x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The road to Abu Dhabi

In Abu Dhabi for the first time for the inaugural Yas Marina Circuit race, Sarah Holt, who has not missed a moment of the season, looks back on the past eight months

Sebastian Vettel celebrates after winning the Chinese Grand Prix but it was the crazy driving of the Shanghai  taxi driver which sticks in the mind of the BBC's Sarah Holt because they had no idea where they were going and she wondered if she would arrive in one piece.
Sebastian Vettel celebrates after winning the Chinese Grand Prix but it was the crazy driving of the Shanghai taxi driver which sticks in the mind of the BBC's Sarah Holt because they had no idea where they were going and she wondered if she would arrive in one piece.

From the 2009 season-opener in Australia to its finale in Abu Dhabi, I have criss-crossed the globe: travelling thousands of miles by plane, train and mini-bus to report on the sleekest speed machines of them all - F1 cars. The 17-race season has taken me through disorientating time-zones and into lands I have never visited before as my passport collected fresh ink from Malaysia, China, Bahrain, Turkey, Singapore, Japan, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates.

It is not only the destinations that are special: F1 drivers are unique sportsmen. They are often misjudged as being nothing more than glorified jockeys charged with steering their super-fast steeds safely to the flag, but they are as sleek and toned as the cars beneath them. They have to have enough aerobic capacity and mental strength to cope with speeds of more than 200mph and G-forces which make their head effectively weigh five times its normal weight. If you still need convincing, Jenson Button proved how fit he was by impressively finishing an Olympic distance triathlon in just over two hours during his mid-season break, for fun.

The glamorous lifestyle is also a bit of a myth. Force India's Adrian Sutil glumly told me he had to be in bed by 10pm on race weekends. It was a pleasant surprise to find F1's stars, even high-profile world champions Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, hanging out in the paddock with the rest of us non-celebrities. Some of them have even wandered over for an impromptu chat - usually about the weather. My favourite driver moment of the season remains the sight of Kimi Raikkonen, out of his car, into his board-shorts, back at the Ferrari garage eating an ice-cream at the Malaysian Grand Prix, even though the race had yet to be officially called off. The laid-back Finn is definitely a one-off.

The drivers have provided so many thrills - and spectacular crashes - that choosing the best track moment of the season is tricky, but Hamilton and Alonso's feisty battle for a rather meaningless 16th place at Silverstone was fascinating. Hamilton snuck past Alonso but he refused to yield and pushed his former teammate on to the grass. Later, the pair went wheel-to-wheel down the straight before Hamilton broke clear. Both said after the race how much they loved the freedom of racing when there was nt a championship at stake.

The peripatetic nature of F1's travelling circus makes it difficult to explore each destination. The monotonous cycle of a F1 weekend is pretty much as follows: arrive at the airport, head to the circuit, leave after dark, eat in a hurry, sleep, repeat for four days and then fly home. Despite this there have been some unforgettable off-track experiences along the way. April's back-to-back races in China and Bahrain provided a double dose of memorable escapades. The future of the Chinese Grand Prix may be in doubt beyond next season but Shanghai's drivers seemed perfectly suited to F1's pedal-to-the-metal speed and banzai overtaking. I was never quite sure if I would reach my destination because the taxi drivers often had no idea where to go, and even if they did would I arrive in one piece?

We flew on to the sun-scorched climes of Bahrain for what turned out to be one of my favourite expeditions of the season. As part of a four-strong crew, I headed into the desert to film some opening links for the BBC's F1 programme. The pale gold desert landscape, dotted with oil derricks, was mesmerising and our journey was made even more special as we found a camel-racing school hidden amongst the dunes.

There was one race on the calendar that everyone, including my sports-shy friends, offered to take off my hands. It was Monaco, the race around the principality that has come to epitomise the sport and all its glamour. Button had arrived in his adopted hometown in May as the championship leader saying that his four victories had made him boring. But when he took the chequered flag he was ecstatic, even parking up his Brawn car and running down the pit straight to reach the podium.

There was also no escaping the glamour factor in Monaco and celebrities paraded along the paddock during the weekend. Another filming expedition saw four of us sail across the harbour and round the headland to attend the Grand Prix's traditional charity Amber fashion show. The drivers donned civvies and joined models to strut their stuff in front of an audience that included actress Liz Hurley and Princess Beatrice. I felt a little out-of-place amid the glitz before Red Bull driver-turned-model-for-the-night Mark Webber reassuringly said: "Don't worry this only happens in Monaco."

My season on the road has taught me that sometimes it is not the special guests, drivers or even the cars which lend star quality to a race - sometimes it is the circuits. There have been some magnificent tracks: Monaco, Silverstone, Suzuka and Interlagos, but the twin peaks of the season for me were Spa and Monza. These historic tracks have staged Grands Prix almost every year since the world championship began in 1950 and many of the drivers who have mastered them have become heroes.

The drive to Spa-Francorchamps, home of the Belgium Grand Prix, weaved up and up into the Ardennes Mountains and when the track finally appeared, snaking through the wooded slopes my first thought was "now this is a proper race circuit". Formula One is in essence about a driver pushing his car to its limit whilst asking him to do the same of himself: Spa makes these demands. From the sidelines I have no idea how it feels to drive on the limit and so, in Belgium, former McLaren and Red Bull driver, and now BBC pundit, David Coulthard came trackside with me to explain. We stood at the bottom of Eau Rouge watching the cars hurtle flat-out through and on up the famous hill. Coulthard described driving over its crest at high-speed as "blind faith". Just one year after his retirement he found it hard to believe even he had hurled himself through such a high-speed challenge.

Monza's demands are no less immense as the cars are pushed to the edge of their raw speed and power at the home of the Italian Grand Prix, just north of Milan. The Italians call it "the magic track" and I too was drawn in by the fervour of the tifosi and the circuit's sense of history. Greats such as Alberto Ascari, posthumous world champion Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson lost their lives here in the pursuit of racing reward. I joined another filming trek to search the trees of the royal park for a close-up glimpse of Monza's remaining relic - the curved banking of the oval track. Clambering up its steep walls, I was amazed to think that drivers used to race heart-in-mouth around the oval before it was abandoned in 1961 because of safety fears.

Concerns over safety arose in headline-grabbing circumstances this year. I remember turning to my boss in Budapest and saying: "We could do with something happening this weekend." I should have been careful what I wished for: waiting for Ferrari's Felipe Massa to emerge from his crash during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix was a sobering experience. The Brazilian had been hit on the helmet by debris from Rubens Barrichello's Brawn but there was confusing news about his condition late into the evening. By the end of the day, we knew he had fractured his skull and was recovering in an induced coma. The paddock was eerily subdued on Sunday. McLaren still celebrated Lewis Hamilton's first win of 2009 but Massa's accident served as a reminder that F1 is a dangerous way to make a living.

The rollercoaster F1 season also proved there are perils and drama to be had off the track too - as if I hadn't seen that coming. The sport threatened to implode on more than one occasion. In only the second race of the season under Malaysia's storm-laden sky, I sat and watched as world champion Hamilton made a public apology for misleading race stewards at the Australia GP. By the European leg, ruling body the FIA and the F1 teams had begun arguing about the governance of the sport and a plan to cap spending in 2010.

At the Turkish Grand Prix, word spread that eight teams were going to boycott the race. They didn't - instead at the next race in Britain they threatened to form a breakaway series. A compromise was finally struck just after Hungary. Despite the electric glow of Singapore's night race, another cloud of controversy cast a shadow over F1 as it returned to the scene of Renault's race-fixing scandal. The revelation that Nelson Piquet Jr had deliberately crashed to help his Renault teammate Fernando Alonso win the 2008 GP was damaging as the sport faced accusations of cheating, corruption and endangering lives. There were times when I thought my first season was also going to be my last.

Somehow F1 survives and moves on and there is plenty of time left to learn how to navigate the choppy waters of F1's power struggles, politics and morals - and it will take more than one season. Button reminded us all why we signed up for this voyage of discovery in the first place at the penultimate race in Brazil. The previous three world champions have been crowned at Interlagos and the Englishman made it four, wrapping up the drivers' championship he had led from the first race with a world-class drive. The celebrations at the far end of the paddock were doubled as Brawn comfortably clinched the constructors' crown.

Once the BBC transmission was over, I wandered down to Brawn headquarters to join the last of the stragglers. What I found were some empty glasses and a tetchy fork-lift truck driver intent on shipping his crates east. I did say F1 moves quickly. And so, after eight months on the road Formula 1 had reached its final destination in Abu Dhabi. Here's to 2010. Sarah Holt is a member of the BBC's F1 team (www.bbc.co.uk/sport)

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