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.