PADDOCK

18/05/2017

Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun

Behind the scenes at Circuit de Catalunya

It was standing in the queue to board a plane in Valencia that the fear of Barcelona kicked in.

Jack Aitken, young gun and all round nice bloke was boarding too, as we were both heading back to London after the final GP3 test in Valencia, and he’d had a pretty solid test after grabbing the top time (shared to the thousandth with Leonardo Pulcini) in the qualy-style session that morning, and was clearly looking forward.

“Finally, next time we’ll be racing, not testing,” he smiled, and fair enough too from his perspective: testing is only a means to an end after all, and that end is racing. And it probably didn’t help that it rained at literally every test, while it seems like races always bring the sun out (don’t think about that sentence too hard, I know it doesn’t stand scrutiny. And really don’t think about Spa). “I can’t wait!”

Now obviously I knew we’d have both championships in Barcelona – I’ve seen the calendar – but it hadn’t really occurred to me how much more work would be involved in handling twice the number of, well, everything really. Bahrain had been a lot of work and we’d got through it all pretty well, but this was going to be tough.

Arriving at the circuit on Wednesday it was clear how much our relationship with F1 has changed this year: the paddock, which was already pretty close, has been pulled even closer to their paddock, with hospitality right by the paddock gate and our office just behind the Ferrari one. We spent the afternoon drafting and releasing previews, scouting for locations for the race winner photos (not too far away – drivers don’t like to walk – but nowhere we’ve used extensively before) before settling on the pedestrian bridge from the pit complex, and getting ready for the storm to come.

We didn’t think that would be literal, though. It’s Barcelona.

“Good morning” Jack announced as he arrived to sign in for the weekend on Thursday morning. Almost as if on cue, the dark, looming clouds surrounding the circuit opened, soaking the paddock as the mechanics ran to retrieve everything that wasn’t under cover before watching the edges of their canopies as the water start to seep in.

Of course the torrential rain came just before the photoshoot, with Charles Leclerc and Artem Markelov sullenly slinking into hospitality to escape the downpour. “We’re not going out in this, are we?” Charles asked, his eyes in full puppy dog mode. “Of course we are,” Alexa admonished, “it’s in the diary”, before telling me to take them up to the bridge, as she had something really important to do. And it was really important: I just can’t remember what it was now. Honestly.

So we all trudged out, with Zak the photographer in his shorts and light jacket looking like the only one happy to get to work. “Do I need my race boots too?” Charles asked pleadingly, with Artem sympathetically replying “I’ve got mine on so yes, of course.” I held his umbrella and helmet while Charles impressively stood on one foot while replacing the shoe on the other: clearly all that balance work they do comes in useful sometimes.

We quickly got on with taking the shots, with Artem happy to go along with everything and Charles questioning our sanity before agreeing to whatever nonsense we suggested, and of course he’s the one who looks happiest in the shots: it’s quite a remarkable ability he has to transform in a second.

Of course the rain stopped as soon as we started the first interviews of the weekend, when we were all inside, with the bright sunshine instantly heating up the paddock, drying everything in minutes to destroy any evidence of inclemency.

And it then returned just as quickly when we were setting up on the front straight for the GP3 class photo. I’m starting to think Pirelli has somehow organised to bring the rain whenever anyone so much as thinks about the junior category. In fact, looking out my window, the sky is very grey indeed, so I’ll move back to F2 now.

Friday always sees time warp around itself as we try to keep up with all of the on and off track activities, with a visit to the pitlane generally a relief as we only have one job to do: watch and report the session. With the sun blazing down Leclerc set the pace early on in a quiet session at a circuit everyone on the grid knows well, before they all settled down to work on long run data. Alexander Albon was just off the pace, reigniting last year’s session-long battle between the GP3 championship contenders (and teammates), with MP’s Sergio Sette Camara and Jordan King best of the rest.

The paddock was busy for most of the day, what with Paddock Club tours and a number of fans having been given access to come and take a look around, but the weather was great and there was a general good mood pervading the place (apart from in our office, where Alexa and I wondered if we could petition for an additional 10 hours a day to get through everything).

In a blink it was qualifying, and the extra heat made no difference to Leclerc’s progress: he put in a solid banker for P2 on his first set by running out of sync with the rest of the field, and returned with teammate Antonio Fuoco as the remainder returned to the circuit on their second set. Luca Ghiotto nailed the top spot, teammate Markelov had his fire extinguisher pop on track, and Nabil Jeffri’s car rolled to a halt, bringing out the red flags with 5 minutes remaining, seemingly bringing the session to an end.

But that was to discount Leclerc, which you do increasingly at your peril. The Monegasque re-emerged when the track went green and, without the requisite time to optimise his tyres, just went and stole pole anyway as the Italian watched on helplessly from the pitwall. Ghiotto still held onto the front row at least, ahead of Nyck De Vries, King and Albon, but in the press conference afterwards all the questions were for the Monegasque man, who is clearly building a following in the main paddock.

GP3 qualifying came and went in a blur on Saturday, with Aitken showing how keen he was to get racing by running faster than everyone with a pretty impressive lap to thread the needle through traffic when his tyres were at their best, and he couldn’t remove the smile from his face back in the paddock, which was filling up fast once again with tours and fans.

I sat next to Gustav Malja on the way over to the Fan Zone for the simulator race and a signing session, and he was the reverse image of Aitken’s positivity: given his qualifying it was kind of understandable, but for a guy who is generally known for being upbeat it was odd nonetheless. But after talking everything down for the short drive, when I asked what he was going to do about the race said “you never know, anything could happen” then started to smile and wave as he walked onto the stage.

And then it was time for the race. Most of the time when you’re watching a race and you know what tyres everyone is on you have a basic framework in your head of how the race will unfold, and you’re watching to see who does better or worse against that, but sometimes things happen in a race that throws that out the window. Saturday’s feature race was one of those ones.

Walking the grid before the race it was clear that the teams were unsure which strategy was going to be best: generally you get most of the grid on the same tyres with a couple of outliers rolling the dice, but the mix here was about 50/50, suggesting the numbers had come up pretty close for either option. And then the race started, and it soon became clear that starting on options was the wrong call: on full fuel and with the blazing heat they just weren’t lasting, with Ghiotto being overtaken by Albon on primes but Leclerc building just enough of a lead to avoid that unpleasantness before his pitstop.

So it now looked like a straight fight for the win between Albon and Oliver Rowland, who was closing fast, but when Sergio Canamasas stopped on track it changed all the maths, and switched the advantage from one strategy to the other, on tyrewear and track position.

But that didn’t mean that Leclerc and Ghiotto now had everything handed to them: they would have to work hard to pass a lot of cars and gain that track position before the pitstops removed the front runners, now led by Rowland who had the bit between his teeth and was looking to reverse the hand he was given by sheer force.

The Italian later admitted that he didn’t push as hard as Leclerc because he was worried about his tyres, but the Monegasque was clearly unconcerned about such trifles, overtaking a number of drivers to put himself into P1 when Rowland eventually pitted: the Briton fought hard to get back to the front of the race but ran out of time, having to make do with P3 behind Ghiotto but ahead of Nobuharu Matsushita, who had stopped on the same lap as Leclerc, showing what might have been.

And to top it all off, Leclerc won the race without a radio. “It was really hard to know what the others were doing and where we were,” he laughed afterwards, “and if we were losing time to the people in front: I first thought Oliver was going to win easily, and when he made the pitstop he was in the back! It was a really hard race with the safety car, trying to overtake and make my way up without losing time, and most of all without losing the tyres!

“At 15 laps to the end I thought the race is going to be really hard, but the tyres handled it really well: towards the end we were obviously slower than Oli, but I have to thank the team for the great car they gave me.”

Over in GP3 poor old Aitken slotted in just behind teammate Nirei Fukuzumi at the start and was pushing him hard when a mechanical gremlin pulled him up, undoing all of his good work: I saw him in the pitlane afterwards and could only give him a “tough luck” as he clearly wasn’t ready to chat, but was soon tweeting positivity again, and looking forward to the next race. And his opposite, Malja, had managed to turn around a P18 grid position into 7th at the flag and a front row start for the sprint race, to his obvious delight.

Drivers. The more I know them, the less I understand them.

For example, Nirei. He’s a really lovely guy, and even though his English is pretty bad (he’s the only driver I can remember having to interview in a press conference via a translator) he radiates positivity, and it draws everyone to him. The other ART drivers, former and present, are all clearly obsessed with him: they all talk about him in interviews, I don’t think there is a photoshoot yet that hasn’t ended up with them all picking him up and carrying him around, and his win drew Leclerc and Albon back to the pitlane to celebrate with their former teammate.

It doesn’t make him any easier to interview though. You talk to him, you think you’ve got some nice quotes and walk away smiling, and then you transcribe it and it turns out he actually said almost nothing. He’s slightly magical, but at least he uses his powers for good purposes, rather than going to the dark side.

Apart from those interviews, of course.

Sunday morning opened to more glorious conditions, and Nicholas Latifi was looking to use the warming track to his own interests: making a tremendous start from P3 but blocked by a stumbling Markelov on pole, he simply slowed before scooting outside and around the Russian, kissing the grass with his tyres before storming off into the lead of the race at turn one: Malja had no answer for the Canadian’s pace, and soon had his mirrors full of Matsushita’s black and red car, with the Japanese driver soon up to P2 and on Latifi’s pace, but unable to close the gap he’d already built.

It looked like the race was done, other than another fight through the field by Rowland, but fate had other plans: late in the race Latifi’s mirror detached, bounced off his helmet and distracting him briefly on the fast turn 5, causing him to just miss the braking point and sail through the gravel before returning behind Matsushita, whose hard work in pushing all the way had paid a bigger prize than even he could have expected, with Rowland rubbing salt into the wound by stealing P2 too.

It’s a racing driver’s worst nightmare, making what appears to be a simple mistake to lose a win, and while most others would look to make an excuse for it, Latifi was at least owning it: “I know it was my race to win and there’s a lot of frustration, but I can’t do anything about it: it’s done and I can’t take it back. But there are also positives I can take away from it: it was the first reverse grid I got into since the start of last year, it was the first race I could get out in front and lead, and I was managing it fine.

“It was my race but I got distracted, that’s all: when you’re cruising out the front there’s a lot to think about and I just made a mistake, as simple as that.”

Happily there wasn’t much in the way of penalties to write up, so we could all head out to the airport in plenty of time for the flight: despite the extra workload of a second championship, we survived just about intact. I looked around as I was boarding but Jack Aitken wasn’t on my flight this time, so in his honour I put on my iPod, hit play on Why Does It Always Rain On Me by Travis, then put on my sunglasses and walked across the tarmac to my plane. 

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