Paddock Life: Melbourne edition
|By Jonathan Noble||Monday, March 30th 2009, 09:23 GMT|
Autosport.com brings you its regular column of life inside the paddock. This week: Melbourne
It had been a longer than usual winter, but everyone knew as they rolled into the Albert Park paddock ahead of the first race of the season that this was going to be a good one.
New rules, a new team at the front of the grid and intrigue up and down the field, meant that anticipation levels were higher than they had been for years.
Even on the Wednesday before the race, when normally team personnel are left alone to make final preparations for action to get underway, the paddock was as packed as it sometimes is on race day. Everyone you spoke to over the next 48 hours just wanted things to get going.
Rubens Barrichello, well aware that his car was as good as his rivals feared, wandered over.
"Oh man, I can't wait," he said. "I just wish I could close my eyes now and make it Friday morning."
Yet for all the excitement that Melbourne delivered at the start of what looks like becoming a fascinating season, it also proved to be perhaps the most tiring weekend in living memory.
The skewed evening timetable, to fit in with Australia's first twilight race, meant some very, very long days - especially when you chucked in the number of technical protests, disqualifications and appeals.
F1's first night race in Singapore last year had had the effect of compacting the day into a few hours. Yes, the day's on-track events may have finished at 10pm, but the paddock would be empty by 2am to allow people to head off for dinner and then 10 hours of sleep.
In Melbourne, perhaps because of the time difference back to Europe, the paddock would begin filling at 10am. Track action would finish at 6pm, formal post-event briefings went on until 11pm - and then protests and controversy each night meant few saw bed before 5am.
Yet when Brawn GP delivered perhaps one of the sport's biggest shocks with a dominant performance, it lifted spirits for a by-then weary paddock - especially for the lucky few who could break away early and go and see The Who's concert.
Leo Sayer, a regular at F1 Down Under, summed it up perfectly afterwards: "This was the best day of my life!"
General tiredness was probably to blame also for a local journalist getting caught out by Scuderia Toro Rosso's cheeky pre-race previews.
STR's parent company Red Bull had always tried to deliver a far from corporate preview to each weekend for its teams, and the Australian GP was no exception as its look-ahead was a spoof diary of Sebastien Buemi's debut race weekend.
In it, he talks about the 325 interviews he has had to do pre-weekend for Swiss publications, getting his 'Toblerone' bars confiscated by customs in Melbourne, getting ripped off with a 350 dollar taxi fare from Melbourne airport and how teammate Sebastien Bourdais advises him to miss driver briefings.
Unfortunately for one local journalist, he thought the diary to be a real life account of Buemi's build-up to the Australian Grand Prix.
"I've just been reading your diary, Sebastien, it's very funny," said the scribe in the official FIA press conference on Friday. "Did you really get your Toblerone chocolates taken off you by the customs?"
Buemi, wide-eyed that he was actually being asked, somehow managed to keep a straight face. "No, it was a joke."
"And that $350 taxi fare was a joke too?" said the journalist, pushing on by now a bit hesitant..
"Yup," replied Buemi, in one of those F1 tumbleweed moments.
Formula 1 drivers don't often like to be reminded about reaching landmark races or achievements - but Pedro de la Rosa was genuinely chuffed to be presented with a steering wheel by McLaren on race morning to celebrate his decade in grand prix racing.
The Spaniard made his debut in an Arrows at Melbourne in 1999, scoring a point (when you needed to finish sixth then to do so) ahead of a career that would span Jaguar Racing and then McLaren as tester and part-time racer
Looking back on that first race, de la Rosa said: "I remember every detail as if it were yesterday: coming out of the pitlane and selecting second, third, fourth into Turn 1.
"It was my first grand prix and the trip to Australia was like an adventure. I stayed calm for the race because it was my first grand prix and I was not expected to score a point. I enjoyed that grand prix massively – I will always remember having Michael Schumacher in my mirrors for a few laps, which was a good feeling!"
"When you first get to Formula 1, you're so used to winning almost every race that it's a bit of a shock to find yourself towards the bottom of the timesheets. Then your mentality changes a little because you start to lose that killer instinct; it's just something that happens. Looking back now, sixth wasn't too bad – but I wanted to be on the podium so badly. And everybody knows that that didn't happen until 2006, so I learned the hard way."
In honour of his efforts, and the fact that he remains one of the paddock's true nice guys, McLaren presented him with the steering wheel that he used in the 2006 season, when he captured his best-ever result with second place at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Sunday and the final countdown to the first race of the season, when the cars roar out of the pits to engage in battle for the first time, is one of the most exciting of the season.
And wandering around the grid, you could sense everyone there was just as eager to find out what the first race with these new regulations would be like.
As they had been on track, Brawn GP proved to be the star attraction of the final 30 minutes before the race. Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello not only had cameras and microphones thrust into their faces, but other big hitters came down to take a peek too.
Of course, some of the teams were more interested in the diffuser design of the BGP 001 than true pleasantries – which is why the team ensured that three mechanics were constantly stood at the back of its car, with starter motor permanently left in place, so no one could see what was really going on down underneath.
Yet there were also some touching moments in that final countdown. Michael Schumacher edged towards the front of the grid, pushing his way through the crowd, to seek out his former technical chief Ross Brawn for a hug – both men sharing the nervous anticipation ahead of what will go down as a moment to remember in F1.
But perhaps the single incident that hinted at a change of guard in F1 came shortly afterwards. X-factor judge Dannii Minogue was hanging around at Brawn GP, and team CEO Nick Fry wanted a photograph of him and his partner with the Australian singer.
Fry pulled his camera out of his pocket and asked the nearest friendly face he could to take the picture. Step over one Stefano Domenicali!