"Oh I can smile about it now / But at the time it was terrible" (The Smiths)
It seems more than a little churlish to complain about my job; I realise that. I mean, pretty much anyone reading this would swap places with me in a second, and were I not me I'd be wanting it too. It's not as though Formula One journalist jobs are falling from trees or anything, especially ones based at the various tracks, so who would have the temerity to complain about it?
You could call it a baptism of fire, but it was nothing of the sort if I'm honest - more like a trial of errors. I woke up on Thursday morning and checked my emails, as ever, and amore mio was having a very bad day, in extensive detail. Living in Italy when your girlfriend is upset in New York can be hard, because sometimes it seems as though there's just nothing you can do about it, and being a guy I want to solve everything. On the day I'm due at the track, this magnifies. La redattrice was struggling a bit too, but that's more usual - being the editor of something like Atlas F1 is never going to be the smoothest of jobs, and to be honest I think she's happier when she's got something to be upset about.
So I fired off some consoling emails to amore mio, trying to find a balance between soothing and self interest (a tricky thing to find in my experience, especially when pushed for time) and threw some clothes into my bag before leaving la redattrice to her phone call while I went to get the rental car. Sometimes I wonder why she bothers with her mobile phone - I could hear her all the way down the elevator.
The car we booked had been cancelled, of course.
So we got a cab out to the airport to pick up another car, because being in Italy there is no such thing as customer service and that was the only option. I was surprised they actually had one waiting for us there, and that filling in the forms only took half an hour or so. We were on the road only two hours after we intended, and sometimes in Italy you just have to be thankful for small mercies.
At least until we hit the traffic. I live two hours drive from Imola, although Microsoft's Autoroute suggests it's more like an hour and a half. I have a theory about Autoroute - brilliant programme, but they seem to have hired a former F1 driver for their timing. Of course, this fictional pilot would have struggled with the drive to Imola, because half of Italy decided that the Thursday before Easter was the perfect day for a drive, so my two hour drive doubled, and then some.
We did hit one patch where I could get past fourth gear though - that was the bit where the map flew out the window.
When everything seems to be getting on top of you there is a tendency to become a bit too serious, and we were entirely in that mindset. So when the map providing us directions how to get to Imola went fluttering out the window, I watched it in the rear view mirror (the guy behind seemed a bit startled) before we looked at each other and started howling with laughter. Luckily we came across some more traffic, so we ended up sitting in the middle of the autostrada in peels of laughter (which got us some strange looks, naturally). And after that we figured the bad luck had to have broken.
Which meant we were actually a bit surprised when we got to the track and they didn't have our media passes.
The Formula One race weekend is often compared to a military operation, and the various passes are your rank. All around the track you can see people wearing their grandstand passes around their necks, and the better their seats the more likely that they'll be wearing it. The paddock is the same, except you don't have a choice of whether to wear it or not. The lowest rank is the VIP pass - those initials usually imply that you can go anywhere you like because of your status, but in the paddock it means you have no access to anything other than the stretch of tarmac between the pits and the teams' motorhomes. I guess they called them VIP passes because it would be rude to say 'hanger on'.
Then there are the various media passes - print, radio, television and photographer; the team guest and member passes; race officials; and so on. They give you access to different parts of the paddock and pits, and there are probably about 100 people around whose job is to look at passes and let people through or not. There's a fun job.
We were initially given VIP passes - passes which most people would kill to have, of course, but which denied us access to the media centre (and, more importantly, somewhere to put our laptops). Thankfully we got in and saw Pasquale Lattuneddu, Bernie's right hand man, who realized the mistake made and rectified it straight away. Which solved the computer problem, and gave us somewhere to sit.
It's amazing how blasé people can get about being in the paddock. I was in the media centre right above the Jordan pits, looking out the window onto the main straight at Imola and inwardly boggling at that concept, while all around me people were moaning about the conditions they were having to work under. It was all I could do to stop myself yelling "YOU'RE IN A BIG ROOM RIGHT OVER THE PITS!! LOOK OUT THE WINDOW, BEHOLD YOUR GOOD FORTUNE AND GIVE THANKS!!" to the people complaining that the seat height wasn't very good for typing.
The point of my job, I guess, is to justify my existence. I've been given this opportunity to be at the centre of the Formula One world, and the price for that blessing is to find features and news, and report back with it. It's a moving target - you tend to walk around and look at people a lot, see if they are doing anything noteworthy, and come back and write about it. Everyone in the paddock knows that, so anything noteworthy tends to get done in a clandestine manner. The teams pay lip service to the idea of openness by having prescribed times for interviews, all marked against the clock and under the watchful eyes of the various media liaisons.
Which is why when something, anything, spontaneous happens it makes you happy. I saw Jean Alesi walk into the paddock and over to the McLaren communications centre, and when I told la redattrice she said, "well, go and interview him." Which is when your head sort of goes 'but that's JEAN ALESI - you know, the former driver and all that - I can't just talk to him.' She obviously guessed I was kind of boggled by the concept and took me down to McLaren and spoke to press officer Ellen Kolby, who talked to his manager Mario Miyakawa, who came over and said 'okay, you've got a few minutes if you can do it now.'
So there I was, shaking hands with Jean Alesi two minutes after seeing him walk in, asking him questions which I was hoping weren't too stupid because I'd had no time to prepare at all, and all the time I kept thinking, my God he's got very blue eyes!
When he got up to leave I went back to la redattrice and was apparently grinning like a loon, although I can't really recall a lot. Apparently I had an espresso.
And that's how it works, really: you think of a question you'd like to ask someone, and then you track them down and ask it. Although, in my case, it works more like this: me - "I wonder if Toyota is disappointed with their season so far, after their claims at the launch?" la redattrice "Well go and find out." So off I go.
As a member of the press you tend to get invited to a lot of junkets, which are put on so that the teams can get a bit more coverage for their sponsors. The press use these as an excuse to get some free drinks mostly, particularly the Brits, and they sit there and pretend to listen to some businessmen out of their usual environment. Williams put on one for their new sponsor, NiQuitin CQ, and the guy from GlaxoSmithKline was studiously ignored by most there before the drivers were trotted out for a few quotes. It must be strange for him - at work he's probably used to his every word being hung on, but here he was just that guy talking while the journalists looked for more drinks.
There's a world of difference between Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya - Schumacher is a bit reluctant but seems highly coached PR wise, whereas Montoya tends to joke around and say whatever is on his head. No prizes for guessing which of the two the press prefers. One thing I noted was Montoya said that, while he was happy to be here, there wasn't much in the region of note - I can't imagine he made many friends in Bologna with that comment.
Because Bologna is beautiful, a medieval labyrinth of laneways and covered walkways twisting in and around itself like a vine looking for the sun. It's an almost organic entity, like a city designed in one of the wilder dreams of HR Giger, everywhere leading to the street you were looking for, even though it seems to make no sense to have done so. I kept expecting to find a piece of twine around every corner, a marker for someone to find their way back to their car, to escape. The best way to find your way around Bologna is forget the map and just walk, and hope for the best.
The food is amazing, of course, but that could be expected from any city with a dish known around the world bearing its name. Forget the spaghetti, though - you can make that yourself at home - and go for the meat dishes which Emilia Romagna is more known for in Italy. The Romagnols are proud people, and their dialect and culinary predilections are markedly different from the rest of Italy. I had what may have been the best steak I've ever had in my life, cooked with rosemary and garlic to perfection in a brilliant restaurant off one of the main streets, and I think I'm a better person for having done so. I'd tell you the name of the restaurant, but considering the street layout it might be pointless. Email me if you want it anyway.
Watching qualifying in the media centre is brilliant - it's like watching the big match in a football pub, except it's Formula One and there's no beer. Every lap has the hundred or so people glued to the overhead sets, analysing every turn in like it's the last one ever, and the assorted 'oooohs' and 'aaaaahs' from them sound like a group watching a fireworks show. It's great, and it's the only time in the weekend that most of the journalists are in one place at one time.
Raikkonen put in a pretty good lap, and it was assumed by most that the only guys likely to beat it would be the Ferraris. Foolishly I announced that Jaguar's Mark Webber would beat it, and the looks I got back made me feel like a fanboy overstepping in support of his favourite driver. He ran a really slow outlap, and there were a few comments about the possibility of a problem, but since I'd already stuck my neck out I mentioned that he was probably saving his tyres for the quick lap. And what a lap it was; as the sector times read out they got closer and closer to Raikkonen's time, running faster and faster until the lap was done and there was a number one next to Webber's name on the screen. Suddenly the looks were very different and I felt vindicated, like I belonged there at last.
Because everyone looks at you when you're in the paddock, and it can get a little unsettling when you're new to it all. The people in the paddock are split into two camps - the short timers (the VIPs who have been invited to this particular race) and the long termers (everybody else) - and they both look at you for different reasons. The short timers look at everybody and everything, soaking up the atmosphere that they'll be telling their friends about for years, the noise and the smell and the bustle of the crowd, and they look at you to see if you are somebody famous, a name to drop in the conversation to come. The long termers look at you too, to see if you are someone they need to talk to or at least acknowledge, or just to see how they can get around you when they are pushing a trolley of tyres through the herd.
The drivers are the most unsettling starers - they are used to intense focus for long periods of time, and if you get into that focus their stare is like a spotlight. I went down to Webber's press briefing after second qualifying and stood behind all the others at his table. Drivers get asked a lot of stupid questions, and to their credit they deal with it all in good humour rather than resorting to the use of deadly force. And when I asked him a question about the laps he'd just done something switched on behind his eyes, and it felt as though he was staring into my soul. There's no malice involved - it's not like the pub thug who stares at you aggressively waiting for a reply - it's just the focus that these guys use all day and every day in their working lives, and when it's switched onto you it's unnerving.
Some of the other team members try and match it, but they don't have the ability to keep it up as long as the drivers. On Sunday morning I went to the usual press briefing at McLaren with Ron Dennis and Norbert Haug. Everybody knows about 'Ron speak', but it's pretty funny when it's focused on you. I have a theory about 'Ron speak' - I think he starts talking around the question until he has the answer he wants to give, which is then the end of any quote. It works well in print (although it's a hell of a thing to have to transcribe), but it can be a bit baffling in person.
I was sat in the front corner of the McLaren media centre and Ron was on the other side of Norbert from me. Ron, presumably like me, was told by his mother as a youngster that he should always look at the person he is talking to, so he had to keep looking around Norbert to see me. Unfortunately, Norbert was seemingly oblivious of this nicety of conversational etiquette and kept moving back and forth, which had Ron and I constantly moving from side to side so that we could see around him. We pretty much managed it, although I'm sure we looked goofy in the process. At least our mothers will be happy.
The race came and went - and as soon as the cars were returned to the garages, a riot of noise and movement begun, the mechanics already pulling down the whole show. I finally took the time to do what I'd been intending to do since I arrived - I left the paddock and walked around to Tamburello to see the Senna monument. I was a big fan of the great Brazilian and had always wanted to visit the famous monument, just to see it through my own eyes. I wasn't expecting any great revelations, and none were forthcoming, but it was what I wanted from the experience.
The race had been finished for a couple of hours by the time I got there, and the locals were getting back to their normal lives, riding their bikes with the kids or walking in the beautiful park as the sun was descending. There were two families sitting at the statue quietly, reverently, and I did nothing to disturb them. After a few minutes I walked up towards Tosa, the sun finally setting on the mountains of rubbish left behind by the fans. It was oddly beautiful, and it seemed strange that this quiet place could have been so loud just a short time ago.
I got back with the tear down in full effect, with some of the Sauber trucks already leaving for home. And it struck me how lucky I am to have all of this, to be a small part of this giant machine. As we left the parking lot, the first stars were appearing in the purple sky, and the problems of a few days earlier seemed to belong to another age. The drive home took two hours, as it was supposed to. That was when I realized I had forgot to ask Alesi if he was moonlighting as the Autoroute pilot - it seems unlikely, but it might be the kind of thing he'd do these days.
"Just be thankful / for what you've got" (Massive Attack)