Regular readers will know that I was in Montreal last month for the Canadian Grand Prix—my first race as an accredited member of the press (thanks to my Bleacher Report editor, Mark, for setting it up). Now, four weeks later, I have finally had a chance to write about my experiences in the Formula One paddock and give you a taste of what it is like behind the scenes at a grand prix weekend.
I had first asked Mark about attending the race over the Christmas holidays last year. He was immediately supportive and we submitted the application as soon as the portal opened on the FIA website. Unfortunately, my pass was not approved until the Tuesday of race week, with me due in Montreal on Thursday. I heard from another writer at the race that this is standard practice for journalists applying on a race-by-race basis, but it did not leave me much time to set up interviews for the weekend.
Early on Thursday morning, I took the train from Ottawa to Montreal (about a two-hour trip), arriving in plenty of time to collect my pass downtown and catch the media shuttle over to the circuit before the driver press conference. The shuttle was certainly convenient and comfortable, taking us from downtown to the paddock, but I do not think it was much faster than taking the metro, once the shuttle fought through Montreal traffic and then did a full tour of the Ile Notre-Dame.
Anyway, I made it to the track with no trouble, meeting a Danish journalist in the shuttle who had arrived in Montreal early that morning without his luggage. He was hoping the airline would not find it by the time he returned to his hotel that night, as his publication would allow him to buy whatever he needed until his bags arrived (I later learned that he did not get the shopping spree).
Walking through the paddock turnstile for the first time was an amazing feeling. It is a place I have wondered about ever since I started watching F1 in the mid-90s, so to experience it first-hand was a real thrill. I went to the media centre, which is just inside the paddock entrance, sitting on stilts over the Olympic rowing basin. The lovely volunteers assigned me a seat and gave me a package including a media guide and program. My seat was facing away from the windows, but you cannot see the track from the media centre, anyway, so it was not a big deal.
Once I got settled in and set up my computer, I went for a stroll. I had read that Montreal had the smallest paddock of any circuit and, although I had no other point of reference, it was easy to imagine. The walkway between the pit entrances and the team hospitality areas is probably just wide enough for two road cars to pass side by side.
Over the weekend, you were bumping into people whenever you turned around, and VIPs were carefully making their way past team mechanics cleaning the wheels with pressure washers and chemical solutions after each on-track session. I almost knocked Eddie Jordan over once when I made an abrupt turn.
The things I am most intrigued by in the paddock are the team motorhomes but they were not flown to Montreal, of course. Instead, each team had what looked like two portable trailers that you would see at a construction site stacked on top of each other for offices and private rooms for team personnel. They also had a large room where meals were served and media sessions conducted, along with a kitchen and an outdoor sitting area. All very comfortable, if not particularly glamourous.
I had always imagined that, even in the paddock, the drivers would pretty much keep to themselves, emerging for press conferences and to hop into their cars—and maybe it is like that at the European races, with their comfortable motorhomes to relax in. Not so in Montreal. Everywhere you turned, their was another driver. I bumped into Romain Grosjean using the portable men’s room beside the media centre. Some of the bigger names—Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton—I did not see as much, but they were definitely still around.
The press conference was very interesting, not so much for what was said (you can read the transcript here), but to see the mechanics of it, which are invisible to TV viewers. The very knowledgeable James Allen sits front-and-centre, asking the first round of questions to each participant, but the man controlling the show is FIA Media Delegate Matteo Bonciani. He stands just off-camera, beside the podium, keeping track of everything that is going on and calling on the journalists to ask questions once the floor is open. Bonciani is very tall and, with his expressive face and typical Italian hand gestures, at least as entertaining as the drivers.
Most of the writers do not actually attend the press conferences, although being in the room, you can pick up some subtle things you would not get from the transcript, such as observing how the drivers interact with each other. Also, for example, all the drivers were asked for their feelings on the World Cup. Adrian Sutil said he would be cheering for Germany and Uruguay and Allen asked him, “Why Uruguay?” Sutil responded that he was half-Uruguayan, although the question from Allen was edited out in the transcript, making it look as though Sutil had offered that detail on his own. It does not really matter, but I still find little tidbits like that fascinating.
After the press conference, I went for lunch in the media lounge. The lounge was only open to media members, and provided breakfast and lunch each day, as well as drinks throughout the day. The food was excellent, particularly the croissants for breakfast, which I easily downed a dozen of over the weekend.
After that, I spent a few minutes talking to Kate Walker, who, with no experience in F1, has created a career for herself covering the sport in just a few years. If you don’t already read her work, I highly recommend it. And she was just as funny and insightful in real life as she is in her writing.
Next, I headed down to the Caterham hospitality area. One of the interviews I had been able to arrange on short notice (thanks to Caterham’s head of communications, Tom Webb) was with Alexander Rossi, Caterham’s reserve driver and the only American driver currently in F1. He was scheduled to drive in the first Free Practice session on Friday and I wanted to speak to him, in part, for an article I have been working on for a while about the popularity of F1 in the United States.
Rossi was very interesting to talk to. He is very confident in his own abilities, but does not come across as cocky at all. If he continues to put up solid performances in GP2, I would not be surprised to see him in an F1 race seat very soon. You can read my interview with Rossi here.
Afterwards, I went back to the media centre to begin transcribing the interview. Soon, though, I decided to head back to the city. The media lounge did not serve supper and I was getting very hungry. After more than an hour-and-a-half on the shuttle and in the metro, I made it to the university residence where two of my friends and I had rented a suite for the weekend. They had not arrived from Ottawa yet, so I got some pizza and beer and finished off the Rossi story.
By then, the other guys had arrived, so we headed out for a walk on Rue St-Laurent, just down the street from our residence. On the way, we ran into an unguarded Williams on the street. It was painted in this year’s livery, but I believe it was a 2012 model. After a beer at one of the nearby pubs, we headed back to the residence a bit after midnight. I had a breakfast date at Marussia and I did not want to be late.