PADDOCK

11/07/2017

Dark and stormy

Dark and stormy

Behind the scenes at the Red Bull Ring

If I’m completely candid, Austria scared the hell out of us.

Maybe I should clarify. It’s not the place itself that scared us, although I’m not convinced they need all of those trees to cover the country quite so completely, but more that it was the first race weekend since Barcelona with 2 championships, and that it was the first of 2 back to back races with 2 championships, and indeed the first of 3 such beasts this month.

So it meant we were going to be more than a little busy. The timetable for the various interviews, photoshoots, press conferences and Paddock Club visits was cut down to the bone to ensure that everything got done, but with so many different activities back to back we were relying on 2 grids worth of drivers all being on time for their various activities, to make sure we got them all across the line.

So no problem then. Everyone knows that racing drivers are on time for everything.

We started with a soft ball – the race winner’s photograph. Charles Leclerc and Norman Nato are always professional, and there was no doubt that they’d be on time, and sure enough they were – Charles even brought a little bonus, his trophy.

“Why do you have your trophy?” I asked him as he came over to say hello. “We don’t normally have them for a photoshoot.”

“Angelina said I have to bring it to Austria,” he replied, baffled at the welcome.

“The email said to bring the trophy,” the PREMA communications maestra noted, matter of factly.

“Did it?” Alexa asked, surprisingly. “Oh sorry, I thought I deleted that! But … we’ll totally use it for the shoot!”

“At least you read her email,” I smirked as we all looked at a trophy-less Norman, “that makes a nice change.”

“What?” Norman spluttered. “I’m on time, aren’t I?”

She trooped us all out for the photoshoot, proclaiming that she had the perfect place before we walked down the hill and just out of the circuit, and as we walked around the corner we all caught the unmistakable waft of cow dung.

“This is it?” Norman asked, not unreasonably. “I finally win a race and you get me to take my photo in a field under a tree?”

“We were in an amphitheatre overlooking Monaco a few weeks back,” Charles smirked.

“I should have won a bit earlier!”

Zac the photographer soon took charge, instructing the guys on where to stand, where to look and so on, moving them around the field to find a shot he was happy with. “Look down,” Charles instructed, revealing to Norman a large cow pat between the pair of them. We usually have a shot which we’ve affectionately called the Smell the Fart photo – head raised, nose out, serious face and looking into the distance – but it was never so convincingly carried out as in this shoot.

And Charles was impressed with his friend’s abilities in front of the camera: “See? Here is a guy who practices selfies in the bathroom!”

“What, you think I stand around in my bathroom in my race suit?”

“Of course!”

And then it was just a case of working down the list for the rest of the day. We had the GP3 race winner’s photoshoot with Arjun Maini, who somehow manages to mix being incredibly focused with having a bit of a hippyish outlook and being a mind management guru, and Nirei Fukuzumi, who isn’t. What Nirei is is ridiculously funny – whether it’s on purpose or not is not entirely clear, but is almost beside the point.

Having a chat while Zac set up, this time on a steeply slanting rock wall (and yes, it probably doesn’t reward anyone if we look too deeply into these choices, but at least they were close), Alexa noted that it had been a while since they’d last raced. “Do you still remember how to do it?” Nirei put on a thoughtful face for a few beats before brightening, slapping both legs in succession, and blurting “brake … gas. Yes, we are okay to go!”

Zac was soon ready and we got underway. At the end of the shoot Nirei wasn’t satisfied. “I want to do a funny one!” We had a think and came up with the concept of the pair running and jumping over their helmets, and they had a couple of goes but Zac wasn’t happy with the focus, making them go a few times more until he was happy with the final result. Which, to be fair, is a great shot.

“Okay, you can go back to the team now. Thanks.”

“Phew! I think I need to have a sleep now…”

And then there was the Campos team talk, which revealed Robert Visoiu cannot walk past food without eating it, that Ralph Boschung is an acrobatic pilot and has a sister, and that Robert is very interested in at least one of those facts. And Raoul Hyman for the Lightning Round, which lasted for over 20 minutes (“This is officially the longest lightning round ever.” “More of a thunderstorm, then.”) and revealed … just so much – you really need to read that one. And the Q&As, which featured teammates pretending to ask normal questions but actually being quite rude and a lot of questions about racetracks.

We call it Thursday.

Everyone had been worrying about the weather for at least 2 weeks before the weekend – they get so much rain there, which may explain why everything is covered in trees, but which is less good for racing, particularly if you don’t want trees on the circuit.

The clouds pour into the valleys so fast in Austria that it can be raining on your head before you even look up. So the thick, ominous clouds swirling around the circuit as the teams lined up in the pitlane for free practice had everyone on edge: everyone was waiting in the pitlane for the lights to go green, with everyone except Leclerc (who stalled before the lights, proving he’s human after all) straight out on track to get as many laps as possible.

And then the clouds disappeared as quickly as they’d arrived. Leclerc was quickest once again, grabbing P1 a third of the way in before they all concentrated on long runs. With 5 minutes to go a lot of drivers pushed again, setting fastest sector times until Sergio Sette Camara pulled up on track just ahead of the pits, prompting a VSC period and leaving Leclerc on top to kick off the weekend.

There’s been a lot of talk about Leclerc’s pole run, and it is indeed impressive to string so many poles together, not to mention the advantage it gives you in a race if you can dictate the pace and manage your tyres out front. But as Luca Ghiotto pointed out, it’s been a lot closer than people think: a red flag in Bahrain meant no one could get a second run in, in Barcelona Luca was a tenth off pole, and in Monaco Alex Albon was only a hundredth away.

But yeah, Leclerc made it five from five.

It actually did rain between the sessions, just as we were walking back to the paddock, and with more clouds overhead the drivers were immediately out to secure a time, with Leclerc soon holding the top spot again, by a tenth over Sette Camara as they returned to the pits. On the second set both ART teammates briefly annexed P1, but Leclerc was not to be denied: he grabbed pole by three tenths from Sette Camara (who finished in the gravel on his last lap) and Fuoco.

And somehow the Red Bull Ring, which is easily the smallest track on the calendar, has a press conference room further away than any other. Didn’t anyone ever mention that getting a gaggle of drivers anywhere is like herding cats? Except popular cats, cats that everyone wants to talk to.

Still, 3 drivers to a press conference is still considerably easier than 6 drivers to the Fan Zone. At least we had a build up by running the pitstop challenge there earlier on Saturday, taking a bunch of mechanics from ART and Campos over in golf carts which we all subsequently had to push up the hill where we’d had the photoshoot, now covered in orange-shirted Dutchmen, before they started lugging wheels around. And somehow they were happy about the whole thing, and thanked us for letting them do it.

We should get them to talk to their drivers. Or just bring the mechanics for the signing session instead.

That said, Norman was in a good mood – after telling everyone watching his Q&A that it was his birthday on Saturday, we arranged for them to play Happy Birthday on the stage, although we weren’t expecting the techno version they trotted out. Walking across to the driver challenge he was complaining about how he hates people making a fuss over his birthday, but he couldn’t hide the smile on his face because we did.

There was a reverse bungee jump next to the building, and Nobu Matsushita was eyeing it apprehensively. “Do you want to have a go on it?” I asked. “I’m sure we could arrange it.”

“Oh no!” he blurted out. “I couldn’t do that!”

“But you race cars for a living!”

“Yes, but this is … very different. No control.”

There was an obvious joke to be said, and I’m proud of my self-restraint considering I was surrounded by racing drivers.

And then it was time for the race. Fuoco was faster off the line, but Leclerc had a better path to turn 1 and the lead, pushing on in what looked to be the best strategy (prime/option) until it very nearly wasn’t – the options dropped off rapidly a couple of laps from home, and Leclerc just limped across the line ahead of Nicholas Latifi on the alternate strategy, having already overtaken his teammate Oliver Rowland and Antonio Fuoco on the way to P2.

“After the first 3 laps I knew my supersofts were gone,” Latifi noted later, “and when these guys were pitting there were a lot of laps to the end…”

Leclerc was sanguine afterwards, which I guess you can afford when you’re the race winner. “I don’t think we could have done any better with the strategy we had: we pitted when we had to because the tyres were done, and we finished on the limit with the option tyres, so I’m happy about the race.”

But Sunday was another day, and the sprint race gave his rivals a chance to grab something back. And Artem Markelov grabbed that opportunity with both hands – he blasting off unopposed into turn 1 before heading off for a strong win, unopposed by his rivals. P2 man Ralph Boschung bogged down off the line and was swamped, with Raffaele Marciello running blind into his rear wing and retiring on the spot, prompting a visit by the safety car.

The Russian easily controlled the restart, but behind him Rowland had made a tremendous start and was looking to usurp Albon, freshly returned from his broken collar bone, for P2. The Thai man was not having any of it: Rowland stuttered and Fuoco pounced, looking for a way past at turn 4 but being squeezed onto the kerbs and back into the path of teammate Leclerc, who had nowhere to go and was tapped into a spin and retirement.

A brief VSC period later and Markelov and Albon headed off into the distance, while Rowland used his experience from the feature race to protect his tyres until late in the race, when he tried in vain once again to demote Albon until they finished line astern behind Markelov.

The press conference was mostly filled with questions about how they’re going to deal with Leclerc for the remaining rounds, which seemed ironic since he’d spun into retirement, but it’s fairly understandable even if all 3 drivers are great conversationalists and could have been asked about something more interesting.

They dealt with it in good grace before heading back to the paddock, where most of them had bags packed and were headed towards the airport – the next race weekend starts so soon, and we’ve still got so much to do, that I don’t even have the time to finish this blog.

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