Sometimes more than race circuits, airport departures are the places where tired minds meet, professional bonds created and tales told when race weekends draw to a close. These environs, so often misunderstood and underused, are where the most intriguing stories are woven.
Often in the European Formula 3 Championship, it would not be unusual for large portions of the paddock (in this case, the British-based contingent) to reconvene in varied groups in departures on the Sunday evening of a race weekend, all having devised different routes to the airport, yet still somehow arriving at the same time.
As all wait for the (inevitably delayed) last flight back to Heathrow / Gatwick / Stansted / Luton / etc (take your pick), it becomes oddly comforting to find solid portions of a paddock throw down a long weekend and breathe a little, just enough to pull thoughts into some sort of relatable order. There will be those relaxed bodies, happy with collected silverware, victories, podiums and points and most likely kicking back with a drink of some kind, as they wait to get back to home, partners, children and the inevitable school run.
Naturally there are others who have endured more trying meetings; they’re often twinned with baggier eyes, that have probably sank in the mire of set-up loss and crash damage. In the case of the latter, the race weekend is sometimes the last thing that paddock folk want to talk about, for they have just lived through unfulfilled potential and have little desire to repeat the details.
It reminds me of when Måns Grenhagen drove for Van Amersfoort in 2013. Although touched with occasional speed, Måns crashed a lot and frightened numerous marshals, but nothing came close to his thunderous crash in the wet at Monza, when the Swede became airborne after ramming the rear of Jordan King, before landing on top of Will Buller’s car and settling into a series of barrel rolls.
Grenhagen jumped unharmed from his destroyed Dallara F313 and wandered away from the scene. Running down to the paddock afterward to see how he was, I was surprised to see an upbeat Grenhagen chewing on some fruit and grinning wildly, while one of his mechanics – already bored by the regularity with which the car needed to be repaired – looked on at his driver disapprovingly. In my years in various paddocks, so rarely have I seen such a withering stare. Grenhagen, meanwhile, smiled wildly and prodded me, saying, “Hey man, do you think I will be big on You Tube now?” “Hmmmm…” I thought. “Yes Måns, you’ll be huge…”
By the fourth round, Grenhagen had finally received a race ban when in the opening race at Brands Hatch, he arrived into a double-waved yellow flag zone at full-tilt and with locked, screeching tyres, scattering marshals who were attempting to recover a stricken car from the gravel trap. By the time the series met at Norisring in June, Grenhagen was history.
Back in Departures, there can be much talk about the sessions, the races and incidents therein and developments that have occurred within the team or on the car and particularly if a notable incident occurred. A key moment took place in the lounge at Vienna Airport last September, when the Lando Norris / Ralf Aron crash was relayed over and over again across various smartphones, viewed by drivers, parents and team personnel alike, all of whom huddled over the tiny screens, offering up comments, debate and discussion.
Of course, drivers do like to talk about racing and their competitors and are often quite knowledgeable about other categories of motorsport. For many it’s because they love the sport passionately and take part in lengthy discussions about all that is developing around them. On these occasions, you discover just many racers speak longingly of disciplines such as rallying or endurance racing, although Formula One is not necessarily as big a topic as one might imagine, almost as if that desire to reach the pinnacle of single-seater racing stutters the tongue.
There are, of course, far more mundane subjects up for discussion, such as upcoming geography tests or some foreign language lesson that is coming via the classroom or (more likely) private tutors the following morning. One must not forget that at Formula 3 level, several of these competitors, ranging between sixteen-to-eighteen years – are still to finish secondary school; not that it’s too high on the agenda for drivers. Parents might think differently though.
Occasionally when talking to engineers or team bosses, this is where one is told that “x driver is a real talent”, “y driver is good in this condition” or that s/he “works well under these circumstances”. It’s also where one is sometimes told “z driver is just shit…” The amount of times I have been told the latter…
Engineers hate having their time wasted and when placed with drivers of minimal talent, it can leave team members rather beleaguered and demotivated. Everyone wants to engineer and run a champion; a race winner and podium scorer presents chance and opportunity, while a regular points scorer often offers a platform on which elements can built. A driver whose best pace is 16th is less likely to instil confidence.
Amidst the competition between drivers, engineers and team principals have often been relatively open about the technical developments proudly fashioned onto a respective chassis. That talk has all but gone away now, with nearly every category outside of Formula One cloaked under the shroud of spec formula technical regulations, with thoughts of innovation drowned out by shouts of lowering costs and equal equipment.
If only such a thing worked. I have yet to see a genuinely cost effective single-make series that properly levelled playing fields. Those with endless bags of money always restrict such evenness.
As of next year, the specification formula under F1 becomes official as a single-chassis, single-engine International F3 replaces the GP3 Series and while numerous chassis and engine options will be available for regional F3 categories globally, each region will be bound to choose a single chassis and engine.
This ensures the new Formula 3 will be a reflection of Formula 4, albeit with more bells, whistles and horsepower. The engineers I spoke to were quite vocal about their disappointment in this development, sensing the long term damage that may come due to the trap of exclusivity.