I realized something was amiss when it dawned on me at the Williams sponsor launch we attended at Imola that I was the only person smoking. How was I to know the latest name to grace the sides of Sir Frank's racers was a give-up smoking product?

The penny finally dropped when the radio broadcaster earning a few quid on the side by doing the presentation, invited the audience to pour scorn on me for indulging in the filthy habit. Once he had got that out of his system, he called upon Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher to add a touch of glamour to proceedings. This was logical given that a load of sticky patches and some vile-tasting gum are hardly going to make for a sexy photo-opportunity. Both drivers claimed they had never smoked, although the colorful Colombian did admit to getting very drunk three times a year.

It was all a far cry from the days when Keke Rosberg drove for Williams. He always carried a packet of ciggies in his race suit, so he could have a drag if he retired out on the track, during the race.

The Williams deal with NiquitinCQ is for just one year and both parties were keen to stress that this is normal procedure for any new sponsorship deal, so that the two parties can assess how it's working. Sounds like that famous smoker's cry: I can quit whenever I want to!

The new deal apparently means team personnel are not allowed to smoke while wearing the team kit. After years of sponsorship from Rothmans and Winfield, there are several dedicated smokers in the team and to get round this, my spies tell me they have been issued with an unbranded jacket to wear when puffing away in the paddock. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "smoking jacket."

Obviously realizing that I was his best bet for squeezing another laugh out of the audience, the master of ceremonies turned to me once again at the end of the presentation.

"Is he still smoking ladies and gentlemen?"

I wasn't.

"No, but he is drinking red wine. Ever considered Alcoholics Anonymous, Eff?"

"Maybe I could take Juan Pablo with me," I muttered under my bad breath and left, my previously unstained reputation now in tatters. I did however take my goody bag, which sadly did not contain any Niquitin patches or gum. I headed for the politically-incorrect BAR motorhome, where we were encouraged to drink and smoke as much as we liked.

The BAR bus was Party Central for two nights running, with canapes and booze on offer. The second bash didn't go entirely to plan. The Alpinestars clothing firm had wanted to give all the media a goody bag at the end of the evening, but the cardboard boxes containing the freebies had been left unattended outside the motorhome. This is Italy, a country where guests leaving swanky restaurants are used to being frisked for, you can guess the rest: several empty cardboard boxes.

We were not frisked when leaving the McLaren Communications Center, after a dinner for the British media on Friday night, but I guess I'll return the full set of black leather place mats (who isn't into black leather?) when we get to Barcelona. It was a very enjoyable evening. Earlier that day, Ron Dennis and Kimi Raikkonen had handed over the Brazilian GP winners' trophies to Eddie Jordan and Giancarlo Fisichella. At dinner that night, Dennis admitted he had been slightly miffed that, in his anxiety to get his hands on the silverware, EJ had forgotten to bring along the second place pots in exchange.

There were several new vehicles in the paddock at Imola, although none to rival the McLaren glass palace. Toyota had expanded its motor home into what looked like a perfect replica of St. Pancras railway station and Ferrari and McLaren had both gone for three storey transporters, which were even taller than Justin Wilson.

However one vehicle grabbed much more attention than any of these when it swished into the paddock on Friday. This was the ludicrously expensive Maybach, which brought our own dear leader Bernie Ecclestone to the race track.

"It's a sort of German version of Bentley," reckoned one of my colleagues, to whom I later had to explain that Bentley Motors is now owned by the Germans. During dinner I did hear vague discussions about other things that Maybach was famous for: engines for Zeppelins and for the Tiger Tank.

In those days if you had a Maybach engine you could go just about anywhere you wanted to go (including Poland) but at Imola I noticed that even Mr. E needed four passes to be able to park this huge creation near to his beloved grey bus.

Top of the list of things not to say to Ecclestone as he stepped out of the $400,000 Maybach was: "Nice Lexus, Bernie!"

Ferrari sponsor Vodafone now has its own motorhome in the paddock this year. And very nice it looked too, although I gather the telecommunication firm's staff were cut off from the outside world as they couldn't get the phone lines inside the bus to work.

Given that he is not known for uttering pearls of wisdom, I cannot guarantee this will be the first in a series of "Kimi's Quote of the Day", but Raikkonen definitely got the biggest laugh in the post-race press conference.

A French woman journalist (that's three good reasons for knowing nothing about F1) asked the Finn why no one was penalized in the race for crossing the white line at the end of the pit lane. "Because if we didn't we would never get back on the track," he replied, just a flicker of a smile playing across his lips.

Is The Ice Man thawing?

Print Feature