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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_vzG5nYk1I 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 them...it'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...