PADDOCK

08/09/2017

Prepare to launch

Prepare to launch

Get behind the scenes of Round 9 in Monza

I know, I didn’t write a blog for Spa, but here’s the thing: when on earth could I have done it? I couldn’t write it beforehand, obviously, and we were in Belgium from Wednesday to Sunday and then back home to start the Insider. So, writing Sunday night, all Monday and most of Tuesday, and then on a plane on Wednesday again to go to Monza.

Oh, and there was that pesky car launch: that filled up any time left over, and then some.

So by the time Thursday came around Alexa and I were basically hearing white noise, with that just-chewed-a-piece-of-aluminium-foil head buzz to top it off – we knew there were a lot of journalists in the paddock, all of whom wanted to ask us very pertinent questions before the launch (to be held at just after 1 o’clock), but to be honest I’m not sure that either of us could actually hear what was being said at that stage, or indeed what we were saying in reply.

It went pretty well though.

The launch was held in front of the Pirelli motorhome (and blocked off the Mercedes one from the rest of the paddock, amusingly) with a gigantic banner, huge speakers, a live TV crew and hundreds of people crowding round to take a look at the car of the future. And my oh my it was popular: you always hope for the best in a situation like this, but the number of views, photos, posts and so on were off the scale from anything we’ve had in the past, and all we could do was ride the wave as far as we could and then step back to watch it all unfold.

And then we had a race weekend on top of it all.

We still had all the Insider features to organise, and on the F2 side we were pretty lucky with the choices we’d made ahead of time: the Trident guys are probably the most chilled out pairing in the paddock, and with someone like Santino Ferrucci you really don’t have to do much to get him to talk, with Nabil Jeffri laughing and playing along with him. Somehow we covered such diverse topics as the uniformity of American smart-casual clothing, sports bars and who is worthy of them, and some inflammatory discussion of Nascar drivers, so I highly recommend that one to you.

We’d also managed to agree a photoshoot and a Live Q&A at the same time, which is an indication of how busy we’d been before Monza: Alexa took Luca Ghiotto for an amusing live chat on Facebook, while I took Artem Markelov (fresh from his Lightning Round, where he revealed himself to be a Hemmingway fan, endearing himself even further to us both) and Sergio Sette Camara to the old banking for the traditional race winner’s photo.

I arranged with the RUSSIAN TIME guys to get their mule – drivers will moan endlessly if you make them walk more than 100m, so it just wasn’t worth contemplating getting there any other way – and Artem sat behind the wheel, helmet on and looking like a hallucinogenic Daft Punk member as we waited for Sergio, who was playing to stereotype by arriving late, with a cup of tea in hand.

“What time are we going for the photos?” he asked innocently.

“10 minutes ago.”

“Oh, did I miss it?”

“Get in.”

“Can I bring my tea with me?”

“Sure.”

Sergio is a racing driver: he should have known better.

As soon as we were all mostly on board the Russian Stig floored the pedal, spilling tea all over Sergio’s suit as Zak and I held on as best we could and pointed directions as we broke all speed records to get to the banking. To be fair, his team had asked us to be as quick as possible, as they needed Artem for the drivers’ briefing straight afterwards.

Taking drivers to the banking is always interesting: normal people will stand at the bottom of the huge complex, look up at the steep incline in front of them and then follow it around into the distance before saying something like “can you believe people used to race on this? They must have been insane”, while drivers will look up and follow the very top line around with their eyes, and smile.

It was the second time I’d been out there that day: we’d taken George Russell and Giuliano Alesi out for the GP3 shot earlier in the morning, with the Frenchman clearly horrified at being so high and the Briton laughing and taking selfies, forcing Alesi to pretend he was comfortable there too. In the afternoon some security guards told us we weren’t allowed to climb up, but the guys did so anyway and the guards soon came over to take some photos and laugh at the drivers, who were delighted to be arranged on the edge of the banking however Zak wanted for the shot.

I woke up the next morning and wondered why I hadn’t packed my bag, before realising it was only Friday. The forecast had declared that it was going to be a wet day as we wondered how it would affect the weekend if either of the sessions were interrupted, but at least we had a little time to get everything in order before trooping over to the pitlane for free practice.

There were a few clouds overhead as we got there, the remnants of a brief shower earlier in the morning, but the track was dry as all of the drivers made their way onto the circuit for their programmes. Artem Markelov grabbed the top spot at the 15 minute mark, with championship leader Charles Leclerc falling in just behind the Russian before being nudged back a spot by Luca Ghiotto, putting his local knowledge to good use.

Luca had told us in Spa that he was determined to get a good result in his home race: he provided the warm up section of the preview for Monza and it was clear, watching him as he spoke, just how much he loved the place, and how much it would mean for him to win there. All the Italians are the same: the circuit seems to be a part of them somehow, to be contribute to their racing DNA.

I can hardly question it: Monza has been my home track since I attended my first ever F1 race there, and even more so when I later lived in Milan. Even though I’ve moved countries since, I still feel it’s personal to me.

A few hours later and it was time for qualifying, with the circuit now bathed in sunlight: a regular Monza day. If everyone was fearful of the usual Leclerc roadshow in qualifying, they were to be happily surprised for once: Nobuharu Matsushita grabbed his first pole position at this level, and stopped the Monegasque driver taking P1 on the road for the first time this season with a stunning early lap.

The McLaren-Honda development driver claimed P1 on his first flyer, taking advantage of the F1 rubber laid down in the previous session to set a target to which his rivals could only aspire. Alexander Albon and Leclerc had both briefly claimed the top spot with their first competitive laps, but a bit further back Matsushita ran faster, setting the pace in sector 1 and 2 and missing the top spot in sector 3 by just a thousandth, grabbing pole by less than a hundredth of a second from Nyck De Vries and Louis Delétraz. Tight.

“It is a really special day for me,” Matsushita smiled after the session. “Last week I had a really big crash in Eau Rouge, and it was a really difficult, really tough weekend for me, and actually this morning I had really good pace and we spoke a lot with the team about set ups for qualifying. My qualifying first lap was really good, no mistakes, really calm and not pushing: I think it was the best lap in my life!”

“At Monza it is easy to overtake because of the DRS and the long straight, but I’m in the best position to start and my main target is to get big points tomorrow, not make a mistake at the start and then take it easy, but not too easy! I think my pace will be very quick tomorrow, and then it’s all about degradation. It will be a good day, I think.”

Good? Not so much. Crazy? Yeah, a bit.

We woke up on Saturday to heavy rain and ponderous skies, the storm finally arriving in force: we were probably assuming it would slow down on the drive to the circuit and stop as we walked to the paddock, as has happened in the past, but it kept going all the way to the pitlane for a washed out GP3 qualifying, with the younger drivers grumpy about losing track time (apart from Nirei Fukuzumi, who picked up pole courtesy of running quickest in free practice: the FP session in Jerez promises to be completely over the top now) and everyone else wondering what it meant for them.

The rain kept up, on and off, all day, with the track waterlogged (albeit not as badly as in 2008, when the water backed up so much that our paddock was flooded for an hour or so after a torrential storm) and getting almost no use during F1’s free practice too. The start of their qualy session came, a few of them chanced their arm for a laptime until Romain Grosjean aquaplaned on the front straight (newly resurfaced and now the main villain for all of the drivers) before hitting the barriers on both sides of the track before retiring.

Cue a stream of messages on the screens constantly noting further information to be advised in 15 minutes, and international broadcasters going crazy with nothing to fill their screens.

We took a few of the drivers over to the F1 paddock to be interviewed by their home broadcasters, so at least something positive came from it, but drivers tend to be quite grumpy when they’re not driving, particularly when they are supposed to be. They become the (marginally) grown up version of kids in the back of the car repeatedly whining are we there yet?

“Can we race yet?”

“Shh, why don’t you take a nap dear, there’s a little way to go yet.”

“Awww…”

Eventually the schedule got under way once more, with most of the broadcasters complaining about having to fill a 4 hour broadcast (I’m not convinced it was, but they tend to moan almost as much as drivers), and the news was announced: F2 pushed back to the GP3 slot, GP3 Race 1 pushed back to Sunday morning, and Race 2 was to be cancelled. 

Rain was still falling when the F2 grid formed, allowing the race director to utilise the new process of running a string of formation laps behind the safety car until it’s clear enough to make a standing start, reducing the race length in the process. After 6 laps the safety car eventually pitted, plus another formation lap for a stall by Santino Ferrucci, dropping the lap total to 23 for the race, and the lights went out.

Matsushita was slow off the line, handing De Vries a clean line into the lead at turn 1, with Markelov missing his braking point and clattering into the Japanese driver, breaking his front wing and forcing an early stop for a replacement while allowing Leclerc a line through to attack Matsushita on the back straight for P2, with Louis Deletraz, Roberto Merhi, Oliver Rowland, Ghiotto, Nicholas Latifi and Antonio Fuoco following the pair across the line at the end of the lap.

Rowland soon made short work of the 2 drivers ahead of him, showing his need to get on par with his title rival, with Ghiotto following his lead just behind the Briton. Ahead of them Leclerc clearly had more speed than De Vries but was unable to use it: the Monegasque driver ran deep a number of times, with De Vries making the most of it each time by pulling away.

Matsushita was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in on lap 17 just one ahead of Leclerc, which left De Vries, Rowland, Ghiotto and Fuoco little choice but to stop next time through to cover. Racing Engineering made a great stop to help De Vries maintain his lead as he emerged ahead of Leclerc, and battle recommenced for the win, with Rowland just behind the pair. Unfortunately for the Briton his left rear only made it to the Roggia chicane before detaching, stranding him by the side of the road and bringing out the safety car while the marshals worked to remove his car.

The race was live again with just 2 laps remaining: Leclerc got a good jump on De Vries but ran too deep at turn 1, taking to the escape road while Ghiotto snuck past the Dutchman for the lead. De Vries got a great tow all the way from Ascari and ran inside the Italian at Parabolica, reclaiming the lead for the final lap as the trio ran tightly together to Variante Rettifilo for the final time.

Ghiotto cut the chicane and re-emerged in the lead, Leclerc attacked De Vries at the exit and the pair came together behind Ghiotto, with Leclerc running wide and De Vries picking up a puncture as Ghiotto pulled away from Fuoco for the win by 2 seconds, with Matsushita (who also cut the corner) just behind them in P3.

There was never any doubt about what the win meant to Ghiotto: “It feels amazing! We’ve been working hard all through the season, we’ve been through difficult moments in the second half, and we definitely needed it. It was a pretty crazy race, but wet races are famous for this! I was expecting that at the beginning, and after the safety car came out I was wondering if I could have a go for the win when I was P3: the other 2 drivers had a pretty bad first corner, and I could overtake both of them.

“It’s not easy on cold tyres in these conditions, especially at this track with the hard braking: you really need to have the tyres and the brakes ready! The last 2 laps were really long for me but I’m really, really happy to win my home race: it’s my first feature race win, because I won a sprint race last year but I was missing this, so I’m really happy.”

But it didn’t take long for the dreaded news to come through: Ghiotto was under investigation for the move at the first chicane on the last lap, the second feature race in a row where the leader was called to the stewards, and a long night loomed ahead of us.

Obviously it’s always possible to be called to the stewards and for nothing to come of it – there are loads of examples of that, but as they don’t get publicised (because driver didn’t get a penalty isn’t a story, it’s the norm) the general mood is always gloomy for the prospects of the investigation, unless you’re one of the drivers who will gain from it, in which case you pretend to watch the Italian football match in hospitality so you can hear about it first.

We just tend to get on with the usual work, posting all the reports and transcribing the press conferences and generally being busy while we wait for the news. And when it came in around midnight (thanks rain delay) it was bad news for the popular Italian: he was given a 5 second penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage, dropping him to P4 and handing the win to countryman Fuoco.

I woke up the next morning seemingly before I went to sleep, with the GP3 race now starting earlier than planned, and at least when the sun eventually rose it was shining once more, promising a glimpse of well needed normality after one of the stranger weekends on record.

The GP3 drivers hadn’t been in their cars for 2 days, and it showed: the ART guys (apart from Nirei Fukuzumi, the poleman who heartbreakingly broke down ahead of the race) tore off for their own race while everyone else went doolally behind them. But it was exciting to watch, and gave their big brothers something to aspire to in the entertainment stakes.

It was a challenge they were up for.

When the lights went out poleman Gustav Malja bogged down, leaving a clear run for a fast starting Sean Gelael to blast into the lead ahead of Louis Deletraz, Sette Camara, Malja and Ghiotto, with the Swiss driver back ahead of the Indonesian on lap 4, just before Ghiotto dispatched Malja on the inside of Parabolica for P4.

Ghiotto was on a charge to reclaim his home win, and his job was made a little easier when Sette Camara cut Roggia next time through and had to cede position to the Italian, who now had just Deletraz between him and victory: the inevitable pass came on lap 11, when Ghiotto mugged the Swiss driver at Lesmo 1 for a lead which he would hold tight for the remainder of the race as he eased away from the squabbles behind him.

Sette Camara was determined to show that his Spa victory was the start of a purple period for him, easing by Deletraz on the front straight for P2 but unable to close down the leader. Behind him was mayhem, with drivers swapping places throughout the rest of the race with Fuoco somehow emerging from the scrum and using his home advantage to dispatch the Swiss driver late in the race for a second home podium, much to the delight of his vocal fans in the main straight.

They had come all the way up from the south of Italy to support their driver, about 100 or so fans crossing the country for a moment to remember. One of their number sadly passed away on Friday night: a man in his 80s suffering a heart attack and turning what would have been a glorious moment for the whole group into a bittersweet celebration of their friend along with their favourite driver, screaming out songs in their honour.

After the emotional rollercoaster of the previous 24 hours, the effects were clear to see on Ghiotto’s face as he discussed the race afterwards: “as I said on the radio after the finishing line, this is probably the victory that feels the best of my career. When they take away a win from you and the day after you win again, it is just the best feeling in the world!

“I think we proved that we were really quick yesterday, and we didn’t win just by luck: I’m really happy about that, and we also proved to be quick in wet and dry conditions, which is really good I think. It’s very good to know that we are competitive in both conditions, even if I don’t think it will be raining in Jerez and in Abu Dhabi! We made a good step forward since Spa, and the momentum looks like it keeps on going. I feel really good right now, because it’s my home race and I really wanted to bring home a trophy.

“I think I slept three hours last night: we were at the stewards’ until almost midnight, then I found it hard to remain calm and it took a while to fall asleep… This morning I was not 100% ready because when you don’t sleep enough you don’t feel ready for the race, but my emotions were in check once I jumped in the car: the rest just disappeared, and I was ready for the race. After that, everything went my way, and I’m really happy.”

It felt like an apt explanation of the weekend: hard work, drama and emotion, but it was difficult to say it hadn’t all worked out okay in the end. After a bit of sleep, we might even be happy about it too.

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