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.