There is always something more special when it’s my home Grand Prix of Singapore, more so because it’s a temporary street circuit in a small city hosting the only night race in Formula One. Once again I had the privilege of being in the FIA Media Centre in the paddock, hence getting up-close views of the drivers.
The media centre was above the Red Bull Racing and Ferrari pits this time, so we had a bird’s eye view of all their pit stops. I had to mark my spot though, standing there from the start of the race till Sebastian Vettel made his first pit stop.
I didn’t get pit lane access, so I couldn’t get as near to the cars as other photographers did. But at a street track, you’re so much more part of the action than at a more traditional, wide-open venue.
Each year I find it amazing how these streets I drive on nearly every day are converted into a track, with the fastest cars in the world going down at 300kph.
Setting up the street circuit starts from as early as May, as all the lighting structures and barriers are taken out from the warehouse and slowly put in place.
With the road closures, it means having to leave my car at home and taking public transport – a once-in-a-year affair for me.
The thing is, I often leave the circuit very late (not till about 3am in the morning) because the drivers stay on European time – so, for example, I was interviewing Daniel Ricciardo at 2am.
The train services are extended to 1am only, so that means I had to take a cab, but look at the queue. I walked past the entire queue and estimated there must have been at least 600 people in that line!Signing sessions, sponsors and style
Covering the Singapore Grand Prix for the sixth time now, the Formula One week usually begins on Wednesday when the drivers start arriving and making appearances for their sponsors. Wednesday and Thursday are the two days that I wish I could clone myself and attend every single event.
For example, whilst Vettel was gracing the opening of the first Casio G Factory Premium Store in the world, at the same time Mercedes AMG Petronas drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were doing a meet-and-greet session with the fans at another mall. But all the drivers were rushing around attending various events.
I rushed down to the paddock after the events and joined the rest of the photographers in the late afternoon sun to wait for the arrival of the drivers. This is also the best time to ask for autographs from them.
Besides the drivers, one of the greatest delights we look forward to daily is the arrival of Jessica Michibata, girlfriend of Jenson Button. There is nothing that sweet smile cannot cheer up and every day everyone is curious to know what she will wear to the track. All the attention was on her this time as Hamilton and his pussycat doll girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger had broken up and hence she wasn’t here.
The fully air-conditioned media centre comes with a café stocked with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, fresh coffee from a Nespresso machine, a never-ending supply of soft drinks, sandwiches, wraps, pies and even hot soup, but I preferred standing around in the paddock and spotting drivers moving between the pit garage and hospitality suite.
Wherever they go, there will always be cameras trained on the drivers.
It is definitely a privilege I am grateful for, and I admire the diehard fans who religiously wait outside the paddock entrance in hope of catching their favourite drivers.
Even Vettel’s PR manager, Britta Roeske, has a fan club and was stopped for autographs after some of the fans recognised her.
Day or night, fans continue waiting and I saw how Button kindly obliged by signing autographs when he was leaving the circuit at 2am one night.Street sweepers
It’s a pity that the McLaren team has been forced down to mid-field this season, but I’m sure this poor performance is only temporary – especially when they have declared that they have dedicated resources to developing next year’s car with the major engine regulation change.
Whereas the Mercedes are well on the pace; Lewis’ change of team now seems like the smart move. Within the confines of the Singapore street track the cars looked alive, skimming barriers and jumping kerbs.
Apexes take on a different dimension: miss one and it’s a wall awaiting you rather than acres of run-off.
Race day atmosphere is the most exhilarating and I could just feel the excitement in the air. Street tracks demand a whole different level of concentration and skill – even more so when you throw in the flood-lights.
While fans were practically bouncing off their seats in the stands, the media centre was also filled with lots of anticipation as everyone was joined together with the same purpose.
My heart started beating faster when the cars went off for their formation lap and the crews hurried to clear the grid.
After that exciting start, Vettel simply drove away from everyone: you could see he was that much quicker than everyone. Behind him, empty track…
On TV you see the local roads criss-crossing the bright white line of the circuit, but watching the Grand Prix from the side of the track, it was easy to forget that there was a bustling city all around.
We’d all been willing on the pair of McLarens, but as their tyres gave up they were sitting ducks. For them it was like slow-motion around the streets as the chasing cars swamped them.
Alonso was in a good mood after the race, saying that he felt it was a victory for them to be able to finish second under such circumstances. Amid all the rumours about him, I have to say that he is a fine driver, one who can squeeze the maximum out of a not-so-ideal car.
Packing up quicker than they set up, the containers and forklifts were already out in the paddock during the race.
The three podium finishers had to complete rounds of interviews for the various TV stations after the post-race press conference. There were so many questions for Vettel, who even got booed by some fans when he went up the podium.
However much as some people may not like Vettel or his dominance, credit does go to his team, who work hard.Missing you already
Formula One goes as quickly as it comes and I already started feeling withdrawal symptoms when I left the circuit late after the race, strolling the empty streets.
This year, I printed out photos I previously took with the drivers and got them to sign on them. I will miss Webber too (having interviewed him every year since 2010) who told me that he would never return to Formula One.
But like the four-time World Champion Alain Prost said in my interview with him: “Sometimes, you get a little bit tired not from the driving but outside of it, like the environment and ambience, especially when it wasn’t what I wanted to have. In the end you say to yourself why should I continue like this, maybe it’s the right time to stop.”