Rain, Planes and Automobiles
The current zeitgeist of frugality and environmental concern was not abating, in fact it was getting worse. LUSSO was restless and fancied a wander in the opposite direction. Searching around for the perfect antidote, we were contacted by the Malaysian Tourist Board, who invited us to Kuala Lumpur and the Malaysian Grand Prix. Now then, this sounded like just the ticket.
At Stansted, I approached the check-in desk of the new low-cost airline, Air Asia, with my knees knocking. I’m not afraid of flying, I’m just afraid of flying on budget airlines. Sure, they’re fine for a short hop but I was petrified at the thought of enduring a full thirteen hours. I needn’t have worried, one upgrade later I was testing how far the first class seats would recline. The answer was, almost fully horizontal and apart from the fact that everything you consume on board has to be paid for (including the films), this was an incredibly comfortable and not at all budget journey. As for the Air Asia cabin girls, well I’m a happily married man so I didn’t notice that they were all absolutely gorgeous. Nor did I notice that their uniforms were incredibly tight and sexy. No, I didn’t spot this at any point throughout the flight, in fact, I had to be told this by the FHM Magazine journalist sitting next to me.
It was dark upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur or KL as its known by the locals and our destination was the Ritz Carlton Hotel in the heart of the city. We quickly got a sense of how glamorous and advanced this city was with the chic window displays of Dior, Gucci, Prada, Valentino and Louis Vuitton seemingly everywhere. Being on Lusso wages, I kept my eyes peeled for something more akin to my budget, perhaps a Lidl or Primark maybe. Huge, sleek office towers fight for supremacy in this sparkling metropolis but they all took second place when the famous Petronas Twin Towers came into view. Once the highest buildings in the world, these conjoined towers are a hugely impressive sight – especially from the viewpoint of the nearby Sky Bar, as we were to find out a few evenings later.
The Ritz Carlton is a very agreeable, international, five-star hotel with the classic elegance of shiny marble, dark wood, chandeliers and the accommodating, smiley staff so typical of South East Asia. Unfortunately, we didn’t have too long to get acquainted with it, as we were whisked off to another hotel for a press conference, exhibition and dinner. At this point, I’d been travelling for almost 24 hours so I wasnt exactly doing cartwheels when I heard that we had to watch some corporate presentations. When a lady from an airline started reading out how many seats each of their aeroplanes held, I began to lose the will to live.
About forty-five years later it was finally time for dinner and we couldn’t get to our table quickly enough. By this stage, my fellow journalists and I were all completely gasping for a drink and we told our host, in no uncertain terms, that she needed to order as many bottles of wine for the table as possible. We all sat back in glorious anticipation and awaited that first cure-all sip. However, after a long wait we were informed that a Malaysian Government minister was present and, therefore, no alcohol was permitted. The looks on the faces around the table weren’t so much crestfallen as total and utter horror. Unbelievably, it got worse. After an excruciatingly long dinner with music so loud we couldn’t make conversation, the minister in question took to the stage and started doing karaoke with the band. There was nothing left for it – like all good journalists, we made our excuses and left.
The following day saw us lounging by the very chilled Ritz Carlton spa pool and I couldn’t help but notice a familiar looking face a few sun beds down. After ten minutes of not at all furtive glances, I realised that it was Jay Kay from Jamiroquai. He and his entourage were in KL to play an after-race gig at the Sepang Circuit. It turned out that Jay and crew had been disappointed by the Marriott across the road and decamped to the Ritz Carlton. This was good – our digs now had the celebrity seal of approval. I then made the stupid mistake of heading to the gym. A mistake because when I returned my fellow journos were all drinking Margaritas with and, courtesy of, Jay and I’d missed it all. So that was it, no more gyms for me, I’d learnt my lesson.
Saturday arrived and we headed to the Sepang circuit for the Grand Prix Qualifying round. Unfortunately, we’d misjudged timings and arrived three hours early and in the midst of the midday heat and boy was it hot. Despite being motionless in the shaded stands, the sweat was pouring down my face. I really couldn’t imagine how ridiculously stifling it must feel to be shoehorned into a tiny Formula 1 car for two hours wearing a helmet and a fireproof racing suit.
I’m not the worlds biggest F1 fan but I figured I could follow it no problem – after all, it’s easy enough on the TV. I was wrong. It was a series of coloured blurs rushing by and I had no idea at all who was where and what was happening generally. I had been warned about the noise many times but nothing quite prepares you for how loud it actually is. It really made me feel quite strange inside, I think my organs were shaking around with the vibration. Only having small polystyrene ear plugs didn’t help matters and the next hour went like this:
White car zips by.
Me to my fellow journalist (who knows a lot about F1): That was Button I think, whereabouts is he in the standings now?
Me: Pardon, can you repeat that?
This was repeated a few times until I gave up and sat in silence and bewilderment. Luckily there were others in our party that were equally lost and deafened so, when someone made the hand signal that signifies going for a drink, I was out of there in a manoeuvre so swift, Jenson would have been proud.
It has to be noted, however, that the noise is actually part of the attraction. When I first heard it, when approaching the stands, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. As extremely loud, penetrating and organ-shaking noises go, it has to be up there with the best.
Finally it was race day and we set off from the city a pitifully inadequate two hours before the race start. The closer we got to the Sepang Circuit, the more the scene resembled that of a disaster movie the ones where everyone is desperately trying to flee the city. Traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see, two lanes of the opposite carriageway had been dedicated to race bound traffic, a bunch of chancers were using both hard shoulders as an express lane and the really committed were now getting out of their cars and running. As we got slightly closer we figured that the only chance we had of seeing the start of the race was to join them. Fifteen minutes of panting later, I made one last heroic sprint to the grandstand – only to see the back of the very last car set off. And I only saw that because the driver had stalled.
This time our hosts had, thankfully, provided us with radio headphones which provide an awfully civilised BBC race coverage. It’s incredible what a difference this made to proceedings and I could now follow exactly what was going on. Never go to a Grand Prix without hiring these headphones.
The stands were now full, the pit lane a hive of activity and the atmosphere around the circuit was one of intense excitement. The attention was definitely on the Brawn team and Jenson Button; he’d won in Australia, he’d started today on pole position and was driving a car considered to be the fastest in the race. I had always presumed that the boy Jenson was a bit on the crap side but, apparently, in the past, it was his cars that were not fast enough. Last seasons golden boy Lewis Hamilton, on the other hand, was starting back in 12th position on the grid.
Button had never raced his Brawn car in the wet but it was abundantly clear today that that would change. The weather was still holding out but we just knew that it couldn’t last. Literally five minutes after the race start, the black clouds duly marched in. On turn six of the first lap Heikki Kovalainen somehow spun off the track and out of the race. One lap later, Kubicas car burst into flames, resulting in another early retirement. This was going to be an interesting race.
Refreshingly, after the predictable and boring Schumacher years, the Ferrari team was not doing too well. Early on they gambled by putting Kimi Raikkonen in full wets (and by that I mean his tyres, not an F1 drivers nappy) despite the track still being dry. It didn’t pay off and they had another bad day at the office.
The drum rolls of thunder had begun on lap 5 but we had to wait until lap 21 before any rain fell. For a while, half the circuit was wet whilst the other half remained dry which must have made the team decisions on which tyres to use even more difficult.
Forked lightning arrived and bolts hit the stands a few times to give the crowd an even bigger buzz. Formula 1 crowds aren’t the most vocal – I guess there’s not much point in shouting encouragement to the drivers but even though the crowd sounded reserved, the atmosphere still felt electric.
By Lap 26 it was rain o’clock. It was torrential everywhere and things were hotting up and sliding about. Pit lane activity was in overdrive and the daylight quickly turned dim and dusk-like. The thunder and lightning were directly over the track and the spray thrown up by the cars was making any overtaking treacherous at best, suicidal at worst. This was great. The commentator told us that the drivers were all complaining about the almost total lack of visibility by now and just as excitement was reaching a peak, it was all taken from us. The dreaded safety car was deployed.
Button was out in front from Timo Glock and Nick Heidfeld but there was no more jockeying for position as the cars followed the safety car at a greatly reduced speed. A waving red flag then signified the race was to be stopped. Bollocks, I was really starting to enjoy it.
But wait! Curiously all the cars were then driven and even pushed back to their original starting position on the grid. The race could re-start!
The downpour, however, had other plans. F1 rules dictate that the race has to be completed within a two-hour window so as time marched on, it became more and more apparent that no re-start would take place.
The commentator then confirmed that it was all over, abandoned half way through with half points being awarded. Bollocks, again. I then stood up, ran on to the track, jumped on top of Hamiltons car and shouted, Look, this is my first Grand Prix. I’ve flown half way across the world for this and you girls blouses are going home because of a light bloody shower?! What is wrong with you? Get back in your camp little cars and drive.
It didn’t work. But hey, Jenson won and he got to soak Glock and Heidfeld with Champagne. We just got soaked with rain and as we by-passed the Jamiroquai concert (sorry about that Jay) we pondered that only half a race meant that we had twice the time to enjoy our final night in KL. Every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining.