F1 reaches Europe

paddock 2After what seems like a really long gap, the F1 season continues this weekend, in Spain. The fact that it feels like months since the last race is probably testimony to how exciting the season has been so far. We have only had four races so far, out of 19, but we have seen a lot of racing, drama and overtaking – including some which shouldn’t have happened. The next race is the first European Race of the year and thus its when the teams roll out their Paddock Hospitality Units.

In 2001 and 2002, I was a Director of the company who ran the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and was lucky enough to have one of the coveted Access All Areas passes which allowed me to wander into the Paddock. I recall being impressed with the Hospitality Units that the teams set up in the week preceding the Grand Prix. In most cases, the teams would position three or four large coaches or trailers together and then, using some very clever trickery, they would connect them all together to create something that could act as a team’s “Communications Centre” or to host maybe 50 VIP visitors.

Since then the some of the teams’ competitive spirit has seen a race off-circuit to build the biggest, tallest, smartest Paddock Unit with, unsurprisingly McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari leading the way. These days, the teams have three story buildings that can host 100’s of guests, with their own kitchens creating very smart menus, huge screens showing the race coverage and, of course, plenty of drinks.

All of the hospitality goes a long way to earning the team’s sponsorship funds, either through inviting sponsors to the races or through entertaining celebrities who bring the team media coverage. This weekend I saw the other side of race hospitality, with the annual Daytona 24 Hour Race at our Milton Keynes circuit. 28 teams pitching their easy-up tents in the pit-lane and racing hard over 24 hours in our Dmaxes and Prokarts. The tents may not have featured kitchens and bars and large screens, but we supplied live timing over the web and the teams had their disposable barbecues.

Meanwhile, in the F1 garages and on-track, the teams are locked into an exciting race for the 2014 championship, with four different teams having drivers in the top four so far.

Vettel looks like he will continue to prove his class, despite his team’s woes with tyre wear and his own woes with his team-mate. Kimi is second in the table, with his Lotus proving the dark horse so far. Hamilton is third in the table, but his team have warned him not to expect a race winning car for Spain and Alonso is fourth – again the driver seeming to outperform the car. The other Brits continue to provide us fans with plenty of cheer. McLaren may not be quite on pace yet, but we know they will be there sooner rather than later. Di Resta is 8th in the championship with 20 points in his Force India.

The Spanish Grand Prix is often seen as the start of the teams’ development race. The Circuit de Catalunya is used by the teams for Winter Testing so they know the circuit well and have very good testing data to compare with their ever-more-important simulator data. Plus the venue is a drive away from the factory when compared to the long haul races that start and end the season, so teams can pack more development parts in the convoy of trucks that they send to the circuit.

In spite of this, there have been plenty of stories in recent year of teams booking rows of seats on Easy-jet flights so that engineers can carry the latest front wing in their carry on luggage! When I visited McLaren’s Technology Centre in Woking a couple of years ago, I was surprised to learn that the cars undertake thousands of changes throughout the year. Sometimes an aerodynamic part may be changed many times between two races as the clever guys at the factory find new, better ways to make the car lap the circuit faster and faster.

So this weekend, I will settle down on my sofa and watch the qualifying and race in High Definition on Sky Sports F1 and hopefully the racing will continue to be as exciting as the last few races – so I won’t find myself missing  being in the Paddock, being wined and dined by the teams.

Jim Graham