You wake up and wonder where you are. You hear the traffic noise outside and try and decipher it – was that a tram? Is that siren American? Are they speaking Japanese outside? Some mornings it's too hard to open your eyes straight away, and the only evidence you have comes aurally.
I based myself in New York for the final rounds of the championship because I could, because amore mio is there and I missed her like crazy all year, because it's easier than being based in Italy for the flyaway races, because, because, because. I spent a month on the road and in planes, and it all gets a little confusing sometimes. Culture lag is worse than jet lag any day of the week.
New York is so huge that it becomes small again. The buildings are so big that you don’t notice them - all those buildings on top of each other cancel themselves out, and all you see is the street and the people. Nobody but tourists look up, and even they soon stop. Against that the circuit at Indianapolis is wide and spacious, and as such the buildings look bigger somehow.
I was amazed by the sheer scale of the place: there is nothing like this anywhere else in motor racing. The Bombardier Pagoda towers over you, over everything - walking under it and the stands nearby is similar in scale to walking through an oil refinery or a power plant. The media centre is a four storey building on the front straight, the other side of the pagoda and hundreds of metres away from the paddock. I felt sorry for the various teams' press officers who had to walk back and forth a number of times a day - they must have walked at least ten kilometres by the end of the weekend between their offices and us.
The paddock itself is huge too. There are the front pits which house the cars and run alongside the pitlane with rows of buildings behind - the engineers having the first floor and the management upstairs in the first row. The teams created cafes on the next row while using the other side for storage, with the remainder going unused all weekend. The smaller teams have never had this much space available to them at any other race - it's probably more than the grander teams are used to as well.
The Suzuka paddock in Japan, on the other hand, is tight and contained with a large open area behind it. It's a great paddock, and with no motorhomes for the teams in either Indianapolis or Suzuka, the final two races offered a refreshing change from the European season, as the team members had nowhere to hide.
Not many journalists actually make the long trip out to Japan; it's an expensive ordeal and quite difficult to arrange logistically. As such, it seemed like there was a lot more space for everyone who did make it to Suzuka. There is a path all the way along the back of the actual pits where all the team members hung out, and everyone seemed a lot more friendly than usual - it felt like the last day of term and everyone was just waiting for the headmaster to ring the bell and let us all go home.
Including me. When I was first offered the opportunity to follow the Formula One circus around the world I jumped at it - what racing fan wouldn't? But everything that seems too good to be true usually is, and the downside of seeing the races is that I've spent the whole year in flux, either traveling to a race, being at a race, or writing about it. Or doing my laundry.
It's been brilliant, of course, but tiring. And as such I was actually looking forward to the end of the season, to stopping somewhere and doing nothing for a while and remembering what that's like. But before that happens, I was too busy storing up interviews from the last two races like a squirrel stores nuts for winter. For two weekends I spent most of my time walking back and forth from the media centre to the teams to organise an interview or to do them, to transcribe or discuss them.
La redattrice wasn't at either the US or Japanese Grand Prix, so I had to cover everything myself, which didn't help. This meant that I spent a lot of time either talking to her via computer (Indy) or trying to get my computer to work to do so (Japan). Not being at the track meant she was going crazy trying to control everything remotely, which isn't ideal.
To ease my first solo Grand Prix, La redattrice arranged for BMW North America to loan me with a car for the US Grand Prix weekend, and they must have thought I was someone important to the company, as a Laguna Blue M3 was waiting for me in downtown Indianapolis. I felt like I was on one of those hidden camera shows on television, that it must have been a practical joke or something, but they handed me the keys and ushered me on my way without a second glance.
Somehow I managed to put 400 miles onto the car. It was great.
Indianapolis is nothing but freeways, endless strip malls and wide open space. Every long block looks like every other one. It looks like Wichita, like Sioux City, like every other mid western town in the United States. Ian, the friend I was staying with, could find his way around because he lives in Phoenix, and it's much the same as Indianapolis, but hotter. The endless driving made me feel jetlagged even though there's only one hour difference from New York. One hour and a world away.
It was a quiet weekend in Indianapolis, because I was working so much and because there was no one there to talk to – no la redattrice, no Will Gray. I would drive in to the circuit every day, stopping at Starbucks for a cup of burnt espresso and wishing I had my coffee machine with me, then Ian would stand around for hours at the end of the day, waiting for me to get out of school before finding something else to do.
Fosters put on a kart race the first night for the assembled media - we missed the start but made it in time for the food. All of the journalists there probably felt that because they write about racing they know how to do it, but the final race was lined almost only with photographers - maybe all those years of watching the real drivers hit their racing lines lap after lap left them with racing knowledge imbedded in their hands, feet, and head.
The food was good - lots of Buffalo wings and thick steaks - and the portions were American sized. Unfortunately my stomach has become European sized, so it was all a bit too much for me. At the end of the night I noticed a couple of guys sneaking some cases of Fosters out to their car – obviously they weren't Australians.
On the other side of the world in Japan all of the journalists, as well as many team members, were staying in Yokkaichi - a 45-minutes trip from the circuit - and the race organisers put on some buses to ferry us back and forth. The ride in to the circuit every morning was long and dull, and the Brits spent most of the time amusing themselves by making fun of each other's reports in the previous day's newspapers. It was either that or look out the window.
The first time you see one of the walled houses with the sculpted trees that look like real sized bonsai trees it seems impossibly exotic, but they soon tend to blur into each other just like houses anywhere else do. And I'd already seen more of the country than most of the others anyway.
I've always wanted to go to Japan - something about the place has always intrigued me, and any movie that was set there, even something as bad as 'Black Rain', was guaranteed to get me through the door. I saw 'Lost in Translation' just before I left, and it made me even keener to get there.
I flew from New York to Tokyo a few days early so as to see the place before work started, and it was as baffling and as brilliant as I expected. In Europe I haven't had too many problems - I speak small amounts of a few languages, and if that fails at least I can guess what a sign might say - but Japanese might as well be Sanskrit as far as I'm concerned.
Luckily the Japanese people are completely the opposite of their portrayal in the movies. Friendly and approachable, they are only too happy to help you out in any way they can. I must have looked completely baffled looking at the subway map in Tokyo station as an elderly gentleman came along and asked, in English, where I need to go before walking me to a guard and asking for directions on my behalf and then leading me to the platform I needed.
That doesn't happen in New York.
Using my new found navigation skills I had locals lead me almost to the door of my hotel and met up with Will, my partner in crime for the week, before heading straight out to Shinjuku for sushi on a conveyor belt and a bottle of sake each. He didn't fall for the wasabi / avocado joke, sadly, but we laughed a lot and the city seemed even better, brighter after dinner.
The next day we caught the commuter train out of town (the Japanese seem to treat trains as their bedrooms - every single person fell asleep almost as soon as they got on, always managing somehow to wake up as their station approached) to the outskirts of the city and Mount Takao. We climbed a mountain, walked through a stream, looked at where Mount Fuji would have been if it wasn't so overcast, strolled through a temple complex and saw some monks walking on their wooden flip flops, caught a gondola and another train, went to the Bridgestone press conference and watched Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and Jean Todt look as bored as I've ever seen them.
This doesn't happen every day at the other races, I can tell you.
Afterwards we went for dinner with Alan Baldwin from Reuters and their local sports writer Alasdair Himmer at a really funky little restaurant near his hotel (Japanese people look hilarious with dreadlocks, but they're happy and that's what counts) before being pointed towards a good bar in nearby Roponggi. It's easy to become lulled into the prices in Japan – after a brief period you start thinking that anything under Y1000 is quite reasonable, and it's only later that you realise that $10 is actually quite expensive for a beer.
We didn't realise until far too late. Not that we would have cared if it had been pointed out to us - we were having too much fun watching the ex-pats dance like idiots to cheesy Japanese versions of Europop. Talking later to a few of them we mentioned our jobs, and one guy drunkenly proclaimed that Kimi Raikkonen was definitely going to win the World Championship. I was having none of it - I declared that if he did I would shave my head on the spot.
Drunk people tend to say stupid things like that.
The sun started to rise through the high-rise buildings around us and we realised we still had to get back to the hotel to check out before heading to meet Alan at his hotel. Will had never been to the circuit either, and without Alan to point us in the right direction we may never have made it, no matter how friendly the locals. Eventually we made the bullet train with minutes to spare, and promptly passed out.
If you wake up and your girl is next to you, you're in New York. If you wake up and there's a guy in another bed near you, you're in Japan. If you wake up in bed alone, you could be in Italy, could be in Indianapolis. If you wake up on the sofa you could be anywhere.
It was freezing in Indy, which surprised the hell out of me as most of the races this year have been scorchingly hot. I guess autumn is on the way. Rain hung in the air like an inadvertent insult all weekend, looming over us like something we said and wished we could take back but couldn't. Every single session was affected by rain - either by a fresh fall or through the track being damp, and at times the rain was so heavy that you could see the spray coming off the cars four flights up in the media centre as they headed down the main straight.
I hadn't actually packed any warm clothes, which meant I had to walk up to the museum and donate some money to the Tony George Benevolent Fund for an IMS fleece, but at least I was warm thereafter.
Two weeks later, the weather in Suzuka was a marked improvement on Tokyo, where it drizzled most days and the low clouds meant you couldn't see very far if you were up high. Tokyo makes New York seem small, but from Alan's hotel room on the 23rd floor it was hard to tell. As though by design, Suzuka was mostly mild and dry, and there were parties every night, seemingly as much to fill in time before the end of the season as to promote the various hosts.
"You look dreadful," Toyota's press officer Chris Hughes exclaimed upon our arrival in the paddock on Thursday morning.
"Thanks, you're the tenth person to say that," I sighed, explaining that I've been spending the last few days with Will in Tokyo. "Ah - that explains it," he smirked.
I would have that same conversation about twenty times that day, but at least everyone knew that it was entirely Will's fault - I had no part in the beer purchasing process, other than actually buying half of them.
Honda hired out the funfair next to the track (and it must be said - walking to work through a funfair in the morning must make this Grand Prix the most surreal on the calendar), put on food and drinks and opened up some rides for our entertainment requirements. Riding on a rollercoaster is not good for a hangover. Riding it twice because everyone else demanded another go is cruel and unusual.
But it looked beautiful from afar. It was a cool, clear night with a fat yellow moon hung like a ripe pomegranate over the huge ferris wheel, lit bright with green neon covering the wheel and yellow lights on the carriages. The whole scene was reflected in the large pond next to the pits and soundtracked by the many cicadas chirruping all around the circuit. It seems strange now to associate such a peaceful scene with a Formula One circuit, but it was without doubt the most serene weekend of the racing year.
Most people assume that the Japanese run to immaculate timetables, but the reality was that often the buses were very late if they turned up at all, and the cancellation of the bus most of us were going to catch back to our hotels meant that we could go to the party the circuit put on after the Honda do.
The party was in the main restaurant of the Circuit Hotel, and there was a large group of locals standing around outside waiting for a glimpse of someone famous. The advantage of looking different to the locals is that security allows you access to anywhere without question, and we walked in and out with impunity. After a few more beers the British journalists came up with the great idea of yelling out to anyone they vaguely recognised as they walked into the restaurant to see if the locals would photograph them.
It worked, and there must be a lot of Japanese people who looked at their photos later and wondered who the hell I am.
Every track this year has had fans camping nearby, and the flyaways are no exception. In Indianapolis there are fields near the track for parking and camping, with the locals in their mobile homes and tents stretched to the horizon. The Japanese version is to park their car in a small asphalt carpark and build a tent-like structure attached to it. This looked uncomfortable but it allowed them to bring far more belongings with them - they all seemed to have enormous barbeque plates and full kitchen supplies, for a start.
The Americans seem to be the keenest fans I've come across. Anywhere else, almost nobody turns up before Friday testing (including most of the journalists and team members), and yet as I walked towards the Indianapolis paddock the grassy knolls along the back side of the track were already covered in fans, keen not to miss a second of the action.
They walk everywhere during the breaks between sessions - at other tracks the fans mostly find their spots and stay there throughout the weekend. But looking down from the top of the media centre at Indy, the circuit seemed like an ant colony with people walking here and there and back and again, disregarding the weather entirely in pursuit of a different view, a different photo of the cars when they return.
The Japanese fans are different. Every morning I had to walk through the funfair to get to work, and it's strange to walk through a heaving crowd of people who are almost all a head shorter than me - it's like wading through a sea of black hair. It reminded me a lot of Italy, although the Japanese actually understand the concept of queuing. Not that it helped - the lines went back for miles as the guards methodically worked through the tickets.
Living in Italy meant I had no guilt whatsoever about jumping the queue, and because I wasn't local no one seemed to mind at all.
The Japanese also seem to work in a similar manner to the Italians, throwing a number of people on a job rather than having one person do it efficiently, as shown by the large number of people working to organise the phone lines in the media centre, none of whom managed to allow me to get through to the outside world for two days. Alasdair from Reuters mentioned that no one seems to realise that outside of the big cities Japan is a third world nation, and I was starting to see his point.
Still, there's no other race in the world where I can watch a rollercoaster from the media centre, so that's something.
Motor racing in America is different to the rest of the world, which is probably why they don't understand the appeal of Formula One in big numbers. Most towns have a midget racing track, dirt or asphalt, and the fans go there because they can relate to the drivers, maybe even get to talk to them for a while between races, a concept that Formula One left behind years ago.
BAR organised a suite for the journalists at the local midget racing track for Friday, but the rain meant it was deferred until the next night. The event was great fun, a reminder of what racing can actually mean outside of multi-million dollar budgets and worldwide feeds. The irony was that I was reminded of this via a team that spends more on promotion for a race or two than the guys on track spend on their cars in a year.
BAR always have a photographer on hand at these events to record it for a website they provide to the journalists, and he seems to be obsessed with taking shots of us eating. This week's victim was Autosport's Jonathan Noble, who was being instructed on how to eat a burger: "Put it in your mouth. That's it. Use both hands. Now take all of it."
"You know," smirked one of the girls who works for the team as she walked by, "he says that to all the girls too," bringing the impromptu shoot to a close as Jon started choking with laughter.
Having been out every night we'd been in Japan, Will and I decided to take a night off from the parties to sample the many and varied delights of Yokkaichi. The problem was that we worked until 9:00 pm, and by the time we actually got back to town it was mostly closed. I guess they don't get many foreigners around there too often - an hour or so inland from Nagoya and substantially off the beaten tourist track - so they understandably cater to the local hours.
We wandered around for a while looking for a noodle bar, and at one stage saw a guy standing alone on a corner in front of a door, all signs behind him as usual in Japanese. I wondered if maybe it was a restaurant, but as I looked over, the guy used what was presumably his one word of English, forlornly asking: "sex?" We moved along quickly.
Eventually we found a noodle bar that had examples of their food made from plastic in the window, which was a stroke of luck because the waitress couldn't speak a word of English and we had to order by walking outside and pointing, adding our one word of Japanese - arigato.
Sunday mornings are always a balancing act - there's nothing much happening at the track so there's no need to get in too early, but nobody seems to have mentioned this to the fans and there's always a lot of traffic to negotiate if you leave too late. In Indianapolis, Ian and I figured we would leave reasonably early to avoid the traffic, but our daily coffee stop showed us that people were out in force already. "Don’t worry," Ian said, trying to hold his coffee at a safe angle to avoid spillage, "I know a short cut."
Over the season there hasn't been a race where la redattrice and I haven't got lost and, while I don't wish to point a finger at anyone, I was actually looking forward to this being the first race where I could report a 100% success rate at getting directly to the track. Needless to say, I'm not able to do that.
"Are you sure?" I asked Ian dubiously, looking at him and wondering why we hadn't actually picked up a map anywhere. He turned and said those two words that are guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine no matter the context: "trust me."
We got off the freeway and started heading east, past endless strip malls with their vast parking areas, chain restaurants and petrol stations that line the minor highways that cross the area. This was fine - so far so good - until he directed me onto a residential street.
"I'm really not sure about this Ian," I said. "I have to get to the McLaren press conference in 45 minutes."
"Don't worry," he assured me, "I've been this way before - it'll cut out all the traffic."
He was right; all the traffic was headed towards the track, whereas we were driving in circles around some houses.
Eventually we went back to the main road and joined the queue.
"I know what the problem was," Ian stated categorically. "I was looking for a street that doesn't exist."
If you wake up in Indy, the bathroom is to your left and all yours. If you wake up in Japan, the bathroom is by the door. Mind the step. If you wake up in New York, the bathroom is out the door to the left. If you wake up in Italy, chances are that you're dreaming.
Will and I caught a cab into the Suzuka circuit on Sunday morning because the random timings of the bus meant we missed it. This may also have had something to do with the party the night before, most notable for BBC5 commentator (and party MC) Jonathan Legard's horrendous orange shirt. Jon Button, the figure of refinement in comparison with his black shirt with flames, remarked that "I also went through that stage when I was young." There were also copious amounts of alcohol and the resultant travesty of karaoke (I kept my head while others around me fell to temptation, I'm pleased to say). It certainly explained Will's champagne hangover.
"You are American?" the cab driver asked, keen to engage in conversation despite the linguistic difficulties. "English and Australian," Will replied, before strangely adding: "you know, Beckham?" The driver beamed. "Ahhh, Beckham! Hair!" he exploded, smoothing his own down and pinpointing for me the somewhat nebulous appeal of the high voiced ball kicker.
The circuit owners must have rubbed their hands with glee when they heard that Jacques Villeneuve decided not to compete in what should have been his final race with BAR, and was to be replaced by Japanese Takuma Sato. Certainly, the Sato effect was in evidence as soon as we got to the funfair - it took about half an hour to make our way through the melee to the stand on the other side of the track from the pits, watching the fans being told through a megaphone to sit down in their own seats as we walked past them down the stairs in the middle, under and in - not to mention the thousands more we left stranded by walking into the street to hail the taxi in the first place rather than wait in the queue.
Once we got in I spent most of the day wondering if I was going to keep my hair through the night and trying to keep busy. Mostly I transcribed interviews and chatted with the other journalists about what we expected from the race and drank a bottle of the local energy drink Pocari Sweat for amusement value. It's much better than it sounds.
A few hours later, the 2003 season was officially over. I kept my hair.
After the race the Ferrari pit was teeming with red clothed team members - Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher came out and were hoisted onto shoulders, everyone singing "ole ole" and spraying champagne as they pulled down the shutters to have a private moment, much to the chagrin of the swarm of photographers around them.
Walking back up the lane behind the pits, Olivier Panis was standing at his end with a large cigar in his mouth and a fire extinguisher in his hand, letting it off towards his team members with a beaming smile. Eventually someone snuck up behind him and threw a bucket of water over him, earning him the remainder of the extinguisher's contents for his troubles.
After the dust had cleared a little I walked on before an almighty explosion sounded right behind me. "What the hell was that?" I asked Toyota's Richard Cregan, who looked as stunned as I felt. "Who the fuck knows - could have been someone being shot, for all we know." It turned out to be the extinguisher exploding from overuse. My ears were ringing for hours, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one.
We were distracted just after that by a small crash coming from Bernie Ecclestone's hospitality office two doors down from Toyota. I'd looked through the window on the way up and saw that most of the high placed Germans in the series were inside, covered in a mixture of beer, champagne and eggs. Panis, having now run out of distractions (and drink) in his pit had gone in to join the Schumacher brothers and raid their bar, and it looked as though they were having an impromptu rugby match in the tiny room, with the drivers bouncing off the walls and the various BMW and Mercedes personnel laughing fit to burst.
I watched for a while before heading back towards the stairs to the media centre, only to come back at the sound of the louder crash. "They've gone through the window!" someone shouted, and running around to the other side of the building there were chairs, tables and a small refrigerator hanging through what remained of the glass. Willy Weber came around to see the damage for himself, tutting as though at the behaviour of a bunch of mischievous school children before kicking some glass closer towards the window.
Corinna Schumacher arrived at the scene at this stage but went to Weber rather than risk heading in to see her husband, who eventually emerged grinning and wearing Panis's shirt and cap before being led off by his manager as some track workers turned up with straw brooms to set about the mess.
We left the media centre at 10:30 pm and headed to the famous Log Cabin bar at the Circuit Hotel. The place was full to overflowing, with various team members and journalists taking one last chance to unwind and have fun with each other before it was all over - it may have been the last opportunity for some of them to see each other, and they made the most of it. Will went to get the beers for Alasdair, Alan and myself and squeezed past Mark Webber on the way back. Will offered him a beer but he refused, which seemed very un-Australian of him. Perhaps he still had a deal with Fosters and couldn't be seen taking an Asahi in public.
BAR boss David Richards had no qualms about accepting one later on – he stood talking to us for about half an hour, and the smile (and huge cigar) never left his face after his team's tremendous achievement earlier in the day to tie up fifth place in the Constructors' Championship. I thought all those extra millions the result brought him would have stretched to a beer for us, but he was conveniently led off by a team member when it was his turn at the bar.
At one stage Alasdair came over and asked me if I knew Heinz Harald Frentzen, as the Japanese girl he was talking to was a huge fan. "I don't know him personally, but he's standing just over there," I pointed, "tell her to go and say hello." She couldn't bring herself to interrupt him so I dragged her over and asked Frentzen if he would say hello to a fan. "Sure," he said with a bemused expression on his face, so I pushed her in front of him and watched as she froze like a deer in the headlights. He looked over at me for help but I didn't know her, so after a few painful minutes he returned to his conversation and I slunk back to mine.
All along the decking around the original log cabin there are tiny cabins for karaoke, and the various teams took them all over. They were built for about ten people to sit in comfortably, but most of them had thirty or so people in each. I squeezed into a couple of them to see what was going on, but after hearing Michael Schumacher slaughtering some song I realised that Alasdair was right to try and catch the final bus at 4:00 am.
Will obviously disagreed, as we couldn't find him anywhere.
After what felt like two minutes sleep, Will blundered into the room back at the hotel and announced that we had to run for the train. As usual. We saw a few of the other gang members on the way to the station, nodding as we passed. I felt exhausted, but not as bad as he looked, and the train journey passed in silence, interrupted only by random snoring.
* * *
All the people you know, they add up to your life. You tell the stories of the people you know to others and you're telling the story of yourself. You might be sitting in the pub on the weekend with some mates and you start telling them about another friend, and you all laugh as the stories start to flow all around, the stories of them, the stories of you.
Everyone I've mentioned in this column over the year is doing something else; now that the season is over, now that they have the time to do something other than follow the circus around the world. Will is climbing Mount Everest with his girlfriend. Chris is getting married back in the rain of Wales. Ian's looking to set up a new business, a new future. Alex is starting work at a new company. Mike Doodson is looking for somewhere else to write. Jackson is back in Canada and dreaming of the future. Silvia, Ellen, Bradley, Severine, Agnes and the many other hard working press officers are all on a deserved vacation. La redattrice is sleeping during the day and watching movies all night.
Everyone in Formula One is taking a break, going somewhere or going home, doing something or doing nothing.
I'm back in Italy, but I'm meeting amore mio in London soon to show her one of the towns I used to live in, to show her a part of my past before going back to New York for Christmas.
I'm sitting here now at my desk and I'm thinking about the year and about me, about how it seems so completely unreal and therefore so much a part of my life. My life has been complex and confusing, but it's mine and I wouldn't trade it with anyone. I don't know yet who will be back next year, among the team members and the journalists and the others who play their part in keeping it all going. I don't even know if I'll be there again.
Formula One is such a huge undertaking, involving thousands of people and tonnes of equipment to give millions of people something to watch every other Sunday. The people change, the equipment too, but the show runs on and on. At the start of the weekend in Suzuka it felt like the end of school, but the difference is that unlike school you don't know who your classmates will be next year, or even if you're going to be studying again.
Maybe you leave school and go to work instead, leaving the Peter Pan life for others. Maybe you become a prefect. Maybe you join a new gang, become one of the tough kids at the back of the class, join the computer club and move to the front, or just become one of the ranks somewhere in between. Formula One is big enough to take them all in, to find room for one and all, and if they don't want to come back there's always someone else who will fill in and move on.
Tomorrow never knows. I wouldn't have it any other way.