I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that the Valencia street circuit is one of the least popular tracks on the Formula One calendar.
While the city of Valencia has much to recommend it – nice beaches, a beautiful old town, impressive modernist architecture, and a veritable plethora of bars and restaurants – the race track is another matter entirely.
The 25 optimistically named corners (many of which would be better described as ‘wiggles’) do not lend themselves to great racing. The 2011 European Grand Prix, which entered the F1 history books as the first race with 24 classified finishers, saw a total of 27 overtaking manoeuvres – five ‘normal’ passes, and 22 powered by the DRS.
Fans and media alike took to the internet to joke about the two- and three-nap strategies needed to make it through to the chequered flag, while the GP WEEK editorial board had a post-race crisis meeting to discuss how to pull together stories of racing incidents from a grand prix that hadn’t seen much of anything at all.
And that was a fairly exciting race by Valencia standards – at least we saw some overtaking.
But Valencia isn’t the only dull track on the F1 calendar. Both Abu Dhabi and Bahrain come in for a lot of criticism from fans, Monaco tends to produce an iconic procession, and Singapore’s Marina Bay Circuit needs Robert Kubica on the hunt to liven things up.
But what makes Valencia so different from the venues listed above is the coverage it gets from the press. While it’s often acknowledged that the racing in Singapore, Monaco, and the Middle East could be a little more thrilling, the grands prix are viewed in the wider context of the overall experience. And the experiences are something else entirely.
Monaco is Monaco. It’s the jewel in Formula One’s crown, the nouveau riche enclave on the Cote d'Azur that gives fans and media alike the chance to float along on a sea of champagne and canapés while pretending that this is how we always live. The good moods lead to effusive praise in print, creating a perpetual publicity machine.
Singapore is also special. The nocturnal lifestyle gives the race an additional veneer of glamour not found elsewhere on the calendar, while seeing the cars pounding round the city streets under the cover of darkness is nothing short of magic. However fantastic the cars look on the world television feed, let me assure you that nothing compares to seeing them with your own eyes.
But when it comes to getting good publicity for a less-than-stellar track, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are the experts. Setting aside anything remotely connected to the politics surrounding this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, our Middle Eastern hosts know how to put on an event from a media point of view.
Subsidised media hotels defray the high cost of covering Formula One. Top quality media catering allows us to stay fed and watered at circuits far from nearby supermarkets and corner shops. Shuttles to and from the circuit make track access as easy as can be, while special F1 media visas obliterate the headache that often comes from travelling the world with a laptop and Dictaphone.
But it’s not just about the perks – Bahrain and Abu Dhabi listen to the media when it comes to those minor changes that make our jobs so much easier to do. Photographers were allowed to give their input to the race directors concerning tweaks to the landscaping that led to better pictures. Journalists were given separate internet access so that we could continue to file copy as our lens-based colleagues were hogging the bandwidth to upload their photos.
And given that part of our job as members of the F1 media circus is to promote our host countries, listening to our suggestions for improvement is only common sense.
Which is where Valencia gets it oh so wrong. While the internet here isn’t the most expensive of the season, paying €50 for four days’ access is insane when compared with the amount we pay at home for faster, more reliable broadband. Catering is restricted to crisps and ice-cream, and while snacks are great they do not a meal make.
But that’s all small beans when compared with the treatment we get from the security officials at the entrance to the circuit. At the bulk of host venues, media credentials mean we’re subjected to a lighter security check than attending fans, if any. After all, it’s not in our interests to torpedo our careers by doing anything that would harm the sport that employs us.
Each morning at the Valencia street circuit I find myself subjected to intensive security checks that get more ridiculous with every passing day. On Thursday my handbag and backpack were searched, and I was made to throw away my bottle of water despite the fact that none of the concession stands whose trade I was presumably destroying had opened for business. Ah well.
Friday saw a more thorough check, resulting in me binning a can of deodorant that had passed muster the day before. Only a histrionic diva fit involving excessive use of the words ‘skin’ and ‘cancer’ prevented my sunscreen from suffering a similar fate.
By Saturday I’d wised up, and arrived at the track with little more than my laptop. So imagine my surprise when I was asked to power up the machine to prove that it really was a work station, and not a cunningly-disguised bomb.
It’s been an emotional Groundhog Day of a weekend. I wake up to glorious sunshine, and with a mood to match. Walking along the seafront to the circuit, my mood is further lifted by the glinting blue waters of the Mediterranean set against a backdrop of charming traditional architecture. And then I get to the track, run the gauntlet of over-the-top security checks, and arrive in the press room spitting bricks.
You want positive publicity for your expensive procession? Try playing nice with those of us who fork out our hard-earned cash to promote your parade.
Formula One loves Europe.
Sure, we love (nearly) all the places we visit. And being able to spend one's life gadding about the planet, collecting airmiles while eating all manner of delicious food in its county of origin is a real privilege.
As a confirmed Japanophile, I love being able to visit my favourite country on an annual basis. But all of the flyaways are special in their own way, presenting opportunities to fall in love with countries as varied as Singapore and Brazil.
Still, Formula One loves Europe. It's the traditional heartland of our sport, and home to the majority of the calendar's classic - evocative, emotive - circuits. It's also the beginning of the F1 party season, as the teams all vie to get the most bang for buck out of their motorhomes.
With only two days of the European season under our belts, the paddock has already played host to five different parties for the media.
Thursday evening saw Ferrari ring in the summer with a cocktail party in their motorhome. Guests were treated to the best Rioja I've had all year (mental note - track down the name of that bottle!), more Iberico ham than one could comfortably eat in a lifetime, and all manner of traditional Catalan snacks.
Friday night was when the partying kicked up a notch - with a choice of four different events, the committed drinkers could be found flitting from motorhome to motorhome, doing what we like to call networking.
The smart move was to start at Sauber, where sponsors Jose Cuervo were mixing tequila cocktails. Then on to Lotus, who have continued Renault's tradition of a Friday evening petit apero for the press corps.
Red Bull were celebrating their partnership with Japanese sake masters Joraku by throwing a sushi and sake party that included liberal doses of a vintage sake that retails at mind-blowing 600 euros a bottle, although I was partial to the (slightly) more affordable plum sake, a snip at a mere 60e. [insert eye roll here]
But the sake was delicious, and guests were given bottles to take home, along with traditional wooden sake cups with Red Bull branding. Equally delicious was the sushi, although whoever thought it was a good idea to serve soy sauce in egg cups didn't take the size of the maki rolls into account...
Finally we headed upstairs to the Paddock Club, where title sponsors Santander were throwing a media dinner that included a mini magic show starring Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. I've been told the tricks were great, but as a woman of diminutive stature I could only hear them, not see them. Not the best way to enjoy the show, as I'm sure you can imagine.
Disappointingly, the food wasn't up to the usual Paddock Club standard. Rather than the starched linen and multiple courses we're used to, we were treated to a buffet of the sort of greasy stodge that you usually see around 10pm at an all day wedding. And yes, these diamond shoes are damned pinchy.
But the cocktails more than made up for it, thanks to some top-drawer mojitos and caipirinhas. Well-lubricated, we all toddled off into the warm Spanish night with bags filled with Ferrari swag.
Yeah, Formula One loves Europe. Wouldn't you?
Arriving in Bahrain, I was immediately overwhelmed with advertising for the Grand Prix, which lined the hallways and dominated the pillars outside the airport. UNIF1ED, indeed.
Heading into central Manama from the hotel, the streets were busy with traffic, and the pavements were heaving with people out and about for the night. Advertising for the race continued to be prominent.
Even the hotel was celebrating the race in a fairly jubilant fashion...
Walking into my room, I was blown away. For a mere sixty quid a night, I'd been issued with a suite, food and internet all included. I wonder who was paying the difference...
On the way to the circuit, we took turns counting police cars and army vehicles. I saw three of these over the weekend; they were the most impressive-looking of all the security vehicles we counted.
Sunday's grid was business as usual, with no sign of the added security we'd seen outside the track.
After the race, the organisers gave all the journalists commemorative license plates as souvenirs.
The weekend ended as it began - with a reminder of the Bahrain Grand Prix's controversial slogan.
The list of the qualities it takes to make it as an F1 journalist is a long one - far longer than I know, and certainly longer than any list of attributes I might possess.
But on my first race weekend as an accredited journalist it became abundantly clear that one vital skill was the ability to remain entirely unflustered as a passenger in a car, no matter what was happening on the road.Luckily I don't have any fear on the road, irrespective of whether or not I happen to be behind the wheel. Too many boyfriends have fancied themselves secret rally drivers for me to be able to survive as a nervous Nellie.Which is why I was unflappable when we started playing dodge-'ems down the hard shoulder in Bahrain in 2010, running late for an unmissable appointment. Later that year, I kept my cool in Spain when my taxi driver decided that the only way to rectify his
navigational error was to do a U-turn on the motorway and drive against the flow of traffic.Shanghai, however, scares the crap out of me.While the general standard of driving leaves something to be desired - traffic lights and road markings appear to be suggestions, not rules - it was a taxi ride from central Shanghai to
the circuit yesterday morning that led to my first grey hairs.We might joke that China doesn't care about Formula 1, thanks to the acres of empty grandstands seen on TV, but it's no joke. I've yet to find a taxi driver in this city who has heard of Formula 1, let alone knows how to find the circuit.Friday morning was a gem. The hotel organised a taxi for me,
and explained to the driver that I needed to get to the racetrack. Off he zoomed with enough confidence that I thought I'd finally found a man who knew where he was going.Lost in thought, I stared out the window at the passing city, finding myself charmed by the snapshots of daily life I could see taking place in the windows and side streets we passed. It was a good day to be alive, and a great way to see some of Shanghai.We pulled onto a motorway, and all looked promising. I assumed we were heading in the direction of the circuit, and - bereft of any more picturesque views - turned my attention to the in-cab television, which was showing all manner of film trailers I had no hope of understanding.Which is why it took me a moment to realise that we'd stopped moving. Not because of traffic, but because the driver had parked up in the outside lane and was in the process of getting out of the car. On a motorway, don't forget.Turns out my driver didn't know where he was going. At all. And for reasons known only to himself, he had decided that the best way to get to the Shanghai International Circuit was to flag down passing taxis until he found one who did know the way and was willing to lead us there...Image via crashedcars.wordpress.com
From the little I've seen of it so far, Shanghai looks to be pretty awesome.The circuit is impressively huge, as is everything in this country. You could land an Airbus A380 in the middle of the paddock and not break a sweat, while the media centre is so big that [insert famous sportsperson here] would be hard-pressed to throw a [insert relevant type of ball] from one end to the other.So far the only quibble I've got with China is the internet. I knew about the Great Firewall, and am not surprised that Twitter isn't an option (at least, not through any of the proxies I know and love), but I wasn't expecting that the network be SO. FREAKING. SLOW.And it makes no sense - I can access the creation element of my website, but I can't open pages to reply to comments. Google Reader opens, but crashes if you want to do anything daring like read an article.But at least I can access my site on occasion. Joe Saward's blog is completely blocked.I will put up a proper travel piece once I've actually seen something of Shanghai beyond the route from airport to hotel and then on to circuit, but online communication will be pretty challenging throughout the weekend.
One of the sadnesses of my life on the road is the way in which the modern world has become fairly identikit.
I worry that it's a form of cultural imperialism on my part, that I expect modernity in my own country yet expect foreign lands to be trapped in a nostalgic past. After all, the England I know and (sometimes) love is far removed from the traditional landscape of the novels of Hardy and Eliot, yet I expect a sense of otherness in the countries I visit on my travels.
But no matter. Modern Malaysia may feature too many McMansions for my tastes, but there's always something that reminds you you're not in Kansas any more.
Last night I had that moment in a taxi.
The driver had the radio turned up on full, and treated me to a range of Malay pop songs, jingles, and crazy adverts of the sort only found on local radio stations. The highlight? The one I shall henceforth refer to as the loud voice jingle.
Do you know someone who talks TOO LOUD?
Your friend may be hard of hearing, afraid that no one is listening to what they're saying, or have a NATURAL LOUD VOICE.
DO NOT WORRY, FOR HELP IS AT HAND!!!
Your friend can be trained out of it.
TELL THEM TO GET HELP!
Another item to add to the list of problems I didn't realise needed solutions, methinks...
With apologies to any Batman fans I may have offended. Comic books ain't my strong suit.
Sepang International Circuit isn't quite on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, although it's easy to access via car and public transport. But when it comes to KL, I've been there, done that, and bought the teeshirt, thanks to an extensive backpacking session back in my uni days.So when I made my travel arrangements for the Malaysian Grand Prix, I took advantage of the low hotel costs in Malaysia to book a room in a five-star hotel on the outskirts of Putrajaya, the country's administrative capital.Despite being a planned city, Putrayaja isn't the most logical of places to attempt to navigate. There are endless presints (precincts to you and I), but instead of being accessible via a grid system there's an awful lot of driving 10kms out of the way just to be able to cross the road.Last night, it took nearly an hour to drive to a restaurant. Getting home took less than ten minutes.But the bonus of these crazy diversions is the accidental tourism that results. I've seen the bridges, the river, and the mega mosque, plus an assortment of government buildings that looked like a cross between Bladerunner, Metropolis, and Gotham City.Being a rather shonky photographer, I didn't take any pictures myself. But the photo above gives a bit of a sense of this mad neon modernity.Architecture aside, Putrajaya makes me think of a Malaysian Milton Keynes. It's over-designed, filled with mini villages within a city, and you can drive around for hours without seeing a single pedestrian. In fact, the only life forms appear to be families of four riding on a single moped, without a solitary helmet between them.But once you eventually make your way to the occupied areas, there's something of a cafe culture to be found.I've made myself indispensable to those in the know, thanks to my ability to read menus in pretty much every country on the calendar. I may not speak the language, but I know the Malay words for all the major ingredients on the menu, and can help my fellow scribes find food more acceptable to the Western palate.Last night we ate like kings in a small roadside cafe. 'Street meat', as one of my colleagues christened it with a snigger. But for the princely sum of
£6, I was able to treat two colleagues to some of the best tandoori chicken I've ever eaten, roti canai (supposedly for breakfast but I love it whatever time of day), endless rounds of iced limau, and piles of nasi goreng.The contrast between the plastic seats of our roadside cafe and the Putrajaya
skyline was something else, topped only by the unmissable Tokyo experience of Shinjuku's yakitori alley.Image via viewfinderofmyeyes.blogspot.com.
Some things really shouldn't need saying to people over the age of about nine. This rant is a list of some of those things.
But every single one of them is something I witnessed - from the same group of three adults, no less - in the past 24 hours.
So, because it turns out these things might actually need saying, here is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to how to behave on an airplane.
- If you drop baggage from the overhead compartments onto the head of a fellow passenger, apologise. Even if the baggage was light, it's the principle. No one likes being smacked in the face with your duty free when they're trying to read the in-flight magazine.
- When bending over in the aisle, pressing your bum into the face of your fellow passengers, it's polite to hold onto your farts.
- When trying to attract the attention of the in-flight crew, you should press the button designed for expressly that purpose. Whistling, clapping, and shouting are uncouth and should be avoided.
- If you are trying to get your bag out from under the seat in front and have elected to perform this operation by standing on one leg and letting the other leg flay about wildly, apologise to anyone you happen to kick. Especially if you kick them in the face.
- If you spill your complimentary wine all over yourself during dinner, you should not start randomly snatching blankets off sleeping passengers in your immediate area. Instead, contact a member of the flight crew (using the button, as per rule 3), and ask for suitable cloths.
- When disembarking the airplane, do not block the aisle so that you can insert headphones and select a song on your iPod.
- When listening to any form of music player - or watching something on your laptop - it is considered polite to use headphones, not speakers.
- It is not acceptable to decide to climb across a row of sleeping strangers to get from one aisle to the other. There are handy passages throughout the plane to enable ease of movement between aisles. These passages are not laps.
That's my list of horrors from London-Dubai-Melbourne. What's the worst you've experienced on a plane?
I get that Ferrari aren't really in the position to run a car around Fiorano tomorrow. One look at the above photo (taken earlier today) is proof of that. But I don't get why they had to cancel the entire launch. Scrap the shakedown, but give the media a chance to ogle the car and grill the men and women involved in its conception.You might think it odd to write a travel blog about not actually going anywhere, but sometimes you don't need a destination to have a journey. And not in a self-help book voyage of inner discoveries way.
Sometimes you pack a bag, spend a night in the airport hotel
, make it through security, and find out in the departures lounge that the event you're going to has been cancelled.That's what happened to me this morning. Woke up, went to the North Terminal, and suffered the typically dehumanising experience that is going through airport security. I pootled around duty free, covered myself in a cologne I've fallen in love with but can't afford, and went to check on my gate. While waiting for the information to come up on the board, I had a quick flick through Twitter.Which is when I discovered that the Ferrari launch had been cancelled.But you can't trust a tweet when it comes to something official like that, can you? I mean, Ferrari surely would have emailed the accredited media to let them know their services were no longer required, right? And I'd not had any emails.Safe being better than sorry, I rang Maranello to check on the situation. The launch was definitely off.And so began the adventure of not actually going anywhere. I got escorted out of Gatwick Airport via all sorts of secret hallways usually closed to the public, and was taken to the passport control. Immigration asked where I'd been, and laughed when I replied 'departures'. Then they took me to the customs hall, where for some reason they made me go through the 'goods to declare' channel. But then no one talked to or searched me, so god only knows what all that was about.The oddest part of the entire escapade came when I got a phonecall from the receptionist at the Hotel Domus, where I'd booked to stay. Far better informed than I, he explained that the launch was off and asked if I wanted to
cancel my booking.Ferrari did eventually send a cancellation email, which arrived about an hour after I would have made it to Maranello.
I'm not being paid to write any of this, and I didn't get a free stay. In fact, my one night in the Gatwick Airport Yotel
- to be ready for the Ferrari launch that didn't happen - cost me sixty-two of your finest English pounds.So rest assured that this fulsome praise comes from the heart, and not from any commercial interest. Although if the Yotel folk decide they want to give me free accommodation in their New York branch during the US Grand Prix in New Jersey, I wouldn't say no. Just putting it out there...
First things first - the images I've used here come from the Yotel website, as the room was too dark for me to be able to take pictures. And too small - I couldn't get a decent shot of the bed cubby, even standing in the bathroom.It wasn't too dark to read a book, just generally low lit. If you were in the mood for getting romantic, there wouldn't be any need to dim the lights. But the small space means you'd have to be quite creative and/or flexible.The cramped quarters were annoying when I was trying to sort out my suitcase, but no so small that they caused any real difficulties.And now on to the positives. While not a double, the bed was spacious for a single. There was a flat-screen TV built into the wall at the end of the bed, and it came with all the Freeview channels your heart could desire.The shower was mega. The bigger rooms get monsoon showers, but whatever they put in the standard cabin was fine by me. Loads of hot water, decent water pressure. What more do you want, except a giant fluffy towel? Well, you get one of those too. I was impressed by the quality of the towel for the price - you wouldn't believe how many flannels with pretensions get passed off as towels.And the best bit? The lack of a window meant that I went to sleep in total darkness. As a result, I slept like a log and woke up feeling refreshed for the first time in god only knows how long. Other positives include the clever use of space and the ability to ignore all human life by using a credit card check-in kiosk. Space-saving misanthropy FTW!