Rachel Brookes’ F1 diary from a poignant Belgian GP weekend

I flew into Brussels on the Wednesday after a busy few days, which included a trip to Maranello to see Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto. 

Since the Spanish Grand Prix, the Concorde Agreement had been signed by all 10 teams, which was a good sign for the sport. It is also a feather in Liberty’s cap that this agreement has been struck without the long, drawn-out process of previous years.

I sat down with Binotto in the Ferrari museum in a cordoned off area, and we sat far enough apart that we did not need to wear masks for the actual interview. It felt strange not to be wearing them as I have now become so used to them. However, the distance made it very difficult to hear his answers.

We had a lot of topics to cover and nothing was off the table. It is always a bit surreal to sit in the Ferrari museum surrounded by such iconic cars and, in fact, we chose to sit Mattia in front of Michael Schumacher’s from 2004.

That F2004 was the car in which Michael won his seventh and final world title, and fifth with Ferrari, and seeing that served as a reminder of how far the Scuderia have fallen since those halcyon days.

They may have taken the Drivers’ Championship again with Kimi Raikkonen in 2007, with another constructors’ crown following the year after, but they haven’t won a title since and 12 years is a very long time for the Tifosi to wait.

One thing a lot of fans tweeted about after the Spanish GP was Mattia’s comment on their appeal against the Racing Point protest decision. He had said he wanted transparency in the sport, and some questioned where the transparency was in regard to the FIA’s settlement with Ferrari regarding their power unit from last year.

So I asked him that very question in our Maranello interview. His response was that no one protested their power unit last year, and they were not found to be in breach of any regulations by the FIA. He has a point, no one protested. If other teams had protested then more information may have emerged but, as no one did, only the two parties involved know the details.

An emotional and poignant weekend

So on to Spa for the Belgian GP and, once I arrived at my hotel, it was an evening of making notes ahead of a busy weekend for me which included a piece on Williams and their sale, a sit down chat with Carlos Sainz, and an interview with Pierre Gasly on the anniversary of Anthoine Hubert’s death.

Returning to Spa was emotional for the whole paddock but I can’t imagine how tough it was for those who knew Anthoine, grew up with him, and called him a close friend. It is testament to them that they spoke so well in the lead up to the weekend for the various tribute pieces that were made for Anthoine.

Today is your day, and will always be.👼🏼 You taught me life can be a lot shorter than we think, and has to be fully enjoyed while we can. Thanks for all the great memories Tonio. We are missing you.🤍 #AH19 pic.twitter.com/pSSfUQYvbd

When I sat down with Pierre, he spoke so eloquently about his friend but was clearly still processing it. I was really impressed by him and continue to be so.

The year since Anthoine’s death has been challenging for Pierre in so many ways both on and off track and it is easy to just look at stats on paper when considering a driver’s performances, but when you take everything into account he has to be one of the stand outs of the last 12 months.

His race on Sunday only served to reinforce this viewpoint.

I also sat down with Carlos on Thursday, who has also had a whirlwind 12 months. His start to 2020 has been beset by bad luck and technical problems which he says without them he could be 26 points better off right now, which coming into the weekend would have seen him fourth in the drivers’ championship and ahead of his team-mate for next year.

It must feel weird to be in his position right now. You signed a deal to drive for Ferrari next season before this one even began, and you thought it was the making of your career. Yet, you find yourself in a better car at your current team, and one which will have the Mercedes power unit next season, which could move them even further up the grid.

All the while the team you are moving to are having one of the worst periods in their history and would go onto have the worst result for a decade later that weekend, which included Sebastian Vettel being overtaken by Kimi in the customer-engined Alfa Romeo.

With so few people allowed on site at the moment, the associate producer working on the Williams piece with me was back in London and I sent back the links we had filmed before recording my voiceover to go with it. We are used to having editors and edit suites on site which meant you could pop in and see how features were coming along during the process. Now you send back your material and liaise with the AP.

Luckily, we have some very talented colleagues and, as shown by the beautiful tribute they out together to Hubert this weekend, they always deliver.

The next generation catching the eye

My Friday was another busy one as again I was presenting the F3 and F2 sessions and conducting the post-race interviews for F2 so it involves watching as much as you can across the weekend as well as focussing on the F1.

The feeder series races this season have been exciting to say the least. So much so that it’s happened twice this season when I have left the FOM TV garage to go out to interview the podium finishers, the top three I last saw on the screen were not the same three that pulled up behind the numbers in parc ferme!

It happened again this weekend, although this time they were the same three drivers, just in a different order, as Nikita Mazepin was given a five-second penalty for pushing Yuki Tsunoda off the track in the closing laps.

As I waited for them to pull up Yuki arrived and got out of his car to celebrate with his team. Nikita pulled in and hit the number two board with some force. I don’t think for one second he intended to hurt anyone but he arrived with too much speed into parc ferme and has been given a suspended five-place grid drop for “potentially dangerous and unsportsmanlike conduct”.

Both series are really close though and it has been really good to see the talent that is coming through right now. Particularly the Ferrari academy drivers, Robert Shwartzman, Callum Ilott and Mick Schumacher. I can see any one of them, if not more, making their way into either Alfa Romeo or Haas next year if they finish high enough in the championship to qualify for a superlicence.

Also, Tsunoda already has his place at the rookie test at the end of the year confirmed in the AlphaTauri, and he took his second win of the season at Spa.

We had nine different winners from the first 11 rounds, which just shows how open and competitive a championship it is this year.

The busiest of race days

Sunday was the probably the busiest day I have ever had in the last nine years in F1.

The first thing is always Race Two in F3, which was followed by an interview in the paddock. I had hoped to have time to go back to the office to get my notes but our office in the TV compound is a 10-minute walk from the paddock, and that walk includes a steep slope which you really feel by the end of the day.

I didn’t have time to go back before the F2 sprint race so went to our stage position and Karun Chandhok and I introduced it. Before the feature race the day before there had been a minute’s silence for Anthoine which had occurred during the TV pen post F1 qualifying. We knew there was a chance it would be at the same time as the top three arrived and we were warned they would also be observing the minute’s silence.

They walked out of the media centre building just before the minute of silence and so Max Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, along with their press officers, made their way closer to the big screen on the other side of the pen.

As they did so, almost all the TV cameras in the pen spun round to film them all standing there and at that moment Lewis moved to one side away from the others and therefore out of shot of most of the cameras. Some on the internet tried to start scurrilous rumours saying Lewis did not respect the minute’s silence and that is absolutely not true. At that moment I imagine Lewis believed that the cameras should be focussed on the tribute and not him and that’s why he chose to step out of shot. But he was there, and he did pay his respects.

After the F2 race started I raced back to the office to watch as many laps as I could before having to head to the FOM garage to prepare for the post-race interviews. I have the commentary for the F2 in my ears all the time through my radio pack as I can’t watch it all going between various interviews and pieces of filming and meetings.

I left the office with about eight laps to go so that I could make it to the FOM garage in time. In Spa the paddock is split into two levels and the stairs are at the far end so it is easily a 15-minute walk to get to there.

I arrived with two laps to go and watched the top three cross the line before heading into parc ferme to interview them. After that I expect to be able to go back to the office to get everything I need for the race including the grid, my notes, spare phone battery etc. But I get a message to say I have another interview to do. This time it was with Johnny Herbert as he was the driver steward this weekend and we were making a feature out of it. Once that is done I have another interview to record and then it is back to the FOM garage to prepare for the F1 driver interviews.

Unfortunately, I still hadn’t had time to go back and get my notes and so I write my questions on a small notebook as I walk and try to remember all their grid positions. It is what would have been the track parade in previous years but now the drivers come out to the front of their garages and two of us take it in turns to interview the teams.

We have four minutes per team which is easy with some teams and not so easy with others. Some are getting in the zone and don’t want to say much while others are chatty and happy to do the interview with their team-mate.

Once that was done, I finally had time to head back with 60 minutes to go before the start of the race. Then my phone beeps. I am needed by the stage because there are technical issues back in London and I may be needed to present with Karun if the link to Simon and Martin on the grid fails. I speak to the producer who says they are heading to the grid at quarter past so I have 15 minutes to get back to the TV compound, gather all my stuff and get back to the paddock. It was lucky I wore trainers on Sunday!

I made it back and waited with Karun by the SkyPad so we could watch the coverage as much as possible. As we are standing there Carlos Sainz starts walking towards us unzipping his racesuit and looking furious. As he did so a replay came up on the screen of his car emitting smoke on his lap to the grid.

Karun heads to the back of the garage as Carlos heads for the McLaren motorhome and we get a text message form the team explaining that there was a power unit issue that led to a exhaust failure and that he wouldn’t be starting the race.

As I looked up from the text, Carlos was coming back up the stairs from the lower paddock and heading back to his garage so that he could take part in the pre-race activities and the minute silence for Anthoine. I asked the team and they said he would go straight to the driver pen after the anthem and so I had to head straight there.

I waited for Carlos, collected his thoughts in the interview, and then sat down to watch the race. As you can see from the picture, F1 is not always glamorous! But I was just glad of the chance to sit down.

After the interviews at the end of the race, I headed back to the office to grab some water for the journey and we made our way to the Eurostar for our train home. Unfortunately, a long tailback on the motorway leading away from the circuit meant we arrived at the Eurostar station just 20 minutes before the train was leaving.

We scrambled through security and passport control before dashing for the train. We just made it.

During the course of my busiest day I managed to eat a banana, a Mars Bar, some cashews and a Snickers as that’s all I could get my hands on, which was all eaten on the bus and the train home.

But we made it and we all got to sleep in our own beds that night after a weekend where we remembered a bright young talent that was taken away too soon. I hope the tributes brought some comfort to Anthoine’s family and friends and reminded them that they are in everyone’s thoughts across motorsport, not just F2.

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