Front of the Grid, Back of the Grid

Watching Formula One from two distinct vantage points
Perspective
Ferrari’s Felipe Massa of Brazil  drives out of a pit lane during  the second practice session
Red  Bull Formula One driver Mark  Webber of Australia sits in a  tractor in the pit lane
Dancers perform  before the start of  the third practice
Even as some fans  crane their necks  for a peep of the  action
Policewomen  on duty watch

The Ferrari Lounge at the Buddh International Circuit is called the Ferrari F1 Club. Inside the lounge on Friday, when the first practice for the Indian Grand Prix is to be held, the first lucky draw of the day has concluded. The winner, a school boy, is summoned to the front of the room. With a larger-than-life image of Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa clasping hands in the background, the boy gets a gift from Luca Colajanni, Ferrari’s media manager. A picture has to be taken. The announcer says that “Mario, the best photographer in Bari” will do the needful.

Colajanni, a middle-aged man in red overalls, has a word of advice for the MC. “Don’t go too far with the photographers. Then they think they are gods,” he says playfully in an Italian accent, using expansive hand gestures as he speaks.

The announcer, who is Caucasian, asks Colajanni about his experience here. India is not exactly Maranello, is it, the announcer wonders. Maranello, a town in North Italy, is the home of Ferrari. Colajanni agrees but says something about how nice it is to see varied cultures.

Jaime Asensio is not Italian. He is Spanish. And he ends his sentences with the verbal equivalent of a question mark. “My name is Jaime,” he says, “And I’m from Barcelona.” It sounds like, ‘My name is Jaime? And I’m from Barcelona?’ Once he realises he is being understood, his tone straightens out.

Asensio, a young man with spiky hair, is the catering manager of the lounge. An employee of Do & Co, an Austrian gourmet entertainment firm, he has a dark blazer over a white shirt and dark pants. On his left lapel glitters a pin of Do & Co’s logo. His waitress colleagues wear white shirts, form-fitting dark skirts and short ties around their necks. Corkscrews are tucked behind into the waist bands of their skirts. There are about ten tables in the box and the crew ensures that glasses are kept full and coffee is served when asked. For food, there is a buffet.

The Ferrari lounge faces the main grandstand, which has seats in the colours of the Indian tricolour. All stands at the circuit have seats the colours of the Indian tricolour. The lounge is decorated with Ferrari memorabilia. There is the somewhat rectangular steering wheel of a Ferrari with over 20 buttons and controls. There is a pair of red driving gloves. There is a small replica of a Ferrari car. There are oversized replicas of Hublot wristwatches.

The cars whine and shriek by like angry cats chasing one another, producing a loud horizontal sound. It feels like they are entering your left ear and exiting from the right. Initial attempts to photograph the cars at top speed fail. More wine must be had to steady the hands.

At the table, two Indian men who were normal so far start speaking to each other in fluent Spanish. The effect is startling, like when the language of a film changes with the press of a button on the remote. One of the two men is an Indian businessman who lives in Spain. The other is an Indian journalist who has lived in many countries.

A lady from the franchise takes us for a walk around the team paddock. She is in red overalls, and the boy at the door, a young volunteer from the city, is in traditional Indian clothes, including a turban. We walk down a hallway adorned with marigold flowers. By now, there are two passes around our necks and one around the wrist. The passes have to be pressed on screens at two entry points to unlock the tripod turnstiles that threaten to slam into your crotch.

In the inner sanctum we can only look, not touch. The first section we visit in the paddock is the tyre tunnel. There are several stacks of four or five tyres here. They belong to Alonso and Massa. The transparent bags in which the tyres are kept have labels on them. There is a yellow label with black script that says ‘Alonso Set 505’. There is a red label with black script that says ‘Massa Set 613’. There are many sets like these. There are also labels to identify the position of each tyre, like ‘Anteriore destra’ and ‘Posteriore destra’ (front right, rear right).

From the paddock we stream out into the pit lane. Cocky brats and vain women and people needy of attention are taking pictures of themselves. Sometimes they take pictures of themselves with anyone in overalls. Many of them, you are certain, do not know much about the sport and want pictures just to put up on Facebook. Then you do exactly the same.

One of Jerry Seinfeld’s pet peeves is the pretension around some aspects of eating. Like menu cards with florid prose. The menu card here is not as spare as Seinfeld would like (‘chicken with some juice’). But it is not cloying either. It is white, with the word ‘Menu’ running up the right edge of the card in silver. What is on offer is straightforward. Spring lamb and herbed chicken breast, grilled sole and halibut, orechiette with grilled artichokes and shaved parmesan, lamb Jaipuri and salads. There are cheeses. For dessert, caramel infused pineapple with sour cream and lemon parfait. All this for a roomful of undeserving people.

It is nearing sunset. The smog has gotten worse. An advertisement for the Indian GP has a line about ‘the sky turning blue.’ Blue? That’s a good one. This sky is a dusty grey. Now Marc Gene, Ferrari’s test driver, is in the lounge for a chat and to give a gift to the day’s second lucky draw winner. The MC says that Gene likes curry. Gene disagrees. But, he says, he likes the culture.

+++

Around 2 pm on Sunday, with about an hour to go for the main race, pilgrims ascend the steps hewn into the tall grassy slopes of the Classic Stand 1 West. They seem to have prayer beads and other objects in their hands. But no, it is kathi rolls and pints of beer. They will soon pay homage to the shrine of speed, money and social ascent. The sun, a benign sun of early winter, is behind their heads.

The ticket is meant for Classic Stand 2 West. But that stand is not being used. We are all in Classic Stand 1 West. A female volunteer in a black T-shirt and chequered hat unites us with the designated piece of metal that will support the posteriore for two hours. The man seated on my left is the quiet sort. The boys to the right are friendly. They are diehards. Over the next two hours, they help you when you are confused.

The drivers take a lap of the circuit in a floral truck. Then they go back to their paddocks. A large screen in front of us transmits the television feed. At 2.20 pm, the commentators come on air. They are audible now. They will not be once the race starts. They give specific updates. Fourteen minutes to go and so on. Nothing conveys punctuality better than figures that are not rounded off.

The drivers start their warm-up rounds, zig-zagging along the track, testing their growling chariots. You are reminded of black ants around your foot when standing near a patch of grass. These ants move laterally as well as forward and back with speed and lightness.

When the race starts, the cars fly into view like fighter planes. From where we sit, the cars appear from the left, from behind the main grand stand and large screen. They dart to the right on Turn 3 to come straight towards us, barrelling under a yellow Pirelli sign. They hook a left for the subsequent turns and go farther to our right. Then they round off the cul de sac of Turns 10 and 11 and start to come our way for Turn 15. We are like customers excited about strippers approaching their table at last.

When the cars scream down a straight, the sound is like an anguished, mechanical neigh. When they brake and turn, there are a couple of ‘vroom-vrooms’ or ‘pop-pops’. All you can see of the driver is the top of his helmet, and when the race is over, his waving gloved hand.

Again, like in a strip club, the excitement starts to wane after about half an hour. Some drop the pretence of being interested in the race. They do what they really are there for—take pictures. To our left is a man wearing a Ferrari cap, a Force India shirt (‘I feel the Force’ it says), ripped jeans and pointy Provogue shoes. He gets his female companion to shoot at least five pictures of him, his back to the track. After each shot, he climbs up to his seat. Man and woman join heads and analyse the picture on the smartphone. Man goes back to pose. His left thumb is hooked in the left pocket of his jeans. His right hand is on the thigh of his right leg, which is planted on a higher step. He is self conscious and knows it, but he is determined to get the right picture. The drivers are toiling round the course, losing body weight by the minute. And people are turning their backs on them to take pictures.

Sentimental favourite Michael Schumacher blows a tyre of his Mercedes early in the race after a collision with Jean Eric-Vergne of Toro Rosso. Experts say the accident is a result of Schumacher being naughty. The two had clashed at the Singapore GP as well and Schumacher had said ‘sorry’ to Eric-Vergne. The shredded bits of rubber on Schumacher’s tyre make you wonder if sharks have a new diet. Schumacher’s countryman Sebastian Vettel, blessed with a great car, is never troubled.

The battle between Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber is thrilling to watch. “Dude, dude!” the young man to the right says to his brother when the screen shows Alonso stealing past Webber into second place. We almost get to see an overtaking ourselves on Turn 15. The driver in front, am not sure who, prepares to hug a curve on the right. His challenger steams in from behind, trying to squeeze through the gap. But the man ahead hustles him out and retains his lead. Then again, we see many such manoeuvres on the highway back to Delhi.

What you expected at the race was chaos. The drop-off point would be distant. There would be a long search for your gate. There would be pushing and shoving. There would be aggressive cops. What you experience is different. There is a complete absence of stress. You get off right outside your gate. The staff and volunteers are helpful. They guide you and offer free ear plugs. The bathrooms are spacious and clean. Only the food is terrible. On this mellow Sunday afternoon, you crave the coffee of the Ferrari lounge. A simple Americano, but pure, almost as strong as an espresso. You make do with sweet premixed Nescafe. The rest of the food is rotting fast. Halfway through the race, it is ‘buy one, get one free’. That is a bad sign. You junk the sour smelling pasta and wrinkly, microwaved kathi roll where the wrapper is stuck in the dough.

Still, you commend the organisers for the thoughtful drop-off points, smooth entry and relaxed ambience. But someone tells you that you got in easily only because you had a parking sticker. And one of these costs Rs 1,500. But at least it was better than last year, where you got a parking sticker only if you bought three tickets. Ticket prices also need to be cut. Again, the organisers were considerate enough to bring them down from last year, but they still range from Rs 3,500 to Rs 30,000 per person (for the full weekend), with mid-range tickets selling in the region of Rs 6,000.

Almost 95,000 people attended last year’s race. An official of Jaypee Sports International, which developed the Buddh Circuit, confirms that only 65,000 showed up this year. That is not exactly a podium finish.