The thing is, you never really know what to expect from the next race. You can have some ideas, of course; you can have a plan to interview someone, arrange a meeting with someone else - but you never really know what's going to happen over the weekend, never know in advance what is going to occupy your time.
I went to the Nurburgring knowing I was going to sit down and interview Gerhard Berger and wondering what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my time. I shouldn't have worried.
The Nurburgring is a hot, dry, flat track surrounded by undulating hills that can't be seen for the forest covering them, and filled with large, bare chested men as red as their caps. The local currency seemed to be beer, given the quantities carried around at all times by the locals, and they seemed happy enough with the arrangement.
But then, they seemed to be easily amused. There is a tunnel underneath the main straight that leads to the paddock, and every morning and every evening there was a crowd of people standing around the entrance to see who they could spot. The drivers and their teams have a car park behind the paddock, and as such I thought the people standing around must have merely been keen to see journalists and other reprobates, until one morning I walked through and looked back to see la redattrice holding the door open for someone. This struck me as odd until I saw the familiar face of Ron Dennis chatting with her before strolling into the McLaren pit, taking his familiar position on the pit wall with the cars already on track, looking around with that squinting regalness of his as though he'd been there all along.
But back to Thursday, and the locals were starting a small pyramid from their empty single serve Jagermeister bottles at the entrance to the tunnel, increasing in size every time we walked by. The first time I noticed this was when we went to a presentation by Sony of their new official F1 2003 racing simulator for Playstation 2. The word had got out in the media centre that they were handing out free consoles to journalists, and it was the first time I've ever had to queue to get into anything related to Formula One other than the road into a track.
They had two specially built seats on the stage once we got inside, and they brought Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso onstage to race each other after the speeches. The British press seemed entirely uninterested, standing at the back and drinking in the loud fog of smoke they were creating despite the pleas for a little less noise from the stage. It was funny to see the drivers in surroundings like this - clearly they weren't taking it too seriously, and Button laughed all the way through (despite, or perhaps because of, his numerous rolls, all shown on the big screen behind him), whereas Alonso couldn't seem to contain himself and had a face like thunder while he was racing.
Finally the presentation was over (Alonso 18th, Button 20th in case you're wondering) and the Brits formed a disorderly scrum around the counter by the door to lay their hands on the goods, fighting off the other nationalities for all they were worth. Wanting to avoid the melee la redattrice and I stopped near the stage and made small talk with the Sony execs until it was over and we could walk out in peace - her journalistic ethics wouldn't allow her to take anything from a promotion like this, and as such we were the only people (other than a few miffed Italians) to walk out empty handed. By the time we got outside there were a gaggle of kids hanging around, open-mouthed at the steady stream of PS2s walking by.
But time passed by in that odd quick-slow way it always does in the paddock, and the weather came and went with it as usual. There has been a lot of rain over race weekends of late, putting the lie to the title of this column, but it always seems to come good on race day. During qualifying on Friday, it rained so heavily that the cars had to run on their extreme rain tyres, and each time they passed the media centre I could see twin white lines along the straight for a moment before they faded back into the track.
The rain dribbled away to nothing by the time I went quote-gathering for the news, which meant there were more people to talk to. Getting quotes is like gathering crops - you can't do it if the weather is against you. Too wet means everyone is hiding inside; likewise for too hot. I caught a few of the drivers, and as I was heading back, Toyota's press officer Chris Hughes came over and asked if I would like to come to dinner in their motorhome. Being in the middle of nowhere, it was an invitation even easier to accept than usual.
I really like the guys at Toyota - they are all really friendly and accessible, and they all seem to enjoy each other's company. I'm less sure about their drivers, although I've realised of late that drivers are far less interesting than most of the others. I have a theory about drivers - I think the more intelligent they are the less quick they run, as if it makes them aware of how insanely dangerous it is to run at the speeds they need to compete. Consequentially, most drivers are somewhat less than riveting conversationalists, which can make my job hard on occasion.
Chris brought Cristiano da Matta over to talk to us upon arrival that evening, and he stood there with his usual glum look on his face while we said hello before wandering off upstairs somewhere. For someone who is supposed to be in his dream job, he never looks too happy. Ricardo Zonta came over for a while after that, and we were on our best behaviour and asked him a bunch of easy questions for him to lob back to us. It was interesting in a racing geek kind of way - I found out that they really do wear their cars like an extension of themselves, that they can feel a slight loss of pressure in a tyre like you or I can feel a stone in our shoe.
But all good things must come to an end, and when we ran out of polite conversation la redattrice said "well, we don't want to monopolise all your time," and looked around him for someone more interesting to talk to. Ricardo stood there blinking for a while before trotting off after Cristiano to play Playstation or whatever it is that drivers do when the team has them in storage.
Thereafter we all got exceedingly drunk, and attempted serious small-talk with the team chiefs while the TV screens behind the tables aired Eurosport's World Rally Championship coverage of the weekend, followed by the World's Strongest Man competition.
"This is silly," someone said, looking at the TV. "Lots of fat men carrying things that are too heavy."
"Ove," I turned to Toyota's sporting director, Ove Andersson, "why is it always Scandinavian men in this contest?"
"Because we are very strong," Ove replied.
"But why?" I maintained.
"Because in winter all we do is have sex and drink. In summer we don't drink," he stated, finishing off another glass of wine.
Later in the night, after the Schnapps had been brought out, I turned to Andersson again.
"Ove," I said, "does Toyota have a Christmas party at the end of the year?"
"Yes, of course."
"Do you play Santa? I think you'd be perfect for the job. You look just like him."
He grimaced and took another shot of Schnapps in one, turning away to another person next to him, which suggests to me that I should never attempt an interview when drunk.
Well past midnight, we wandered out to the carpark, past a bus with a sign stating "Kostenloser Bustransfer - Striptease Partyzelt" (I have no idea what that actually means, but it seemed like the funniest thing we had ever seen, at least in our translation), and needless to say when Will Gray suggested we carry on drinking at his hotel, it was deemed to be an incredibly prescient idea, and remained that way until the next morning. La redattrice suddenly became much happier about being the designated driver the night before, and I'm convinced that she took the corners on the tree-lined road to the circuit slightly faster than was strictly necessary.
The paddock is not an ideal place to be hungover, even if it's only a mild one. Everything, from the cars to the mechanics working on them to the espresso machine at Ferrari to la redattrice herself, is louder than you need in that state. And then I had to interview Gerhard Berger.
Calling Jorg Kottmeier tall is like saying there's a lot of money in Monaco - it's true, but somewhat redundant. I'm six foot tall, but when the BMW press officer loped over to greet me I slightly held my breath as his hand came down from on high before realising that he only wanted to shake mine. He took me through and sat me down in front of Berger, who looked at me suspiciously until I told him there was no interview but rather we would be looking through some photos. And then he leaned onto the table and smiled.
I was only supposed to get about fifteen minutes of his time, but Gerhard was enjoying himself so much that when Jorg came over to tell him he had to go and do an ITV interview, Berger simply said he was having fun and was going to stay. I was beaming inside, but I didn't dare turn around for fear of seeing Louise Goodman burning holes in the back of my head with her eyes.
Back in the media centre, the sound of keyboards pounded in anger was mixing with the Brazilian radio commentators, who were talking overenthusiastically into their microphones, and the usual sound of phones ringing across the room. It's really annoying when a cell phone rings in the media centre and no one answers it, doubly so if it has one of those spectacularly annoying ring tones they have nowadays. A phone in front of me started ringing, and it was so monumentally irritating that Mike Doodson came over from the other side of the room with a face like thunder. "Where is it??" - I could only point to the table in front of me. "Kill!" he muttered as he swooped it up and switched it off, threatening to bin it just before the owner arrived, blissfully unaware of the pain inflicted. He was lucky - normally Doodson answers it, which would have been far, far worse.
Qualifying came and went, with the usual level of noise raised exponentially when Kimi Raikkonen managed to just beat Michael Schumacher for pole position. The next day the media were as quiet as they were loud the day before when Raikkonen's engine expired, but they revved up again when Schumacher spun into the gravel after colliding with Juan Pablo Montoya and then got a push start, with little clumps of journalists arguing the legality of this move at great volume all around the room.
We managed to leave the circuit before the sun set, for once. As we left the tunnel for the last time, the Jagermeister pyramid had collapsed under its own weight, and there was a large German sleeping nearby. I can only hope that he had help with the construction process.
Back to back races are great for the fans who watch them on TV, somewhat less for those of us who attend in person. Most of the journalists hung around somewhere between the two circuits for a few days away, but we drove back to Italy, mostly because I'd spent a grand total of two hours sleeping in my own bed in the last month and was keen to remedy the situation.
La redattrice bought a couple of software items for my Palm so as to avoid the possibility of getting lost on our way to Magny Cours. Needless to say, we set a new record for lateness. It was scorchingly hot when we drove through Italy, but by the time we'd gone through Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc to the heathens) and entered France it was raining - that's all I'm saying.
McLaren sponsors West had organised a five-a-side football competition for the journalists from around the world to play against the various drivers, including Michael Schumacher. I'd been put in the ' Rest of the World' team, led by an Austrian radio commentator ("just remember - it's European rules, not Australian rules - ha ha ha"; that famous Austrian wit at its finest), and I was looking forward to it immensely. And who wouldn't? The chance to compete with a bunch of overweight, chain-smoking middle-aged men against some of the fittest athletes in the world doesn't present itself every day.
Plus the possibility, however remote, that I might find a sport that I'm better than Mark Webber at had a certain appeal, of course. Anyone who says Australians are competitive hasn't met many.
But the police put an end to that. The word went around that a gaggle of gendarmes were in the paddock and heading for BAR; all bets were off and I rushed out to have a look. They were following Pasquale Lattuneddu - Bernie Ecclestone's right-hand-man and general boss of the paddock - who looked more stressed than usual, and when they got to the BAR pit the team's mechanics had linked arms and were refusing to let anyone by.
So off they trooped to the pitlane, followed by a stream of irritable journalists who had to work far earlier than they'd planned, only to discover that the sliding door was shut. They continued on and around until they found a gate which Pasquale ordered open for himself and the gendarmes and then closed again, leaving all the journalists stuck in the pitlane and having to troop back around again. He smiled to himself at that.
And then it was hurry up and wait - we all stood around waiting for something to happen, but as team principal David Richards was still in Paris there was no statement forthcoming. I managed to sneak around next to the Jaguar trucks and watch one of the BAR cars being reloaded onto the truck before a mechanic moved me along, and with the football tournament already underway there was nothing left for us to do than have a quick bite to eat at Michelin's French dinner before heading off to our hotel.
We got lost on the way, of course.
"It's going to be hot and sunny all weekend," la redattrice told me before we left, "I've looked it up, and you won't need any warm clothes at all." I should have known better - weather.com has been wrong every single race this year, so I don't know why I believed her this time. So it was probably my own fault that I was shivering in the traffic to the circuit.
Tom O'Keefe, Atlas F1's learned counsel and writer extraordinaire, arrived in the Magny Cours paddock to a fanfare the likes of which I've never seen before. I'm not entirely sure why, but almost everyone knew him and let me know how pleased they were that he was coming back. He'd been in Germany a week before, and the follow up visit was more exciting to some than a visit from Bernie.
All weekend there were senior FIA employees asking me if it was true that Tom was coming, as well as comments from other journalists (such as Dan Knutson saying "I hear your boss is arriving" to la redattrice) and team members. It was hard to fathom, and the thought that kept coming back to me was that perhaps he knows where the bodies are buried, and they wanted to watch him to see if he told anyone.
But it meant it was hard to catch up with him - whenever we tried to arrange a meal with him he was already eating with someone else, whether it was the head of Honda, breakfast with Bernie, or just standing around talking to Mike Doodson (who seems to now be spending a large part of the race weekends in the company of someone or other from our little website). We even tried to arrange a dinner with him one night, but unfortunately our timetable meant he would have been late for some soiree with the good people of Michelin, with whom he was staying.
Which meant instead that the Atlas F1 dinner comprised of la redattrice, myself and Gary Emmerson, filling in for Will Gray for a race and keen to keep up the alcoholic consumption standard. We went to Nevers hoping to find somewhere pleasant to spend the evening, only to find a lifestyle with as much in common to Monaco as my apartment has with the Taj Mahal.
The entertainment comprised of an astonishingly bad band - alarmingly featuring the bagpipes as the principal instrument - with about ten people and a dog milling listlessly in front of them. There were only two pubs in town, one of which rejoiced under the name "Bar le Sulky", which seemed exceedingly appropriate for a French pub - although I fear the irony was lost on the locals inhabiting it. We made full use of all of the facilities available to us, and managed to make it home by ten.
Nothing much happens on a Sunday morning because of the cars being held in parc ferme overnight, which means that everyone can have a bit of a lie in. Unfortunately no one mentioned this to the French spectators and it still took an hour to get into the track, despite leaving relatively early so that I could conduct an interview.
Bernie Ecclestone constantly complains about access to the track at Silverstone but never mentions Magny Cours as a comparable problem. If there is a track with worse access from the surrounding area than this one, then it should be struck immediately and for good from the calendar. One lane from the nearest sizeable town (Nevers) might work for a Formula Three race, but for an event that is hoping to attract around 100,000 people it's asking for trouble.
On early Sunday morning, the police stood around next to their motorbikes all the way along the road, probably more for their own amusement than to actually do anything useful. I'm sure it was even funnier for them when they saw foreign number plates.
Still, it was a fine day, and the traffic couldn't entirely dent my enthusiasm for another race.
The leisurely pace of race day meant that we could have a calm lunch for once, and this time in the company of Tom O'Keefe (who had, of course, eaten with someone far more important that us, but at least he made an appearance) and Tony Dodgins - one of the nicer English journalists. We sat and laughed at Tom's tales of his adventures around the track until la redattrice noticed a tall, lightly bearded and bespectacled man wander in and sit down at a table across from us, at which she gibbered "it's Jean Reno" and looked as though she was about to faint.
She sat there generally muttering to herself, her eyes slightly glazed over as she stared constantly in the French film-star's direction. After a period of time she had finally talked herself into something (I'm not entirely sure what - she wasn't making a lot of sense to the rest of us), got up and walked towards him. I was concerned that she was going to do something that would have us on the cover of every European newspaper the next day, but she merely whispered something in his ear before he turned around and kissed her while holding his hands together in the form of a Hindu greeting.
"What did you say to him?" I asked after she floated back to the table.
"I'm not telling you," she replied dreamily, "you'll only put it in 'Season' if I do."
Any further conversation was scuppered by the commencement of the French Air Force flyover, which was so low and loud that everyone in the room jumped (except Jean Reno, who looked outside with a mildly annoyed expression, as though he'd lost his frame of thought). I turned to ask la redattrice a further question, only to find her underneath the table. "You just don't do that to an Israeli," she moaned before returning to us.
The race came and went, and the afternoon's work too, and despite nothing much happening it was a pleasant weekend's work, made all the more agreeable by the contrast to the hectic pace of the last few weeks. Again we managed to get away with the sun still up, which made us feel pleased with ourselves right up to the moment that we realised the gates were locked and our car was on the other side of it. Still, it was a nice evening for a walk.
And then we ran out of petrol, which was probably France's way of letting us know who was really the boss.