8/20/2003 0 Comments
Living in Europe in the last month or so has been unbearable. I come from a hot climate, as does la redattrice, and yet we've both been suffering as much as the locals from the recent heatwave – it was as though this was our first time outside of Iceland and into the real world.
When I was growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney we regularly had summer days over 40 degrees Celsius, and with high humidity to kick it along a bit. I also lived for three years in New York, where the heat just ricochets around the buildings like a pinball before hitting you, almost knocking you off your feet. I know heat, wet and dry. But this is something else – I have even seen in Italy some of the locals wearing (whisper it) shorts.
So it was obviously time to put a Grand Prix right in the middle of Europe, as far away from potentially cooling sea breezes as possible, and Hockenheim was the place for it. It's another one of those anonymous looking towns that the Germans specialise in, looking as much like every other town in Germany as it can – perhaps they do this so they can feel at home anywhere they go, or so as to avoid getting lost.
Didn't help us much, needless to say.
After the much maligned Silverstone I was expecting to see a track that was the benchmark for how Formula One should be run in the modern world, a track that Bernie Ecclestone could point to and say 'yes – that's exactly what I want. I'll take another sixteen please.' What I found was a building site.
Hockenheim used to look quite distinctive on television, mostly for those long blasts out and back through the forest. So they had to go, obviously. But the new track was brought in last year, and I figured that the stadium complex (read, almost the entirety of the new track) would be complete and shining under the bright sun.
But it turns out that the track owners have had financial problems over the last year, and accordingly the drive in and out was akin to driving through the foundations of a large scale works project. I later saw the full extent of it when I was invited up into the new Mercedes tower, from where it seemed as though half of the complex consisted of mounds of dirt. I bet Bernie wasn't too thrilled.
The paddock was apparently unchanged, though, with the media centre on the left just through the entrance and the teams, from Toyota up, stretching away from us. In most of the races the media centre is close to the top teams, and with the baking heat all weekend there were a lot of journalists upset at the walk to the red end.
For some reason, the track owners had built an awning over the entrance to the media centre, which was lower than the door. They had a sign on the door saying 'Pull' in five languages, but all weekend journalists would push the door and clatter it into the awning with a loud bang. Eventually they put a hostess next to the door, but that didn't stop the really determined pushers.
Unusually the toilets were outside the front gate, and the Formula 3000 and Porsche Supercup paddocks were just across the road, which made them closer to the media centre than Ferrari. At most tracks they tend to stick the junior categories wherever they can find a space, which generally means they're as far away from the Formula One paddock as possible, and it was nice to see what life is like for the support race guys.
Walking around the Formula 3000 paddock was what I imagine the Formula One paddock used to be fifteen or more years ago - trucks with awnings coming out from them, with the cars being worked on in between, in an area nominally roped off but easily bypassed. And all the teams seem to work together to get the job done. They shared parts and know-how between them as though the overall goal of competing was more important than keeping any secrets from their competitors. It seemed odd after the security measures in the big paddock.
Back in the main paddock, the Sauber team had some bunting up, with all the flags of the various cantons on display. In Switzerland bunting means a party. They're a strange people, the Swiss – their celebrations are tepid affairs, even by the mild standards of the English, as though they don't want the neighbours to know they're happy about something. The English have an attitude of 'mustn't grumble'; the Swiss extend this to 'mustn't get excited'. They did have a couple of alpine horn players in lederhosen, though, and that's funny in anyone's language.
The media centre was the first I've been to where you can't see the track from the window, and it seemed strange to come all the way to Germany to watch everything on the television. Still, it was obvious when Michael Schumacher was on track during qualifying - the airhorns started up in front of the pits and then followed him around the track like an aural Mexican wave. The other German drivers got a similar treatment, but the volume was always higher for Michael.
Strangely enough, Justin Wilson got a few toots from the crowd as well, in his first drive since moving from Minardi to Jaguar, but it was nothing compared to the roars from the British section of the media centre, howling for joy at their new idol, as Wilson crossed the line in first qualifying to take seventh.
The British press wrote up their pieces as quickly as possible before heading off to a dinner in their honour at the Bridgestone motorhome, while la redattrice and I finished up a few things before joining them for dessert. We've sort of tacked ourselves on to the Brits, given that we speak the same language and are therefore assumed by the teams to be a part of their clique. We still get the odd look now and again, as though we are trying to slip quietly into a private party without an invitation, but they're mostly too polite to mention it aloud.
After dinner it was back to the nearby town of Speyer, for the usual weekend drinks with Will Gray. La redattrice drove, because she'd been there before and said she knew the way. I always fall for that one. We drove along what she swore was the scenic route, winding out and back, which seemed to have a number of identical looking outdoor techno festivals for the fans, all sponsored by West - riots of smoke, fireworks and noise.
Finally past "them" and the raven black of the surrounds was scarcely marked by the sliver of moon available, the only light coming from the fires in the campsites dotted all around. We went past one carnival, the old kind with dodgem cars and merry go rounds, and it reminded me of when I was a boy going to the circus with my family, pressing up against the window in the back of my Dad's car and watching the lights blink in time to the music on a balmy summer night.
We finally got back to Speyer and met up with Will, who had Tim Collings and Bob Constanduros with him, and we found a square nearby that was full of locals drinking at the tables all around, which seemed perfect to us as it was far too hot to drink indoors. The waitress, however, had other ideas and said she wouldn't serve us – apparently there was some sort of law prohibiting people drinking outdoors after a certain hour, although given the number of people outside we wondered if it only applied to foreigners.
I solved the problem by heading into the bar and bringing back the beers, at which the sour look on the waitress's face turned even more lemonesque. In the course of draining our first beers all the locals faded away, their chairs being pointedly stacked around us, giving us little option but to head into the smoky sauna of the bar. We stayed for a few more, joined by Peter Slater from BBC 5 Live and Ian Gordon from Press Associates, but the German bureaucracy had left a sour taste and we headed off to our hotels shortly after.
Saturday is always the hardest day to wake up on a Grand Prix weekend - something to do with a combination of the early adrenalin wearing off and the beers taking effect. The Hockenheim heat made it even worse, and time seemed to crawl by as though it was wading through a swamp. I spent all morning trying to track down Peter Collins, the one time Lotus team boss who is currently managing the career of Tonio Liuzzi in 3000, with plenty of people having seen him but no one actually sure where he was at that exact moment.
His daughter's face showed that this wasn't unusual. The first time I strolled over and asked where he was, she said: "he's in the main paddock somewhere." The next time he was "having his back looked at." Later, as the sweat was starting to appear on my brow, he was "possibly over with Astromega." The fourth time I didn't even need to ask – she saw me coming up the paddock and just laughed. Eventually I tracked him down, and he was worth the wait: he was entertaining to talk to, and he gave me as long as I needed (which doesn't happen often in the big paddock).
Another first was a visit to the Vodafone motorhome – generally I steer clear of the red motorhomes as my Italian isn't really up to it – but with the Jordan versus Vodafone court case coming to a close a visit to their motorhome just had to happen. I must have looked hot and bothered, because they insisted I sit down and have some lunch with them. Seeing as they had the Australia-South Africa rugby match on a TV screen, it wasn't tough to sell me on the idea. And, while looking around between halves, I noticed the little mobile phone chargers they have on the wall by the door – small compartments with keys that allows you to leave your phone behind - which struck me as a brilliant idea in a paddock full of the gadgets.
And, most excitingly, Mick Doohan was having lunch there too. With so many primadonnas around the F1 paddock, the laconic five-time 500cc motorcycle world champion seemed serenely above any of the manufactured dramas of the motoring world. I left him to eat his lunch in peace, although what I really wanted to do was shake his hand and thank him for all the pleasure he'd given my mates and I over the years. But the strange thing about being a journalist is that you can't really be a fan as well – for example, when you interview a driver it would seem unprofessional, or at the very least awkward, to then ask him for an autograph for a mate. It's as though we're too cool for that now. At any rate, Doohan disappeared before I finished eating, so it was a moot point.
I did, however, shake hands with another world champion later in the day. As I was walking back to the media centre, Bjorn Wirdheim was coming the other way after his race in which he secured his championship. He walked towards me in a complete daze, with a smile on his face as sweet and far away as any I've ever seen. "Well done," I told him, shaking his hand, as we came face to face. He laughed and said "yeah, thanks" before being led on his way by his companions. I don't think the win had quite sunk in yet, but it was getting close.
The next morning we caught the media shuttle to the track with Chris Hughes from Toyota and his boss, the team's press officer Andrea Ficarelli. It was strange to come into the track with team members, as the fans lined up at the front of the circuit saw the team shirts and looked in to see if there is anyone famous in the van. Chris had most of the stares as he was in the front seat, and I wondered how long that takes to get used to.
Tom O'Keefe had showed up in the paddock again the day before, and when I introduced him to a few people he hadn't met before I noticed he has a remarkable effect on strangers – he tends to baffle them with long and complicated stories of how he got to be at that exact spot and that exact time so as to talk to them, and he then presents them with his card. You don't see many American lawyers in the paddock, which means that he has the entire crowd for his own.
La redattrice and I went over to Jaguar for breakfast, which was as excellent as ever, although probably not as interesting as breakfast with Bernie, which Tom had managed to talk his way into as usual. I've never seen the two together, but I can imagine the look of complete confusion on Bernie's face as Tom gets into full flow about whatever his current pet project involves.
He told us all about it at lunch at Michelin, topping off a perfect food day, before mentioning that la redattrice resembled Mercedes. I'm pretty sure he was talking about the girl after whom the car was named rather than the car itself, but you can never be entirely sure with Tom.
After the race I was sent back to the salt mines to get some quotes, which was a pointless task as no one wanted to brave the fierce heat after a race where Jarno Trulli collapsed with exhaustion. I went back for water five times before giving it up and stopping in the media centre, only to find out about the race stewards' decision to penalise Ralf Schumacher for the first corner fracas.
Silvia Hoffer, the charming media relations officer for Williams, came by and told us that the team wouldn't be protesting the penalty before walking around the room to let the other journalists know as well. She'd got halfway around before her phone rang, and with an ashen face she rushed back to tell us that they actually were going to protest after all – a split second before the original story was to appear on the Atlas F1 news page. La redattrice told me to run up to the Williams motorhome to get their reactions, but every member of the team's senior personnel had already left on Frank's plane. By the time I slunk back into the media centre I was dripping with sweat, where la redattrice sat smirking, fresh as a daisy in her air conditioned haven.
I got some back, though; as we were leaving the media centre at the end of the day she finally pushed the 'Pull' door, and while I tried in vain to stifle a grin a British journalist behind us finally came out with the immortal line "no wonder they lost the war." I think he meant the Germans rather than the Israelis.
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