10 June 2011

Hanging out in Monaco

I was lucky enough to visit the Monaco F1 Grand Prix as a guest of PETRONAS and Mercedes Grand Prix recently and had a great time there, hanging out with the team and PETRONAS guests.

It’s an amazing place, a truly unique F1 event and a very special track. I just hope I’ll get the chance to race there one day.  It has been a Monaco to remember, not only because of the racing, but also because I met Kim Kardashian (more about this later!).

I headed out on the Thursday of race week, which is usually a set up and media day in F1, but for the Monaco event it is practice day. It’s the only race where this happens, but I think it’s something to do with the road closure, although there is half a day of support races on Friday.  As I was travelling on Thursday I didn’t get to see the practice sessions, but I kept track on my phone and was happy to see Mercedes GP had put in some good times and were looking strong.  I walked to the paddock immediately I arrived, which took about 45 minutes, but it’s difficult to get around when the race is in town, so there was no other option. Still, it was a good work out for me.

I went to the area where Carlin were set up for GP2 and World Series by Renault on Friday morning. I’m with Carlin in British F3, but the team also run cars in GP2, GP3 and World Series by Renault. GP3 usually runs with F1, but this weekend it’s World Series instead, so Carlin had two series to focus on and a very busy time for everyone.  For the GP2 race I ended up watching it on TV with one of my fitness trainers, Dan, as it was the best way to watch all the action.

Once the track action had finished I was off to do a photo shoot at the Mercedes GP garage, which was good fun (check out the Monaco gallery) and I also fitted in a run on the beach, which made a change from the leafy park in London where I usually run.  That evening I caught up with fellow Malaysian, Fairuz Fauzy, so we had dinner in downtown Monaco, which was good, although very expensive – this really is a millionaire’s playground, with prices to match, especially during the F1 race. The famous Gumball Rally had a few fancy cars here as well, so we enjoyed spying these.

And this was the evening I met Kim Kardashian.  I was walking in the area of the Amber Lounge (sadly didn’t have a chance to hang out there), when I saw Kim so I asked her for a photo. At that moment her attention was diverted so it didn’t happen. As you can imagine I was a bit disappointed, but then headed to get a taxi back to my hotel. Waiting in the queue who should be there? Kim! She recognised me and made a point of speaking and having her photo taken. What a top lady!  Check out my photo with her.

Saturday morning was the final F1 practice session, which I watched from the Mercedes GP garage. As I’m given a headset for the session I am able to listen to the team’s communications and hear the drivers give their feedback on the car, which is very interesting. It was going really well for both Nico (Rosberg) and Michael (Schumacher), but then Nico had a massive accident which did some serious damage to his car, although thankfully Nico was okay.  Once the car was back in the garage, the mechanics were straight on it, stripping the car down and replacing all the damaged parts. With only a few hours between practice and qualifying it was definitely a race against time for Nico’s crew and was very interesting to watch everyone work so quickly and so carefully, particularly when the world’s media is trained on you. There were always TV cameras filming as they did their work, but I think they are used to this. I’d been told the team expected to get Nico out on track with 8 minutes left of Qualifying 1 and they were very accurate with this prediction.  They had to put the supersoft tyres on to make sure they got through to Q2 and Nico did a great job to put in fifth fastest lap to get through comfortably.

The rest of qualifying was quite nail-biting, with teams trying to save tyres for the race, but needing to put in laps strong enough to get through to Q3.  Both drivers went through and had good runs, but the Sauber driver, Sergio Perez, had a big crash, not dissimilar to Nico’s, but while Nico had missed the barrier at Nouvelle Chicane, Perez hit it hard. It red flagged the session, and when everyone went out when it resumed no one could improve on their times, which put Michael fifth for the start and Nico in seventh.

One of the most valuable experiences for me during the F1 weekends I visit with Mercedes GP is the chance to sit in on the team debriefs. The drivers and engineers discuss the sessions and plan for the next one, so when I joined the debrief on Saturday evening the talk centred on tyres, pit stop strategies and car set up for the race.  I also managed to watch the GP2 race with PETRONAS and their guests and was pleased to see my mate, Max Chilton, had a good result.

In the evening I’d been invited on a yacht owned by the Carlin team owner, Graeme Chilton and that was really fun. It was parked up alongside other yachts of the rich and famous, so it all very impressive.  Of course we had to watch the football and while I was rooting for Barcelona, along with Marc Gene (he’s Spanish so this wasn’t surprising), all the Brits were supporting Man Utd. Marc and I had a great time cheering loudly for the Spanish team!

Race day had a great buzz about it. The team briefing before the race finalises the race strategy and I feel very privileged to know this inside information.  Although the race doesn’t start until the afternoon the day flies past. It’s great to be a ‘fly on the wall’ on race day, as I’m able to soak up the atmosphere in the Mercedes GP garage and I get a real insight into how the team operates.  The race was probably one of the best we’ve seen at Monaco for some time, but unfortunately didn’t bring the team the results that they had hoped for. Nico struggled with tyre degradation so he had to stop early and then change to a 3-stop strategy, while Michael’s day ended with a suspected airbox fire.

My Monaco trip was certainly memorable – great racing, fantastic atmosphere, ‘inside’ experience with Mercedes GP – and not forgetting meeting Kim Kardashian!

Now it’s my turn behind the wheel, as I’m out testing for British F3 at Rockingham circuit in the UK this week.  Follow me on twitter to get all the news!

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