It’s time for a subtle change of pace.
More specifically, Formula 1 goes back to its roots this weekend, the cars having eschewed jet travel for the first time this year and, instead, been transported by road to Barcelona for this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, the event that heralds the beginning of grand prix racing in Europe.
In racing terms there’s little – if anything – to differentiate the start of what’s known as the European season; but, in practical terms, F1 folk break the races down into two distinct categories: flyaways – where the cars and equipment are air-freighted to the farthest events on the calendar; and Europeans – the races at which the cars and spares are driven in large bespoke trucks, in the grand tradition of the sport.
Back in the 1950s, racing in Europe saw the team’s mechanics inching their transporters over steep climbs and deep plunges which prefaced attempting to find a space in a chaotic paddock in some cases barely bigger than a postage stamp (okay, I exaggerate, but you get my drift).
In some ways little has changed: after all, those elegant lorries loaded with pristine racing machinery have rolled across Europe since the 1950s. In others, however, the world is completely different.
Take a look through some of Rainer Schlegelmilch’s stunning historic photography from the 1960s and 1970s – much of which is beautifully reproduced in last year’s sumptuous ‘McLaren: 50 Years of Racing’ book, written by my old friend Maurice Hamilton – and you’ll still see the venerable team truck very much in existence.
But, back then, the paddocks were far more makeshift – garages were little more than covered brick boxes where a team would bring only the essential tools required to fettle their cars. Once the sessions were completed, the cars, spares and tools would be wheeled back to the team’s base – usually a lorry with a side awning. Throw in a couple of picnic tables, a few deckchairs and a willing helper to make the sandwiches, and your trackside hospitality package was largely complete.
Into the 1970s and ’80s, conditions started to improve. Cast your eye over photographs from pre-season testing from Rio in the early 1980s, and you’ll invariably see shirtless mechanics, dressed in cut-off denim shorts, wearing sandals. Ex-Brabham and McLaren designer Gordon Murray famously appeared in the paddock wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt carrying the somewhat dubious title of their first album. He obviously hadn’t received the memo about team kit!
As teams grew larger, and became more professional, so circuits too started to develop and grow. The teams’ journey was spearheaded by perfectionist entrepreneurs such as Ron Dennis and Bernie Ecclestone, two team owners who prided themselves on the immaculate appearance of their equipes.
Slowly, the concept of uniformity began to emerge.
Still, the paddock was far from what it is today: whereas nowadays it’s a slick, pedestrianised zone, back then it was very much a bustling service area, full of course vehicles, ambling racing cars and lots of people. Sometimes it was grassed, or even scrubland. The idea that the paddock was exclusively reserved for the sport’s professionals and its lucky VIPs was non-existent.
But as the sport’s relationship with multi-national corporates slowly blossomed, so too did its need to smarten up its act. Podium ceremonies started to become less chaotic and more formulaic, sponsorship arrangements turned into ‘brand partnerships’, and the paddock too became the exclusive preserve of the teams, drivers and the glitterati – the fences went up, the swipe gates were installed, and the paddock pass became a fabulously valuable commodity for an entire sporting and social community.
The facilities themselves simply grew bigger and smarter.
Most paddocks are still simple concrete strips; some, however, are quirky and idiosyncratic. Imola’s three-sided enclosure – dictated, as was the track itself, by the Santerno river that bordered it – meant that motorhomes were often randomly jammed in sideways in order to fit properly. Magny-Cours had a pleasant circle-the-wagons feeling, with the paddock built within a large square that forced all the units to look inwards on each other. Monaco, then as now, was cramped and chaotic, as much a logistical feat as a practical one to get all the motorhomes unpacked and assembled within a tight and narrow strip of land alongside the Med.
The garages, too, have developed significantly. They’ve grown broader and deeper, and the trucks that back onto them have become sophisticated portable machine shops, capable of housing machines and componentry optimized so as to fix broken racing cars on the fly. They also double as team meeting rooms and engineering hubs – each equipped with desk space, laptops and flat-screen TVs.
Equally, the motorhomes have grown steadily grander. Where once you grabbed a sandwich or a plate of lukewarm, reheated penne arrabiata, the hospitality units nowadays offer a sumptuous selection of comestibles to guests and media. It’s hard to even conceive that these units arrive on the back of low-loader trailers, and are bolted together in a matter of days by a crack corps of hard-working riggers. They defy their portability, and are one of Formula 1’s greatest showpieces – they certainly impress guests and visitors who cannot believe they will be ported away for the next race in a fortnight’s time.
However, I do wonder whether the era of the paddock motorhome behemoth has already reached its zenith. Back in the early noughties, when many of these steel and glass edifices were conceived, designed and built, the Formula 1 calendar was still very Euro-centric. To put that statement in perspective, consider that, of the 16 races on the 2003 calendar, 10 were in Europe; in 2013, only seven out of 19 were European.
Nowadays, with F1 reaching farther and farther afield – I hear that Azerbaijan will be joining the calendar next year – there’s less of a need for monster motorhomes, simply because they deliver less annual ROI than ever before.
And perhaps that’s a good thing. For me at least, Formula 1 has always been a sociable sport, one where its participants and followers moved, spoke, ate and slept together. It would be heartening, albeit somewhat fanciful, to think that a return to a simpler existence within the great paddocks of Europe would somehow bring about a return to the sporting and social values of the past.
Of course, it’s just a dream, but, as the sport embarks on its yearly jaunt across the European summer, it’s important to remember that this continent will always be Formula 1’s spiritual home, and it always deserves to be well represented – even on the most cosmopolitan of grand prix calendars.