Saturday 30th September – F1 for my Birthday

Dad was the first to get up at 8am and I followed soon after. After a shower, he surprised me with a hug for my birthday, something that had pretty much slipped my mind. I was excited to see F1 cars for the first time in nearly a year as my present. We caught the elevator down to the fourteenth floor where the breakfast room wasn’t too busy. In all my years of travel, this is the best breakfast spread I’ve ever seen. It hadn’t changed from two years ago, even the same guy was managing all the waiting staff. Both Dad and I went for a fresh cooked omelette from a man in a chef’s hat then took a taste of most other things in the room. In our seats by the window, we marvelled at the scale of a construction site sitting below us with no less than 24 cranes moving around the site.

After reading all their was to read in the newspapers about F1, which only had a couple of details with some of them incorrect, we went back to our rooms. On the way out, we met Brett, another from the contingent that had come in late last night. He was coming in as we were going out so we had a quick hello and goodbye. With some pastries snuck out for morning tea, after we brushed our teeth, I packed a bag for the day and we went down to the lobby to meet everyone and catch our bus.

Rob was already in the lobby when we got there and he had his son (my cousin) Ryan with him. Someone I hadn’t seen in a few years, we said hi and caught up a bit while waiting for the rest of the crew. Soon enough, the lobby was full of people we knew. Only a few of us were heading to the track in the morning though, the rest were sticking around to go to a bar for the AFL grand final. The bus trip that Dad organised was seamless and we were dropped off right at the gate which we walked through without issue. The fan zone, entertainment and merchandise areas were all free entry which is a nice touch.

We wandered through the merchandise stands, me looking for a hat for Dan but I didn’t have any luck since nothing was big enough. Since Petronas is the title sponsor of both the race and the Mercedes team they were handing out plenty of flags and we all got one each easily.

After having our fill looking at the cars on display and watching people win prizes, we made it to the fan zone where we were set to wait just under an hour to see some of the drivers.

Unlike last time I’d been here, there was no shade available and so we settled down at the back, leaning against the railing to wait. After half an hour of the MCs on stage trying to get the crowd going I thought about going for a dip in the pool they had setup to the side but the crowd was getting thicker in anticipation for the driver’s arrival so I stayed my ground.

In the last few minutes before any action, a few of the promo girls arrived on stage with t-shirt guns. Now the crowd was excited! I left the safety of my barrier and got into the thick of it. I came close a couple of times but came closer to getting my hat knocked off than getting a t-shirt. When finally we were rewarded with the announcement of the Red Bull boys Dan Ricciardo (my man!) and Max Verstappen, I sat on top of the back railing to get a better look at everything. Dan was his usual smiley self and was so close! The crowd was soon coerced into singing Happy Birthday, unfortunately not for me, but for Max Verstappen since he was sharing my day. Instead of turning 28, he was only 20!

Over the next hour, we saw Felipe Massa, Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon and, even though they were painfully delayed, Kimi Raikonnen and Sebastian Vettel. We’d spent a good two hours in the hot, humid sun but it had been worth it to see our favourite sportsmen up close.

Keen for some shade and refreshments, me, Rob, Ryan and Dad head towards the entry gate where we presented our tickets and walked into the spectator’s paddock. On the way in, I’d picked up an empty Red Bull can for a scam. When I saw the ladies selling Red Bull with the offer of a free sticker with each can, I asked if I could have a sticker since I didn’t get one when I’d purchased my can. Sure enough, I got what I wanted!

As soon as we were inside, we found a beer tent and loaded up with tins of Heineken (at 16RG, $5.50 AUD) and heaps of ice to go into our coolers. On the way to our stand along the back straight, I heard the noise of wheel guns and was drawn towards the start-finish straight. The boys followed as I meandered over to the stand. Since there wasn’t any track action to miss, we sat ourselves down to enjoy a cold beer and watch the teams do some pit stop practice. From our seats we noticed there were a couple of Formula 4 cars stopped out on track and later figured out that they’d all run out of fuel towards the end of their last race. It was probably the only race in history where none of the cars in the field managed to finish.

An hour before practice, we moved over to our spot along the back straight picking up some kebabs along the way though I still wasn’t hungry thanks to the huge breakfast. We already knew that the seats on the top level of the grandstand along the back straight right across from the 150m board and TV was the best place to sit. From there we could see the whole last sector of the circuit and the cars up close as they were under braking gong into the last corner hairpin.

With no action happening on track, we entertained ourselves with our beers until practice. When the fastest race cars in the world presented themselves in front of us I was excited! It was a great practice session with plenty of the cars on track – there was never a dull moment. Partway through the session I wandered over to the tower at the tip of the hairpin to watch for a while and saw plenty of action. From that vantage point I could see the Mercedes understeering through the corner on each pass and I was astounded at the violent head bobbing of Jolyon Palmer as he took his Renault for an excursion across the gravel when he came in too hot. I went back to join the others in the grandstand for the last ten minutes of the session before it was all over too quickly.

Next on circuit was qualifying for the Porsche Carrera Cup race which we watched most of except for a beer run. Dad and I walked past the alternative beer tent that had their cans sitting in the sun so we walked the extra distance to where the cold ones were and were rewarded.

Comfortable back in our stand with more cold beers, we chatted away for the next hour until qualifying began. We were surprised the AFL contingent hadn’t shown up yet but hoped they wouldn’t miss too much of the track action. In the end, they showed up at the start of Q2 after their hour in the bus which had left late thanks to the disorganisation of two of the young guys. Anyway, they were here now.

Vettel was out of qualifying thanks to a turbo problem which made the session interesting. We were all on the edge of our seats at the end of Q3, hoping that Dan would land his car on pole for us but it wasn’t to be. Hamilton topped the charts again with Raikonnen painfully close behind him but Dan at least managed fourth behind his team mate. With the session over, we joined the mass exodus out of the track and met some others of the group along the way. Everyone met at the corner like usual and we were all arranged onto our respective busses. Shame for those that had come from the footy since they’d spent an hour getting to the track only to spend half an hour there before getting back on the bus again.

I had a good chat to Pete (the clock wearer) and Mandy at the back of the bus the whole way back, getting to know them a little better. At the end of the hour long bus ride, I was happy to get our of the cold air conditioning and back into the warm air that had cooled off a little with the sun having gone down. We all milled about in the lobby a while before meeting at the usual spot on market street for dinner. Dad and I caught up with the advance party that was Rob, Joylene, Ryan and his wife Morgan and 3yo Henry. Neither Dad nor I had met Henry before and it had been ages since I’d seen Morgan so it was great to chat to them over dinner. Henry is an advanced three year old, amazingly well behaved considering the chaos around him and disruption to his routine.

We ordered a few dishes ahead of the others so that Henry wasn’t kept waiting but it wasn’t long before everyone else joined us at the long table. There was plenty of food and beer to go with the lively conversation that I quietly listened to since I could feel a sore throat coming on. I hoped for the best, but drank as much water as I could while everyone else downed bottles of beer and wine.

Perhaps the best entertainment of the night was when a fellow restaurant patron wandered up to the nearby ice cream stand and offered to buy the bell from the vendor for 50RG. Surprisingly he agreed, so the rest of the night was free of incessant ringing. A close second was when Hayden bought a couple of red roses from one of the buskers and gave them to a couple of blonde girls wandering the markets, all in full view of our camp. There was plenty of heckling from the peanut gallery and it Hayden was soon walking back to the table a little red in the face, much to our entertainment.

The speeches for the night were kicked off by the self-appointed fines master Jake. After first explaining the rules and regulations of fine giving and receiving, he launched into attacks on his fellow contingent-members even dishing out fines for events that had happened following last year’s GP. It was all in good fun and followed up by Geoff who had more fines to hand out. Pete then took the stage and happily relented the clock to Hayden for being the one who’d made the footy bus so late to the circuit. A worthy recipient if I’d ever heard of one.

When the party started to split off, me and Dad went for a wander up the street to look for some cheap F1 goods like shirts and hats that we’d scored in the past. We were disappointed to find they had most everything else on offer but explained that for each piece of rip off F1 gear they carried, they were liable to cop a 5,000 RG fine so it wasn’t worth their while. Despite their best efforts to sell us every sort of handbag, shirt, hat and watch, we walked away empty handed. We found the stragglers sitting outside the cigar bar with another Tiger tower so we joined the circle and chatted a while.

I only lasted another half hour before giving it away, knowing now that my sore throat was likely to turn into something worse. I found my way back through the dark streets and slipped into bed around midnight, sleeping so deeply I didn’t hear Dad come in half an hour later.

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