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“You have an entire weekend to get yourself out there and find me some news stories and interviews with drivers,” said Editor Stan Szecowka as he signed my official accreditation Formula One document last week.
This was said out of hope rather than expectation, and so it proved as this supposed ‘professional journalist’ spent the next few days being anything but as he did just about everything except the job he was asked to do.
Extreme stalking of drivers? Check. Grabbing selfies instead of sizzling quotes? Check. Using the state-of-the-art media centre exclusively for the free hot chocolate on tap? Check. Standing in the background of British broadcaster’s cameras so I could get on TV and get my mates with Sky Sports to tune in? Check.
Despite the inevitable rollocking and the threat of a P45, was my going rogue worth it? Absolutely!
Having been a fan of Formula One since before I could even talk, the opportunity to wander around the paddock and meet the heroes I grew up idolising was a dream come true. Unlike some of the lucky few who are granted these precious green passes, I genuinely treat them like the gold-dust they are and make the most of the opportunity.
Even though this was my third year of covering this event, the ‘excited kid in a sweet shop’ feeling still hasn’t washed away, and, in fact, seems stronger than ever. There’s something surreal about seeing the drivers, team bosses and other public figures wandering around between the twinkling palm trees and mechanical paraphernalia.
Having seen them on television for years, you sometimes forget they’re just normal people just like you, and, for the majority, much smaller ones at that!
Activities kicked off last Wednesday with the welcome party, a merry evening of loud music, fine fare laid on by the culinary wizards of the Gulf Hotel Bahrain (Editor’s note: see my far more interesting article on P11) , and friendly chatter between pit crews and members of the media.
It was Friday where the hustle and bustle really kicked off, though. Arriving bright and early (as rare as a Sauber race victory), I headed straight to the paddock to see who I could find. It was still a couple of hours before the first Practice session, so I lied in wait on one of the benches between the hospitality lounges of ‘the big three’ – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – to see which driver I could nab first.
As a professional in the art after three years of perfecting it, you have to know that drivers walk across from the hospitality area to their pit garage anywhere between 30-45 minutes before the session is due to start. Then you need to get your angles for the ambush right, and be quick off the blocks to beat the other people lying in wait as they’ll only stop for one or two photos, and that’s if you’re lucky.
Sebastian Vettel was the first name ticked off the list, looking positively thrilled to see me! If positively thrilled is looking like you’re chewing a wasp while finding out your cat has died.
The eminently more smiley Valtteri Bottas and the Red Bull drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, stopped for pictures and had a brief chat, while Fernando Alonso slowed to a crawl to allow me alongside him for a pic.
The less said about Kimi Raikkonen’s enthusiasm to pose with fans, the better.
There was still the big fat jewel in the crown waiting, though. Lewis Hamilton, my favourite driver and world champion. The one man who somehow summons an entire army of photographers out of thin air every time he steps out into the open, plus a number of fans wanting a picture.
This take by far the most advanced level of ambushing skills, and my first two attempts were a failure. First time around, before Practice, he used a metal scooter to whizz across the paddock into his garage. The official reasoning might be him enjoying himself, although the sceptic would suggest it was a sure way to zoom past me.
Second time, after the night Practice session, I was on the cusp of a photograph until I was thwarted by the Mercedes team press officer, who nipped in to get a word from Lewis just as he was getting to me. At least he gave me a thumbs up and a ‘sorry dude’, though.
My bad luck would turn out to be a four leaf clover, little did my fuming self know at the time!
That night, I watched the superb Carlos Santana perform a plethora of hits as he lit up the stage at the BIC. Surrounded by a hefty complement of musicians, including three drummers, two singers, percussionists and extra guitarists, the maestro had the audience in the palm of his hand as he shredded his way through a long two-hour set featuring hits such as the iconic Black Magic Woman.
After a tip-off from my friend Imran Ali, marketing manager of Al Haddad Motors, I was told that Hamilton and Bottas were taking part in an exclusive autograph session at the Mercedes stand in the vending area. Whilst I couldn’t join the queue, I could watch from the sides, just a few feet away from them.
With my mind constantly focused on the next opportunity, as soon as the drivers were ushered out of the back entrance, I ran as fast as I could under the paddock tunnel and through the paddock to the far end, which is where I knew they would emerge.
Sure enough, 30 seconds later Hamilton appeared, unflanked by any other chancers, and I grabbed my opportunity with both hands. I snapped a quick selfie, and wished him luck for the race. A firm handshake and a ‘thanks man, appreciate it’ later, and it was done. Hours and hours of waiting around in the paddock for five seconds!
The picture itself was decent, not as good as my first one with him two years ago, but things were about to change drastically. A few hours later, I got a call from Editor Stan, who had been informed by an ex-colleague who was trawling the newswires that his young reporter’s photograph was making the rounds across international news agencies.
It turns out that an official F1 photographer had taken a picture of me taking my own picture with Hamilton, and it had been picked up by Reuters! Not only did it appear on their international media, but best of all, the picture appeared on the Formula One official website under its ‘best photos of the day’ tab, captioned ‘Lewis Hamilton stops to meet a fan at the Bahrain Grand Prix’.
I was part flabbergasted, part nervous and definitely going fully mental, sending the screenshot to almost everyone I knew. I’d gone viral! Even Stan had to laugh in disbelief, my fanboy personality had brought more exposure to GulfWeekly than 10 years of snippet interviews or quotes could ever have achieved!
I thought it would be impossible to top that, but Sunday brought even more surprises. Firstly, the friendly folk at AMA Motors, in particular general manager Simon Keen, invited us into their corporate lounge to watch the start of the race from above the grandstand, while Imran once again out did himself by securing me a pass to watch the race from inside the Mercedes pit garage, right behind where Hamilton’s car is assembled.
What an experience this was, seeing the team directors and mechanics barely a few metres in front of me, hearing their every order and discussion with Hamilton and Bottas over the headphones. Definitely a unique opportunity that I cherished.
The fun wasn’t quite over yet, though. Luckily, I was wearing a red T-shirt, so when Vettel crossed the line I milled in with the Ferrari mechanics steaming towards the podium. When Vettel pulled in and celebrated by jumping off his car and into the crowd to hug his mechanics, I was right there with him and managed to pat him on the helmet. Of course, the TV cameras picked it up and I later checked my phone to see various members of my friends and family sending me screenshots of me on the telly … again!
This was simply an incredible weekend where I achieved pretty much all of my dreams. I keep promising myself that this year will be the last where I’ll act like an awe-inspired fan and not a professional journalist; even more so sitting here today possibly wondering how I can top this.
Ah, who am I kidding? That’s going to go straight out the window next year as soon as I get a sniff of that paddock pass.