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Rachel’s Diary: Tension in the pen

Rachel’s Diary: Tension in the pen
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As I write this, I have Nico Rosberg to my left with some of his Mercedes team sitting in the airport lounge. We are waiting for the flight home from Mexico. News has reached us of Sebastian Vettel’s penalty for his move on Daniel Ricciardo and much debate has ensued. Just around the corner sits Charlie Whiting, fresh from Sebastian Vettel’s expletive laden radio broadcast in the final laps. So for this diary I will begin with what happened in Mexico as it is fresh in the mind and still making newspaper headlines.

When Nico entered the lounge he saw a group of us, all Sportsclubsociety F1, sitting together in a corner and instead of just saying hi, and making his way to another area of seating, he stopped and chatted. This is the Nico I wish the world could see more of, and maybe we are getting that glimpse now through his social media activity. He chatted about Vettel’s penalty and about the race and we laughed about a couple of things before he did eventually make his way to his Mercedes team-mates just across from us.

He was relaxed and smiling, and why not in his position? However, because of my interview with him a few hours earlier, some on social media will be amazed he spoke to me at all. After the race, Nico came into the interview pen and when it was my time to interview him, behind me on a screen the race was being replayed. I started my first question and he looked over my shoulder at the screen. I turned to see what he was watching and it was the start of the race from the helicopter, an aerial view. As you may have seen on Sky F1, the exchange went as follows 

Nico: “How does he get away with that?” to which I replied…

Me: “You’re watching the start, you’re watching Lewis go off the grass, do you think he should have got a penalty?”

Nico: “Definitely not…Please do not put words into my mouth that was not very fair of you”

Me: “Then who got away with what then at the start there?”

Nico: “So, first of all Lewis did a better job this weekend and since you did put words in my mouth, I will tag on to where you left which is that he went into the corner first came out first so you know, that’s ok.”

Nico then went on to talk about the race and his clash with Max but I never did find out who he thought got away with what at the start!

Sebastian thought he had got away with his move on Daniel Ricciardo, having been called to the podium in place of Max Verstappen, only to have a ten-second time penalty added post race, and a passing on of the third-place trophy around the back of the paddock hospitality units.

Prior to the penalty I interviewed him in the pen. Due to the way he conducts his interviews, you never know how many questions you will get to ask. Some days, his PR, Britte, tells you you can only have one question, other days you will get two, but very rarely will you ever get the three questions every other driver on the grid, except Kimi, allows TV rights holders. As a result you have to cover off everything you need to ask in the first two questions so there is little time for niceties or congratulations. He was involved in two big talking points on Sunday, his clash with Max and then Daniel, and his swearing at the Race Director.

My first question was in regard to Daniel and Max’s comments where I gave him the opportunity to give his point of view. After that I asked him if he would be surprised to hear of a possible charge of bringing the sport into disrepute for his comments to Charlie Whiting. He responded by saying “I don’t understand why you are making a fuss and why you are asking the question, for sure it’s not the right thing to say, equally in my defence emotions and adrenaline is pumping high so I don’t understand why you trying to push me in a corner and make me answer something you try to make another loop. Out of respect I went to him and told him what I did, I think he’s aware and that’s it”.

As he had walked up to me in the pen I had been told in my ear that we had been advised by the FIA that they were looking at whether his comments had brought the sport into disrepute. Therefore my job was to put that scenario to him. To be fair to Sebastian he did not know that my information had come from the FIA directly and as far as I know we were the only ones at that time who knew this, so his suspicion towards the question is perhaps understandable. Now that he knows that I was asking based on information and not supposition, maybe his response would have been different.

Many of you have sent messages commenting on his behaviour in that interview and I appreciate all of them, from both sides of the argument. One thing I don’t do is hold it against a driver when he is difficult, or in rare cases, rude with his answers. They have just been driving at 200mph for up to two hours and under intense pressure. Any number of things could have happened in the race that we are aware of and completely unaware of, as well as other unseen pressures, so I never judge on that three minutes or so post race. Their adrenaline is pumping and as Sebastian said, emotions are running high. As I have mentioned with Nico Rosberg before, I do sometimes wonder if they realise though in that moment, that their every word and action is being caught on camera and will doubtless be uploaded onto the Internet to be replayed endlessly.

One man who seems to be free of pressure right now is Nico Hulkenberg. Having signed a contract with Renault for next year he seems to be performing better than ever, and that is where my Texas Mexico back to back trip began.

I had been talking to the Force India press officer about a shoot with Nico Hulkenberg for the Texas race week and he had agreed to let us have some time with him on the Wednesday before the race. As it was away from the paddock I needed to come up with something a bit more interesting for him than a sit-down interview with a pretty backdrop. So I decided to turn him into a cowboy. Or at least try.

We picked Nico up from his hotel and took him to the largest cowboy boot store in the world, ‘Allens boots’. We wanted to kit him out in authentic Texan gear before taking him to learn how to ‘rope’. The shop was amazing and once sales assistant Ryan started showing us around he really got into it. First job was to get him some jeans. He had arrived in typical F1 racing driver clothes of shorts and team kit shirt with trainers. He then went straight to the hats and began trying them on. I assumed cowboy hats were just Stetsons, but there are actually lots of different types and he picked out one they call the “LBJ”, after President Lyndon B Johnson, who wore the style a lot.

Then he went for the boots. Not just any boots but the most expensive in the store. Mild panic rising in me, I luckily managed to steer him towards a more acceptable price range. We chatted in store about his move to Renault and that elusive first podium and then it was on to the nearby park to meet a real cowboy, Steve.

Steve is a Roping Champion. I have always called it lassoing, but the actual term is “roping” in Texas. He taught ‘Cowboy Nico’ how to hold the rope, swing it around his head and how to then let go and catch the “steer”, the fake bull, by the horns. It’s always good to get the drivers out of their usual comfort zone and doing something different. It’s more fun for all concerned and reveals more of their personality than just an interview. He actually seemed to enjoy it too. What else would he be doing on Wednesday morning in Texas?

On Thursday I sat in on the Drivers’ press conference, as usual, only this time it was packed. It was the first one since Japan where Lewis had cancelled his written press interviews and lots of the journalists who had been there had turned up to this. They usually watch on TV in the media centre but now they were here in person and it was a packed room. I think the last time a press conference was this full was in Spain when Daniel Kvyat and Max Verstappen had swapped seats. Some of them even asked questions this time too.

Texas is always a race we look forward to, even with the torrential rain of last year, and this year we had an extra reason to be excited. The circuit organisers had hired Taylor Swift to perform on the Saturday night. Of all the acts that have ever performed at an F1 event, including Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue, no one has generated quite as much anticipation in the paddock. It was the talk of the weekend. Are you going to Taylor Swift? I ended up going with Ted, who you will know if you watch the Notebook, is a big fan. I knew some of her songs, but wouldn’t class myself as a huge fan, however a friend had told me she was a great live performer, and with free entry with a paddock pass it seemed silly not to go. We lost the rest of our gang amongst the 80,000 strong crowd but it didn’t matter. She was a fantastic performer and the acoustics were incredible considering it was an outdoor concert.

On Sunday night I went for dinner with Johnny and Damon before joining some of the girls from the paddock in Pete’s Piano bar. Mercedes had hired out the upstairs area again, as they had last year, for their constructors championship celebrations. The bar was full of people from the paddock enjoying the live music and once again Nico got up on stage to sing. This time Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein joined him, but unfortunately for Nico, they knew even less words to Living on a Prayer than he did.

We moved on to Mexico a couple of days later and for all of Austin’s fun and entertainment, Mexico City is alive in a different way. The city is so colourful and vibrant, you can’t help but get caught up in it. Everywhere you look is a picture or a story, which helps when you get stuck in traffic for hours! As we made our way through the streets to our hotel, out of the window I saw police with riot shields calmly walking along the pavement. Such is the level of security during F1 race week, it is common for the entire route to be lined with police. On our way to the track they were every 50m, standing on the central reservation of the dual carriageway.

Both last year and this, the Mexican Grand Prix weekend has coincided with the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead holiday in Mexico. It’s for prayer and remembrance of those who have passed and can involve honouring the deceased with sugar skulls, marigolds and the favourite food and drink of the departed. It has always been a much celebrated holiday in Mexico but this year they began a new tradition.

On the Saturday they held a Dia de los Muertos parade. It follows on from the film Spectre, where they held a fake parade for the opening sequence. The Mexican tourism board thought tourists would now come expecting to see one so a new tradition has begun. The whole city gets involved and the costumes and face paintings are phenomenal. It has to be seen to be believed and should be one for the bucket list.

On Friday evening I was presenting the F1 Show when Bernie Ecclestone walked through the paddock. He was celebrating his 86th birthday and Red Bull had given him a cake. As he walked past our show he joined us live on air for a moment. If you saw the show you’ll know by now the two things he has learned in those 86 years! May he always be as mischievous!

Many things stand out from the Mexico Grand Prix but I wanted to mention something Ted commented on during our coverage. One of the greatest privileges in my job is to be able to walk up and down the pit lane as the cars go out to the grid for the race and be in that environment moments before the lights go out. Overlooking the pitlane are the “expensive seats”, usually the Paddock Club. I very rarely hear anything from those on the balconies, but in Mexico they were fantastic. Every driver had their name called out as they rushed to use the toilets before the race, and they all waved back. The joy and passion shown by those fans sticks in my mind because we see those in the stadium section, we see those in the grandstands and we know they will be cheering and screaming. But it was so lovely to see that from above the pit lane too.

My Mexico week was probably one of the toughest I have had since starting this job, and it was nothing to do with the race or the interviews. I have been fortunate that in my five years doing this job, I have never had an emergency at home while I have been away. I came back to one once, but I was home by then. This time, the Monday morning after the Texas race, I received the news that someone close was ill. Your every instinct when that happens is to get home as quickly as possible and that was the option given to me by Sky. However, the person concerned wasn’t in the UK but abroad and as a result I was actually in a better time zone to be able to help than if I returned to the UK. I agonised over whether to stay out or not while trying to help as much as possible, but in the end felt more useful where I was.

As Simon had flown home for the birth of his second child, I had a busier week than usual which actually helped take my mind off things too. So when I watched Lewis and Nico lift Leppy (Mercedes AMGF1 Spares Co-ordinator) onto their shoulders on the podium as he celebrated his final race weekend on the road, I took my hat off to him. He has done 17 years on the road with Formula One and now will be factory based. In that time all sorts of things must have happened in his life. I cannot imagine doing this amount of travelling for that long but he is not alone in the paddock. Some have done even longer. It is an incredible sacrifice that you only appreciate when you are part of it.

So to Leppy, and each and every one of the guys and girls that spend so much time away from loved ones, I salute you.

RB

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