- Force India [Copyright: Darshan Chokhani]

Return to F1 paddock: My weekend behind the scenes in Abu Dhabi GP

November 23, 2014. That was my last time in a Formula 1 paddock, attending the race as a media reporter. Fast forward to November 23, 2017, it was the moment for an emotional return to the picturesque Yas Marina Circuit for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Between 2014 and 2017, the two years was spent in trying to find an opportunistic moment in a hugely competitive field - but it wasn’t to come.

For those who don’t know, I was working with Motorsport Network’s Motorsport.com until March early this year. I must admit the time after it hasn't been easy, especially mentally, but the focus was always there to make an impactful return.

The struggle was usual of finding the right thing to do and carve a way for yourself in the world of motorsport. In fact, a story like mine, you’ll hear from many in this side of the business. What unites us though, is the love and passion for racing.

So, after some bits of running around, the application was finally made for FIA Accreditation, just few days before it was to be closed. It was then a long wait for the confirmation to come from the FIA, which only arrived on the Tuesday of the race weekend at 2AM (Indian time), while I was to fly out on Wednesday morning - talk about cutting it close!

But it was a surprising and very commendable job from the FIA on-ground. When I went and ‘hello’ed’ a representative, he was sincerely apologetic about the delay. We do give the FIA a hard time always, but this moment changes one's perception in some ways. It did for me, at least.

Anyways, for us, it is the Thursday when all the weekend action begins. Coming back to the emotional return part, it was a real adrenaline rush to actually be in the paddock itself - a place I had previously only been able to glimpse on the TV for the last two years, at least.

Paddock from the back, from the front it was Mercedes first and Sauber last [Copyright: Darshan Chokhani]

By the time you find a place and get settled, the interviews outside/inside the various hospitality area already starting – the first in Abu Dhabi was Force India’s Sergio Perez. It is then one after another along with the drivers’ press conference. For me, personally, it was more of work since I had a scheduled a one on one with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, right after he was finished with the press conference.

You may ask, how did I get it? Well, it is more about troubling the press officers with mails and fighting over those crucial five or ten minutes of their quality time. Considering, it was my first time with him, I feel it went fairly okay – more so, we finished on time, much to the delight of the PR and also the driver.

Immediately following that was my time with Haas’ team principal Guenther Steiner – again a first for me – but this one was quite amusing to say the least.

Normally, you’ll think, they will be stricter and to the point (which is the case with few), but then Steiner was pretty relaxed and even ‘challenged’ me, throwing a question forward: ‘Why do you think Haas cannot win races/championships in the future, I challenge you, come on?’ – naturally, you don’t expect this, but it was all part of a healthy conversation.

In addition, to complete a fruitful interview, he more or less gave away a ‘breaking news’ (well, kind of) on retaining Haas development drivers Arjun Maini and Santino Ferrucci for 2018. Although, the official confirmation will only come next year.

The highlight of the day was my interview with F1’s connectivity partner Tata Communications’ Mehul Kapadia, who obliged with a meet in the Paddock Club. What came next was a prized tour of the F1 Communications hub situated just outside the paddock gate. It was prized because usually the media is not given access to places like that. In recent times, only Sky Sports F1 got a visit to shoot its pre-race special. And so, you feel privileged in getting one – and it becomes even more special after you see how it all goes about.

I must admit, it is a massive effort behind the scenes by these people to bring us what we see on TV, social media channels like Youtube and also the F1’s official website. You have dedicated people for the various tasks and they are always flat-out doing their work during the whole weekend. The next time, you have a glitch or an issue – be clear, the people sitting there are as much frustrated as we are.

The F1 Communications center [Copyright: Darshan Chokhani]

It was then a pretty simple Friday, Saturday and Sunday process for everyone. The teams have media sessions for TV and written (whether English or native language) at the end of the day. For some, there’s still one on one scheduled, like I had with Toro Rosso’s new recruit Brendon Hartley on the Sunday afternoon of the race. The Kiwi was friendly in giving me apt answers to the questions I put forward.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, F1's tyre suppliers Pirelli also revealed its 2018 tyre line-up with the introduction of blue-coloured 'Super Hard' and pink-coloured 'Hyper Soft', in order to make race strategies more interesting in the coming years.

2018 tyre range [Copyright: Darshan Chokhani]

In the lead up to the race, I also squeezed in some time to interview Channel 4’s pundit/commentator Karun Chandhok – being an Indian, you just cannot leave without speaking to your native! The day also had a big ‘embargoed’ news with regards to F1’s brand new logo. In layman terms, an embargoed story is the one given to you confidentially, which is not to be shared until the time specified.

I think, my opinion on the logo shall be left out for another time. With regards to taking in the ‘confidential’ news? I think, I have had a fair share to deal with, thanks to the Motorsport.com work experience. So, it wasn’t overly huge to deal with. It just gave us all a good head start to be ready with it. This moment also showed how well-oiled the F1 media-circus works and how much everyone respects the timelines given.

Moving towards the on-track part, the race was termed more towards being ‘bland’, which I won’t disagree with. It had its share of moments and by the looks of it - and no offence to Valtteri Bottas’ calibre - but it more edged towards Lewis Hamilton not pressuring enough. Having said that, there’s no doubt Bottas deserved the win and the Top 3 in the championship completed the season fittingly on the podium, before the new logo was revealed to the world. It was also apt for Williams’ Felipe Massa to end his long-standing F1 career in points.

The Top three drivers from the race [Copyright: Darshan Chokhani]

In other news, the weekend also saw F1 crown its inaugural eSports Series champion after thoroughly entertaining races, which left the media room in pieces, especially the reaction from the winner Brendon Leigh. The eSports Series was something we wouldn’t have seen happening in the Bernie Ecclestone-era, which actually reminded us that the Chase Carey-led Liberty Media completed one year at the helm. A collective answer from the paddock seems, they still have a long road ahead of them.

Chase Carey [Copyright: Darshan Chokhani]

I thought my journey would end on the Sunday. But not to be, as I took upon the chance to attend Day 1 of the post-season test in Abu Dhabi. It is anyways difficult to attend a grand prix and so in that respect, an official test is all the more challenging. I feel, it was the best decision for me to stay back and follow the test, with a certain Robert Kubica driving.

The good thing about attending a test is the rules from the F1 weekend are fairly eased up, with even writers allowed to watch the action from trackside. For the first time, I only went till the final corner and to my luck, I spotted Williams chief Paddy Lowe watching Kubica from close quarters on his first long run. In my longer run in the evening, I walked all the way from the final corner until the support paddock – which means walking from Turn 21 until Turn 10.

Was it tiring? It was, I’ll admit to it. But watching from trackside is so-so different from what we see on TV. It is only then you understand what the drivers mean about taking a corner or where they missed bits on the track. It also gave me the opportunity to understand how different drivers approach one corner or the track in different way.

To my luck, while walking under the Yas Viceroy hotel, I saw the spinning Toro Rosso of Sean Gelael. Plus, on my approach to the support pits, I also managed to see Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso doing their practice start - with no TV in the media center, it was blessing in disguise to be able to see it first hand.

For me, the best part of the test was listening Kubica. It was an eye-opener looking at his injured hand from close quarters. One could literally see that there’s not much flesh on it, which certainly makes you think that ‘how the hell’ is he able to drive a F1 car? And that too a 2017 car? To me, whether he gets the seat or not, there’s no denying that he has earned everyone’s respect and showed that if you are determined, you’ll get there eventually – no matter how much struggle you have to endure.

Robert Kubica speaking to the media [Copyright: Darshan Chokhani]

Finally, to cap off my journey, I spent some quality time with India’s upcoming racer Maini in the Trident pits in the support paddock - where he was getting ready for the FIA Formula 2 Championship test. It was indeed enriching to speak up at length and know more about the person behind the camera, so that we can bring you the real self and not a PR-trained animal.

Looks like, this went longer than expected, but words are always not enough to express whatever is in the mind. For me personally, even if I have spoken to people in private about the real feelings, this is perhaps a rare ‘column’ from my end talking at length about my professional, as well as personal life.

It was certainly a huge experience, building on from the last two years gained through my former colleagues – with whom I did manage to meet finally in Abu Dhabi. It was also the case of catching up with several people, whom you are unable to meet normally, whether it is media or PR or drivers or mechanics….or anyone. It is what I call, my ‘motorsport family’.

The weekend was also not possible without DriveTribe, which came to my rescue at a time when I was at a low point in my career. It gave me the platform, whether knowingly or unknowingly to continue writing on topics I have always wanted to. One of the founders James May traveled to Abu Dhabi for the race, even though I couldn’t say a ‘thank you’ in person….well, here I do to him, as well as the whole community. Also, to my partner of sorts, Duurt Dijkman of @MsportExtra for sharing all of my stuff from the weekend.

The 2017 season is over and the year will be over soon too. For me, this just might be the start of a new adventure, or an end of a chapter. Who knows what 2018 will bring, but….I will tread along silently, doing what I can do, and as much as I can do. I am not perfect, but always striving to be one! Thank you!

[Image courtesy: Darshan Chokhani] #F1 #Media #Motorsport #Formula1 #AbuDhabiGP #AbuDhabi

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