“It’s about to get extremely loud in here, guys,” Tom tells us. “Really loud.”
It’s too late. The noise arrives before the end of the sentence, a shrieking, piercing whine that buzzes through my bones, driving thoughts from my mind, inhaling the sound. I’m in a Formula One garage – and I’m coming face to eardrum with two key components of the Grand Prix: noise and speed.
Money, of course, is the third one (VIP passes carry £35 000 price tags) but today marks my first real understanding of just how much technology and teamwork is involved. Computers, cables, silver-foil pipes and exposed sensors throng in this tight, three storey labyrinth that will be gone by the end of the day. Garage by name. Starship Enterprise by nature.
Upstairs, Tom Webb from Lotus shows us men with hunched shoulders staring at softly lit blue screens. They’re planning the race strategy for the Valencia Grand Prix: hydraulics, temperatures, the mathematical guesswork to maintain performance throughout the race.
Today is the 500th race for Lotus, a team that returned after a prolonged absence only this year. Mechanics in crisp shirts and racing green shorts measure and check, carry clipboards and chat, interconnected through earpieces and microphones. Our presence here is as natural as Bob the Builder crashing into the White House and it’s mesmerising to watch people so obviously hard at work.
Just beyond the garage, in the full burn of the Valencia sun, the pit lane never stops, never slows. Convoys of tyres, nose cones and, yes, the cars themselves file by, dogged by journalists with marrow-sized lenses and guys in gadget-in-one suits.
Everything gleams. There’s no litter, no smoke. No faded stickers, scribbled scraps of paper, wayward wires. The Valencia Grand Prix, it would appear, has stepped straight out of the salon.
Back in the garage, the atmosphere is focused. Formula One rules forbid teams from inspecting the cars overnight, imposing a curfew between the qualifying rounds and the main race. The clock is ticking; the deadline only minutes away.
It reminds me of my time in paediatric intensive care. The special lights, the gauges, the tyre incubators with probes in three places (inside, middle and outer) and the ratio of trained personnel to a single entity – in this case a car rather than a child.
In fact, that’s been one of the biggest surprises of this visit. The legend of Formula One focuses on the drivers, but the reality focuses on the car. It’s a team endeavour, with staff working from 6am until 10 at night, measuring, recording, adapting, planning.
We leave them to it and wander instead to the hospitality area overlooking the Med. Yachts glisten and a helicopter whirs softly overhead. Shiny office blocks line up to the left, gleaming yet temporary compounds for the wealthiest fans in the world.
It’s so peacefully quiet. Across the track somewhere, the rock music will be blaring, the crowds finding their seats, hawkers selling baseball caps and Ferrari shirts and students dishing out free newspapers. A thousand images of the Spanish sweetheart, Alonso, will gaze up from the front page.
“A lot of people talk about the F1 bubble,” says Tom, as reporters walk past in jeans and T-shirts. “You need a pass to get in and out and there’s a level of hierarchy…”
He pauses to greet a colleague. “It’s easy to get jaded.
“You’re doing the same thing in the same sort of places with the same lot of people.”
He squints against the sun. “It’s easy to get lost in that little world.”
Back in the cheap seats (at a mere 600 Euros each), we watch willowy girls in hotpants mark each car’s starting point with a national flag. They look as haughty and bored as possible,oozing the cash, girls and ego stereotypes that Formula One loves to claim.
Then, the atmosphere changes, the lounging pace turns wild. Mechanics in ghostbuster outfits stride onto the tarmac, assembling stacks of tyres, heaters and insulated coils of wire. Photographers race through to snatch last minute photographs, and the cars somehow manoeuvre through the scrambled human activity.
So many people are pitching in and working, that it takes a moment to recognise the world-famous faces: Schumacher, Hamilton, Alonso, Button. Any ego is camouflaged by the swarm of firefighters, stewards and others whose job I couldn’t pretend to guess, but who look incredibly busy, carry earpieces and scowl at important-looking clipboards.
Once more, it’s the car and not the driver that receives the attention, with assistants holding parasols over some parts, while mechanics nurse the temperature of the tyres right until the final moment. The drivers have been hoisted into their seats, but those tyres are still caressed, undressed and then snuggled under blankets on the grid.
Tom’s last few words drift into my mind. “What it’s about is talent across the board. We’re all excited about the moment when a car goes sliding through a corner and looks quite cool…”
A Lotus car rolls past, decked in gold and green. “When we get our first point, we will be the happiest people in the world.”
The girls have gone and the noise builds again, that burning, tearing, deafening sound that shudders through the stands. In a lull between the revs, I think I hear a countdown from the distorted loudspeaker, somewhere in the crowd.
“Five seconds, four seconds,” but that can’t be right, it’s still so crowded.
Men fall to their knees, grappling with tyre blankets.
Oh, holy shit I am about to witness the worst mass slaughter in the history of the Formula One.
The noise now suffocates every space and sense in me, blinding all perception, blotting out everything except its own existence. There’s a crescendo, a climax, a searing pain in my ears…and then emptiness.
They’ve gone. It’s a magic trick, an illusion, where 24 cars disappear within a heartbeat, their caretakers flung against the fence in the final second.
I stand, stunned, while the workers sprint into action, hauling heaters, cameras and even more clipboards through a few small holes in the barricade. There’s barely a minute until the cars return and the Formula One Grand Prix truly begins.
Formula One indulges in the image of wealth, risk and life in the fast lane, yet the truth is altogether less glamorous: a lot of people doing an awful lot of work and, it has to be said, making an extraordinary amount of noise.
And it’s all the more interesting for it.
Thanks to Land of Valencia for inviting me on their groundbreaking BlogTripF1, Keith Jenkins from Velvet Escape and the Lotus Formula One team for inviting me to visit the Valencia Grand Prix Formula One Paddock.