This Is What Happens When F1 Comes To Town
A 104-degree track, a booze-cooled audience, screaming V8s with Mercedes-AMG at its best and the GP2 paddock, where everybody wants to upgrade their ride. Here's what it's like backstage at the Hungaroring.
On Friday night, I was on my way to meet Alfonso de Orléans-Borbón, who was kind enough to lend me a GP2 paddock pass at the last minute for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Just like everybody else, I was trying to secure an F1 pass in time for the race, and just like many, I failed.
As I walked by Le Méridien, it had an unusually large crowd at the entrance. I didn't give it a second thought. The sushi place was just next to the Gresham Palace, where my brain finally realized what was going on. Guess what? The circus was in town!
Looking at the door were lots of tall women in very short dresses trying to take photos with their smartphones. What could get so many of Hungary's lovely women so excited? A three-time world champion.
I saw exactly the same as them: the back of Vettel's head as he entered, surrounded by the security personnel. Moments later, a Vettel Edition Infiniti FX50 got floored on 50 feet of fancy stone in front of the hotel, telling the crowd to get the "hell out of" here in a very discreet, growling fashion.
In five minutes, I had a pass in my pocket that would provide me no access to F1 territory, and a promise from Alfonso that he will try his best to get me in. It was time for a beer.
I could tell it was past noon by the time I arrived at the track with the Autobianchi, simply because people were already drunk, and you need some time to get there. A group of Italians were giving me the thumbs of for the car, so love was in the air, and while looking for a parking place close to the GP2 paddock, I rolled by some Finns who kept saying KIMIKIMIKIMI. They almost sounded Swedish.
Inside, the unmistakable rumble of highly tuned flat-sixes was welcoming. It was the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup. It's great how new 911s always make it into all sorts of racing series in no time at all after their introduction. And these GT3 Cups sound fantastic! 460 naturally-aspirated horses through a racing exhaust in the middle. It's the simple things in life.
As I arrived to Racing Engineering's truck, the temperature was already getting close to 102 degrees. It turned out later on that the paramedics had to take care of 122 people thanks to that (and the booze) just on Saturday, followed by 116 on Sunday. No serious injuries. Tire warmers are not used in GP2, but they were sort of unecessary anyways.
Until Alfonso's arrival, I was accompanied by Thomas, the team's sporting manager, who walked me through the basics of the GP2 Series. You can learn all about it thanks to your Crazy Euro Car Boy. But here's one number I can't leave out: At the start of the 2013 Formula One season 24 out of 125 GP2 drivers have raced or will race in Formula-1. Not a bad school.
GP2 cars are a bit more honest than F1 machinery. Dallara provides the carbon/kevlar/aluminum chassis and body panels for all teams, just like how Brembo provides the brakes, Magneti Marelli provides the electronics and Mecachrome the 4-liter Renault V8s. The engines are tuned to 612 horsepower and limited to 10,000 revs.
There's no traction control, no telemetry, no power steering, and the suspension components are made of steel instead of carbon to keep the costs down. They can also take a bit more abuse, which is useful considering that the field is much more leveled. But don't think it's cheap fun. The front wings can take 881 pounds of downforce. They also cost $22,500 each. The red duct tape limiting the carbon brake's air intake was the only cheap component in sight.
When you look at F1 cars, you see surprisingly organic shapes hiding the mechanicals from the wind, and tiny differences making one car faster than the other. Brilliant engineering solutions often get banned, because while F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of automotive technology, in reality, it's a TV show directed by Bernie Ecclestone, who can even force Pirelli to ruin their reputation by making rubbish tires.
In GP2, everything is simplified and more physical due to the lack of electronic aids. But tire management is just as important. F1 cars are designed for maximum downforce, while GP2 cars use more mechanical grip. The Renault V8s are also torquier, meaning that the rear tires have to take more. And since the negative camber is also regulated by the FIA, drivers have to think more about their rubber before going into action. Not to mention that the Hungaroring is not used often enough to have leftover rubber on it to help grip.
But back to Formula One, because as I was looking at how the GP2 teams prepare for the race, the F1 qualification started on the track. And this is all I needed to see. Here's why:
There are two things that make F1 great. The soundtrack, and the drama.
Now, standing in a second gear corner close to the track, I got as many glorious-sounding downshifts as my ears could take. Maybe for the last time. And as far as the drama goes, you really need a cold beer in hand and an HD screen with Martin Brundle telling you what's going on. They've got helicopters and you've got one tiny section of the track in front of you on race day. And the Hungaroring is one of the better ones as far as visibility goes.
So, with that in mind, I was enjoying the limited view as Hamilton was getting closer to that all important pole position.
When the main show was over, things heated up in the GP2 paddock instantly. The ATVs were ready, turned into long trains smartly packed with extra wings, tires, tools and mechanics, all things needed on the grid.
The RE car's guts got covered in carbon fiber:
And with the wheels finally on the ground, all they needed was a bit of push from the team out of the garage. Than came the startup procedure, and first gear engaged on the GearTek 6-speed's paddle shifter.
It's was certainly cool to see how the drivers just got in their cars, all lined up in the most unusual sort of traffic jam in the paddock, gave it some gas and headed straight for the track.
Then, the louder-than-street legal sound of the SLS AMG safety car and the E63 AMG medical rocket blasting down with a little bit of oversteer indicated the race was only moments away.
GP2 was hard to follow. The cars stay together for quite a few laps, and at the end of the hour-long race, I could only guess that Racing Engineering's #8 car driven by Fabio Leimer finished fourth.
Looking up at Ferrari's scuderia rosso empire on the grid, I still had no idea if I could make it up there or not. Then a man who seemed to be angry about something came down from exactly there, making it clear that even Ferrari's scooters are better than the rest. Well, at least something is.
As the teenagers of the GP3 series got ready for their turn, I got a call from Alfonso, telling me that he got me an F1 paddock pass from Sauber "for one hour." So, there I was. Of course, no photography was allowed, and it was more of a quick look around than anything else, but I wasn't complaining.
As we walked by Martin Brundle, I was stupid enough not to ask him to join us at some point for a Kinja Q&A session. Shame on me. We went to see Adrian Sutil's father for a quick chat, who seemed like a very nice man, which made it especially sad to see his son retiring because of the lack of force once again in that Force India the following day.
Surprisingly, Sauber had the best lounge areas of all the F1 teams. As the first female team principal in Formula One was giving an interview at the next table, I had a chat with Alfonso about how his mom (who happened to race a Lancia Stratos) had an Autobianchi A112 Abarth with a custom suspension for the ultimate cornering experience, how his F1-engined Ferrari gets its papers done in Monaco without any problems while also needing an engine rebuild after every 3,000 miles, and how he still supports Vettel, his former driver, with all his heart.
No wonder he quickly became my favorite aristocrat. He also kept one eye on the screens, as GP3 drivers "would go over each other if they could".
Very true words. GP3 also has some female drivers, in case you're into butts wrapped in fireproof overalls.
As Bernie Ecclestone drove by with a police escort in a brand new S-Class (which is not even his, but rather a factory car driven by Mercedes to all the races for him), I couldn't help myself thinking that next time, he might get a police escort for very different reasons. No problem, Mercedes makes all sorts of vehicles.
The last person I remember seeing before leaving the paddock was Button's girlfriend at McLaren, which wasn't a bad way to finish it off.
It was late, so finding the A112 in the field called free parking lot has never been easier.
The Hungarian Grand Prix had a record number of visitors this year, just like how the country got a new heat record, and a new contract from Bernie making this race stay in the calendar for at least another seven seasons.
On Sunday, I watched the race streaming on the screen with a cold beer in hand.
Hamilton won, and I didn't miss a thing.