Testing, VIP style

Motor Racing - Formula One Testing - Test Three - Day 2 -  Barcelona, Spain

Funnily enough, the more you become involved in Formula One as a journalist, the less you get the opportunity to actually see the drivers do their thing on track. Granted, the media centre does give you a vantage point over the circuit but you’re probably too busy typing furiously a news story; or transcribing an interview you’ve conducted earlier in the paddock; or staring up at the screens to see if Felipe Nasr is going to string together three purple sectors and set a fastest time – in pre-season testing big deal! Yes he does – so you must tell the world right away through your live timing page and you start working feverishly on your keyboard and… damn I’m beyond repair!

This is why the invitation I received from both the Tourist Office of Catalonia and Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya turned out to be a much-appreciated breath of fresh air. The venue has been a permanent fixture on the F1 calendar since 1991 and will celebrate hosting its 25th Spanish Grand Prix from May 8-10 this year. What’s more, the track has become an F1 teams’ favourite for pre-season testing as it has great corner variety and features everything they need to properly assess their new contenders. “If a car performs well at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya,” they say, “you’re pretty much on the money everywhere else”.

So for two days during the final pre-season test of 2015 I took up the invitation and decided to experience testing, VIP style.

Staying in the heart of Barcelona, the commute is pretty short as the track lies merely half an hour away from one of Europe’s most vibrant cities – no offence Silverstone we still love you. Fellow newsmen and I are welcomed in the circuit’s VIP box, which is located right above the F1 garages and offers a terrific view on what’s happening in the pit lane. Add to this a couple of croissants and espressos and we, lucky journos, are sitting pretty cosy.

Motor Racing - Formula One Testing - Test Three - Day 4 -  Barcelona, Spain

Then comes the true pièce de résistance as we hop aboard one of the shuttles that usually dispatches photographers around the track. As we make our way towards the first braking area, Sebastian Vettel roars past us in his Ferrari on the main straight, a scarlet bullet on a mission. And this is when the excitement kicks back in. All these hours spent in the media centre had somehow made me numb, now I feel alive again.

I can already hear another engine rumbling in the distance. Barely have I time to turn around that Felipe Nasr shoots before my eyes in the new yellow-and-blue-liveried Sauber. I could not care less whether the rookie is setting purple sectors, whether his personal sponsors are spending gazillions to have him race in F1, or whether he’s the next big thing coming from Brazil. All I know is that Felipe’s one of the few mad men out there brave enough to drive an 850bhp beast around the 4.6 kilometres of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

We first stop near the entry of turn five, a left-hand corner cascading downhill. (I had the opportunity to run the track a week earlier so believe me it’s quite steep!) Meanwhile, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg and Toro Rosso debutant Max Verstappen have joined the fray. The new W06 Hybrid appears to be a very well balanced machine indeed as the 2014 runner-up gently applies the power to scamper away.

A little further down the road, I can spot Vettel’s father and younger brother watching the action trackside. Norbert and Fabian are not the only drivers’ relatives we bump into during our privileged tour. Jos ‘the Boss’ Verstappen is also taking a stroll to see his 17-year-old son Max pound the track and learn the ropes.

Motor Racing - Formula One Testing - Test Three - Day 4 -  Barcelona, Spain

Our next halt comes inside the Stadium section, which starts the final sector. From where I stand, I can hear the drivers arriving flat-out from turn 9 and see them brake heavily at La Caixa before taking on the most technical part of the circuit. A quick left is followed by a long right and the car are already whizzing by in turn 13, en route to the final chicane. Positioned so close to the track, I can actually see the pilots working the wheel as they swerve from one kerb to the other. Quality.

At that point, you might want to know what the power units sound like. I did not really understand last year’s outcry, especially coming from people who did not attend any races. TV does not really do justice to F1, both in terms of speed and noise. Don’t get me wrong, I had the chance to hear V10s and V8s in action and these were ear-shatteringly great, but the new breed of power units offers a different but equally enjoyable kind of experience. It’s still pleasantly loud while the turbo and energy recovery systems whistling and squealing add a nice touch. With all due respect to the naysayers, their constant grumbling is a far less enjoyable sound.

After our exciting on-track trip, my fellow correspondents and I are ushered into the circuit’s press conference room. This is also where all the drivers gather for their customary briefing during the Grand Prix weekend. Cherry on the cake, we are even allowed to head out on the podium. As I climb on the top step and face the impressive grandstands across the track, I can only begin to imagine what winning the Spanish Grand Prix must feel like. A former senior F1 figure, who is also part of the organised trip, looks visibly buoyant as he winks at me. “I worked on almost 200 Grand Prix and never had a chance to do what we’ve just done in half a day!”


Next on our list is the mid-session pit walk. With testing stopping for one hour every day, VIPs, guests, but also regular fans with special tickets can wander about in the pit lane as teams roll out demo cars in front of their respective boxes. Admittedly, most of the machines on display are one of several seasons old. But this does not seem to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm; especially the younger aficionados who look thrilled when team personnel invite them to pose near the cars. Too bad F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone does not want to cater for newer generations. After all, they can’t afford Rolexes so what’s the point?

Perhaps willing to end its 2015 pre-season testing curse and hark back to the glorious day of its first Honda partnership, McLaren exhibits the all-conquering 1988 MP4/4 that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost drove to 15 wins (out of 16 races). Older fans give their nod of approval while others take obligatory selfies before the different pit walls. As the sun bathes the pit lane, it’s time for our tour to end.

It was definitely a great opportunity to take a step aside from the hustle and bustle of the paddock and enjoy what’s so good about F1, namely the sport itself.