Formula 1 Reporter & Columnist
Rachel's Diary: Heading stateside
Sky F1's Rachel Brookes looks back at another busy and colourful week in Austin and prepares for Mexico's title showdown...
Last Updated: 04/12/18 3:01pm
Just before we flew to Texas, George Russell was announced as the new Williams driver. We had been expecting it but the confirmation that he was taking Lance Stroll's seat left open the discussion as to who would be alongside him.
Sergey Sirotkin is the man in the seat right now but over the Texas weekend Claire Williams confirmed to us that they were deciding between Sergey, Esteban Ocon and Robert Kubica. The latter confirmed to Sky F1 that he wants a decision in the next couple of weeks while Williams are expected to announce in Abu Dhabi.
I flew out to Austin on the Tuesday before the race because I had a shoot planned for the Wednesday. It was due to be jet skiing along the Colorado river but a chance meeting in the airport changed all that! I bumped into Nico Hulkenberg by the gate at Heathrow and mentioned we were due to be jet skiing the next day. I had discovered the hire place didn't have wet suits and the weather forecast was to be cold and very wet.
Nico asked me if we had a back up and I said I had looked into indoor tennis courts and there seemed to be a fair few around Austin. His face lit up and the next thing I knew we were landing in Austin to an email saying the shoot was now at the University of Austin Golf Club's indoor tennis centre. I definitely wasn't disappointed, especially as the Sunday before I had played my first tennis since my knee injury and come through unscathed.
Before we landed into Austin, though, we experienced what's called a 'go-around'. It doesn't matter how many times I have flown both in this job and in my previous life as an air hostess, an unusual landing always causes some trepidation.
We were coming down out of the clouds and fairly low when we suddenly felt the thrust increase and the aircraft climb sharply. I was sitting on the upper deck close to the flight deck and could hear the aircraft warning tone I recognised from my flying days telling the Captain to "pull up, pull up". That warning is actually quite common on approaches just to make sure they continue to come in at the right height all the way in, but the frequency of this warning suggested it was a little more urgent on this occasion.
We ascended for a while and then levelled out before the Captain came over the PA telling us we had had a "discontinued approach due the aircraft becoming unstable as we came out of the clouds". I had never heard that as a reason for a go-around before, my previous experiences had been due to another aircraft not having cleared the runway in time for us to land, but the second attempt was perfect and we were on the ground a short time later.
On Wednesday morning I had to stop off en route to the tennis centre to buy a racket. I took the advice of the salesman and bought a bright yellow and black racket that he told me was very good. I needed it to be. By all accounts Nico wasn't bad at tennis.
We got to the court in plenty of time so I had some practice with my sound engineer and cameraman. Once I had used the racket for a while I felt pretty good about the game ahead. Then Nico arrived and unfortunately hadn't brought a racket. He liked the look of mine and started to hit some tennis balls with it. We knocked up briefly before we started the filming by which time he had decided I had the best racket and he wanted to play with that one. I am not saying that's my excuse for losing, but I reckon it was worth a couple of points in each game!
For the purposes of getting the footage we needed we only played the best of three games. Both games went to deuce but Nico won both and therefore won the match two love. I blame the racket! While the camera crew re-positioned we played another game of first to ten points which he won 10-7 but at least it was closer and I didn't totally embarrass myself. He even said he'd be up for a rematch and I'm going to hold him to that!
We sat down on the court for the interview and talked about his time with Renault, his new team-mate and why he thought none of the top three teams had come in for him. Filming done, we left, but Nico liked my racket so much he carried on playing with a local tennis pro with the promise of returning my racket to me in the paddock later in the week.
On Wednesday evening I went down to Pete's Piano bar, an Austin favourite, and joined Johnny and some of his friends. When I got there it was early and a really nice number of people inside. It soon filled up though with a lot of the paddock taking advantage of staying within walking distance and a classic Austin night was had with lots of singing, great company and good memories.
Thursday was a bit wet and cold and we filmed Welcome to the Weekend at the end of the day. As we finished we were asked to stay put to film something for our opening titles next year. All we had to do was to turn our heads on cue. Sounds simple? It took about 10 takes to get Crofty, Johnny and I to all turn our heads on the right cue. We definitely wouldn't make it in acting!
Friday was wet, very wet! Not as bad as 2015 but it resulted in very little running and me being dispatched to try and get interviews to go into the programme from anyone in the paddock. The trouble is most people stay either in their garage or on the pit wall in case they get a break in the weather. I walked up and down several times with no luck until I popped my head into McLaren and found Lando Norris making a tray of teas and coffees. He was genuinely making hot drinks for all the guys and girls in the garage and you will have seen him handing Fernando Alonso his coffee on the coverage.
I managed to speak to a few other people before ending up at Red Bull at the end of the session to speak to the drivers about (lack of) Friday running. Daniel understandably, after his session needed even earlier then everyone else's, didn't want to talk about F1 so I asked him for his favourite place for brisket and he told us of a place his engineers had gone to that they raved about. A few years ago he told me about a pizza place in Monza that was his favourite and it was sensational so I took note of the barbecue venue.
That night we went to a place called Stubbs which is a team favourite. Barbecue places tend not to take reservations so you just go and queue and wait. We were lucky as we walked in just as a table became free and enjoyed some fantastic food. There are so many great places to eat in Austin that it's not a place for someone on a diet, or vegans! The 'sides' are just as good as the meat in some places. I challenge anyone not to add a pound or two to their waistline over the course of the week.
Saturday morning saw Ferrari quicker than Mercedes and rumours in the paddock that Mercedes were concerned Ferrari taking off their new upgrades and going back to the older specification had seen a return of their pace. Sebastian Vettel has admitted he thinks it took too long to realise their mistake. When he expressed his anger at the end of qualifying when he missed out on pole by six hundredths of a second, was that frustration over team radio at missing pole?
Or was it frustration that they now had their quick car back that had been missing for the last few races, and that could have kept him firmly in the championship battle as opposed to clinging on by his fingertips? After all, even pole would have meant starting fourth, so one place difference wasn't that big a deal.
On Sunday morning Johnny and I headed over to the zip wire set up for fans by the side of the start finish line. I had happily agreed to film on it for the race show and as it was seated, I was not worried in the slightest. However, once in the seat I realised there was only a lap strap to keep you in. As the wire pulled us backwards and upwards Johnny was happily chatting away and I suddenly realised how high we were.
At the top you are very high, not as high as the top of the tower which we had climbed on Saturday, but still high enough to feel pretty uncomfortable. Even Johnny was holding on to the small hand rail at the side as we dangled over everyone's heads, and then some. The Circuit of the Americas are adding attractions every year for the fans and, combined with the concerts, are really doing their best to attract people to the race weekend. If only the weather had been better this year - it would have really been a sensational few days for all.
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Once in the paddock I was getting ready to speak to Max Verstappen on his way back from the track parade when I got a call to do the track parade interviews for the world feed. I had to dash to meet my cameraman and make my way out onto the grid. I decided to target Kimi first as Lewis and Daniel were going to be interviewed further around the track. He walked towards me and I asked him if this was his best chance to win a race for a long time, and could he give the Ferrari fans in the crowd something to cheer today? He played it down obviously so I followed up with asking if his best chance was getting Lewis at Turn One and what his plan was? I swear I saw a wry smile and as it proved both came true later that day.
Post race I managed to speak to most of the drivers but two stuck out for me. Brendon Hartley came over to me and I mentioned him going from 20th to 11th and what a good result that was. He responded to that but then went on to talk about the media asking him questions about his future and gave a very stern response showing us obvious frustration at the situation he was in. I haven't seen that from him before and I hadn't even asked him about his future, I asked the one question about the race and he ended his answer with a monologue. It feels as though he knows there is nothing he can do now to keep his seat and that puts him in a horrible position for the remaining three races. If they are his last three I really hope he finds a way to enjoy them despite his disappointment.
The other interview was Kimi's. Of course he spoke more than usual which is always good news but I asked him after 2044 days how sweet did the champagne taste? He knew what I meant but answered in typical literal fashion, "no different than coming second or third. It's the same champagne for all three". But he did say it with a smile and it's a smile we haven't seen for too long. When he won the race, the interview pen erupted in cheers and applause for him. He may have waited a long time for that win but it seems it was unanimously well received.
Before we left Austin a couple of days later we saw Sebastian running along the river with his trainer. It really looks like a year of what might have been for him and Ferrari. It should have been a Ferrari one-two on Sunday. Even starting fourth Seb had the chance to do that before his contact with Daniel and subsequent spin. But why was he starting in fourth and in that position in the first place? Because he didn't slow down enough under a red flag on Friday. If he hadn't done that he could have had that sweet taste of the winner's champagne, instead of now facing the prospect of losing the championship in Mexico for a second year in a row. Let's hope he can at least make a fight of this next race.
See you in Mexico!
(And yes, Nico did return my racket... and Daniels recommendation was spot on once more!)