Monday, March 18, 2013

Autograph Hunting Outside The Paddock: Part 2

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, this year at the Australian Grand Prix I took the opportunity to try and meet some of my favourite Formula 1 celebrities at the exit of the Melbourne paddock. After discovering an area that most fans weren't even aware of and befriending a group of autograph-hunting enthusiasts, one who looked like Heinz Harald Frentzen, I was fortunate enough to meet and greet some of the paddock's big names. Still, after almost an hour of autograph hunting, I couldn't help but wonder if I would ever catch a glimpse of Ferrari race drivers Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.

I asked 'Frentzen' about the big name drivers and he replied that it was unlikely that we would get a glimpse of them in our present area. "Cars drive them right up to the paddock gates." He explained "Right in front of the autograph stands. Sometimes they stop to sign things, other times they just walk straight in. In any case, you don't want to go there because it is a mad house when somebody famous turns up." I was slightly disappointed  "What about on this side of the road, can we stand right in front of the gates?" 'Frentzen' shook his head "They'll never let you stand there, not a hope."

I'll admit that initially I was discouraged from the area that seemed even more impossible to get in to than the spot that I was already in, but as the minutes wore on, 'Frentzen's' words of warning morphed into more of a challenge or dare. I decided to spend a little more time where I was for the moment, after all if it ain't broke, why fix it?

My persistence paid off almost immediately as Sebastien Buemi walked by us and Lotus team principal, Eric Boullier followed soon after. He was looking as smug as ever and I couldn't help but chuckle at the weird photo that I ended up taking of him. It was a close-up of Boullier's signature expression and all of the guys thought that it was hysterical when I showed them.

"Who do you want to see the most?" I inquired during a brief pause between celebrities. "I wanted to see Damon." one of the guys replied in a dejected tone. "I don't think that he wanted to see us though." The third  member of the gang started laughing "Heinz Harald here wanted to see Jenson!" I had mentioned the Frentzen resemblance earlier. "Oooooh Jenson...friend! Jenson Button friend....Jenson...friend!" The group exclaimed, copying an scene from one of my favourite cult British shows "The Inbetweeners". We all laughed uncontrollably, these nerds were awesome!

"Is that Fernando?" 'Frentzen' remarked, gesturing up the road. In the distance I saw two figures cloaked in red and indeed one of them bore a strong resemblance to Fernando Alonso. I began to get excited and nervous, I never thought that one of Formula 1's biggest stars would simply stroll up to the paddock minus a massive entourage and fanfare. In his modest state, Alonso looked almost mortal. Only his fantastically groomed eyebrows appeared to be super-human. All of the autograph hunters retreated "We're going to leave him alone." one of them explained "I don't want to get on his bad side."

I took a deep breath and approached the Ferrari driver, after all what was the worst that he could do? "Fernando" I asked politely "Can I take your picture please?" He looked me up and down with a puzzled expression as though he was trying to figure out who I was, what I was doing there and if my level of fanaticism could compromise his safety. After a moment he agreed, adding "Just one." He seemed very preoccupied and not in an especially talkative mood. Still, he obliged me before disappearing into the paddock, presumably without greeting the masses of fans who had turned up just to see him. I didn't hold it against him though, as I said yesterday, being a Formula 1 driver means you get hounded everywhere you go, even when having dinner with your family. After a while I can see how that level of exposure would grate on your nerves.

After my brush with Fernando Alonso I decided that it couldn't possibly get any better, I had heard rumors that Stefano Domenicali was already in the paddock and now most of the drivers and team personnel had joined him on the other side of its secure gates. I bid farewell to my companions, who had been a great source of information and entertainment, and began to walk towards to zebra crossing that would take me back to reality.

When I reached the crossing I noticed that lots of media were still lurking by the paddock gates and a man wearing a Ferrari team uniform stood nearby paying close attention to the road. 'Frentzen' had warned me not to even approach this area but I figured that at this point I had nothing to lose and strode up to the man in the Ferrari uniform "Are you waiting for Felipe?" I asked in Italian. The man turned around, shocked to hear his own language. "You're Italian!" "No" I explained. "Sono Canadese." He smiled and then looked a bit confused. "If you're Canadian, how do you speak Italian and why are you here?!" He had so many questions "Your Italian is amazing!" he beamed. We talked politely for several minutes, looking on in amusement as Nico Rosberg arrived and was mauled by journalists, before he revealed that he was indeed waiting for Felipe and his entourage.

Before I knew what was happening, a Ferrari pulled up and my new companion sprung into action. As the door swung upon, a thin figure with a large nose stepped out. It was Nicolas Todt, son of Jean Todt and Felipe Massa's manager. Nicolas surveyed the area with scrutiny before greeting the man in Ferrari uniform. Soon afterwards, a short middle-aged man stepped out. It was Felipe Massa's father, Luiz Antonio Massa and he seemed to be in good spirits. Finally, out came Felipe Massa himself, grinning and waving, the Brazilian was ready to face his public. I was in complete and utter awe, you wouldn't think it to see him on the television, but Felipe has an almost magnetic quality about him.

"We are leaving now." My Ferrari friend explained "I understand, good luck for the coming year." was my reply. "Ciao Grazie!" He exclaimed waving at me before disappearing with Felipe into the daunting swarm of cameras and screaming fans. It was complete and utter insanity.

Almost instantly a yellow-clad security guard was in front of me. Without my Ferrari entourage, I was a sitting duck. I smiled in acknowledgement, the time had come for me to leave. As I walked back towards the zebra crossing, I glanced over my shoulder. Felipe was surrounded; signing pieces of paper, shaking hands and answering questions. From a distance he looked like a modern-day warrior, except instead of deflecting enemy fire, he was fending off his adoring public.

The time for photographs was over but I was satisfied, I didn't need any more pictures. Funnily enough, of all of the interactions that I had this weekend, the ones that I will remember most fondly were the moments that I spent laughing with my gang of autograph nerds and the brief time that I spent speaking to my new Ferrari friend.

In my opinion, these are the experiences that are worth waiting for. After all, an autograph can be bought, but memories are priceless.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Autograph Hunting Outside The Paddock: Part 1

Normally I'm not one for autograph hunting. There are only a few members of the Formula 1 circus who truly leave me stumped for words and most of the time I value the opportunity to spend a few moments chatting to such people way more than a name on a piece of paper or trinket. Still, when I had a few spare moments on Saturday morning, I decided to head over to the exit of the Melbourne paddock to see what all of the fuss was about.

As I explained on Thursday, The Australian Grand Prix has a purpose built autograph stage where fans can get up close to their idols for a split second and have an item of their choosing signed. While I think that this is a wonderful idea in concept, in practice the whole thing is very mechanical in the sense that the drivers really do not seem to want to interact with the various fans shoving random items in front of them to be signed. Although the autograph stage did net me a few amazing photographs of Romain Grosjean and eventual Australian Grand Prix winner, Kimi Raikkonen, the experience felt hollow and I longed for something more substantial and maybe even a bit of an adventure.

It was with this sense of adventure and perhaps a little tifosa mischief that I headed to the purpose built autograph area directly opposite the paddock. As soon as I arrived I decided that it was a fairly nice arrangement for fans. Not only was there an area for standing, there was also a mini-grandstand especially designed for photographs. The crowd also seemed fairly civil compared to the crush of red that is present outside the paddock at the notoriously intense Italian Grand Prix. "Yes", I told myself "This is definitely a good place to spot Formula 1's elite."

I made myself comfortable high up in the grandstand overlooking the area, standing directly next to a lady dressed in red and her Ferrari-outfitted children. They looked quite hardcore and I decided that the best thing to do would be to position myself near other tifosi who might act as early warning devices should I miss someone coming out from behind the guarded gates. Almost as soon as I had dropped my rucksack on the floor, I spotted Niki Lauda emerge in what looked like his Parmalat hat. (Surely it wasn't Parmalat, but it looked pretty worn out and was bright red.) and started to snap photos furiously. "Who is that?" the lady in red asked curiously. "It's Niki Lauda." I replied. "A former Formula 1 driver, now he's a presenter." The woman seemed confused for a moment and then smiled "Oh well, I don't really know many faces, just the Ferrari team, that's all."  Clearly she wasn't the person to be standing next to, she probably couldn't even pick her Stefano Domenicalis from her Rob Smedleys.

As I shook my head and smirked a little to myself I noticed something very interesting. As Niki was walking along the path that lead to the car park, several plain-outfitted people stopped him and asked for his autograph. Clearly they were not members of the Paddock Club and yet somehow they were on the desired side of the road. I decided to investigate, the autograph area would always be there and the spot across the road looked decidedly better.

Yellow-vested security guards paced in front of the zebra crossing that stood between me and the other side and piles of fans crowded in front of it. Clearly this was some kind of boundary and yet the guards were not checking the tickets of the few who strode confidently across it. I decided to try my luck and put on my reflective aviator sunglasses. I look more aloof in them for some reason and they gave me what was probably a false sense of comfort. It reminded me of that scene from The Neverending Story where Atreyu has to run by those giant statues with the eyes that shoot lasers out of them. If you've never seen The Neverending Story...shame on you. I approached the guards and they twitched a bit but I remained focused and walked with purpose all the way to the other side. I was victorious and couldn't help but grin with pride.

Once in what I had mentally labelled as 'The Danger Zone', I made my way to where the people had asked for Niki's autograph to find a small group of young men crowded around a tree toting bags of pictures and memorabilia. "Do you guys have a store or something?" I asked one of them who looked disturbingly like Heinz Harald Frentzen. "No" He replied with a grin "I have a bit of a collection." It turned out that these guys were not greedy autograph sellers but in fact genuine autograph-hunting nerds and Formula 1 fans who made my passion look positively tame.

"Look, there's Damon!" one of them exclaimed as they rushed over to 1996 World Champion, Damon Hill. Damon had a scowl on his face "No autographs!" he said sharply and hurried by. I felt bad for one of the guys in particular who had a 1996 Williams FW18 model with Jacques Villeneuve's signature on it, he said he just needed Damon's signature to complete his collection. When Damon passed by me, I asked politely for a photograph and he obliged, even managing a smile. I was pleased but couldn't help but wonder why he had been so harsh to my new companions. "He thinks we're Ebay autograph sellers." 'Frentzen' explained. "The Ebay people hang out up there" He gestured towards the car park. "They're very intrusive and aggressive, they even use little children to get their autographs for's a real business. They had Alan Jones trapped out there signing things for ages the other day." I gasped in surprise  perhaps it was a bit naive of me to think that all autograph hunters are as polite as I am, but still, 'Frentzen's' description made the Paddock exit seem like a Brazilian slum-town, packed with beggar children trying to pick your pocket. No wonder the drivers sometimes refuse to sign anything, it must get rather tedious after awhile.

While waiting with the guys we all got to talking and shared our tales of various brushes with Formula 1 celebrities and stories of events that we have attended over the years. I boasted about Monza and my meeting with Stefano Domenicali and one of the guys told me about one of his favorite drivers, last year's GP2 Champion Davide Valsecchi. Apparently Davide had told them that he had already signed a race seat contract with Lotus for 2012 when at the last second one of the team's sponsors insisted upon a French driver. Romain Grosjean thus claimed the seat over Italian Valsecchi and now it looks unlikely that Davide will ever secure a race seat of his own.

All of a sudden mid-story the guys all began to shuffle through their bags and I soon saw why. Williams driver, Valtteri Bottas was approaching with his entourage. The Finnish star was extremely friendly and posed for several photographs, beaming widely. He seemed to be incredibly relaxed and took the time for all of us. I already thought quite highly of his ability and his personality, but after meeting him and his equally lovely girlfriend, Emilia I have to say that my opinion of him has only gone up. He is a genuine guy, with a substantial amount talent, it was really nice to see.

Another rising star who I had the opportunity to meet and speak with was Ferrari Driver Academy member, Jules Bianchi. The young French Marussia driver seemed almost shy when I approached him for a photograph and blushed with a big smile when I mentioned that if he played his cards right he would drive for Ferrari one day. He was a very humble man who has a possibly big future ahead of him.

Equally a joy to meet were McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh and former Formula 1 driver, David Coulthard. Both gave me a bit of their time and where happy to chat for a brief moment.

A humorous interaction came when I noticed Australian Formula 1 presenter, Greg Rust while I was chatting with Alan Jones, who struggled to figure out his very modern phone. Greg tried to slip by unnoticed to which I exclaimed "I know you!" he started to chuckle and told me not to bother with him and concentrate on the important people instead. He was truly down to earth, which is contrary to the way that he seems on television.

After a seemingly endless parade of familiar faces passed by,  a flash of red polo shirts alerted me to the presence of Ferrari team members. With them came test driver, Marc Gene, who looked as though he was in a hurry.

After getting a decent picture of Marc, the Ferrari celebrities began to flood in. There was Pedro de la Rosa, who happily smiled and greeted me, Rob Smedley, who seemed a bit confused about why I even wanted his photo but grinned nonetheless and even Fernando Alonso's race engineer, Andrea Stella, who took a while to pose for a photograph and thanked me for my support. I must admit that the thrill of seeing so many Formula 1 celebrities in one place got my heart pumping, but I was still waiting for that elusive big fish...would I be able to catch a glimpse of Felipe Massa or even Fernando Alonso himself?

To be continued...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

2013 Australian Grand Prix: Thursday

It's been a long and exciting day here in Melbourne and admittedly I am on the verge of passing out. Although the Formula 1 cars don't make their way onto the track for the first time until tomorrow, the Albert Park circuit opened its doors this morning and I was there to capture all of the action.

The following are some of my photographs and observations from a very intense Thursday at the Australian Grand Prix:

Thousands of fans crushed themselves into a very full pit lane at nine in the morning. Funnily enough I was able to get a front row seat at Ferrari as Australian fans flocked to Red Bull in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Mark Webber.

Ferrari's chief designer Nicholas Tombazis seemed quite taken with the new McLaren.

Ferrari spent a decent portion of time studying the rear of Fernando Alonso's car and then practicing pit stops in the afternoon. Is it just me or does one of the mechanics look almost exactly like Stefano Domenicali? A group of guys standing near me certainly thought so and kept chanting "STEFANO!" to the poor man who was obliviously trying to do his job.

Kimi Raikkonen was as cool as ever. The iceman seemed almost pained to sign various items for his fans at a obligatory autograph session in Albert Park. I can't say that I blame him really, the whole area resembled a large cattle pen, with fans jostling for position and thrusting all manner of things, including a can of deodorant in his direction. Ever the professional, Kimi signed it all at a blistering speed and only cracked a tiny smile when an over-excited female admirer exclaimed "Kimi! I love you, I'm a huge fan!"

McLaren newbie Sergio Perez loved the autograph stage and even performed a crazy dance, which Jenson Button labelled as "sexy", for the assembled crowd. The two drivers seem to genuinely get along well, let's hope that Sergio doesn't become too jaded by fame.

David Coulthard treated me to a little show when his Red Bull exited the pit lane right where I was standing. Unfortunately security was trying to kick me out but at least I managed to get a few decent pictures before having to leave.

A beautiful view of the pit lane exit courtesy of a case of mistaken identity.

A large selection of historic cars was on display to the public.

I hope that you enjoyed this first view of the Australian Grand Prix. Rest assured that I will post more photographs in the coming days.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Formula 1 Arrives in Melbourne

It's another gorgeous day in Melbourne and the start of the 2013 Formula 1 season is just days away! Making the headlines this past week was Lewis Hamilton, who managed to secure a paddock pass for his beloved dog. No, I'm not talking about Nicole (oooh that was low!) but rather his new best friend and 'chillaxing' partner Roscoe the bulldog. Hamilton and presumably Roscoe landed in Melbourne recently and the Mercedes star couldn't resist posting this beautiful picture on his twitter account adding that he was off for a 6am run. While not as scandalous as a post about his team mate's telemetry data, surely the revelation that he and possibly the entire Mercedes team are staying at either the Hilton or Crown Casino is enough to warrant a scolding from Ross Brawn. 

Other drivers have also been tweeting about their arrivals in the city or posting photos from their epic voyages to get here. Fernando Alonso tweeted this artistic snap en route to Australia and Sauber's latest Mexican recruit, Esteban Gutierrez, took part in a predictable photo shoot involving some kangaroos. 

Jenson Button seemed to have the same idea as I did yesterday, enjoying a spot of beach training in the scorching temperatures 

and Nico Hulkenberg expressed his wish to make it past the first corner on Sunday! 

Notably absent from the Twitter posting frenzy was Kimi Raikkonen, who was probably asleep after eating one too many ice cream sandwiches in a first class cabin somewhere over the Pacific. 

Last but not least was Adrian Sutil. Back on the grid this year after being shunned in the wake of an assault conviction, Sutil still seems to harbor more than a little bit of resentment towards one time friend Lewis Hamilton. Last year I reported that when Hamilton refused to testify at Sutil's court case he had also apparently changed his phone number presumably to avoid confrontation with the bitter German . 

Now that the ghost of glassings past has come back to haunt the British driver, it seems that Hamilton is eager to bury the hatchet. "I have emailed Adrian a couple of times" a needy-sounding Lewis stated " I emailed him a while ago because I heard there was a chance he could get the seat. I just said that I had said a prayer for him, that I really hoped he got the seat because he deserved it and that I really hoped to see him back in Formula 1. I also emailed him on the way here as soon as I found out and congratulated him. I haven't heard back from him but I'm sure at some stage we will get to talk." For his part, Sutil doesn't seem quite as keen. "We have no relationship at the moment. I never saw him, I never spoke to him. I will meet up with him but I don't know what will happen." Oh to be a fly on that wall!