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.