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".
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNPUbLHk9oE 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.