shared with Elisa - his niece and my love - and laughing like drains at the video we had made those two years previous, at our impromptu press conference where we took turns putting on silly accents and making up answers to questions the drivers would never be asked on television. To this day Alex still can't say Coulthard correctly. Of the visit which turned out to be the creation of their beautiful daughter Olivia; of the trip to Europe which was at the wrong time of year for us to return to the scene of the crime. Of us showing them photos from our trip to Spa the year before; of the compare and contrast of the days.
It's the memory of watching the 2001 race in my friend Celia's apartment in Brooklyn - the first race after Elisa died in the World Trade Center; of Celia politely, gently refusing to allow me to say no to watching the race with her, refusing to let me stay in my apartment and curl up into a ball and moan. Transport was still a mess after the disaster, and the walk to her apartment cleared a small, precious space in my head. Of the moment of silence at the track and then the carrying on with business. Of the sponsor-clean Ferraris with their black noses, of Montoya's stupid grin on the podium at his first win, of Barrichello in full red looking up to the sky and crying, and of me wanting to join him but being unable to cry with an audience.
It's the memory of visiting the paddock at Monza for the first time in 2002 - my first attempt at being a journalist. Of the physical shock of being in that place and seeing the fans outside peering through the fence; of thinking something must be wrong somehow because I was on the wrong side of the fence. Of having no access to the media centre but not caring; of walking into each of the teams' motorhomes and not getting kicked out but rather asked if I wanted a drink; of the thrill that comes with getting away with something you have no right to. Of wearing my New York Yankees hat every day and having no one look at it twice, of it meaning nothing even then.
Of holding my first interview, with Mark Webber in the Minardi motorhome; of him wondering whether to do it and then saying oh, alright – since you're an Aussie. Of being invited to stand in the Minardi garage during free practice, in front of the spare car and between the cars of Alex Yoong and Webber, of comparing the tense Yoong pit to the serene Webber one, of feeling through my entire frame the cars run by me and disengage the speed limiter just metres away. Of seeing the television crew come over and film the mechanics who pretended not to see them but rather look up at the monitors as though the secret to life was there. Of me vibrating in my skin with joy and wondering if my friends could actually see me even though free practice doesn't make it onto television anywhere outside the paddock.
It's the memory of getting up early and ringing the Sauber factory in Switzerland on the off chance that I could interview Nick Heidfeld because he was practicing so close to my new home; of driving through the park with the window down and the sun streaming in as the sound of a V10 Ferrari engine pounding around and around the track in pursuit of a few saved fractions of a second poured into my ears; of telling the solitary guard at the paddock sono un giournalisti di Formule Uno and both of us smiling as he waved me through.
It's the memory of taking my friend Alex back to Monza, for a test session this time, of seeing the wide-eyed awe on his face at seeing the paddock first hand even though most of the teams weren't there; of watching him take a few hundred photographs so that he could remember every single minute of his time there; of joining the few journalists and photographers in the pitlane and seeing Alex's mouth forget how to close itself. Of Barrichello pulling neatly up and around Alex as he returned to the pit, and imagining Alex telling everyone he knows for the next twenty years of the day that Barrichello almost ran him over.
I now have some new memories of Monza.
"It's your local Grand Prix - at least you can't get lost," Will Gray said as la redattrice got into the driver's seat in Milan. Later into the weekend, it changed to: "I think this weekend is your all-time record for getting lost."
This was after we returned home from one of the many parties thrown around Monza. The organisers of the Bahrain Grand Prix hired out the Villa Reale, the massive former royal palace for which the Parco di Monza used to be a section of the grounds. It was an amazing gesture – the entire forecourt was lit up in soft lighting with candles and fragrant wood fires scattered around, soothing Arabic music playing throughout, and a number of food tents serving kebabs and prawns as long as your forearm in the middle of a string of larger tents with low seating and tables for eating.
The organisers, having gone to so much effort in setting the whole night up, sat back around the edges of some of the tents to enjoy the fruits of their labour, puffing away at their giant water pipes with smoke snaking from their mouths and looks of serenity on their faces. Some Bahraini women were giving each other henna tattoos on their hands before a call of "yallah yallah" sent them to the next table to repeat the process with some of their guests. We went home happy and full to find our guests there - our friends who had come over for the race and for us - happy and drunk and wanting to continue to be so.
I wore my Yankees cap again on Thursday, the 11th of September. No one noticed again – it felt as though it was a reminder of some obscure battle from World War Two. The only sign in the paddock of that foul day was the live feed from New York in one of the side rooms of the McLaren Communications Centre. The sound was off, and I was probably the only person who noticed it. I guess I'm always going to, every year of my life.
We had a new journalist in the paddock, just one among the many, a Canadian called Jackson Wood. He had sent some emails to a number of F1 journalists to ask for advice on how to start a career in motor racing journalism, and I was the only one to answer him. He walked in to the paddock with what I imagine was the look I had on my face a year previous, and I took him around and introduced him to as many people as I could. It's times like those that I realise how many people I already know in this sport.
It was great to have him around as he reminded me of why I was there, of what an honour and a joy it is, despite the workload and endless travel. I'm there, we all are, because we love it, because motor racing is fun and it draws people who are interesting to be around. Sometimes it gets to be like work, like a chore, and Jackson reminded me that I am there for everyone outside those gates, for those people who want to know what happens on the other side. I'm there for you.
"Do you ever have those 'if only they see you now' moments?" he asked me on Saturday afternoon, as we strolled past all those faces he had only ever seen on television. I do – I have them all the time. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I actually do this job; that I'm not actually dreaming this whole year.
All weekend la redattrice was hugging everyone goodbye – she won't be going to the final two races and wanted to say goodbye until next year. Bernie Ecclestone was walking along the paddock at one stage and was collared by some people with a petition to save the remaining banking from the old track, and he seemed glad to sign it. She took her moment and went over to see him. "Hello Bira," he said, putting his arm around her. She leaned in and whispered something in his ear; he smiled back and said "it's been my pleasure," patting her on the back as he left.
Ferrari held their annual dinner for the media and invited guests on Saturday night in a tented compound next to the paddock, and they don't do things in half measures. The dining room was massive, similar to a circus tent but with the guests in the middle rather than around the sides, as though we were the show for them.
There was an increasing feeling of desperation at Ferrari over the weekend, as though they had forgotten that it was impossible for them to lose and the impossible was happening. Schumacher taking pole in qualifying by the slimmest of margins was clung to as proof that they were still dominant, as though all was right in their world, and Luca di Montezemolo gave a speech to remind the faithful of their faith, pulling the drivers and senior management onstage to display their icons.
It was a presentation that proved there are two religions in Italy, and they can work simultaneously.
Our group sat at a large table with a group of locals, with an old man at the head being looked after by a young guy, perhaps his son. The old man sat impassively, his white hair swept back with regal poise and a small pin on his lapel displaying his love for the marque while his walking stick rested by his side. He ate the starter and listened intently to the speech, and when di Montezemolo led his men out the old man waited for a respectable amount of time and then had his escort help him out – he had come to pay his respects, to affirm his faith in public. When I asked who the old man was, one of the remaining Italians at the table told me he was the publisher of Corriere dello Sport.
After dinner, a number of waitresses struggled out to the tables bearing large silver trays covered in red boxes. There was a box for every guest, and in each box was an ashtray made from a Ferrari cylinder head with the Ferrari shield and the words 'Monza 2003' embossed on the side. Each one was a heavy item by itself, and it was no wonder the waitresses were struggling with the trays. It was a beautiful gift, but I couldn't shake the feeling that more than a few of them would end up on eBay after the weekend.
An angry storm broke while we were finishing dinner, and the tent started to shake under its wrath. We don't normally get much wind in the region, as the area is ringed by mountains, so when we do - all the locals stop to have a look. It was stronger than I've ever experienced there – at one stage I was saved from being crushed under a partition by the wine waiter, who saw it shaking and grabbed it before it could fall on my head. The rain came as we were leaving, and there were a gaggle of Ferrari girls lining the exit holding umbrellas – I thought they were going to hand them out to people as they left, but it turned out they were merely showing us they had them in case we were worried. I felt glad for them that they would remain dry throughout as we skulked through the storm to the car.
Unfortunately for la redattrice, she forgot to put my name on the car hire form, so I was unable to drive home. I wasn't too unhappy about that. "Did we pass Villa Reale?" she asked, squinting into the sodden gloom.
"Did you see it?" I shot back, breaking off from my conversation with Will and Mark Glendenning, two of our many guests for the weekend.
"No, but I don't have my glasses on."
But just because she couldn't see didn't mean she would accept my help with directions. I pointed her in the right direction for Milan but she kept going past the turn off with a flippant "your way sucks - it's got a traffic jam."
"But your way goes to Switzerland!" I spluttered as the lads in the back seat giggled nervously.
"Sure, but at least there's no traffic," she insisted.
I suggested that she might want to turn the car around. I wasn't quite as diplomatic as the nation she was headed towards.
Sources close to the driver later suggested that I was right, and we made it home eventually. Our friends were waiting for us to return - with beer, vodka and lemoncello at the ready. As much as I love seeing my friends, it can be hard sometimes; they come to the races to have fun, to enjoy the weekend and fit as much in as possible, whereas a race weekend means I have to work. It's a tough mix – it would be like me going to their office and having a party while they sat at their desks. We found the solution, but it meant a great lack of sleep over the weekend. For me, anyway; they got to sleep in while I went to work.
As it turned out I had to fly to New York before I could catch up on sleep. I'm sitting here now, in the apartment of amore mio while she's at work, in this town where people still don't understand me when I talk even though we supposedly speak the same language.
La redattrice thinks I accepted this job because of what happened two years ago; I think it was simply an amazing offer, and I didn't want to let it pass and later think if only. I suspect neither of us will ever really know the reason completely.
But as I sit writing this, my head is full of memories - from Monza and from New York. The two places are linked in my head, the two places I love, the two places where I've witnessed so much, both good and bad. I will never be able to go to Monza without thinking of New York – I know that now – but I will never be able to be in New York without thinking of Italy as well. Memories become your life, and that box of memories is a lot larger than I originally thought.
You get into the back seat of the cab at the end of a long, frustrating weekend and watch the city wash past you, this city that you've wanted to visit ever since your friend came here and you didn't all those years ago, this city of songs and tales you've longed to hear firsthand. All those buildings, all those lights and people blur past as you head towards the Chain Bridge, onward and upward, and then climb the hill to the palace. You've been invited to a party, and the invitation said it was to run until five in the morning. You can't imagine how anyone will still be awake at that hour as the cab circles the statue and pulls up by the entrance, but you're ready to find out.
I woke up when the ticket collector on the train to Budapest threw the door and curtains open in a manner suggesting that the idea of me having an hour or so of sleep offended him to his soul. At first I assumed it was yet another in the long line of ticket collectors and border guards who combined to guarantee me a lack of anything resembling solid sleep, but it turned out to be just a surly train guard who felt it was time I woke up for good.
I sat there blinking for a while, my eyelids full of sand and my skin like old cheese, before peering out of the window to get an idea of where I was, as a number of people took the open door as an invitation to take over the cabin rather than find another of their own to sit in. The sleep deprivation is probably why it took me five minutes to realise my bag was gone.
Computer. Digital camera. Palm pilot. Mobile telephone. My favourite hat. All gone.
I think it happened in either Slovenia or Croatia, but I'm leaning towards the former as I've got some Croatian friends and therefore feel duty bound to side with them in the never-ending campaign of finger pointing. I have no idea how it managed to disappear without waking up, as you get used to waking up on a seventeen hour train trip across eastern European borders and I would wake at the sound of a hand on the door. Maybe David Blaine stopped by to annoy the hell out of me.
Everyone I know thinks I have one of the most glamourous jobs around, following the Grand Prix circus around and talking to all of these people they've seen on the television. But it's a hard life - I'm always either on the road and working non-stop or I'm back home and writing about it. I have no social life, because I have no time for one and because I don't know anyone in the country, and amore mio is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Having everything of value that I own stolen just compounded the funk I was in, and it made me wonder what the hell I had let myself in for when I took the job. I sulked all the way to Budapest, with la redattrice trying in vain to make me feel better about anything at all.
I told the police about the theft when we pulled into Budapest, and they checked the train before asking me if I wanted to fill in a report. There seemed little point as I didn't have any insurance (I used to work for an insurance company, so obviously I wouldn't) and it seemed unlikely that the toerag who stole the bag would then turn around and hand it in. So they took my details and we walked off to get a cab to the hotel.
The cab driver charged us way too much for the ride, of course.
La redattrice met a couple of Swedish guys in reception who were about to go out to the track and arranged to share a cab with them after we dropped off the remainder of our bags. The cab driver made the usual assumption that people who speak English must want to go the long way there, and drove us all around town before passing Baumgartner Autos (presumably owned by the father of the Formula 3000 driver) and out into the country.
Strangely the driver felt that dropping us five kilometres from the track entrance would have been a suitable arrangement, and was therefore somewhat surprised when la redattrice argued vociferously against the idea. As we drove along the massive wall around the track I noticed a vast collection of scaffolding being built by the locals to see over, but none of the fans seemed as well prepared as one enterprising fan who had parked his campervan by the side of the road, stuck a ladder up against the side, and set up a solid wood table and chairs on the roof, all covered by an enormous umbrella.
Thursday is the best day for interviewing drivers, as they have little else to do, and accordingly the teams often arrange for journalists to queue up in the motorhomes to get the media demands out of the way before the real work of the weekend begins. I had an interview lined up with Jacques Villeneuve - an interview we had been chasing for a while - but given the theft I was not in the best of moods. La redattrice suggested we tackle him together, which worked out brilliantly; we often try to talk over the top of each other in conversation, but in an interview we both held our tongues and just laid question after question of him.
And the nice thing for me was that, when I became mesmerised by Villeneuve's newly returned hair, she was able to jump in and take over, and vice versa.
This arrangement worked out so well that we ended up doing all of the interviews this way, and it probably improved the final results - we were supposed to get Jenson Button to tell us a quick story for a side bar on the Honda special issue, but while he was talking we started laughing, which caused him to laugh, and we somehow ended up with a feature we didn't expect.
Reporting on Grands Prix is an expensive business. Everyone is aware of the frankly unimaginable sums that the teams spend to go racing, but for those of us following the circus the costs add up too. Start with transport (car hire and petrol, airfares, train tickets - they all add up), then factor in accommodation and food (all marked up because of the demand in the area when a race is on), and then add on the costs associated with getting the news out to the waiting world (phone and ADSL lines) and you start to realise that the word 'cheap' doesn't exist in the vocabulary of Formula One.
But Hungary took this to an extreme. When la redattrice went up to secure a line for her computer she was in for the shock of her life: a normal phone line had a four hundred euro rental fee, plus calls. Needless to say she didn't enquire about ADSL but instead decided to put up with the dubious delights of dial up internet access.
Sadly, despite the costs involved, they were unable to actually give us a line that worked until the middle of the next day. And when the line finally came on someone clearly decided to call their mother or something and overloaded the system, crashing every journalist in the room without notice.
You walk through to the back of the palace and someone puts a drink in your hand - a Kir Royale with Red Bull in honour of the party's host - and the lights all around you are dazzling. As you wander through the area you notice faces that seem unfamiliar and yet oddly recognisable. Your friend Will sees you and smiles, leads you over to a buffet table to line your stomach and hits the bar for a new drink before taking you over to a table of people you know from one of the teams. They look a little out of place to you - it's the lack of uniforms - but they smile at your approach and the conversation flows with the drinks and they laugh at your first joke. So do you.
There weren't many media shuttles available over the weekend, so I walked in with Will Gray a couple of times, and the way in went past the statues of World Champions, which the track owners have placed near the entrance to the circuit. Some of them are incredibly bad, but the funniest one was given pride of place over the weekend - in what may amount to the biggest example of brown nosing in Formula One history, a bust of Bernie Ecclestone had been placed in front of them all.
It's a funny little statue, with a tight, stern face, and his glasses and paddock pass in place. I wish I'd been there to see Bernie's bemused expression when he unveiled the thing over the weekend. All we could do was laugh. "He looks pretty pissed off!" Will spluttered, his faced creased with mirth. "You would too if you had no arms!" I roared back. We walked on, enjoying the early sun before it turned into the usual midday furnace, and after a light breakfast at Toyota we headed up to watch free practice.
Walking into the media centre everyone was standing in the entrance looking at the televisions as they replayed Ralph Firman's massive crash. It looked horrendous, particularly in slow motion, but when we established he was alright we rushed back to our desks to post the news, only for the power to go out throughout the building just as we'd finally managed to get a line out for the computer. I can only assume someone plugged in a kettle where they weren't supposed to, which is to say somewhere in the Hungaroring region. One of the centre workers came around and switched off every single television set even though there was no power - I guess he wanted first dibs on a cup of tea when the power came back.
The media centre in Hungary was the emptiest one I've ever seen, and I was starting to understand why. The prices are exorbitant even by Formula One standards, it's held in the middle of a dusty bowl surrounded by farms, and then there's the crime element to consider. But it was strange being in such a quiet room for once - the biggest disturbance of the weekend was the sporadic crunch and subsequent yelp of a startled journalist as yet another chair broke underneath him; or the startled gasp of someone receiving an inadvertent shower from the pipe leading to the urinal whenever they flushed.
Everyone sat in little clumps across the two floors, as though there was safety in numbers. We had the incredibly loud Brazilian radio commentators in front of us as usual, and at one stage Antonio Pizzonia's manager Jayme Brito came over for an interview with them. Sitting next to us, as he waited for the interview, He spotted the Jaguar qualifying press release. "Oh, look at this," he said, raising his eyebrows archly, "Mark Gillan is happy with his drivers taking 3rd and 12th place on the grid". It's good to see that he doesn't harbour any grudges against his driver's former team.
But there was fun to be had if you wanted it. There wasn't much happening in the main paddock so I spent quite a bit of time down the hill in the Formula 3000 one, and it was fun to chat and joke with some of the up and coming drivers that I know. With the lack of teams there the space available to them was huge, and so Giorgio Pantano set up an impromptu football match with his mechanics, everyone trying to prove they had the ball skills they clearly lacked.
Tonio Liuzzi and Bjorn Wirdheim started whizzing around on their motor scooters, which is asking for trouble when the riders are racers, tearing back and forth as their mechanics looked on and laughed. It seemed like an antidote to the sterility of the senior paddock, like a cure for an ailment I didn't know I had. All the drivers down the hill want to make the move upstairs, but I suspect those that do will probably look back on their time in the junior category as the most fun they had in motor racing.
They also had two open paths onto the track next to their paddock, which could have provided anyone keen to prove the Hungarian promoters wrong on their statement that no one could invade their track an easy, and unsecured, way to do so. After a glass of wine in the Porsche Supercup hospitality tent, I thought about doing it - it was as an easy way to guarantee an Atlas F1 exclusive - but I figured it might restrict my chances of a pass to the next race, and trudged back upstairs.
You're standing on the balcony overlooking the Danube, the city shining like the summer sea just for you, a strong drink to hand and the DJ behind you pumping track after track of gold, and with a tableful of people waiting for you to come back and talk to them again. You're most of the way through the season, you're living the life of a writer, a life you've always wanted to lead, and you are asking yourself if it's all worth it. And is it? Before you get a chance to think about it Will comes over to give you another drink, to lead you back and on to the next round.
Mercedes put on their customary boat cruise along the Danube, delayed for a few hours so that the journalists could wait around for a story that everyone thought would be vital and which turned out to be nothing at all. This happens a lot in the paddock - it's the journalists' version of the army platitude 'hurry up and wait'.
The sky was black as a raven by the time we walked on board, but the food was good and the drinks were strong. Strong enough to embolden a drunken Finn to stumble past us in order to steal one of the Mercedes flags decorating the side of the boat - much to the horror of la redattrice, who told him off in no uncertain terms. He was apoplectic at the lecture and yelled that he was allowed, inadvertently spitting as he did so, before sulking off after stating uncategorically that Kimi Raikkonen was going to win the race and he wanted something to wave. At least that was what I think he said. Will and I just laughed and fetched some more drinks for the table.
A word of warning for those visiting Hungary: do not, under any circumstances, order the local drink Unicum. I did, and I regretted it with one sip. I ordered vodka and brought the remainder of the Unicum to la redattrice, telling her it was a local specialty and she'd love it. Her look of disgust slayed us, and the best part was Will knew what I was doing and therefore had the camera ready to capture it.
The drinks were strong, though - strong enough to make Will think that he spotted Mars, despite the fact that the light was white and overtook us; strong enough to make him gulp down a handful of chilies and then gasp for ice cream; strong enough for the guy next to us to take off his boots before falling asleep in his chair, which prompted la redattrice to start flicking things at him to see if he was dead; strong enough for a variety of journalists to start sucking the helium out of the balloons hanging off the walls and perform increasingly bizarre Murray Walker impersonations.
And it seemed that Budapest had finally shrugged off its problems and decided to give us all a good time. The parties were great, and the racing was even better - the Formula One race was worthwhile for once, on a track that usually holds the most boring race of the year, but the Formula 3000 race was one of the best races I've seen in a long time, with overtaking all the way to the last corner.
Tonio Liuzzi fought back well but caught Giorgio Pantano on the last corner and was then given a 25 second penalty, prompting a pained look on his face and excessive hand gestures as he complained to me that "the FIA want exciting races, and then when we make them they penalise us" later in the paddock. "You're kidding!" I blurted, "It was a brilliant race! Are you going to appeal?"
"Pfft," he waved his hand dismissively. "It costs twenty thousand euro just to appeal, so fuck that!"
Late on Sunday, we were getting ready to leave the circuit and go to the Red Bull party at the palace. I went off to find Will and arrange our ride back into town while la redattrice went to pay for the phone bill. Down the stairs, Will and I could hear her yelling furiously at the Hungarian Telecom people, "there is no way on earth I am paying five hundred euros for phone calls! Do you think that Budapest is a long distance call or something?"
"Yes, it is."
"This is ridiculous! Budapest is fifteen minutes away! I am not paying it - you can sue me if you want the money!"
At which she barreled past us to collect her bag, growling: "Let's go to the party!"
They keep coming, the drinks and the people bearing them. You dance at some stage, something you never ordinarily do, and you talk and talk and talk. There are more and more people, and they all spin in and out of your circle in that way that only happens when the drinks work and lift you rather than drop. The sun rises, the sky above Budapest suddenly blazing with intent, Red Bull runs out of their own product and it's time for you to slope off down the hill with Will in search of a ride home. It comes and ferries you to the hotel, and you leave him in the lobby to argue with the driver about his ride back after pushing some money at him. You were going to tour the city today but there's no need - you saw everything at its best last night, and there's nothing left but to try and sleep for an hour or two before heading home. The smile probably stays fixed in your sleep, and nothing is going to remove it until you wake again and your head starts to throb.
The Red Bull party was the perfect antidote to all that went wrong over the weekend - it was the most fun I've had on the tour yet, and it made me happy - no mean feat considering the mood I had all weekend. Did it make me re-evaluate my current life? No, but at least it showed me that I can enjoy myself now and again, and it gave me something good to think about on the long train ride home before falling soundly asleep, something la redattrice couldn't manage, seeing as she was using her computer as a pillow.
Living in Europe in the last month or so has been unbearable. I come from a hot climate, as does la redattrice, and yet we've both been suffering as much as the locals from the recent heatwave – it was as though this was our first time outside of Iceland and into the real world.
When I was growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney we regularly had summer days over 40 degrees Celsius, and with high humidity to kick it along a bit. I also lived for three years in New York, where the heat just ricochets around the buildings like a pinball before hitting you, almost knocking you off your feet. I know heat, wet and dry. But this is something else – I have even seen in Italy some of the locals wearing (whisper it) shorts.
So it was obviously time to put a Grand Prix right in the middle of Europe, as far away from potentially cooling sea breezes as possible, and Hockenheim was the place for it. It's another one of those anonymous looking towns that the Germans specialise in, looking as much like every other town in Germany as it can – perhaps they do this so they can feel at home anywhere they go, or so as to avoid getting lost.
Didn't help us much, needless to say.
After the much maligned Silverstone I was expecting to see a track that was the benchmark for how Formula One should be run in the modern world, a track that Bernie Ecclestone could point to and say 'yes – that's exactly what I want. I'll take another sixteen please.' What I found was a building site.
Hockenheim used to look quite distinctive on television, mostly for those long blasts out and back through the forest. So they had to go, obviously. But the new track was brought in last year, and I figured that the stadium complex (read, almost the entirety of the new track) would be complete and shining under the bright sun.
But it turns out that the track owners have had financial problems over the last year, and accordingly the drive in and out was akin to driving through the foundations of a large scale works project. I later saw the full extent of it when I was invited up into the new Mercedes tower, from where it seemed as though half of the complex consisted of mounds of dirt. I bet Bernie wasn't too thrilled.
The paddock was apparently unchanged, though, with the media centre on the left just through the entrance and the teams, from Toyota up, stretching away from us. In most of the races the media centre is close to the top teams, and with the baking heat all weekend there were a lot of journalists upset at the walk to the red end.
For some reason, the track owners had built an awning over the entrance to the media centre, which was lower than the door. They had a sign on the door saying 'Pull' in five languages, but all weekend journalists would push the door and clatter it into the awning with a loud bang. Eventually they put a hostess next to the door, but that didn't stop the really determined pushers.
Unusually the toilets were outside the front gate, and the Formula 3000 and Porsche Supercup paddocks were just across the road, which made them closer to the media centre than Ferrari. At most tracks they tend to stick the junior categories wherever they can find a space, which generally means they're as far away from the Formula One paddock as possible, and it was nice to see what life is like for the support race guys.
Walking around the Formula 3000 paddock was what I imagine the Formula One paddock used to be fifteen or more years ago - trucks with awnings coming out from them, with the cars being worked on in between, in an area nominally roped off but easily bypassed. And all the teams seem to work together to get the job done. They shared parts and know-how between them as though the overall goal of competing was more important than keeping any secrets from their competitors. It seemed odd after the security measures in the big paddock.
Back in the main paddock, the Sauber team had some bunting up, with all the flags of the various cantons on display. In Switzerland bunting means a party. They're a strange people, the Swiss – their celebrations are tepid affairs, even by the mild standards of the English, as though they don't want the neighbours to know they're happy about something. The English have an attitude of 'mustn't grumble'; the Swiss extend this to 'mustn't get excited'. They did have a couple of alpine horn players in lederhosen, though, and that's funny in anyone's language.
The media centre was the first I've been to where you can't see the track from the window, and it seemed strange to come all the way to Germany to watch everything on the television. Still, it was obvious when Michael Schumacher was on track during qualifying - the airhorns started up in front of the pits and then followed him around the track like an aural Mexican wave. The other German drivers got a similar treatment, but the volume was always higher for Michael.
Strangely enough, Justin Wilson got a few toots from the crowd as well, in his first drive since moving from Minardi to Jaguar, but it was nothing compared to the roars from the British section of the media centre, howling for joy at their new idol, as Wilson crossed the line in first qualifying to take seventh.
The British press wrote up their pieces as quickly as possible before heading off to a dinner in their honour at the Bridgestone motorhome, while la redattrice and I finished up a few things before joining them for dessert. We've sort of tacked ourselves on to the Brits, given that we speak the same language and are therefore assumed by the teams to be a part of their clique. We still get the odd look now and again, as though we are trying to slip quietly into a private party without an invitation, but they're mostly too polite to mention it aloud.
After dinner it was back to the nearby town of Speyer, for the usual weekend drinks with Will Gray. La redattrice drove, because she'd been there before and said she knew the way. I always fall for that one. We drove along what she swore was the scenic route, winding out and back, which seemed to have a number of identical looking outdoor techno festivals for the fans, all sponsored by West - riots of smoke, fireworks and noise.
Finally past "them" and the raven black of the surrounds was scarcely marked by the sliver of moon available, the only light coming from the fires in the campsites dotted all around. We went past one carnival, the old kind with dodgem cars and merry go rounds, and it reminded me of when I was a boy going to the circus with my family, pressing up against the window in the back of my Dad's car and watching the lights blink in time to the music on a balmy summer night.
We finally got back to Speyer and met up with Will, who had Tim Collings and Bob Constanduros with him, and we found a square nearby that was full of locals drinking at the tables all around, which seemed perfect to us as it was far too hot to drink indoors. The waitress, however, had other ideas and said she wouldn't serve us – apparently there was some sort of law prohibiting people drinking outdoors after a certain hour, although given the number of people outside we wondered if it only applied to foreigners.
I solved the problem by heading into the bar and bringing back the beers, at which the sour look on the waitress's face turned even more lemonesque. In the course of draining our first beers all the locals faded away, their chairs being pointedly stacked around us, giving us little option but to head into the smoky sauna of the bar. We stayed for a few more, joined by Peter Slater from BBC 5 Live and Ian Gordon from Press Associates, but the German bureaucracy had left a sour taste and we headed off to our hotels shortly after.
Saturday is always the hardest day to wake up on a Grand Prix weekend - something to do with a combination of the early adrenalin wearing off and the beers taking effect. The Hockenheim heat made it even worse, and time seemed to crawl by as though it was wading through a swamp. I spent all morning trying to track down Peter Collins, the one time Lotus team boss who is currently managing the career of Tonio Liuzzi in 3000, with plenty of people having seen him but no one actually sure where he was at that exact moment.
His daughter's face showed that this wasn't unusual. The first time I strolled over and asked where he was, she said: "he's in the main paddock somewhere." The next time he was "having his back looked at." Later, as the sweat was starting to appear on my brow, he was "possibly over with Astromega." The fourth time I didn't even need to ask – she saw me coming up the paddock and just laughed. Eventually I tracked him down, and he was worth the wait: he was entertaining to talk to, and he gave me as long as I needed (which doesn't happen often in the big paddock).
Another first was a visit to the Vodafone motorhome – generally I steer clear of the red motorhomes as my Italian isn't really up to it – but with the Jordan versus Vodafone court case coming to a close a visit to their motorhome just had to happen. I must have looked hot and bothered, because they insisted I sit down and have some lunch with them. Seeing as they had the Australia-South Africa rugby match on a TV screen, it wasn't tough to sell me on the idea. And, while looking around between halves, I noticed the little mobile phone chargers they have on the wall by the door – small compartments with keys that allows you to leave your phone behind - which struck me as a brilliant idea in a paddock full of the gadgets.
And, most excitingly, Mick Doohan was having lunch there too. With so many primadonnas around the F1 paddock, the laconic five-time 500cc motorcycle world champion seemed serenely above any of the manufactured dramas of the motoring world. I left him to eat his lunch in peace, although what I really wanted to do was shake his hand and thank him for all the pleasure he'd given my mates and I over the years. But the strange thing about being a journalist is that you can't really be a fan as well – for example, when you interview a driver it would seem unprofessional, or at the very least awkward, to then ask him for an autograph for a mate. It's as though we're too cool for that now. At any rate, Doohan disappeared before I finished eating, so it was a moot point.
I did, however, shake hands with another world champion later in the day. As I was walking back to the media centre, Bjorn Wirdheim was coming the other way after his race in which he secured his championship. He walked towards me in a complete daze, with a smile on his face as sweet and far away as any I've ever seen. "Well done," I told him, shaking his hand, as we came face to face. He laughed and said "yeah, thanks" before being led on his way by his companions. I don't think the win had quite sunk in yet, but it was getting close.
The next morning we caught the media shuttle to the track with Chris Hughes from Toyota and his boss, the team's press officer Andrea Ficarelli. It was strange to come into the track with team members, as the fans lined up at the front of the circuit saw the team shirts and looked in to see if there is anyone famous in the van. Chris had most of the stares as he was in the front seat, and I wondered how long that takes to get used to.
Tom O'Keefe had showed up in the paddock again the day before, and when I introduced him to a few people he hadn't met before I noticed he has a remarkable effect on strangers – he tends to baffle them with long and complicated stories of how he got to be at that exact spot and that exact time so as to talk to them, and he then presents them with his card. You don't see many American lawyers in the paddock, which means that he has the entire crowd for his own.
La redattrice and I went over to Jaguar for breakfast, which was as excellent as ever, although probably not as interesting as breakfast with Bernie, which Tom had managed to talk his way into as usual. I've never seen the two together, but I can imagine the look of complete confusion on Bernie's face as Tom gets into full flow about whatever his current pet project involves.
He told us all about it at lunch at Michelin, topping off a perfect food day, before mentioning that la redattrice resembled Mercedes. I'm pretty sure he was talking about the girl after whom the car was named rather than the car itself, but you can never be entirely sure with Tom.
After the race I was sent back to the salt mines to get some quotes, which was a pointless task as no one wanted to brave the fierce heat after a race where Jarno Trulli collapsed with exhaustion. I went back for water five times before giving it up and stopping in the media centre, only to find out about the race stewards' decision to penalise Ralf Schumacher for the first corner fracas.
Silvia Hoffer, the charming media relations officer for Williams, came by and told us that the team wouldn't be protesting the penalty before walking around the room to let the other journalists know as well. She'd got halfway around before her phone rang, and with an ashen face she rushed back to tell us that they actually were going to protest after all – a split second before the original story was to appear on the Atlas F1 news page. La redattrice told me to run up to the Williams motorhome to get their reactions, but every member of the team's senior personnel had already left on Frank's plane. By the time I slunk back into the media centre I was dripping with sweat, where la redattrice sat smirking, fresh as a daisy in her air conditioned haven.
I got some back, though; as we were leaving the media centre at the end of the day she finally pushed the 'Pull' door, and while I tried in vain to stifle a grin a British journalist behind us finally came out with the immortal line "no wonder they lost the war." I think he meant the Germans rather than the Israelis.
I'd been looking forward to Silverstone for a while, because I was getting a bit tired of driving to the Grands Prix - it started off as an adventure, a fun way to get to and from the race as well as see a bit of the continent, but in reality it meant a lot of hours staring at a freeway, which is somewhat limited as a mode of entertainment. If Barcelona was this late in the season, I might have bagged it rather than hit the road again.
But Silverstone meant a flight, and as no driving was required of me I was raring to go. So of course, it was inevitable that a car would hit me after getting out of the cab at the station.
(Note for my Mum only: it wasn't actually that bad, and I'm perfectly fine - you can stop worrying now)
Me being me, I was looking in the direction the traffic comes from to make sure it was safe to cross the road. Being that I was in Italy, obviously someone was driving the wrong way in a one-way street. It's probably my own fault for not taking illegal driving into consideration, now that I think about it.
I was so shocked I forgot momentarily how to swear in Italian. The woman driving was so shocked she forgot to blame me for her error. La redattrice was so shocked she actually ran towards me. None of these things happen in more normal circumstances in Italy.
But being slightly late, I picked up my bags and limped off towards the coach, followed by the constant refrain of "are you alright?" Of course I wasn't, but being Australian I couldn't let on - we have that Australian Male Stoic front to maintain at all times. The things I do for my country frankly amaze even me sometimes.
Thankfully when we got to la redattrice's friend's house she decided to show me the swans in the pond beyond the back garden and promptly tripped on the small fence to keep them out, falling flat on her face with a dull thud. I asked if she was all right, and when she said yes, I fell about laughing. Which was kinder than her friend, who didn't even ask first.
(Editor's note: Dad I'm alright, honest, you don't have to call!)
Bruises aside, it was nice to be back in England.
I used to live in London a few years ago, and there's something comforting about a country that has such constant bad weather that ten days without rain is officially declared a drought; where the weather dictates that your social life will revolve almost entirely around your home, the pub and the local Indian restaurant. Living in England is like living in a cocoon, and there's something very pleasant about that.
We got to Silverstone without much bother (other than a bit of traffic on the M1, which I think even Bernie would have trouble blaming on the circuit), although, being England, they decided to have different signs at the circuit than every other race for some reason, which was a little confusing.
The security guard in the media centre made it very clear he thought it was somewhat dubious that all these foreigners had to kiss each other when they met by scowling constantly. When two Italian men kissed each other hello it was clearly too much - his jaw dropped a little and he walked off, looking for a better stretch of wall to guard, one with no foreigners nearby. As I was smirking at this, a fellow journalist grabbed me and said "come on - you're in the international team," before hauling me back out into the rain.
The 'international team' I was press ganged into was for the Honda lawnmower challenge, an event put on near the circuit by the BAR engine supplier to give the journalists a bit of fun (and something to write about), but the English weather being what it was, there wasn't a lot of fun to be had. The concept was to have teams of three or four journalists have a relay race on ride-on lawnmowers around a course littered with trellis and garden gnomes, have some lunch, and then another relay riding on those big four wheeled motorbikes.
Fortunately we arrived too late, so instead we ate a wonderful lunch undercover while watching various overly competitive English journalists becoming increasingly annoyed with themselves and their teams, all the time getting soaked by the heavy rain. It worked for me.
By the time I returned to the paddock the rain had eased to the normal English drizzle, so I collected la redattrice and we went back out for our usual stroll along the paddock - thereafter known as 'pascolo', or grazing, as the Italian hostess at Toyota described it.
On the way back to the media centre we saw FIA president Max Mosley, standing with one of the British journalists. La redattrice ignored the fact that it was probably a private conversation and walked straight towards Mosley. Astonishingly, Mosley recognized her at once and turned his attention to her. After a brief chat - interrupted only by Michael Schumacher, who came over to say hello - the president took his leave, but not before he turned around to la redattrice for the last time and said: "I like your stuff, I read it a lot." She simply floated off into the clouds, smiling.
Of course, she was floating for most of the weekend. Unlike me, la redattrice insisted she actually hurt herself in her mishap the day before, giving her sufficient reason to moan all weekend and visit the circuit's medical centre for a supply of painkillers. This is probably why, as we were leaving the circuit and I noted that there were two motor scooters for Rubens Barrichello in the cluster by the entrance, she commented: "Well, one is for him and the other for a box of tissues."
I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have said that without the painkillers, anyway.
A lot of the British journalists stay at their parents' house for the Silverstone race (other than Bob Constandouros, who sleeps in the van that he takes to all the European races - it sounds like a fun thing to do, and I wondered whether he has the drivers who do the same thing around for a barbeque at night). We were invited by Will Gray to stay with his parents, and I was glad he did as they were a thoroughly lovely couple. Although it became rapidly clear where he gets his drinking habits from - any unguarded glass seemed to be refilled as if by magic while his dad giggled, and one nightcap followed another. And another.
Which probably explains why la redattrice was asleep when the fire alarm went off in the media centre.
I sat there, bemused, as Mike Doodson rushed towards the fire escape, the first out by a long shot, as she sat blinking behind her sunglasses next to me repeating a mantra of "what?" before we were instructed to leave. Those same sunglasses had prompted one team press officer to comment, earlier in the day, that "in the paddock, sunglasses on a cloudy day can only mean one thing…"
Meanwhile, we caught up with Doodson, who was mumbling "this circuit is committing suicide" as the local fire brigade stormed into the paddock. I made a comment to the effect that the alarm was probably tripped by a journalist who had nothing to write about and was now reading all our computers, and the other journalists around me laughed slightly uneasily. Having annoyed successfully, I headed off for a well-deserved early lunch at Michelin.
It was a very quiet news weekend in the paddock, and it's remarkable how much this disturbs most of the journalists there. They always try and weasel something out of you when they bump into you outside, but the best indication of how much of a problem this can be was when one journalist came up to me and asked straight out, "have you got anything this weekend?" I told him I didn't, but he persisted. "I'm not asking you to tell me the story - I just want to know if you've got anything at all?" I said no, I hadn't heard anything at all, and the look of relief on his face was obvious to all before he went back to try and find out anything to write about.
And it's weekends like that where rumours start and take up like a bushfire, rushing through all the journalists keen to write anything at all to justify their existence for the weekend. Back in Barcelona a rumour started up that Ralph Firman was going to be replaced shortly because someone saw his father speaking with Eddie Jordan, both with serious looks on their faces. When someone told me that it was all I could do not to laugh out loud there and then.
Silverstone was so boring that we didn't even have a rumour that bad.
A little while ago I was talking with one of the Dutch journalists and we thought it would be a great idea to start another website and publish nothing but made up reports to see how far they would be quoted. The problem is there are far too many sites doing that already.
So instead of digging for rumours I spent most of the weekend in the media centre, transcribing a very long interview - an essential but extremely boring task. It's a strange process, spending all that time listening to someone else's voice (and, more disturbingly, my own), and it can start to get to you after a while. By the end of an afternoon transcribing I find myself not listening to what people are saying to me, but rather how you spell the words they say.
Luckily BAR put on another of their open evenings, the theme this time being an English pub. Strangely the clouds had lifted and moved on, leaving us with one of those glorious but infrequent afternoons that you only get in England, where the sun shines brightly but not too strongly and gets all the locals rushing outside in shorts to say "oh, this is lovely, isn't it?" for half an hour before reconsidering and remarking "phew - is it hot enough for you?"
We stood at one the tables outside as all the trucks and motorhomes gleamed in the sunlight. Someone from BAR brought out some fish and chips and a pint of ale for me, and I was tucking in heartily when a photographer came over and asked if he could take some photos of me eating. Completely baffled I agreed, and then spent the rest of the evening wondering where they were going to end up. Will's Dad thought it would be best if we had a few drinks to consider the matter when we got back to his house, and realising it would be churlish to argue, I didn't.
Walking to the paddock from the press car park the next morning Will and I were surprised at the number of people taking our photos, as neither of us considered ourselves famous in any way. We could only assume that there were a lot of Atlas F1 readers at the track, although none of them came over to say hello - in fact they seemed slightly annoyed after taking the photo. We simply shrugged and walked through the paddock entrance, with the long line of Foster's grid girls behind us following through.
At the entrance to the paddock there were two large plant boxes which we called 'the fan chicane', as they seemed to be there simply to slow any approach by fans, so they could be picked off by security. It seemed a long way from Will's Dad's stories of sneaking into the paddock a few years ago, when there were no motorhomes to speak of and the whole area was basically marked off with a rope and the fans could see through to the pits.
"It was not like that in my day," Will's Dad said the night before, topping up everyone's glasses when he thought we weren't looking. "Back then you could sneak in and walk around the paddock, have a nose about in the pits, and take as many photos as you wanted." And he did - I spent a fun hour or so pouring over his photos of the drivers of my youth. "Today I struggled to get into the Formula 3000 and support paddock!" he continued, although he did manage to sneak in eventually later in the weekend - years of experience have not gone to waste, although the Formula One paddock remains locked up as tight as a drum.
It seems a shame that the paddock has become such a private domain for the wealthy few (and myself). I understand the rationale behind it, but it often feels nothing more than a corporate entertainment area (which it is) or an outdoor boat show without the boats, or the people.
Still, there's always something to amuse. After being denied a Playstation because of la redattrice's journalistic ethics, it was fun to see her fuming at the British press, who were all given a new limited edition Ferrari model of the latest Vodafone camera mobile phone - cellphones are her weakness, and she sat there fighting with her own demons all day, interspersed by looks of pure evil towards anyone who actually used their new phones anywhere near her. I'm pretty sure that if anyone had offered her one she would have snatched their hand off along with the phone.
Silverstone put on a great show, which was surprising considering all the horror stories about the place that always seem to pop up before the circus arrives. In fact the only real problem I found was that the toilets backed up and were out of order just before the race. I'd always felt that a number of journalists were fairly full of it and this confirmed, even if temporarily, that I was right.
The race came, and I saw Arnold Swartzenegger walking around on the grid, a guest of Jaguar. There was someone walking next to him in a Ferrari outfit, and I wondered aloud who the kid was - one of the technicians sniggered and said "that's Frankie Dettori, the jockey". To my credit, Arnie could make anyone look like a kid.
After the race there was the usual press conference for the top three finishers, and all anyone wanted to ask was what they thought of the track invader who had inadvertently made the race more interesting than any other this year. But the top three drivers hadn't actually seen much of him, as they'd already passed when he was jumping the fence, so as Kimi Raikkonen was answering a question, Montoya and Barrichello caught a replay of the incident on the TV monitors and sat there laughing with each other.
After I went out and collected quotes, Status Quo started playing their customary post-race gig, which clearly meant it was time to go home. We had tickets to an R.E.M. concert in Italy, so it wasn't as though there was any reason to hang about and listen to a band twenty years past their use by date when we could go home and see one only ten years past due.
So off we went and, needless to say, the M1 was backed up again. I'm blaming Bernie Ecclestone.
The thing is, you never really know what to expect from the next race. You can have some ideas, of course; you can have a plan to interview someone, arrange a meeting with someone else - but you never really know what's going to happen over the weekend, never know in advance what is going to occupy your time.
I went to the Nurburgring knowing I was going to sit down and interview Gerhard Berger and wondering what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my time. I shouldn't have worried.
The Nurburgring is a hot, dry, flat track surrounded by undulating hills that can't be seen for the forest covering them, and filled with large, bare chested men as red as their caps. The local currency seemed to be beer, given the quantities carried around at all times by the locals, and they seemed happy enough with the arrangement.
But then, they seemed to be easily amused. There is a tunnel underneath the main straight that leads to the paddock, and every morning and every evening there was a crowd of people standing around the entrance to see who they could spot. The drivers and their teams have a car park behind the paddock, and as such I thought the people standing around must have merely been keen to see journalists and other reprobates, until one morning I walked through and looked back to see la redattrice holding the door open for someone. This struck me as odd until I saw the familiar face of Ron Dennis chatting with her before strolling into the McLaren pit, taking his familiar position on the pit wall with the cars already on track, looking around with that squinting regalness of his as though he'd been there all along.
But back to Thursday, and the locals were starting a small pyramid from their empty single serve Jagermeister bottles at the entrance to the tunnel, increasing in size every time we walked by. The first time I noticed this was when we went to a presentation by Sony of their new official F1 2003 racing simulator for Playstation 2. The word had got out in the media centre that they were handing out free consoles to journalists, and it was the first time I've ever had to queue to get into anything related to Formula One other than the road into a track.
They had two specially built seats on the stage once we got inside, and they brought Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso onstage to race each other after the speeches. The British press seemed entirely uninterested, standing at the back and drinking in the loud fog of smoke they were creating despite the pleas for a little less noise from the stage. It was funny to see the drivers in surroundings like this - clearly they weren't taking it too seriously, and Button laughed all the way through (despite, or perhaps because of, his numerous rolls, all shown on the big screen behind him), whereas Alonso couldn't seem to contain himself and had a face like thunder while he was racing.
Finally the presentation was over (Alonso 18th, Button 20th in case you're wondering) and the Brits formed a disorderly scrum around the counter by the door to lay their hands on the goods, fighting off the other nationalities for all they were worth. Wanting to avoid the melee la redattrice and I stopped near the stage and made small talk with the Sony execs until it was over and we could walk out in peace - her journalistic ethics wouldn't allow her to take anything from a promotion like this, and as such we were the only people (other than a few miffed Italians) to walk out empty handed. By the time we got outside there were a gaggle of kids hanging around, open-mouthed at the steady stream of PS2s walking by.
But time passed by in that odd quick-slow way it always does in the paddock, and the weather came and went with it as usual. There has been a lot of rain over race weekends of late, putting the lie to the title of this column, but it always seems to come good on race day. During qualifying on Friday, it rained so heavily that the cars had to run on their extreme rain tyres, and each time they passed the media centre I could see twin white lines along the straight for a moment before they faded back into the track.
The rain dribbled away to nothing by the time I went quote-gathering for the news, which meant there were more people to talk to. Getting quotes is like gathering crops - you can't do it if the weather is against you. Too wet means everyone is hiding inside; likewise for too hot. I caught a few of the drivers, and as I was heading back, Toyota's press officer Chris Hughes came over and asked if I would like to come to dinner in their motorhome. Being in the middle of nowhere, it was an invitation even easier to accept than usual.
I really like the guys at Toyota - they are all really friendly and accessible, and they all seem to enjoy each other's company. I'm less sure about their drivers, although I've realised of late that drivers are far less interesting than most of the others. I have a theory about drivers - I think the more intelligent they are the less quick they run, as if it makes them aware of how insanely dangerous it is to run at the speeds they need to compete. Consequentially, most drivers are somewhat less than riveting conversationalists, which can make my job hard on occasion.
Chris brought Cristiano da Matta over to talk to us upon arrival that evening, and he stood there with his usual glum look on his face while we said hello before wandering off upstairs somewhere. For someone who is supposed to be in his dream job, he never looks too happy. Ricardo Zonta came over for a while after that, and we were on our best behaviour and asked him a bunch of easy questions for him to lob back to us. It was interesting in a racing geek kind of way - I found out that they really do wear their cars like an extension of themselves, that they can feel a slight loss of pressure in a tyre like you or I can feel a stone in our shoe.
But all good things must come to an end, and when we ran out of polite conversation la redattrice said "well, we don't want to monopolise all your time," and looked around him for someone more interesting to talk to. Ricardo stood there blinking for a while before trotting off after Cristiano to play Playstation or whatever it is that drivers do when the team has them in storage.
Thereafter we all got exceedingly drunk, and attempted serious small-talk with the team chiefs while the TV screens behind the tables aired Eurosport's World Rally Championship coverage of the weekend, followed by the World's Strongest Man competition.
"This is silly," someone said, looking at the TV. "Lots of fat men carrying things that are too heavy."
"Ove," I turned to Toyota's sporting director, Ove Andersson, "why is it always Scandinavian men in this contest?"
"Because we are very strong," Ove replied.
"But why?" I maintained.
"Because in winter all we do is have sex and drink. In summer we don't drink," he stated, finishing off another glass of wine.
Later in the night, after the Schnapps had been brought out, I turned to Andersson again.
"Ove," I said, "does Toyota have a Christmas party at the end of the year?"
"Yes, of course."
"Do you play Santa? I think you'd be perfect for the job. You look just like him."
He grimaced and took another shot of Schnapps in one, turning away to another person next to him, which suggests to me that I should never attempt an interview when drunk.
Well past midnight, we wandered out to the carpark, past a bus with a sign stating "Kostenloser Bustransfer - Striptease Partyzelt" (I have no idea what that actually means, but it seemed like the funniest thing we had ever seen, at least in our translation), and needless to say when Will Gray suggested we carry on drinking at his hotel, it was deemed to be an incredibly prescient idea, and remained that way until the next morning. La redattrice suddenly became much happier about being the designated driver the night before, and I'm convinced that she took the corners on the tree-lined road to the circuit slightly faster than was strictly necessary.
The paddock is not an ideal place to be hungover, even if it's only a mild one. Everything, from the cars to the mechanics working on them to the espresso machine at Ferrari to la redattrice herself, is louder than you need in that state. And then I had to interview Gerhard Berger.
Calling Jorg Kottmeier tall is like saying there's a lot of money in Monaco - it's true, but somewhat redundant. I'm six foot tall, but when the BMW press officer loped over to greet me I slightly held my breath as his hand came down from on high before realising that he only wanted to shake mine. He took me through and sat me down in front of Berger, who looked at me suspiciously until I told him there was no interview but rather we would be looking through some photos. And then he leaned onto the table and smiled.
I was only supposed to get about fifteen minutes of his time, but Gerhard was enjoying himself so much that when Jorg came over to tell him he had to go and do an ITV interview, Berger simply said he was having fun and was going to stay. I was beaming inside, but I didn't dare turn around for fear of seeing Louise Goodman burning holes in the back of my head with her eyes.
Back in the media centre, the sound of keyboards pounded in anger was mixing with the Brazilian radio commentators, who were talking overenthusiastically into their microphones, and the usual sound of phones ringing across the room. It's really annoying when a cell phone rings in the media centre and no one answers it, doubly so if it has one of those spectacularly annoying ring tones they have nowadays. A phone in front of me started ringing, and it was so monumentally irritating that Mike Doodson came over from the other side of the room with a face like thunder. "Where is it??" - I could only point to the table in front of me. "Kill!" he muttered as he swooped it up and switched it off, threatening to bin it just before the owner arrived, blissfully unaware of the pain inflicted. He was lucky - normally Doodson answers it, which would have been far, far worse.
Qualifying came and went, with the usual level of noise raised exponentially when Kimi Raikkonen managed to just beat Michael Schumacher for pole position. The next day the media were as quiet as they were loud the day before when Raikkonen's engine expired, but they revved up again when Schumacher spun into the gravel after colliding with Juan Pablo Montoya and then got a push start, with little clumps of journalists arguing the legality of this move at great volume all around the room.
We managed to leave the circuit before the sun set, for once. As we left the tunnel for the last time, the Jagermeister pyramid had collapsed under its own weight, and there was a large German sleeping nearby. I can only hope that he had help with the construction process.
Back to back races are great for the fans who watch them on TV, somewhat less for those of us who attend in person. Most of the journalists hung around somewhere between the two circuits for a few days away, but we drove back to Italy, mostly because I'd spent a grand total of two hours sleeping in my own bed in the last month and was keen to remedy the situation.
La redattrice bought a couple of software items for my Palm so as to avoid the possibility of getting lost on our way to Magny Cours. Needless to say, we set a new record for lateness. It was scorchingly hot when we drove through Italy, but by the time we'd gone through Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc to the heathens) and entered France it was raining - that's all I'm saying.
McLaren sponsors West had organised a five-a-side football competition for the journalists from around the world to play against the various drivers, including Michael Schumacher. I'd been put in the ' Rest of the World' team, led by an Austrian radio commentator ("just remember - it's European rules, not Australian rules - ha ha ha"; that famous Austrian wit at its finest), and I was looking forward to it immensely. And who wouldn't? The chance to compete with a bunch of overweight, chain-smoking middle-aged men against some of the fittest athletes in the world doesn't present itself every day.
Plus the possibility, however remote, that I might find a sport that I'm better than Mark Webber at had a certain appeal, of course. Anyone who says Australians are competitive hasn't met many.
But the police put an end to that. The word went around that a gaggle of gendarmes were in the paddock and heading for BAR; all bets were off and I rushed out to have a look. They were following Pasquale Lattuneddu - Bernie Ecclestone's right-hand-man and general boss of the paddock - who looked more stressed than usual, and when they got to the BAR pit the team's mechanics had linked arms and were refusing to let anyone by.
So off they trooped to the pitlane, followed by a stream of irritable journalists who had to work far earlier than they'd planned, only to discover that the sliding door was shut. They continued on and around until they found a gate which Pasquale ordered open for himself and the gendarmes and then closed again, leaving all the journalists stuck in the pitlane and having to troop back around again. He smiled to himself at that.
And then it was hurry up and wait - we all stood around waiting for something to happen, but as team principal David Richards was still in Paris there was no statement forthcoming. I managed to sneak around next to the Jaguar trucks and watch one of the BAR cars being reloaded onto the truck before a mechanic moved me along, and with the football tournament already underway there was nothing left for us to do than have a quick bite to eat at Michelin's French dinner before heading off to our hotel.
We got lost on the way, of course.
"It's going to be hot and sunny all weekend," la redattrice told me before we left, "I've looked it up, and you won't need any warm clothes at all." I should have known better - weather.com has been wrong every single race this year, so I don't know why I believed her this time. So it was probably my own fault that I was shivering in the traffic to the circuit.
Tom O'Keefe, Atlas F1's learned counsel and writer extraordinaire, arrived in the Magny Cours paddock to a fanfare the likes of which I've never seen before. I'm not entirely sure why, but almost everyone knew him and let me know how pleased they were that he was coming back. He'd been in Germany a week before, and the follow up visit was more exciting to some than a visit from Bernie.
All weekend there were senior FIA employees asking me if it was true that Tom was coming, as well as comments from other journalists (such as Dan Knutson saying "I hear your boss is arriving" to la redattrice) and team members. It was hard to fathom, and the thought that kept coming back to me was that perhaps he knows where the bodies are buried, and they wanted to watch him to see if he told anyone.
But it meant it was hard to catch up with him - whenever we tried to arrange a meal with him he was already eating with someone else, whether it was the head of Honda, breakfast with Bernie, or just standing around talking to Mike Doodson (who seems to now be spending a large part of the race weekends in the company of someone or other from our little website). We even tried to arrange a dinner with him one night, but unfortunately our timetable meant he would have been late for some soiree with the good people of Michelin, with whom he was staying.
Which meant instead that the Atlas F1 dinner comprised of la redattrice, myself and Gary Emmerson, filling in for Will Gray for a race and keen to keep up the alcoholic consumption standard. We went to Nevers hoping to find somewhere pleasant to spend the evening, only to find a lifestyle with as much in common to Monaco as my apartment has with the Taj Mahal.
The entertainment comprised of an astonishingly bad band - alarmingly featuring the bagpipes as the principal instrument - with about ten people and a dog milling listlessly in front of them. There were only two pubs in town, one of which rejoiced under the name "Bar le Sulky", which seemed exceedingly appropriate for a French pub - although I fear the irony was lost on the locals inhabiting it. We made full use of all of the facilities available to us, and managed to make it home by ten.
Nothing much happens on a Sunday morning because of the cars being held in parc ferme overnight, which means that everyone can have a bit of a lie in. Unfortunately no one mentioned this to the French spectators and it still took an hour to get into the track, despite leaving relatively early so that I could conduct an interview.
Bernie Ecclestone constantly complains about access to the track at Silverstone but never mentions Magny Cours as a comparable problem. If there is a track with worse access from the surrounding area than this one, then it should be struck immediately and for good from the calendar. One lane from the nearest sizeable town (Nevers) might work for a Formula Three race, but for an event that is hoping to attract around 100,000 people it's asking for trouble.
On early Sunday morning, the police stood around next to their motorbikes all the way along the road, probably more for their own amusement than to actually do anything useful. I'm sure it was even funnier for them when they saw foreign number plates.
Still, it was a fine day, and the traffic couldn't entirely dent my enthusiasm for another race.
The leisurely pace of race day meant that we could have a calm lunch for once, and this time in the company of Tom O'Keefe (who had, of course, eaten with someone far more important that us, but at least he made an appearance) and Tony Dodgins - one of the nicer English journalists. We sat and laughed at Tom's tales of his adventures around the track until la redattrice noticed a tall, lightly bearded and bespectacled man wander in and sit down at a table across from us, at which she gibbered "it's Jean Reno" and looked as though she was about to faint.
She sat there generally muttering to herself, her eyes slightly glazed over as she stared constantly in the French film-star's direction. After a period of time she had finally talked herself into something (I'm not entirely sure what - she wasn't making a lot of sense to the rest of us), got up and walked towards him. I was concerned that she was going to do something that would have us on the cover of every European newspaper the next day, but she merely whispered something in his ear before he turned around and kissed her while holding his hands together in the form of a Hindu greeting.
"What did you say to him?" I asked after she floated back to the table.
"I'm not telling you," she replied dreamily, "you'll only put it in 'Season' if I do."
Any further conversation was scuppered by the commencement of the French Air Force flyover, which was so low and loud that everyone in the room jumped (except Jean Reno, who looked outside with a mildly annoyed expression, as though he'd lost his frame of thought). I turned to ask la redattrice a further question, only to find her underneath the table. "You just don't do that to an Israeli," she moaned before returning to us.
The race came and went, and the afternoon's work too, and despite nothing much happening it was a pleasant weekend's work, made all the more agreeable by the contrast to the hectic pace of the last few weeks. Again we managed to get away with the sun still up, which made us feel pleased with ourselves right up to the moment that we realised the gates were locked and our car was on the other side of it. Still, it was a nice evening for a walk.
And then we ran out of petrol, which was probably France's way of letting us know who was really the boss.
The Montreal paddock seems a strange place, insofar that it doesn't really exist in comparison to the European races. A rowing pond runs behind the pits - remnant of the economically crippling 1976 Olympic games - and instead of a row of gleaming, multi-coloured motorhomes each of the teams have a couple of caravans along its length with picnic furniture in between to sit down.
You could see the relative wealth as you walk down the paddock: Ferrari have a jungle of plants in theirs, necessitating a guide or a machete to find your way through to the seats, and the floral life dwindles along the way until you reach Minardi's hospitality area, which has a couple of chairs, no flowers on the table, and some umbrellas that they might have found somewhere else.
There is a laneway running the full length of the paddock, and walking along it is like walking down a back alley between some houses in the suburbs: wooden lattice fences hide the actual pits from the lane so that you cannot peer over into the neighbour's house, and the picnic tables are on the other side of the lane. Last weekend, it was hard to tell which enclosure belonged to which team, as there weren't any signs up anywhere, and other than remembering the order of the 2002 Constructors' Championship the only way to tell them apart was to look at the uniforms on display. Which made it tricky when someone from another team came to visit.
The media centre in Montreal is also very different from what I've become used to. It's far smaller than those on the European circuits, broken over two floors in the control tower for the race, and with everyone squeezed together wherever they could find a seat. We found a place on the second floor and immediately over the podium, which brought a smile to my face as soon as I looked out the window. We were surrounded by the Italian media, and their non-stop chatter made me feel at home immediately.
At Montreal, I started to feel that I belonged in the paddock at last. Walking anywhere, I recognised people I had seen at the other races and they recognised me - I would get a nod here or a hello there, and some people actually remembered my name. The original idea for this column was thought up during the Canadian Grand Prix last year by la redattrice, and by a nice quirk of fate I could sense that I was starting to be accepted in the paddock a year on from that fateful trip.
Montreal is generally seen as a bit of a holiday for those not attached to a race team, a chance to relax after the hectic blur of Monaco, to soak up the sun before the silly season of driver moves starts in earnest. It rained pretty much non-stop all weekend, other than race day, and the gloom this brought was elevated by what became known as The Press Conference.
I was out stalking in the rain, collecting quotes, when the team principals' Friday press conference was held, because I didn't think anything of note would come of it. Walking back from the cafeteria at lunchtime, we had wondered if an entire race weekend could go by without any news to report, and while talking to Antonio Pizzonia I decided that it could, until I started listening to the television in the Jaguar enclosure and heard Paul Stoddart talking. Some of the mechanics came over to see what I was watching, and we all stood there transfixed.
The end result was a story about politics, money and intense inter-team rivalries, which didn't get reported in the daily newspapers (too difficult to explain in the limited space available) but had the entire paddock in uproar all weekend.
I spent the rest of the weekend standing under an umbrella being held by Stoddart, getting drips down my neck while I asked him what it all meant to his team, or transcribing the resultant interviews in the media centre until after nine every night. I will be happy not to hear another Australian accent for a month or two - it's lucky that we can't hear our own voices as others do.
On Friday evening, Minardi's beleaguered press officer Graham Jones stepped into the media centre, handing out the post-qualifying comments sheet as usual. "Hey Graham," veteran journalist Mike Doodson called towards him, "have you ever had a boss commit suicide live on television before?" Members of the press around the room snickered joyfully, as Jones smiled before replying: "Err, no... Not that I recall."
The joy of having a press pass was never more evident than in Montreal, where I could get out of the rain occasionally by going upstairs to the media centre. All weekend there were a few hardy souls in the opposite grandstand looking as miserable as a sack of rats in a river, waiting in vain for some action on the track. At least they all had hats on - praise the Lord for BAR, who have been helping Canadians dress better since their rebrand last year.
The support races were doleful affairs due to the weather, with everyone running as slowly as possible so as to avoid falling off the road, and most of them failing even at this task. In fact, the quality of driving on the Formula One grid can be seen in the relatively small number of incidents they had in their highly powered cars, in comparison to the young pretenders in their lower quality steeds.
But the best thing about having a race in a place like Montreal is that it's right in the heart of a city, with all the distractions this implies.
It's hard to have a social life when you're a Formula One journalist, and the opportunity to have some fun with friends becomes a rarity. One guy I know prints out special calendars with the races marked off so that his friends and family don't organise anything important on those weekends. Another guy circulates a spreadsheet by e-mail, which is funny in a computer geek kind of way. They complain when somebody arranges a function on a race weekend that they can't attend because of work. Well, I live in Milan while amore mio lives in New York; the way I see it, all the other journalists can just shut the hell up.
Atlas F1's Will Gray had his birthday over the weekend - another unavoidable hazard for an F1 journalist - and this became our excuse to go out as often as possible (were an excuse was needed). If you must have your birthday during a Grand Prix weekend, Montreal is certainly the place to have it, with any number of restaurants and bars fighting for your custom (of course, being British, Will demanded a curry buffet for his birthday feast). And so, a late finish at the track translated into later nights on the town, and our local friends made sure we avoided the tourist traps and saw some of the places the natives keep to themselves.
Canadians are like Americans with politeness set to stun. At Dorval airport, for example, I noticed a sign stating 'fire, do not enter', and I thought how very Canadian that was - I'm surprised they didn't say 'please' at the end.
Montreal itself is a fantastic city - it's as though the East Village in New York got fed up with the East River one day and went for a walk, found a nice clean river and sat itself down next to it and declared itself a new town. There's the downtown area, which they grudgingly tolerate because every city has to have somewhere for people to work; the old town filled with small cobblestoned streets and expensive knick knack stores for overly moneyed tourists; the Saint Laurent area with its restaurants and bars all waiting to be featured in a photo shoot in Wallpaper magazine (and, usefully, it gives all the models somewhere to hang out so as not to annoy real people); and further up the hill there is Mont Royal, my favourite part of town, where all the artists and writers live in their terrace houses, the iron railed stairs winding around the buildings along every street.
One night we were taken to a bar on Saint Laurent called GoGos, a dayglo delight where we were introduced to the owner before pushing through the heaving throb of a crowd. It was brilliant - stuffed full of kids from the local universities dancing ironically to early eighties songs that you don't usually hear outside of bad weddings, on every available space, including tables and the bar. Somehow we were shoved into a booth and drinks appeared at regular intervals, and we all grinned like we were teenagers again, getting into a club with a friend's driver's licence.
We stayed until the DJ made the fatal mistake of playing Bon Jovi and Aerosmith back to back - every man has his limit, and that was mine. But it was fun, and it made me think about the older journalists in the paddock who often complain that the Formula One lifestyle isn't what it once was. Maybe the drivers don't go out and hit the town with the journalists anymore, but the life is there if you want to enjoy it. We are living a life that I could have only dreamed of before the end of last year, and as hard as it can be, it's also fun. And I want to lead a life of few regrets.
So we shipped in every day by media shuttle along a potholed dirt road at the back of the island, worked non-stop, and then shipped out again in the late hours of the evening to hit the town. Almost every race on the calendar has shuttles for the media from the parking lot to the media centre. Sometimes it's a short trip and the shuttle merely saves you the hassle of carrying your laptop up the hill; in Montreal, it was really the only feasible way of getting to the paddock.
The shiny silver Mercedes vans used for shuttles at the European races, with their slick F1 logo in place of a license plate, were replaced with ugly maroon-coloured vans on rent from a local hotel in downtown Montreal. Every morning we'd go to the pick-up point, squinting and yawning, as other journalists would gather and wait for the van to fill up. The vans never left less than full, so we would wait outside while the van's driver gasped down a cigarette and waited.
"Excuse me, you're in our seats," la redattrice huffed one morning at a woman who walked into the shuttle and sat herself down next to our bags, left to mark our territory. "So sorry!" the woman breezily replied before moving up front next to the driver.
"That was Frank Williams's wife, by the way," I advised la redattrice when we finally got to the paddock. "Oh…" came the stoney-faced reply, and oddly enough she kept insisting thereafter that I go to the Williams media meetings, and was herself never seen again around their hospitality area.
The media shuttle also gave us an unexpected treat when on one of the nights, with the Montreal sun fighting meekly through the clouds to give us a watery sunset around the downtown sky scrapers, we took a shortcut to the main road through the race track itself. For the second race in a row that we found ourselves, without warning, driving on the route that just a few hours later would see 20 v10 engines screaming through. I don't think this is something you can get used to.
The Canadian Grand Prix was certainly the most intense weekend we've had this year - and by far the race where we managed to get the most work done, as well as having the most fun. My Dad used to tell me that hard work is its own reward, and I'm starting to see his point - every night I was tired but happy, and keen to get back into work again the next day. There's not too many jobs that give you that sort of satisfaction.
And on Sunday I had the three top finishers dancing around in a champagne shower two metres away from me. It's a strange thing to see at such close quarters - I've seen them celebrate like this hundreds of times before on television, but standing so close they seem so normal, so happy to be there, and it seemed almost rude to intrude on their glee. I looked at the monitors a few times out of habit before realising that it is filming the men just next to me, that I didn't actually need to look at the television. Sometimes things don't seem real until they're on a screen.
Over the next few hours there was a steady stream of people walking up to the podium to take their photo to prove to the folks back home that they were there. It was always the men that had their photo taken by their girlfriends, never the other way around; perhaps women don't have the requisite foolish gland required to jump around like an idiot for a photo. I was the only one in the press room to notice them - all around me I could hear nothing but a hundred hands striking laptop keyboards, the keystrikes sounding like a rainstorm on a window.
We left the track for the last time as the dusk was drawing its cloak around us. The grandstands so recently full shone bright like a steel guitar, and the seagulls were already gliding and swooping, looking for a meal left behind. We walked around the rowing pond to the shuttle as darkness descended, the lights coming on over the remains of the paddock and the casino behind it. It was beautiful, like a postcard you'll never see, and a perfect finish to the weekend. We hopped into the shuttle and let the town wash past us on the way to another restaurant and another night on the town.
I'm getting the hang of this life.
We missed the turn for the accreditation centre because it wasn't marked at all. That was kind of annoying, as we managed to drive all the way to Monaco without any mishap only to stumble at the last step, but things could have been worse.
It was a long diversion. Many streets in Monaco are one way, winding around the buildings like a cat rubbing your legs before you feed it, and because of this, and the number of streets blocked to traffic, we ended up crawling through a tunnel under the castle, fuming silently at our misfortune.
Until we finally got back into the open and I noticed the Ferrari pit immediately to our right.
There is no other circuit in the world where you could miss one turn and end up on the main straight of the race track, and you just have to love a place where you can. We were still slinking along at 2km/h, but who cares - we were driving on the main straight in Monaco! Life doesn't give you too many moments like that, so it's best to let them unwind at their own speed when they do.
We tend to forget that the Monaco Grand Prix is run in a city when we watch the race on television, where it's all just scenery behind the cars. But people do live there, they go to the supermarket, they ride the bus or their motor scooters (and try to get as close to running you over as they possibly can without actually hitting you). They do all the normal things that people do in life, except that for one weekend a year they have stonkingly loud cars racing down their street.
Which is not dissimilar to where I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, except there were never open wheeled cars involved back then, and the police didn't divert traffic around them.
The bus drivers seemed the most put out, possibly because they couldn't drive on the track for most of the day on race weekend (they did have access at night, which they made the most of). Although bus drivers always seem grumpy, so maybe it's not that. And I don't feel too sorry for the motor scooter riders either, mostly because they just managed to avoid my boot every time they dive-bombed me. Renault brought over thirty of the little buggers with them to the race, so now I hate them too.
There are so many stories about Monaco, so many myths and legends, and they're pretty much all true. There is nowhere else that spectators can get closer to the cars, closer to the action than here, because the grandstands are built two metres from the Armco. In Monaco, the permanent journalists, who cover the circus for more than a year and therefore have the permanent red pass (rather than my race-by-race grey one), can get something called a tabard, which is the vest-like thing that the marshals wear at every race, and this allows them to stand anywhere on the track immediately behind the Armco with the marshals.
Now there's a reason to want to keep this job.
The cars are so loud there, you can hear them in your spleen. It's an odd thing - last year I stood in the middle of the Minardi pit during free practice at Monza, with the two cars firing up either side of me and every other car running past down the pitlane, and yet the cars are even louder in Monaco. It must have something to do with reflective sound, as the noise just bounces and bounces off all the buildings and Armco and walls, back and forth into a crescendo of rage.
Many years ago I was lying on the floor in my apartment one night, and there was an earthquake well north of the city. I was listening to some really loud music on my headphones when suddenly the earth shook, and I wasn't sure if it was the music or something else. The race in Monaco is like that, except I didn't lie down, I knew the cause, and the vibrations kept going.
The paddock in Monaco is completely different to anywhere else. Space is at a premium, and the teams' motorhomes are all thrown in wherever they fit, wrapping around each other with a foot or two between them, creating a maze like the ones the old palaces of the world used to have in their gardens formed by hedges. It wasn't a particularly difficult maze to work out, but it was fun to try and find each team when I first arrived.
And there's just no getting away from the view. I stood in the BAR motorhome one night with dusk approaching, coming in from the sea like fog, with a DJ dropping science behind me and trying to persuade the masses to dance (a fool's errand in a paddock full of rich, white people), and I looked out over the harbour. The affluent masses come to Monaco every year, park their boats (or, more likely, have someone park it for them), and wave at each other, appraising their relative net worth behind their replica smiles as they do.
And beyond the harbour, with its constant dak dak dak dak of rigging and masts, the jangle of jewelry and ersatz laughter rose the city itself, lit from within and looking like half of Hong Kong, the buildings climbing higher all the time into the mountains behind, reclaiming them like Hong Kong reclaimed its harbour into a river. It's an amazing view from all angles, and the original reason all this money came here in the first place. I stood there drinking it all in until I was instructed to go down to the pier, and on the way I looked up at the deck over the Jordan motorhome and saw U2's Bono absorbing the city as I had.
You won't see that too often at the Austrian Grand Prix, for one.
I went out to the pier because Honda were taking journalists for rides in their ocean racing speedboats, and there's no way you can say no to an opportunity like that - as the song says, you've got to say yes to another excess. We put our lifejackets on and cruised out of the harbour, through the various boats and into the open water, and passed a massive yacht just at the harbour opening. You know a boat is big when other boats moor to it; if it was on solid ground, it would have had its own postcode.
Out past the break, the skipper could open up the engine and let her run. I doubt that he was going as fast as he could - there were probably insurance issues or somesuch thing that people in the paddock worry about - but it was still quick. He was wearing a team cap, and the wind blew it off his head, bouncing off mine, and it was 50 metres back in the water in the speed it took to type 'he'. And I'm a quick typer.
The two boats raced round each other, circling through the wakes to give us something to bounce off and making our hair stream out behind. The guy I sat next to had a close crop when we went out, and was in urgent need of a styling mousse when we returned. It's a good thing there were no mirrors around, so I couldn't see myself. We were all grinning like asylum dwellers when we hit land, the owners of a secret that no one else knew.
In a way Monaco is a city of dreams, this improbable town perched precariously on the surrounding hills, a world away from the world. And it reminded me of a couple of my own.
I had always told myself that if I won the lottery I would send a letter to Minardi and ask them if I could follow the team around and chronicle their season, maybe put out a book at the end of the year. It was never fully thought out, but it occurred to me that I am living that life now, recording the comings and goings of the paddock.
The other Formula One dream I've had since I was young, watching the races with my best friend all those years ago on the other side of the world, was a smaller one: I always wanted to sit in the Cafe Grand Prix on the Rascasse corner and watch the cars scream by as I drink my coffee and beam with joy. The media centre in Monaco is over the paddock, and I found a desk at the far end of the room on the first floor overlooking Rascasse, and I knew we had to sit there for the weekend.
Two dreams come true in one weekend; I'm a lucky man.
It was a great corner of the centre, too, as the young kids who volunteered to be media liaisons congregated there, all laughing and calling each other names and climbing over each other for the best view of the corner. I knew how they felt. These kids have one opportunity a year to see the race up close, and if it meant forgetting their job to catch a glimpse of the cars and drivers that everyone in the room follows around the world, then that was what they had to do. Every so often their boss would come over and yell at them to come back inside and close the sliding windows and start working, and they would all drop their heads and trudge off until the next chance they had to hang over the balcony and grin.
The only problem with the media centre was access. With it being as far inside the blocked-off section of town as it could be, it was almost impossible to drive to. And, being new and foolish, we drove in every day. Great chunks of Monaco were blocked for traffic, presumably to stop people driving onto the main straight while qualifying or the race was on (although I think that would add to the excitement level somewhat), although the right pass could get you through.
Here's what we did each day: wake up in Nice, usually because some strikers were letting off firecrackers at six in the morning (which made me want to put on a suit, round up a posse of management types, and return the compliment in the suburbs on a Sunday morning), and drive along the motorway to the top of Monaco. So far no problem, until we would come across the snaking tailback of cars which ran around the buildings for a couple of kilometres, generally to the accompaniment of the high pitched scream of the cars we were supposed to be reporting on. Eventually we would get to the bottom after showing our media passes about six times until we were within sight of the track, at which time the gendarme wouldn't let us any further without an argument. Monaco may not be France, but some habits die hard.
Through the final barrier we would have to crawl through the crowd looking at the merchandise stalls, left into a small road and right into a pedestrianised road. Turn right into a tiny laneway and then left onto the street behind the media centre, making sure not to hit the Jordan being towed behind a four-wheeled bike, and then up to the car park at the end of the cliff, below the palace, where the teams had their makeshift pits. (Improbably, the actual pits are like a string of lock up sheds at the back of a row of council houses). We'd then stroll back in the streaming sunshine to the media centre building, down 84 stairs (la redattrice counted), left for 20 metres and then back up two flights of stairs.
It would have been easier to catch a train and walk down the hill, but probably less fun.
Everyone in the paddock was much friendlier than usual, probably because they are all squashed together and have to make the most of it. The constant sunshine didn't hurt, either. On one of the days (and they tend to blur together in a place like Monaco, the hours ebbing and flowing like the sea), we stopped at the Jaguar motorhome because la redattrice saw Sam, Jaguar's young cook, and she ran up behind him and poked her fingers into his waist by way of greeting, grinning. The smile dissolved as he squeaked and turned around - it wasn't Sam, but rather a new guy who was replacing him for two weeks.
I can definitely tell you what that expression 'waiting for the ground to open up and swallow me' looks like now.
Caryn, Jaguar's motorhome hostess, sorted it all out and sat us down, la redattrice sitting there looking like the most sunburnt person ever and me trying to stifle a laugh or twenty. It was soon forgotten, though, and their boss Nick happened past, said hello and asked if we wanted to join them for lunch. Christophe, the new cook, served us and laughed every time he came over to our table, although I noticed he always walked around my side of it.
I thought she was done for the day, but it turned out not to be. I've developed a relationship of sorts with Mark Webber, insofar as we're both Australians, he answers any question I might have of him, and we give each other the nod whenever we pass in the paddock. The nod is a big thing in Australian male society, and not something to trifle with. And, while we were waiting between courses, Webber wandered into the motorhome, at which time la redattrice gasped, "ohh… Marky!"
She later claimed that she thought she wasn't saying it under her breath, which is still odd and shall go unremarked upon here, but needless to say it was loud enough that everyone in the motorhome could hear. Perhaps the excess blood still in her head was messing up her hearing.
He turned and looked at this questionable greeting, saw the scarlet head next to mine, and gave me the strangest look. Now I knew what the expression 'waiting for the ground to open up and swallow me' felt like, too. I saw him in the paddock later in the weekend and he still gave me the nod, but he looked all around me before he did. I'm wondering if I'll ever get a real nod again, but I'm resigned to being in nod purgatory for a while.
To avoid any sort of repeat of this nonsense we had lunch the next day at a small restaurant in the nearby village of Eze, and I figured they had to have known the puns that name was going to bring. It was charming, like one of those restaurants you can find in the countryside all over Europe, until the bill came and reminded us of where we were.
With Friday being a 'day off' at the Monaco Paddock, I was wearing a suit, which turned pretty much every head when we walked into the media centre (it is a nice suit, if I do say so myself), and I was wearing it partly because we were invited to a Grand Prix Tours function at the Loews Grand Hotel that night, and partly because I wanted to send a nice photo to my mother, who really likes such things.
But before the GP Tours function we went to a party on one of the yachts, laid on by Toyota. I'd given some stick to Chris, the team's young press officer, the day before about his new experimental haircut, and figured on getting some back for the ensemble. Remarkably he was too shocked to say anything, which is about the first time I've seen him lost for words. But as I said, it is a very nice suit.
We wandered back down the pier later, past Eddie Irvine's yacht, and he stood there in his sunglasses trying not to look like he wanted to have his photo taken.
That's the thing about Monaco - there are so many famous people that you get blase about them. There are rock stars and footballers and movie stars and politicians and ex-drivers, and the only one I remarked upon at the time was Mika Hakkinen, who strolled in on Saturday with his wife Erja. Well, he is a two time World Champion, whereas Juventus's Pavel Nedved is the guy who lost my team the Champions League by not playing. Therein lies the difference, at least in my world.
We stopped off at the Cafe Grand Prix at La Rascasse to fulfill a dream and have a beer on the famous corner. It was late in the afternoon and the track was open to the public, which meant a slow throb of exotic cars crawled past hoping someone would look at them. It cost twenty euros for two drinks, but you can't put a price on a dream. You can, of course, wish that they had anything other than Fosters to drink, but given the advertising hoardings all over the city it would be foolish to hope for more.
To add to the weirdness quotient, there was a guy called Swiss Schumy walking the track wearing red overalls and a giant Michael Schumacher head-mask. I knew his name because he had a sign around his neck advising that Swiss Schumy was getting married, and also because he was being followed by a squabble of drunks calling his name increasingly loudly. He made a point of signing postcards, which had the same information as his sign, to everyone he encountered and demanding fifty cents. It was worthwhile if for no other reason than to wonder how he managed to get quite so drunk with a giant head-mask on his head. Maybe he had a straw in there somewhere.
We walked up to the Loews Grand Hotel for GP Tours' party, looked out over the sea and had a few drinks, listened to a discussion involving some of the Williams crew, former Sauber designer Sergio Rinland and others, and wished that we had a tape. It was informative and funny and all that we'd hoped for, and everyone in the room agreed judging by the applause at the end. There were more drinks and finger foods afterwards, and it was fun to watch so many rich people in one room. I love rich people - they are generally warm and friendly and interested in what you have to say. In fact, they are just like you or me, except they dress worse because they can.
An hour or so later we walked back to the media centre, through the famous tunnel under the hotel and along the promenade, admiring the boats and the nighttime skyline of Monaco. It reminded me of a holiday I took a few years ago with my girlfriend of the time, my mate and his wife, when we made the girls walk the track with us and bored them with details of past races each stop along the way. It felt like a lifetime ago to me, a flash of a past life partly evoked. I remember thinking at the time that I had no idea how they could fit all the stands into such a small place, but now I can't picture the city without them.
As we walked along the harbour front I saw Giancarlo Fisichella's boat, Fizzy, and started towards it before realising that we hadn't actually been invited onboard. It's funny what you can get used to, and I'm getting used to all of this.
Life could be worse. And Monaco is the kind of town that reminds you of this.
I've learnt that driving through Italy is never a great idea, day or night, because no matter when you're on the road, there will be Italians all around you.
This explains why it took us over two hours to do the first hundred kilometres from Milan towards the A1-Ring. It had nothing to do with us getting lost in our own town, as that was really a momentary diversion of five minutes or so, and much more to do with the hundreds of cars who decided it was a nice day to park on the autostrade. Besides, getting lost at home really just got the inevitable out of the way.
There is something entirely baffling about Italian traffic jams - three or four lanes on a main thoroughfare can be blocked entirely for over an hour, with the cars moving on average 10cm a minute, and then suddenly the road is clear, as though there was no problem at all. I have my suspicions about this: I've noticed that there are often traffic jams near the out of city malls, and I'm wondering if some shoppers just like to have a headstart on the traffic in the car parks when they finish shopping.
The Trentino - Alto Adige region of Italy is an extraordinarily picturesque region, looking like nothing else in the country, and yet it differs from the Austrian landscape just next door. The Dolomites are a majestic mountain range, bare of any covering, and the mountains look like nothing so much as giant body builders bending over on themselves, the jagged granite edges like muscles on top of more muscles. The lush green fields surrounding them look like some thick plush carpet on which the mountains stand, remote from each other.
And then you enter a long tunnel, passing through the belly of one of these beasts, and into Austria. It's as though you're in another world - every mountain joins the next, and they are all covered entirely in trees, clinging doggedly to every surface available like ivy on some ancient mansion house.
It seems as though you could take a giant mower through the heart of these mountains, collect all of your lumber needs for a hundred years, and tomorrow the trees would have regrown, covering any trace of your actions in a blink. The trees grow around and through each other, so dense that you can't see through the mass, looking like a drunken night out with friends after the army parade of Italian trees, all planted row by careful row out to the horizon.
The traffic in Austria is also nothing like that in Italy, insofar as it's just not there. I don't claim to know what Austrians do for fun, but whatever it is, they do it at home. Maybe they play a lot of Twister, and the fun therein leaves them no time to go out, although that doesn't seem too likely if you know what the average Austrian looks like. The autobahns are almost free of traffic, which means getting anywhere takes almost no time at all.
Except to the Grand Prix, of course, which requires navigating on a single-lane road behind a slow moving tractor, which in turn is running wide of the roadworks being carried out all over the area. I would have thought they'd have fixed the road well before the largest number of people the region gets in a year descended for the race, but given that it's probably the last one they'll host they clearly decided it would be more fun to give us something to remember them by.
The countryside around the track is different to that of any other circuit on the calendar. Built into a valley beneath yet more mountains, low and squat under the horizon, the track is surrounded by farmland and cows with a generous sprinkling of lumberyards in every direction, all smelling like an Ikea store. It reminded me of Maine or Quebec - those areas that seem an anachronism in today's society, areas that still support the world just like the embarrassing kid brother who does the shopping for the computer wunderkind, the genius who would forget to eat if he wasn't reminded.
And there's an irony in having the most technologically advanced automotive machinery in the world come to a place like the A1-Ring - it feels a bit like one of the Back to the Future movies, where the cowboys can't understand what the strange machine on their main street is. The locals love it, though - they just like the racing, the movement and the noise, and they cheer all ontrack action regardless of category. I can't see any of them traveling to another country to see a race next year - they'd get laughed at for their hats if they did - and it seems kind of sad that they won't have a race to attend anymore.
The funny thing was that all the media reported how everyone involved in Formula One would be happy to see the back of the Austrian race, and yet I never heard a bad word spoken about it all weekend. Quite the reverse, in fact: almost everyone was sad to see it go, and quietly hopeful that the organisers will be able to bring a race back here against the odds. And it can't just be to laugh at the oompah bands dressed in lederhosen.
Maybe it's just the quiet that was so enjoyable. With the Austrian race being held in May there's not much to report on - the early season dramas are played out, and it's too early for the silly season to start - and as such the journalists really don't have much to do here.
Outside of the media centre it seems that no one is allowed to stand by themselves, and you can always see people walking up and down the paddock looking for someone to talk to so that they look like they belong here. I don't really care about being by myself - in fact it can be good to just stand and watch the tide of people walking by and see who's talking to who - but I'm starting to recognise other journalists who make do with talking to me if there's no one else about. Better that than be alone, it seems.
The thing is, as an newcomer to the game it's fairly clear that there are a lot of cliques around the media centre, and they are pretty much as you would expect: mostly it's the British journalists, who are split between the old timers from the motoring magazines (the old school clique), the newspaper people (Fleet St clique), and the younger Brits who are trying to break into one of the existing groups (new school clique). The other nationalities tend to stick to their own, less out of a desire to form a clique than to have someone to talk to in their own languages.
I haven't joined any clique yet, mostly because I don't know enough members to qualify for membership with any of them, but also because I'm not English and am therefore looked upon differently than if I was. I haven't made much effort to talk to any of them, in any case. In fact I have met more journalists at lunch in the Michelin motorhome than anywhere else, although none of them have been English.
La redattrice likes the people at Michelin, and they invite us to join them for lunch at each race. Which is about as perfect as life can be, given the astonishing young chef they have working for them who amazes us every two weeks with his culinary masterpieces. And since the Brits don't seem to go to Michelin for lunch very often, we sit next to journalists from other countries, who are far friendlier on the whole than the Brits in any case.
I'm thinking of starting my own clique - the newly-arrived, outsider foreign journalists' clique - and who wouldn't want to sign up for that. I could have cards made up and everything. I know the Dutch will be up for it, for a start.
To be honest, though, I'm starting to think that the other journalists don't like la redattrice and myself. There is always a certain look you get when you tell someone you work for an internet website - it's kind of a look of disdain mixed with curiosity, because the overall magazine readership is dropping in large part because of the internet, and indirectly I'm assisting their ultimate demise.
Although maybe they just don't like us because of la redattrice.
The thing is, she has this habit of not really looking where she's walking, and the space between the desks in the media centre is really tight, which means she has a tendency to knock things off the tables all the time. And she never notices this, swanning off blithely to the paddock while I scrabble around picking things up behind her and trying to placate those left red faced and blustering in her wake.
And then she wonders why I didn't hear what she was talking about on the way out.
It's all become second nature to me by now, and my newfound skills have already come in handy. After qualifying on Saturday I was walking out towards the paddock when I noticed a German radio commentator stand up and head towards the exit with his headphones still attached to his laptop. In a split second I dived down and caught it before it hit the ground.
The guy was very happy with me, and looked suitably embarrassed as the BBC radio reporter behind him commented on my reflexes. I told him it was nothing, and that being Australian means that cricket is hardwired into our system. Catches win matches, I smirked at the BBC guy, who quietly fumed at his country's uselessness at the sport.
I don't even like cricket, but no Australian can refuse a chance to make fun of the English about it. It's written into the constitution.
But we're certainly getting noticed, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. After qualifying on Saturday, Agnes Kaiser, the FIA's press delegate and the one in charge of the media centre, caught us as we were walking outside. "Would you mind stepping into my office for a minute?" she told la redattrice. Kaiser is a formidable woman, and waiting outside I felt like I was back at school and waiting for a mate to come out from the headmaster's office, squirming with fear that I'd be called in too.
Eventually la redattrice came out ashen faced, telling me that she'd been given a dressing down about an error made in a report on Atlas F1, and the mistake stemmed entirely from not checking the facts with Kaiser first. It was understandable but kind of scary, although later I realized that it meant someone from the FIA must be reading our site, which made me feel strangely pleased. And later I needed to find out the official line on something and, swallowing my fear, walked back to the headmaster's office to ask, and was rewarded with a smile and all the information I needed.
Learning the rules of the office in a new job is always the tough part.
I can see a routine starting to form in my race weekends already. Away from the track it doesn't seem like the cars run much over a weekend, but it's amazing how much of the day it seems to fill. The weekend tends to run like this:
Saturday: Quick breakfast at the hotel, on track before two free practice sessions. Lunch somewhere and a fifteen minute free practice session before second qualifying for an hour. More quotes from teams and drivers, and the bigger teams have open press conferences. BAR and Williams generally have some function in the evening, which we attend, having slept well the night before.
Sunday: Breakfast in the hotel, as the cars are in parc ferme and there is no on track action. Hold interviews or go to press conferences with the major teams that didn't hold them yesterday, and check for any news before lunch at Michelin. Walk out feeling that all is right with the world. Race in the afternoon, more quotes and the teams pull everything down as the media clatters away on their laptops. Leave some time in the evening and head home.
The teams go to great lengths to make the various journalists feel comfortable, and each of the teams have their role to play. Jordan put on a breakfast for the British journalists, although given my nationality (and that of my publication) I've never had the pleasure. We tend to have one breakfast a weekend at Jaguar, who are famous for their fry ups, and it's a perfect way to get ready on a Friday morning for the testing session and the rest of the day.
Unfortunately I found out on Sunday at Austria that from now on there was going to be an invite-only system in place at Jaguar, and still being new to the whole thing I'm too embarrassed to go and ask for one. Reassuringly, though, the young guy who runs Jaguar's motorhome told me that I'd have no problem getting access because I knew Nick. That's certainly good news, although I honestly have no idea who Nick is.
BAR are the night-time team, and they have cocktail parties and the like for the media most nights. On Saturday night at the A1-Ring they showed the classic movie 'The Italian Job', with loads of hamburgers and hot dogs and popcorn for all. It was great fun - it's a brilliant movie, and the mostly British crowd was cheering along all the way through (and especially when Charlie - Michael Caine - yells, "you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!")
When it was all over we walked out into the wintry night, and it was the first time I'd seen the whole paddock empty and in complete darkness. The McLaren communications centre looked amazing at night - the towers of light all around it made it look like a landing beacon for the fleet from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The whole point of McLaren's centre is to provide somewhere for the media to congregate over a race weekend, and it works incredibly well. I tend to go there quite a bit over a race weekend, mostly because the staff are so welcoming to everyone. And their coffee is brilliant too, which helps.
A sign of the attention to detail that McLaren have can be seen when you order a cappuccino, as la redattrice does at various times over the weekend. When it comes to your table, there is a small version of their swoosh logo marked on the foam in cinnamon, and it's an indication of the thought that's gone into making it the most hospitable place in the paddock.
I was back up at the media centre for the start of the race, and watched the various team members rushing back and forth along the pitlane. It's an astonishing sight to see them all swarming over the cars on the grid like multicoloured ants, and then watch them rush back to their respective pits before the start. Of course there were three restarts, which meant that literally hundreds of people ran up and down the pitlane three times. There were a lot of red faces by the last restart, including Renault team boss Flavio Briatore, and it suddenly occurred to me why the teams want to win the championship so much.
The fame and adulation is all well and good, but when you're in the first pit, you've got the least distance to cover between there and the grid. If that's not an incentive, I don't know what is.
And I watched a lot of the race from the giant press room windows. It's hard to explain just how fast the cars are, but it actually hurts your eyes a bit to watch them go past - you have to move your head with them or you won't be able to actually focus your eyes on the cars.
With the media centre windows located right above the pits, I was standing immediately above Michael Schumacher when he came in for his pitstop, and I noticed the flames coming from his fuel rig seemingly before the team did. It was a heart stopping moment, and the first thing to cross my mind was Jos Verstappen's fiery stop in 1994 - I was convinced that a fireball was going to erupt over the car and up to the window, but the mechanics where spraying foam before I knew it.
And then another journalist obviously saw what happened on the monitors and came over for a look as the mechanics were mopping up the mess, and he had a new cigarette dangling forgotten between his fingers.
At least he didn't ask for a light.
I'm starting to think that France doesn't actually exist, or if it does then it's nothing but a black hole that needs to be navigated as quickly as possible.
The whole road trip concept as related to Formula One activity was a great idea at first, but if I have to keep driving through France I think I'll tire of it pretty sharpish. Of course, any drive from Italy to Spain is going to require driving through France, which is unfortunate. I'd certainly support any moves the Italian and Spanish governments made to build a giant bridge between their countries just to avoid having to return to France. Although when I say support I don't mean I'd vote for it, because I can't, but I'd say nice things about the idea at the very least.
Whenever I've been to France this year it's been dark, and it's really making me wonder if the whole country isn't just a bad dream I'm having. I went to the Toyota launch with la redattrice a couple of days after moving to Italy, and with it being at the Paul Ricard circuit, we were pretty excited about it - south of France, good food, good wine, rolling countryside, Formula One cars. That's a great combination in anyone's language, and it beats unpacking.
Not that I've received my belongings yet, thanks to the vagaries of Italian customs, but I'm complaining about France at the moment so I'll leave that for another time.
So we thought this was a brilliant idea - drive up there in the afternoon, arrive and find some charming little hotel, then find a little Michelin 3 star restaurant and gorge ourselves silly. Hell, I'd have made do with 2 stars at a push.
The reality was slightly different.
So admittedly we got a little lost, but it was no more than an extra 100kms or so on the trip, and we did arrive slightly later than planned. Even so, it was still about 9:30 pm when we arrived in Toulon, only to find the town had shut about 50 years before we got there. The only hotel we could find was some rat trap on the main road (in fact I think part of our room sloped out over it, although I'm sure that wasn't in the original architectural plan), and the only restaurant open was some local place called McDonalds (which doesn't seem like a French name to me, but to their credit they did make some fresh French fries for us).
And then it rained all day at the launch, and the sky was almost dark enough to call it night - so dark in fact that for the first time ever I wondered if an F1 car could be fitted with headlights. I suspect they might not be overly aerodynamically efficient, but I'm sure Adrian Newey could come up with something.
Given all of the above I had some trepidation about driving to Spain, seeing as this meant we would be driving through France again. But we discussed the matter in great depth (LR: we're driving to Barcelona. Me: okay), went out to the airport again to get the rental car (don't ask), picked out my least offensive music CDs and hit the road.
I'm starting to realise why Italian road signs say Ventimiglia rather than France on them - it's the last town before France, and it's more polite than a sign saying abandon hope all who enter here.
We drove all night after la redattrice finished preparing the weekly magazine issue, and we made a point of stopping at the last Autogrill before the border so as to minimise contact with the French. Because the problem with people in France is that they want to speak French, and although I speak a little it's tricky - living in Italy means my default non-English reply will be Italian, which tends to confuse people.
But I'm reasonably sure that I'm not the first non-French driver on their roads, and I would have thought that it was fairly easy to tell that I would want 30 euros of fuel for a Fiat Punto rather than 300. And while I'm talking about France, anyone who thinks that the French have good coffee clearly hasn't stopped at any service station along the A8 and A9. Oh, and Italy and Spain make you pay once for all use of their autostradas, whereas the French seem to have a tollbooth every mile or so, seemingly just to correct me when I say buonanotte instead of bon soir. It really can't reflect well on a country if Italy or Spain are more organized than it.
Well, I'm glad I got that out of my system.
The sun started to rise as we entered Spain, further convincing me that France is in fact the land of darkness, and the green rolling hills reminded me a little of Italy. The Spaniards are wonderful people - they are similar to the Italians, but even more laid back and sunny. I don't think I saw a Spaniard not smile over the whole weekend, which indicates to me that they are either slightly dim or they've found the secret to life. I think I'll run with the latter.
Spanish is kind of like Italian except with a funny accent that you can't quite grasp, and needless to say this can be confusing. I know very little Spanish, but I tried it out in the hotel and we managed to get into our room, which was a good start. La redattrice wisely decided that she wanted a nap before heading to the track but I chose not to, partly because I couldn't sleep and partly because if we both fell asleep then it was likely that we'd never wake up in time to get our passes.
I guess it's my role in life to become my father. Things could be worse.
We had our first introduction to Spanish hospitality when we reached the track. It's a wonderful location for the race - the Circuit de Catalunya is on top of a hill and can be seen from all of the freeways nearby, and the grandstands surrounding it look like a giant football stadium where everybody has an uninhibited view of the action. There are plenty of signs leading up to the circuit directing you to the various car parks and even to the media centre, but once you get near them the signs stop and you have to rely on the people working there. Who are all too keen to help, but generally disagree with each other as to where anything is.
But they disagree in an agreeable manner, and we did no more than five laps around the whole complex before we found the accreditation centre.
I recommend sleep deprivation should you find yourself going to the Formula One paddock - there's something intrinsically unreal about the place anyway, so being slightly out of your head can only add to the experience. And it was a gloriously sunny day, the kind of day where you can feel the sun's energy feeding your own, when it seems a shame to go inside because you have to take off your sunglasses and sit down.
The track owners had a promotion whereby anyone holding a 3-day grandstand pass could come into the pitlane on Thursday. Normally there are no fans at a circuit on Thursday, because there is no racing and nothing for them to do except peer over the fence onto an empty track. It's a wonderful idea, and 22,000 fans turned up to get a glimpse at the cars in their own environment.
The Barcelona Thursday crowd seemed much bigger than the Sunday audience in Imola, and they were so happy to be there, smiling and laughing at each other all afternoon. They stood there for hours, cheering every time a Montoya or an Alonso walked out, and it made me think that the reports that Spaniards don't like Formula One are vastly overstated.
And they stayed there for hours. They could do this because Spaniards seem not to have dinner until it's the next day, which can be a little confusing for foreigners. We got back to the hotel at about 8:00 pm, and given the lack of sleep wanted merely to eat and then pass out. The problem, of course, is that 8:00 pm is far too early for a Spaniard to eat, and so the local restaurants were closed, including the one in the hotel. Still, they were able to bring up a few sandwiches to our room half an hour after I gave up on Spanish and ordered in Italian. The girl gave us a funny look, as though she'd never seen anyone eat so early in her life, but maybe it was just that she couldn't understand a word I said.
The next morning I said hello to a few people having dinner downstairs before jumping into the car and driving to the track. The area around the circuit is peppered with the most intensely red poppies I've ever seen, the kind that people wear on their lapels in the United Kingdom for Remembrance Day. The day before we had managed to get slightly lost on the way back to the hotel, which I realise is becoming a recurring theme now and was less than thrilled about at the time, but we ended up in a new housing estate which wasn't yet finished, and we found ourselves on a dirt track surrounded by fields of long green grass speckled with red poppies. And it was beautiful; it reminded me of amore mio so far away, and it made me happy and sad at the same time.
The sun rose high and scorching over the paddock, heckling the weather forecast of a rainy weekend. I got to work and interviewed some more Toyota staff for a feature on the team, spoke to Jaguar about another, and the Formula One world rolled on all around me. The race weekend seems to run under it's own timescale - everything happens so fast that it seems like it's Saturday on Thursday, and yet when it's all over it feels like it lasted a month. I can't quite work out how that happens; it's as though Bernie bought a wormhole in time and lodged the paddock at its centre.
Sylvia Hoffer, the charming Italian press officer for Williams, invited us to a fashion parade in Barcelona that evening, where the new line of team apparel was being launched. She told us it would be simple to find, as it was to be held at the Telefonica tower overlooking the city. I had my doubts already.
This explained the appearance of the odd looking woman I saw walking around the paddock earlier, though: tall and skinny, like some strange cross between a greyhound and a giraffe, she looked entirely out of place in a race environment. We were told later that she was some famous German model, although her name escapes me at the moment, and it made me wonder what the hell was in the water in that country, as the Germans in the paddock vary from Norbert Haug (well rounded) to Jorg Unpronouncablename (German officer for BMW, 12 feet tall). Living in Italy makes me feel that everyone in a country should look the same, and the Germans clearly decided to hell with that idea.
Barcelona is a beautiful town - it's the kind of place that makes you feel right just by being there, and there are not a lot of cities in the world that can claim that. This holds true at all times, unless you happen to be lost there, of course.
So we ended up on the wrong freeway, but given the sheer number of them this doesn't seem too bad. We circumnavigated the city, coming in eventually from the other side and through some long tunnels which put us smack into downtown Barcelona, and from there we were on our own. Barcelona is based on a diamond shaped grid system, and it should have been easier to find our way around than it was. Maybe things would have been better if we could read the signs in Spanish.
Or if we hadn't tried asking cab drivers for directions.
We probably asked ten different cab drivers where to go on ten different occasions, and we got ten different replies. After driving around Barcelona for an hour and a half, and boggling at the thought that it was big enough to do so, we decided to simply head up the hill towards the tower, which was easy enough to spot all over town given its size, and hope for the best.
Which didn't work out quite as planned, unfortunately.
We ended up on top of the wrong hill - we were on the hill with the palaces and restaurants and the hiking trails rather than the one with the tower and nothing else. The view was magnificent though - high above Barcelona we could see the La Sagrada Familia, the astonishingly beautiful cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi and is still being built almost 80 years after his death; or the Camp Nou stadium, which looks even more impressive when you drive past it as we had done a few times; and the whole city laid out before us, surrounded by hills on one side and the vast harbour into the Mediterranean on the other.
We gave up the search there and then - watching Montoya walking around in a new t-shirt was unlikely to match the view. At least the restaurant was open by the time we got back to the hotel, so it wasn't all bad.
I woke up the next morning and had a shower, and when I came out I noticed the window was open, and the fog was so thick that it looked as though I'd steamed up the whole world. We drove quietly through it, the countryside white and silent, and the fog burnt away as we neared the track. There were thousands of cars there already, and as we pulled off the freeway and headed up the hill to the track there was a procession of hundreds of people walking towards us, many of them carrying the light blue flag with a yellow crucifix of Alonso's home region Asturias, looking like a stream of penitents searching for the Lord.
Back in the paddock we found Sylvia just inside the gate, and la redattrice sheepishly admitted to getting lost on the way to their fashion show. It turned out we weren't alone - half of the people invited couldn't find their way there either, including some of the Williams people, and the event started late because of the low turnout. And she actually apologised, which made me feel a little less foolish, and then she invited us to another function that night, a safety demonstration put on by their sponsor Allianz insurance, immediately above the pits in the Paddock Club - so there was no chance of us getting lost this time.
Of course, we went to the wrong floor at first, but we found it eventually.
It was a lovely cool night, and the windows over the pits were wide open to allow the slight breeze in. It was a great location, and it let me realise what it's like to be incredibly rich and able to go to Grands Prix on a whim - I'm not sure what the difference between this floor and the media floor was, but it seemed to be all the difference in the world. We ate well, had some wine, and watched the other journalists make fun of insurance people, which is a sport unto itself. At the end of it we were handed a large, solid folder of notes from the presentation, which gave me a little flash back to my previous life working in an office - something the astonishing sunset managed to banish almost immediately.
After the race the biggest party was at the Renault motorhome, and there were hordes of happy Spaniards basking in the reflected glory of one of their own. I made my way down to the Toyota pits, and everyone there was hugging Cristiano da Matta, or slapping him on the back with a huge grin on their faces. Toyota seem to be the team most like a family, which is at odds with their public image but true nonetheless. They have brilliant coffee too - a vital component of the whole experience for me. I'm starting to think I should pack my coffee machine with my laptop for Austria.
The post-race paddock pull-down started in earnest, and Sauber was the first team out of the circuit, as usual. They always seem to win the race to get away. I wonder if the pumping techno music they blast during pull-down is the difference - there's a fine line between success and failure at this level, and Sauber have it down to an art form. Shame they can't do much the same in the races, though.
And then later we got back into the car and headed home. France was black and gloomy, as usual, but I felt a bit safer knowing we'd brought the safety demonstration folder with us - I could always throw it at someone driving like a fool, or just save it for the next French service station attendant who made fun of my language skills.