Formula 1 Expert & Columnist
Rachel's Diary: Change in the air
Sky Sports' Rachel Brookes on a long week that felt short in Singapore and the sense that something is beginning to change...
Last Updated: 21/09/16 3:46pm
As we headed to Singapore I was wondering if there was a change in the air.
As we headed to Singapore I was wondering if there was a change in the air. Having added extra engines to his pool in Spa, Lewis should have been feeling good in Monza, should have been on top after dominating for most of the weekend but a poor start meant it was Nico who left with the momentum in the championship. I remember asking Lewis after the race, "is this a different Nico this year?" "No" he replied.
Our Tuesday night flight to Singapore was full of fans and one driver, Daniel Ricciardo. He was in good spirits as always and lots of fans got their trip off to a great start with a quick selfie. I am always amazed at how many British fans make the trip. It's not cheap and it takes you a whole week just to go for the Grand Prix weekend, but every year they go in their numbers.
The key to Singapore is to try to keep to British time as much as you can. We say it every year but somehow there seem to be more than 24 hours in a day. It is the only race where you can get up, go to work, do a full day, go out for a sociable dinner in the evening and still get 8 hours sleep a night. I have no idea how it happens, none of us do, but after the long days and short nights in Europe it is a very welcome change. It means once you get on the plane you go to sleep, wake up 8 hours later and have breakfast. A few hours after that you land in Singapore in the afternoon their time, but the early morning in the UK. Then the challenge is to stay awake to around 5am local time, which is 10pm back home.
I have always loved that feeling when you get off the plane on holiday and the warm air hits, I instantly relax and look forward to days by a pool or a beach. When you walk out of the airport in Singapore, the heat hits you but so does the humidity. Your clothes cling to you immediately and it feels like walking into a sauna.
Thursday was media day, or media evening as it is in Singapore and I had a one to one interview with Sergio Perez scheduled. He had been quoted earlier in the year as saying he would confirm his future plans by Singapore. With that in mind we had requested the interview but as it turned out, he still wasn't able to confirm what he was doing.
Sergio has a contract with Force India for next year but he brings with him a lot of sponsorship and his recent performances had made the paddock take note. As such there is the possibility that another team could buy him out of his contract with Force India and put him into their car instead. His sponsorship is thought to be more than enough to cover the cost of any buy out but where would he go? With the Williams seat looking more and more likely to be going to Lance Stroll, Perez's only real other option is Renault. But what can the works team offer him that would beat his current position?
Sergio used to be in the Ferrari academy and still hopes to drive for the Scuderia in the not too distant future. Many expect Kimi's seat to be a vacant in 2018 and if that was the case, would he be better off at Force India for another year? He told me he wasn't thinking about Ferrari when it comes to making his decision for 2017 and all the answers he gave intimated he wants to stay with Force India. He did tell me, though, that when Martin Whitmarsh called to tell him he was being replaced at McLaren he thought about quitting the sport altogether. He was 22 at the time! It's good to see he has turned his fortunes around and as he said "I saved my career". It would be great to see him in a car capable of regular podiums just to see what he can do. I asked him if he feels his talents are masked sometimes by all the talk of his sponsorship, after all he is a fast driver who makes his tyres last. As luck would have it, he proved me right on both counts on Sunday with effectively a one-stop race to get him into the points and take back fourth in the constructors from Williams.
On Friday I popped to the hotel pool for an hour to write some notes outdoors instead of in my room and it was really busy. Other TV crews, driver's trainers and even Nico Hulkenberg were enjoying the sun for an hour or two before heading the few hundred metres to the track. That's what I mean about the extra hours. I had had eights hours sleep, we had a full day at the track ahead as well as an F1 Show but somehow there was time after breakfast to spend an hour outside. I still can't work out how!
Friday's post second practice interviews were interesting. I had seen an FIA release that said Renault had used three tokens to upgrade their power unit and the upgraded unit was in Max Verstappen's car. They only release that information once the car has taken to the track so it was definitely in Max's car during Friday practice. I asked Daniel Ricciardo about it and he said he didn't know anything about an upgrade for Max and that he would have to go and ask. When Max arrived I asked him to clarify the situation with the upgrade. He said "it wasn't anything special" but by Saturday morning all four Renault powered cars had the upgraded power unit.
Meanwhile, at Mercedes Lewis had missed some running but said he wasn't too concerned about it. The trouble is, on a street circuit every lap helps you feel more comfortable about what you are doing, every brush of the wall helps define the limits of how far you can push, so it stands to reason that by missing out on a chunk of laps you are missing out on confidence building. Some say they aren't bothered by it, while others admit it knocks you off kilter and you are on the back foot all weekend. Nico seemed pleased with his performance and had an air of confidence we haven't seen for a while.
Saturday was a busy one. I began with a live for Sky Sports News HQ before Sky News and then presenting Practice Three with Damon. You start the session in daylight but by the end the lights are coming on and the sun has gone down. Anywhere else you would be heading off for the day but we still had arguably the most important session of the year to come. Nico topped that and was pleased when I told him pole had won 6 of the last 8 races here. A sensational lap from Ricciardo put him alongside Nico on the front row and for a moment I thought Daniel was disappointed with his lap as he wasn't smiling but he told me he and just eaten a protein bar and was worried he had bits in his teeth! Once I had reassured him they were all clear the smile was back and I sensed he believed he had a chance to win the race on Sunday, especially as he had got through Q2 on the supersoft tyres. Sebastian Vettel was understandably gutted after qualifying. It was the race he had been looking forward to all year and felt Ferrari had a real chance of their first win of 2016 but a rear suspension problem put him at the back of the grid. "They'll be short answers" he told me as he approached. "No problem" I replied, and it really wasn't.
On Sunday as I left my hotel I realised for the first time this season I hadn't got a non uniform outfit with me. I always take an extra one each day in case a shoot comes up or something unexpected. I have never needed to use it but it's a peace of mind thing. As I got out of the lift something made me go back and I am glad it did as when I arrived in our office I found out I was doing the driver track parade interviews. I used to do them up until last season when Johnny took them on but as he wasn't with us this weekend I was called up.
In Singapore they use classic cars to take the drivers around the track and I suddenly remembered how difficult it was to get the interviews. The drivers all come out at once and filter off to their respective cars and it's a case of chasing them until their car drives away. That is why you see me running alongside the car sometimes. The track organiser has told the driver of the classic car to go but the F1 driver is still finishing his answer... I have had my fair share of tyres brushing past my toes as I do the interviews too! Once away I then wait as several drivers are picked to be interviewed out on track. This time the cars know to stop and wait while the interview is carried out. Then, on their return, anyone who hasn't been interviewed is my target. I remembered from a couple of years ago that Kimi likes to jump out of the moving car and scamper off when he gets back to the start so I had to position myself to make sure I caught him as he made his getaway. He was a good sport and gave me an interview before I ran back to catch a couple more. Then it was a quick change back into uniform for the toilet run interviews!
Before the race on Sunday we had talked about how the starts were affecting races this season. In Monza Lewis' poor start put paid to his victory challenge and in Singapore it was Verstappen getting away slowly that provided the drama. How he missed Hulkenberg as he was flung across the track in front of him I will never know! It was such a shame for Nico to go out of the race that way, especially when you saw what Checo managed in his Force India. Yet again, Nico didn't lay any blame anywhere and just explained how that moment at the start unfolds in a driver's mind and that these things can happen. In my mind, he is one of the fairest drivers on the grid
It was good to see Daniil Kvyat's battle with Max on track and see the Russian back to his best. I was pleased when afterwards they both told me there had been no team orders to let Max past and that any overtakes were to be theirs and theirs alone. The excitement of the final 15 laps unfortunately was just there to tease us as Daniel couldn't catch Nico quickly enough to try to get past him but for a moment we all glimpsed what we are yearning for. More close battles, more wheel-to-wheel racing, more chance of a surprise winner. But the real surprise this season could turn out to be the championship winner. There is a genuine sense now from many in the paddock that Nico really could win the title this year. I asked him that very question on Sunday. Does he feel different, can he sense the title? He gave the answer you would expect, just taking one race at a time.... Not thinking about it...
But I wonder, and I wonder if Lewis still believes this Nico is no different? There are many in the paddock who would disagree.