Rachel Brookes’ diary: The second leg in Austria and F1’s driver market

After the first race weekend in Austria, we had to stay in the same hotel between the two events and still weren’t allowed to venture out except for exercise, and if we did exercise we weren’t allowed to stop anywhere.

Luckily our hotel is in a small town overlooked by mountains, or large hills, I am never sure where a large hill becomes a mountain.

  • Read the first installment from Rachel’s Austria diaries
  • When to watch the Hungarian GP live on Sky F1

I had spent the morning writing my previous diary and then put my trainers on to go for a walk. As I left my room, I bumped into Simon Lazenby who had had the same idea and we set off together to the outskirts of the town. As we started our ascent we bumped into Jenson Button and Paul Di Resta coming down. “It gets a bit overgrown but push through it,” said Paul.

They didn’t have much faith that we would make it to the top as they had just done which spurred us on even more. To be fair to them, they hadn’t even broken into a sweat.

We followed their directions and climbed and climbed and climbed. I kept waiting for a flat bit to catch my breath but there were none. Even the tracks for vehicles seemed to be at a 45-degree angle. Eventually we reached a bench which had a spectacular view. Beyond it the track disappeared and we assumed this was the “overgrown” bit Paul had mentioned so we pushed on.


Went for a little hike this afternoon – beautiful surroundings #austria #styria #skyf1

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Instead of overgrown, this was a full-blown forest and there were no longer well-trodden paths or even any signs of previous walkers. The hillside got steeper and steeper until we were using tree branches to pull ourselves up, not thinking how we would get down again.

Eventually it was so dense we couldn’t even squeeze between branches and admitted defeat. We returned back down, slipping and sliding our way down the hillside, collecting numerous cuts and grazes on the way until eventually finding the tracks to take us back down. As we reached the hotel to find the others sitting outside in the sunshine they spotted my bloodied legs and we discovered we had gone completely the wrong way but the views had been amazing and well worth it.

We spent the rest of the day at the hotel and Tuesday was much the same. Everyone got up in their own time and when I decided to go for a walk late morning, I bumped into a colleague who joined me. This time we walked along the river and covered 6.5 km before arriving back for lunch. After lunch we decided to climb the mountain/hill again. Paul and Jenson joined us this time, and showed us the correct route, as did a few other colleagues and we climbed over 400m to the top for a spectacular view.

Not only did it kill some time, but it was some much needed time outside of the hotel and enjoyable exercise.

On Wednesday it was back to work. Ted Kravitz did some filming at the hotel and then a few of us went to the track to film some short inserts for the weekend.

Working and interviewing in F1’s ‘biosphere’

Thursday was the first official day of the second race weekend and I found a solution to not being able to hear the drivers’ answers in the pen by putting another set of headphones directly into the camera. It means my cameraman and I can’t move very much but I get to hear the drivers answers and can react accordingly.

We end up wearing the masks for longer this weekend for various reasons and I discovered that after a long day of wearing them in the hot sun, it gets painful behind your ears where the elastic goes and you can’t wait to take them off. I can only imagine how tough it is to wear them for 12+ hour shifts in a hospital day in and day out.

On Thursday evening I have a one to one interview with Esteban Ocon. I have spoken to him a few times this year already, once at the Renault launch, once on a drive around the hills at testing and during lockdown on Instagram.

Now though he has a new team-mate confirmed for 2021 so I asked him about his thoughts on Fernando Alonso joining the team. He is in an interesting position. Before he has even taken part in a single race for his new team he knows his current team-mate is leaving, the team now this year must focus on him and essentially him alone. But he also knows Fernando is coming back and you can see from the other series that Fernando has taken part in, he is still quick and will be a tough team-mate. Fernando also brings a reputation for being ruthless and a fierce competitor, so Esteban needs to establish his place quickly.

As with the previous weekend, I was covering F2 and F3 so prepared for those links. We aren’t able to do our usual post Free Practice Two interviews as we only have one camera at our disposal and that is with Simon and the boys, so any interviews are done with them with the guest walking into shot and standing behind a mic on a stand. It means a quiet Friday for me.

And a very wet Saturday! The forecast rain fell and after a delayed start we eventually got an exciting qualifying session finished off with a sublime pole lap. It almost feels like normal as I interviewed the drivers from under the hood of my coat in the pouring rain.

As we all get used to the new way of working it becomes easier to have those paddock chats that are so important to our coverage on a race weekend. Through one of mine, at a distance of course, I discover that Lewis Hamilton had not only stayed at the track in between race weekends but that he had been in meetings with the engineers to try to establish why he had such a bad couple of days at the previous weekend.

There is no doubt that Lewis is often talked about for his driving skill and his talent but he is not often mentioned when work ethic is discussed. Nico Rosberg was always known to be studious, while Lewis was thought to rely on his innate talent but speak to those who know him, and who are around him, and you will find he is just as studious as any team-mate, any peer in fact.

You just need to look at how many times he has had a ‘bad’ weekend only to completely dominate the following one to know that he never just relies on being able to drive his way out of it.

Due to the new way of working we share our camera for post qualifying and post-race interviews with our colleagues at Sky Germany and Sky Italy. As such Italy get to interview Italian speaking drivers and then ask one question in English for us, while Sky Germany speak to Sebastian Vettel and ask one question in English at the end.

Sometimes they also want to speak to other drivers like Lewis or Max, and as a result on Saturday I didn’t get to speak to Lewis about THAT lap in the wet. I also didn’t get to speak to Seb or Charles about their incident in the race on Sunday. It’s just the way it is for now but hopefully as things ease up and we are allowed more staff in the paddock that might change.

I really miss speaking to drivers in those big moments but fortunately I did get to speak to Lewis on Sunday as well as most of the other drivers that finished the race. Lewis is at his most effusive when he feels he has righted wrongs of a previous Grand Prix. He knew his record at the Red Bull Ring was not as good as at other circuits and you could see the relief, albeit behind a mask, that checking off that box brought him.

Lando Norris put in another fantastic performance and I am really pleased for him. Last year he knew that Saturday was his forté, but with points only being handed out on Sunday he knew his winter had to be about improving his racing. Much of that was his tyre management which he really seems to have got on top of. His last lap drive would not have been in his armoury last year and it shows how much he is improving and maturing as a driver. I can’t wait to see how far he goes.

Max Verstappen admitted after the race that the Red Bull is just not fast enough. His disappointment was obvious but if there is ever a chance to take points off Mercedes you know he will take them. He will always be there to pounce whenever opportunity arises and that may have to satisfy him for now.

Alex Albon managed to back up his team-mate in the top four but both he and Red Bull would like him to be quicker. Christian Horner told Sky Sports F1 earlier in the weekend that Sebastian Vettel was a ‘definite no’ when asked if he could return to the team so hopefully now Alex can put all the background noise aside and put in the kind of performances he is capable of, and which got him the Red Bull seat in the first place.

Will Vettel join Racing Point?

So what now for Vettel? I had a conversation during the first Austrian race weekend where someone let slip to me that Racing Point were becoming a genuine contender for Sebastian’s signature.

So I did a little more digging and spoke to a few more people. Sergio Perez has a contract until the end of the 2022 and Lance Stroll has an ongoing contract that you would assume with his father as team owner means he can have as long as he wants. So if there is a space at Racing Point, who goes?

Could the team buy Sergio Perez out of his contract and afford to do without the money that his Mexican sponsorship brings? But while everyone assumes Checo would be the one to make way for Vettel, what if Lance Stroll wanted to pursue other interests? We’ll have to see how that one plays out but one thing it does tell you is that the Racing Point car is a contender this season if not for race wins, definitely for podiums.

Sunday felt like quite a strange day because by then we knew that in Hungary the restrictions were going to be more severe and that we wouldn’t even be able to leave the hotel for exercise. I was due to fly home after the first two races and then Natalie Pinkham was flying out for the Hungarian Grand Prix with Johnny Herbert, and as I left the paddock on Sunday evening I was happy to be heading home but it felt strange that everyone else was getting on the coach the next morning to head to Budapest. We had become such a great unit during those first two weeks, I hoped that would stay once they got to Hungary despite the strict restrictions on everyone.

The flight home was interesting. The first airport that we left from was Graz in Austria. It was really quiet and mostly just Formula 1 people. In fact nearly every flight on the board was to Budapest. Ours was to Frankfurt where we would get off and change flights to catch one to London. Frankfurt airport was also really quiet but both flights were absolutely full to bursting with passengers.

There was no social distancing in place but I can understand that when airlines need to recoup so much lost revenue. When you land now everyone stays in their seats until seats rows are called to disembark. Even so, some still try to jump the queue! Some things will never change!

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