Chinese Grand Prix diary
Skysports.com's on-location reporter Mike Wise is getting a taste of Formula 1 Shanghai-style this weekend.
By Mike Wise in Shanghai
Last Updated: 04/05/12 10:26am
I don't know about you but I reckon the race did live up to expectation. Perhaps that's a gross understatement: it was a fantastic race! And it's not just me (and you I certainly hope) who thought so: after the official FIA post-race press conference I got the lift back up to the press room with Bob Constanduros, the journalist who presides over it, and he reckoned it was the most exciting he'd watched in years. I'm certainly not going to argue.
But then, almost as soon as the chequered flag had dropped, another race began: the one to pack up and get on out of here. Wagons roll. The vehicle of choice became a forklift, with half the action taking place in reverse gear. The paddock here is a vast open space and yet within minutes it filled with crates to be loaded up and taken away. They come at you from all angles and it's quite chaotic ducking and weaving about the place looking for post-race reaction - which is harder to come by as everyone is so keen to head to the airport. However, we did find Norbert Haug chain-smoking post-victory cigarettes round the back of the Mercedes hospitality suite. Still drenched in champagne, Haug held court in between taking congratulatory calls on his mobile. He seemed more relieved than anything.
Right, there's a plane to catch. Next stop Bahrain.
I'm writing this an hour-and-a-half before the start of the race and the drivers' parade is just about to get underway. Ma Qing Ha might recently have signed on to HRT's young driver development programme but that doesn't necessarily mean that a Chinese driver will be starting a grand prix any time soon. Instead, local fans have simply chosen to embrace those of other nations. I went for a wander around to the main entrance about half an hour ago and the flags of Germany, Spain and the UK were well represented. The most popular flag of all, though, was that of Finland; that much was confirmed when Kimi Raikkonen received the biggest cheer of all as he turned up for the parade - the 2007 World Champion coolly acknowledging the adoring masses before putting on a large pair of comedy sunglasses.
If the volume of people milling around outside is anything to go by, there's going to be a large crowd here today (including a fair smattering of westerners as you might expect). The grandstand on the start-finish straight is filling up; I doubt it will reach full capacity but that's more down to its gargantuan size than anything. The people behind this event must be very ambitous indeed. The spectators are now being entertained by a boy band while dancers in bodystockings do their thing. Let's hope the race can live up to this billing!
Never mind an F1 engine, it's my brain that seems to be turning over at 18,000rpm at the moment. The race takes place tomorrow but we're running a very tight schedule here, what with having to check out of the hotel first thing in the morning in order to make the flight to Bahrain straight afterwards. Forward planning is called for and so, after typing up a few qualifying reaction pieces in my room, I head downstairs to the hotel restaurant. But they've closed for the night (it's 11.30 pm) and so it's off to the McDonalds around the corner. Using the international medium of pointing, smiling and looking a bit hapless, I order a cheeseburger meal (alas "supersize me" gets lost in translation) before retiring once more to the Courtyard Marriott in Jiading. After wolfing that down, I iron a shirt for Sunday before packing my suitcase. It's almost as if the grand prix seems the least hectic part of the day.
What a qualifying session we had! It really underlined the high level of competition that currently exists. I mean, everyone was surprised by Sebastian Vettel missing out on Q3 and yet he was still just fourth tenths slower than his team-mate - Mark Webber, of course, setting the fastest time in the second session. I was able to have a good chat with Kamui Kobayashi afterwards - in fact, there were only two of us present at Sauber's media briefing as McLaren's was taking place at the same time. Not that Kamui seemed too bothered by the lack of attention, but I suspect it will be rather different tomorrow if he finishes on the podium.
Right, time for bed and a few hours kip. I'll try and add a few words tomorrow but they'll have to be squeezed out somewhere between our travel itinerary and the small matter of the Chinese Grand Prix!Friday
It might seem a shame for those who built this track (and built it on a base of polystyrene blocks apparently) that its main event has turned into a sideshow but that's the way it seems right now. Formula 1 cars spent more time on track today than at any point during the course of the weekend but even they seemed to be fighting a losing battle in the attention stakes as news that the FIA is pushing ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix was digested.
Matters reached a critical mass around lunchtime when the teams met with Bernie Ecclestone and there were plenty of stony faces afterwards as the prospect - one which seemed to be receding earlier this week - started to hit home. Understandably, there are fears about going there but in the main the feeling seems one of weary resignation. As is usually the case when people push conflicting agendas, the truth blurs and it becomes increasingly vexing to understand what's really going on. In the end most people - the 'silent majority' - simply shrug their shoulders and get on with it. I suppose a world like this, in which jobs are so much more than a means to an end, makes it easier to toe the line.
That meeting and Bernie's subsequent appearance before the world's media came in between practice sessions which revealed what is becoming a familiar pattern this season: McLaren and Mercedes ahead of Red Bull on sheer pace, with Ferrari down the order. Interestingly, the Scuderia's Technical Director Pat Fry later gave a candid assessment of where they currently stand and suggested that there's rather more to it than trying to understand their problem child of a car: Ferrari must also improve their design and development processes too. That doesn't sound to me like something that can be fixed overnight.
Heading back in the evening, the talk - as you might expect - was of Bahrain. A pick-me-up was needed and much kudos must be extended to Sky Sports cameraman Dave 'Standby' Stanford for negotiating a 30-minute extension to the hotel bar's happy hour. Hopefully, the main event will be taking place on the track tomorrow.
I mentioned yesterday that evidence of a communist society is difficult to spot when one takes Shanghai at face value. Those golden arches we all know and rely on after a few too many are everywhere, and I discovered last night that there's even a large branch of Tesco's around the corner from our hotel (13 kilometres outside the city centre). Yet authoritarian tentacles do find a way in - that much is apparent the moment you go online. Social media websites are pretty much a no-no here (although Twitter seems to work via the use of a mobile phone) whilst others appear and then disappear without rhyme or reason. A connectivity issue perhaps? Hmmmmm then again...
The media centre at the Shanghai International Circuit is a case in point: it's an impressive facility and much like everything else here, it's also huge. The view, from a vantage point nine floors up straddling the start-finish straight, is quite something. You'd think, then, that with the world's media in town they'd get the internet right. After all, isn't this an exercise in presenting China as a can-do, modern sort of a place? Alas, the World Wide Web seems about as flakey as that bloke in The Singing Detective. Given our location, rumours soon started to spread as to the reason why. Was it technical or political? I was veering towards the former but a colleague then informed me that even the centre's support staff thought it could be the latter. No-one seemed to know for sure what was going on - or perhaps they weren't letting on. An attempt to restrict reporting the case of murdered British businessman - or more particularly the recent arrest of the wife of a senior Chinese politician in connection with it - was put forward as a possible motive while the last whisper I heard was that Wednesday's earthquake and subsequent tsunami scare in Indonesia were somehow to blame. To me the latter sounds rather like an inversion of chaos theory, whereby a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can wreak havoc elsewhere. Then again, it also sounds like garbage.
Regardless, we were hooked up again in time for this afternoon's media sessions and it turned out to be an eventful day. Lewis Hamilton's grid penalty means he has it all to do if he's to repeat his win here last year while the protest against Mercedes' double DRS finally came - and promptly went. Of course, the threat of cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix loomed above all else, with a decision due this weekend. Speaking of which, Bernie Ecclestone made his first appearance of the season today. As somebody who clearly admires a proactive approach, maybe it was him who got our internet back up and running?
If you've never before experienced life under communism and seek to understand how a collectivised society really works at a grassroots level then Shanghai is not perhaps the best place to start. I mean, I'm writing this whilst sipping latte in a Costa Coffee at the Shanghai International Circuit, surrounded by all the usual paraphernalia one might find on the nearest High Street. The very existence of the SIC (sponsored by Audi) and the Chinese Grand Prix itself stems, of course, from the economic liberalism which has taken hold here over the last 20 or so years. It's a sea change that seems to pervade just about everything.
You can see it in the proliferation of tower blocks that stretch to the horizon in every direction. Well you might if the horizon was actually within sight: buildings here tend to exist as hulking outlines; the smog sees to that. First sight confirms the view from afar of rampant economic growth. In this sense, Formula 1 seems a natural fit.
The plane carrying the tranche of Sky Sports F1 ground troops of which I'm a part touched down early on Tuesday morning. We arrived at our hotel about an hour and a quarter later after a bus journey which certainly gave credence to claims that Shanghai is the world's largest city. The view consisted of little apart from a promiscuous urban sprawl of high rises and although it was an arresting sight initially, it quickly became samey.
It certainly numbs the visual impact of the central Pudong district, whose skyline hoved into view once more on Tuesday evening when, after a couple of hours of sleep, we headed back into town in search of bargains and a bite to eat. Any lingering tiredness was quickly shaken off during the course of a 25-minute taxi ride taken almost exclusively at high speed, usually in a low gear and frequently on the hard shoulder. Three cabs had been hired and two appeared to be engaged in a race of sorts. Our driver quickly revealed a Hamilton-esque habit of spotting gaps that others might fail to. Hunkered down in the passenger seat and trying not to flinch too often, I certainly wasn't spotting them.
After being poured onto the pavement at 580 Nanjing Road, it was time to head to one of those markets that specialise in 30 quid 'Rolexes'. We weren't the only bargain hunters scouring the stalls and risking our Yuan on hooky gear: Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo were both spotted mid-haggle, suggesting that whilst the ability to take a risk might not inform all aspects of a racing driver's life (I'm sure Felipe would shrug off the discovery that his 'Glee in 3D' DVD was not quite of the quality he had hoped for) the competitive instinct certainly does.
Massa and Ricciardo weren't the only F1 personnel out on the town last night. There were also one or two familiar faces at the restaurant we later visited - the stroll downturn albeit turning into something of a traipse following the arrival of a thunderstorm. The feeling of bedragglement was well worth it, though, when faced with the delights that followed: course after course prepared by a chef in Teriyaki style at our table. The banana fritters were a particular - and spectacular - highlight! (See photo.)
As far as I'm concerned, there'll be no more time for sightseeing. The riggers and engineers have already been hard at work and the fruits of their labour, including the pristine Sky Sports studio, were ready and waiting for us when we arrived at the track this morning. Today has been all about getting my bearings at what is a huge facility; there'll be rather more to do tomorrow.