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.