x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A ticket to adventure: The 131,858 kilometres travelled covering Formula One

Gary Meenaghan has travelled 131,858 kilometres this Formula One season, reporting on every race for The National. His news stories, features and commentaries have filled the sports pages - but they do not tell the full story of his epic, globe-trotting journey.

Some of the media passes, boarding tickets and currency Gary has used this year.
Some of the media passes, boarding tickets and currency Gary has used this year.

Gary Meenaghan has travelled 131,858 kilometres this Formula One season, reporting on every race for The National. His news stories, features and commentaries have filled the sports pages - but they do not tell the full story of his epic, globe-trotting journey.

Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne

The first race of the year and I could not have asked for a more pleasurable assignment. After stumbling across the Lord Mayor unveiling the Grid Girls in the city centre, a race organiser invites me to "Webber on a Weber" - a breakfast barbecue at 9am the following day hosted by Mark Webber.

The venue - The Sandbar - is on the beach, about a 10-minute taxi ride from my hotel. I leave at 8.30am and walk toward the sea while looking for a cab. I reach the coast at 9.35am, scorched by sun. I have given up on both the taxi and the barbecue, but I notice The Sandbar is still bustling - the event is running late. As I introduce myself to Webber, he hands me a plate of food and tells me to "tuck in, mate". I dutifully obey.

As I chew on some traditional Aussie tucker, I observe a relaxed Webber chewing the fat with Red Bull's racing protege Daniel Ricciardo. They appear at ease and despite being made to walk through the sand towards a camera for a video clip, their smiles are almost as big as mine. I could get used to this lifestyle.

Malaysia Grand Prix, Sepang

The driver who takes me to and from the circuit each day says he prefers football to Formula One, but by the way he drives you would never guess it. He is the Malaysian Michael Schumacher and, worryingly, pays little attention to the inclement weather conditions.

Each day at precisely 4pm it starts to pour; you can set your watch by it. The clock strikes four and lightning strikes the earth. Crashing thunder is joined by torrential rain that creates rivers of water that flood the paddock. Jenson Button describes the track as having "great flow" but I do not think he meant this.

At the circuit, I speak to someone else with an interest in football - Tony Fernandes of Team Lotus, who has expressed an interest in buying a football club. He certainly knows the sport, and with Forbes announcing him as the Asian Businessman of the Year, a Premier League club might benefit from having him in charge.

At his home race, he is a man in demand and to escape the hordes of autograph hunters prowling the paddock, we head into the team's garage. Over the ear-piercing shrill of a V8 engine, we shout at each other about West Ham United, the qualities of Scott Parker and his futile attempt to acquire his boyhood club. Fascinating.

Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai

After the race, I make a short trip south from Shanghai to Hangzhou, where I have been invited to deliver a lecture to media and communications students at Zheijang University. The Chinese are often regarded as being shy and the students initially do little to alter the stereotype. But when they are warned they will all be required to ask a question before the end, the discussion begins to flow.

They are very keen to learn how much a journalist gets paid ("Not enough"), and who is the most famous person I've met ("David Beckham or Tiger Woods"). I am interested in their perceptions of F1 (pretty much nonexistent) and who they regard as the most famous Chinese sports personality (Yao Ming or Liu Xiang).

It is a rather bizarre experience, but after overcoming my self-consciousness, I enjoy it. The students thank me by presenting me with a box of tea, which will make for an economical present for my colleagues back in Abu Dhabi.

Turkish Grand Prix, Istanbul

My first task is to interview spectators about Istanbul Park potentially disappearing from the F1 calendar. (Turkey is one of the season's poorest attended races.) My first target is a young Russian, but he speaks no English. Fortunately, Formula One is not the only industry with advanced technology and so I experience a journalistic first: an interview conducted via Google Translate.

Dmitry Gamper tells my iPhone he is attending his first race in support of compatriot Vitaly Petrov; he hopes Turkey remains on the calendar; and he is very much looking forward to Russia's inaugural grand prix in 2014.

Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona

Force India hosts a curry night in their motorhome, so I pop along to share some chicken tikka masala and poppadoms with Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil. There is a fear among the F1 fraternity regarding India's inaugural race. It seems people think it inevitable they are going to contract dysentery. There is no such worries here, though, as Di Resta gobbles up curry and Sutil sits stony-faced quietly watching reruns of the practice sessions that day.

Spain and Monaco are on back-to-back weekends, so I conjure up a romantic idea of travelling by train along the French Riviera. Leaving Barcelona on Monday, I enjoy an overnight stop in the beautiful French town of Montpellier, then relax and gaze out of the window as my train hugs the coastline so closely that at times it appears the track must surely be submerged in the azure waters. By Tuesday evening I have arrived in Monte Carlo.

Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo

When I arrive at the track, the place is a circus. A van caught fire on a public road that is part of the street circuit and melted the asphalt. Fire engines and police cars rush to the scene, and in the resulting chaos teams are unable to access the paddock. With the media accreditation yet to be delivered, there is no security gate in place - so the public are free to walk around in search of their favourite drivers.

The only team unaffected is Red Bull, who employ a special motorhome with its own security, so while Fernando Alonso is mobbed by travelling tifosi and Button is almost hit by a forklift, Sebastian Vettel and Webber relax close to their private swimming pool. Perfect preparation for the constructors' champions.

The funniest episode: Ferrari's catering team, in rushing to deliver food to their motorhome, forgets to close the rear doors on their truck, and Bolognese sauce ends up splattered all over the tarmac.

Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal

Virgin Racing have let slip they have invited Rihanna to the race. It is unprofessional to get autographs or photographs of drivers and other celebrities, but I would make an exception for her. Heartbreakingly, though, by the time the race starts she has yet to arrive, so as I settle in at the media centre I conclude my dream will go unfulfilled. When the race is suspended because of rain, the cameras cut to the McLaren-Mercedes garage where Lewis Hamilton, having crashed out moments earlier, is shown explaining to a mystery figure the workings of his F1 car.

Rihanna, sporting a pair of dark Ray-Bans, a denim jacket and a shaggy mass of red hair, is here! My heart skips a beat, the race resumes and she is gone by the time Button crosses the finish line. I guess a paddock pass can only get you so far in this world.

European Grand Prix, Valencia

"Are you sure you are at the right airport?" asks the check-in clerk at Dubai International Airport. Reality hits: I am in Dubai, and my flight to Madrid (via Istanbul) is departing from Abu Dhabi. My first missed flight of the season.

Perhaps I am getting blase about my travel or maybe I just have a tendency for foolishness. I'll blame it on the jet lag that follows a 20-hour fight from Canada. In Valencia, I speak to Sutil during what must be his largest audience for a pre-race briefing. It's the first time he has met the press since Renault's Eric Lux filed criminal charges against him regarding an incident in a Shanghai nightclub. We appear to know more about the case than he does. Or at least so he has us believe.

British Grand Prix, Silverstone

At Silverstone, the drivers stay in luxury mobile homes, so I decide to do a story about "glamping" and try to gain access to their campsite. The access gate is, however, manned by a small squadron of fatigues-clad British Army soldiers.

The only way I will be allowed in, they say, is if I agree to give one of the guys my media pass for a couple of hours, so he can have a wander around the paddock. Good to see they have their priorities right. I don't think Bernie Ecclestone would agree to that, so I decline. Thankfully, it turns out they were only testing me and let me in regardless.

German Grand Prix, Nurburg

My first visit to the famous Nurburgring is shrouded in mist and miserable weather. The cold and wet conditions have done little for my enthusiasm, so I am pleased to learn Mercedes are offering a hot lap at Nordschleife, the fabled and now-disused 22km track north of the current F1 circuit.

As I sit shotgun, Bernd Maylander, a former F1 driver, speeds me around in a Mercedes C63 AMG, slowing for nothing other than to let me stumble out at the end. With the powerful g-force, the incalculable speed at which he changes gear while negotiating steep graffiti-laden bends at 270 kph, it is a memorable experience.

Hungarian Grand Prix, Budapest

In Germany, I receive an invitation to "the annual FOFIFO dinner" in Budapest. I have no idea what that stands for, but the crest catches my eye. When I discover it represents Fans of Football in Formula One, I sign up straight away. The only requirement is to present a short speech and wear the kit of your favourite team. I arrive in Hungary straight from Germany, so I have to make do with the only football jersey I have with me.

At the dinner, racing people such as Mike Gascoyne, the Team Lotus technical director, and Paul Hembery, Pirelli's director of motorsport, stand up and extol the virtues of the likes of Norwich City, Bristol City and West Ham United.

Eventually, to a throng of baffled faces, I arise proudly in my white UAE shirt and explain the quality of the 1990 World Cup, the potential of Ahmed Khalil and the Falcons' hopes ahead of the 2014 qualification process.

Belgian Grand Prix, Spa

On the eve of my flight to Brussels, I receive a bizarre email. I have signed up to share a chalet with other journalists, one of whom is asking whether we would have a problem "if Maxi Jazz crashes with us".

The lead singer of Faithless, the British electronica group, is a renowned petrolhead, and he has left it late to find accommodation. Sadly, he sources somewhere closer to the circuit, so it never happens. I thought he suffered Insomnia anyway.

I spend Saturday at the foot of Eau Rouge, one of the steepest climbs in F1. Watching the cars fight the undulations and incline is fascinating and it is clear why, at €450 (Dh2,290) for the weekend, a seat in the stands opposite is one of the most expensive tickets of the season.

Italian Grand Prix, Milan

Hamilton is getting tetchy with Vettel being referred to as F1's youngest champion. When Vettel is asked about his memories of the September 11 attacks, he said he heard the news but went for a cycle anyway because he was 14 and thought "it's not true". When Vettel asks Hamilton if he remembers, the Briton snaps: "I do, yeah. I'm only a couple of years older than you, remember?"

Vettel was the talk of Silverstone with his impersonation of Nigel Mansell's Birmingham accent, and he shows his love for British humour again when asked his thoughts on the inaugural Indian Grand Prix.

He has the room laughing when he replies, "I hope all of us manage to spend most of the time on the track doing what we usually do and not in the restrooms."

Singapore Grand Prix, Singapore

McLaren invites me to a chat with Button - at one o'clock in the morning. The drivers stay on European time for the only night race, so they sleep late and stay up half the night. One night I see Fernando Alonso at a party at 2am. He is ushered in, does a lap of the room and escapes.

When I see Button for our interview, I notice some ink on his arm and ask where he has been, as it looks like a stamp acquired when you enter a nightclub. "You don't watch much Formula One then?" he asks, slightly irked. It is a tattoo of a button. I had never noticed it as his arms are usually covered. I joke that I don't get the relevance of a button tattoo, but I don't think it works.

He seems a lot more at ease when he doesn't have a phalanx of dictaphones in his face, and we end up having a decent chat. When asked if he is thinking about getting married yet, he pauses before cleverly answering, "Not at this precise moment."

Japan Grand Prix, Suzuka

The passion and creativity of the Japanese fans is overwhelming. An a walk about the circuit, I see a host of colourful characters, including a pair of women who wear on their heads handcrafted miniature Red Bull RB7s complete with helmets, which lift up to reveal the smiling faces of Webber and Vettel.

Korean Grand Prix, Yeongnam

I visit Seoul, a fantastically vibrant city. Few Koreans give me better insight into F1's position in their culture than Justin Park. "You're here for the Formula One?" he asks. "I thought that was last year."

The race is in Mokpo, which could not be more different to the neon mayhem of the capital. It is quiet, with few hotels and no international chains.

I chat with Heikki Kovalainen of Team Lotus, who says he is content in the countryside. I'm sure the fact his hotel has three golf simulators in the lobby has something to do with it. The Finn is golf crazy and good friends with English golfer Ian Poulter.

Indian Grand Prix, New Delhi

I'm surprised by how much interest and enthusiasm there is for F1's first race on the subcontinent. A statue of Hamilton sits outside the airport, and billboards featuring Narain Karthikeyan, Karun Chandhok and the Force India team are everywhere.

McLaren are forced to fly in reinforcements after some of the hospitality team suffers the dreaded "Delhi belly", while bats, rats and stray dogs have all been spotted inside the paddock. Nobody is complaining, though: vibrant India is unlike any other country on the calendar.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae


Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Gary Meenaghan on @GMeenaghan