It's the pits
JULY 27, 2011
I saw a Grand Prix from a different angle last weekend. And I have to say, despite the apparent attraction, I didn't much enjoy the experience.
Despite having been in this business since long before Sebastian Vettel was a twinkle in his parents' eyes, I'd never before watched a Grand Prix from the pit lane. Okay, I'd spent races in the garages of Jordan, Williams and Stewart when writing books on the respective teams, but that was different. You were totally focussed on the team in question; plugged into every nuance and drama as it was played out before you. To be honest, the other competitors may as well not have existed. Indeed, I had little idea about what had happened to everyone else in the race.
Sorry, I'm going to digress because this reminds me of one of the most embarrassing moments I've ever had on air. Back in 1996, I was learning the art of co-driving with Tony Jardine on British national events as a prelude to our entry in Rally GB. We had actually managed to finish 20th overall and second in class on the Bulldog Rally in Wales; a major achievement in my book, believe me.
Sitting in the line of cars waiting to cross the finishing ramp, I did a phone interview, live into BBC Radio Sport, talking first-hand about our deeds of daring-do.
Right at the end, the presenter says to me: "Okay, well done. It's been a really tough event and a tight fight for the British Championship at the front - so who won the rally?"
I hadn't the first idea. None at all. Couldn't even hazard a guess. I could see the headline: 'Motor sport journalist knows nothing, but says he finished 20th.'
I was reminded of this when talking to Pat Symonds about working the pit wall when he was with Benetton and Renault. "You're so focussed on your two cars that you know about the car ahead of them and the one behind. And that's it," said Pat. "You take off your headset at the finish and suddenly realise you know very little about what's been happening elsewhere."
For Sunday's German Grand Prix, I was drafted in as pit lane reporter for BBC TV, feeding information to commentators Martin Brundle and David Coulthard. This was not as easy as it seems because, during the race no one, bar pit crew, is allowed into the pit lane.
Figuring we needed to keep an eye on the leading contenders, I got permission from McLaren to stand in their garage, handily placed between Red Bull and Ferrari. But the trouble is that the Nurburgring garages are spaced quite widely apart, meaning that, if I craned my neck, I could just about see Red Bull, but very little of Ferrari because of some sort of structure to the right of the McLaren garage door.
Even though I could follow progress on a distant TV screen on the garage wall and listen to the expert commentary, I felt completely cut off from the action. The BBC headset drowned out the sound of cars, completely hidden from view in any case by the pit wall.
So you're standing there, surrounded by seated mechanics on one side and solemn-faced engineers staring intently at computer screens on the other. No one is speaking. If it wasn't for my FanVision hand-held computer showing the running order, I would have had little clue about the race's detail.
Then, suddenly, the mechanics spring to life, rush outside, hunker down or crouch shoulder-to-shoulder, freeze in position for a second or two as a car, all sound and fury, appears from nowhere. Massive activity like a speeded up film - and then the car's gone. It's hugely dramatic for all of four seconds. Blink and you've missed it. The mechanics walk briskly inside and take their seats once more. Then it's back to the blur of background noise and figures changing on your computer.
The TV screen shows a wheel-to-wheel moment and a pass. But if it doesn't involve a McLaren - or, heaven forbid, it records a McLaren being overtaken - then best not to show any approval of a good move unless you want your welcome curtailed.
There was one moment of action - right at my feet, as it happened. Chairs and equipment were suddenly swept aside to indicate a McLaren was coming into the garage, probably for good. I didn't know who it was until Button appeared. By the time I relayed this information to the commentary box, it was history. They'd already heard a radio message informing Jenson about a hydraulics issue.
I had no idea what the problem was, except that it was terminal as Button climbed out and walked away without a backward glance. It was not the moment to announce to all and sundry in the garage that this was jolly good for Sutil, who had now inherited seventh place.
I know what you're thinking: I must have had a grandstand view of the pit stop shoot-out between Vettel (to my left) and Massa (to my right) at the end of penultimate lap. You try watching two pits stops at once when they're 30 metres apart in either direction. Knew nothing about the Ferrari mechanic having trouble with the wheel nut.
And then the race was over. I could tell because all the McLaren mechanics ran to the pit wall and started waving and jumping up and down. I was stuck inside the garage. Still trying to be impartial. Still feeling this race had somehow passed me by even though I happened to be at its technical epicentre. I knew something - and yet I knew nothing at all.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.