Formula 1 Reporter & Columnist
Rachel's Diary: The Russian GP you didn't see
Sky F1's Rachel Brookes provides analysis from the Russian GP, from candid interviews to hosting our coverage, as well as looking at how the drama unfolded both before and during the Sochi race
Last Updated: 29/09/20 9:50am
It was a busy week leading up to the Russian Grand Prix and most of my Tuesday was spent writing notes and doing research ahead of the race weekend as I was standing in for Simon Lazenby as host in Russia while he had a weekend at home.
Despite being at the last five races in a row, I still wanted to make sure that I was on top of every new story and every line that could possibly come out across the weekend so that there weren't any surprises. That means a lot of time spent on the internet searching stories, contacting press officers and other contacts.
We flew directly to Sochi on a charter out of Stansted airport's private terminal with other F1 groups, all in our own bubbles and, as before, we were kept apart at the airport and as much as possible on the plane.
We arrived in the early evening and made our way to our hotel. We were staying close to the track in a hotel with a lot of other Formula 1 personnel, but we all stayed on separate floors and ate our meals in a conference room set aside for us away from other guests.
Perez and the 2021 driver market
Two weeks before at Mugello we had found out that Sergio Perez would be leaving Racing Point, with the team confirming the next day that Sebastian Vettel would be taking his seat. I had been contacted to say that Sergio wanted to do an interview with me about the situation, however that got cancelled the next day, and I had to wait until Russia to do it.
By then a story was out online about how he was let go from Racing Point, and so when I sat down with Checo on Thursday in Sochi, I tried to push him on that and get him to tell us on camera exactly what happened, which he did in the end. However, he also said that he understood the positions of Otmar Szafnauer and Lawrence Stroll and I guess a couple of weeks is a good amount of time with which to gather your thoughts.
I was also interested to know where he might be heading next. A driver of his calibre deserves a place on the Formula 1 grid.
There are seats available in 2021, there could be two at Haas as neither Kevin Magnussen nor Romain Grosjean have been confirmed for 2021 yet. There could be two at Alfa Romeo.
Both teams are languishing towards the back of the grid and it seems to be only performance on the day that is mixing up their positions.
I still feel, however, that Haas will be the chosen option for Sergio. They have the links to Ferrari and while this year and last year have been incredibly challenging for the team, they've signed up until 2025 and things have to get better at some point.
They also may need a shake-up in their drivers. While Kevin and Romain have been doing the best they can with the machinery they have, putting someone else in there with a new outlook or fresh ideas may help and invigorate the workforce.
We also have to remember there are three fantastic Ferrari juniors right now.
Robert Shwartzman seems to have dropped off in F2 a little bit of late and maybe needs another year in that formula before he's ready to step up to F1.
Mick Schumacher won again at the weekend and his improved race craft as well as his consistency is attracting attention up and down the paddock. But he still hasn't had a pole on a Saturday, something he will want to rectify before the season is out.
Then there is Callum Ilott who has been putting in some fantastic performances this season as well as making a few mistakes which he has owned up to. His defence on Saturday to hang on to third position all the way to the line was impressive and hopefully he will still be in the minds of people in the F1 paddock, but perhaps he will have to do another year in F2 as well.
The champion can't return to the series so as Schumacher leads it right now he is definitely the favourite to step up next season, not just for his position in the championship but also for his marketability.
On air for a different type of weekend
After the interview with Sergio, I then had to record some links that are used as promos across the weekend on various Sky channels. Then there is time for more prep and research before we were on air on Friday morning for Welcome to the Weekend.
Karun Chandhok, Johnny Herbert and I ran through stories since the last Grand Prix and looked ahead to what we could expect in Russia, including interviews from the drivers' pen the previous day. Once that was done it was straight into first practice and I handed up to commentary where Karun had arrived having hot footed it from the paddock, and Anthony Davidson joins from our studio back in London.
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Then after a quick bite of lunch it was time to host Practice Two, when I was joined by Johnny and Karun again. We had the smallest team on the ground in Russia we've ever had for a race, but it meant we all worked together closely and it also meant that you tended to get a good flow across the weekend as stories evolved.
Johnny and I were joined by Haas boss Guenther Steiner after second practice and we asked about his line-up for next year. He said the team are in no hurry to make a decision. They feel they are in a good position with plenty of drivers available and not many seats, but he admitted next year won't be their best year.
Therefore. they are thinking about 2022 so they aren't thinking about a short-term solution, more mid to long-term. That suggests they will at least consider a younger driver in one of their seats.
After the second practice it's time for the Story So Far when we look at all the action that happened on the track that day, discuss all the talking points and hear from the drivers at the end of the day's running.
We also had the announcement of Stefano Domenicali as the new President and CEO of Formula 1 to discuss. I have always liked Stefano. When he was Ferrari team principal he was incredibly approachable and personable.
Even after he left the role, I remember bumping into him at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and he came up to say hello and stop for a chat even then. I am not at all surprised that he has been chosen to lead the sport alongside Ross Brawn and I look forward to seeing what he brings.
Telling the stories of Saturday
Come Saturday morning it's time for final practice and a last chance for the drivers and the teams to nail their set-ups. There is a really quick turnaround on a Saturday. Once we have finished the final practice programme, it was straight into rehearsals for the qualifying show.
I stayed out in the paddock on the stage and went through the running order with the producer and director back in London so that we all knew what was happening. This allows the director to get an idea of roughly what I will be saying, and then he knows when to play in the videos or pictures.
We also checked timings and I get a quick rehearsal of the top of the show so I know what pictures I will be talking over when they play out. Then it was into qualifying and our one-hour build-up, which I hosted from the set on the stage. Our stage was right next to the drivers' pen which helps when you're trying to get guests post-session to talk to.
Build-up for qualifying goes smoothly, thankfully, and that takes us into the three sessions. We stayed out on the stage to watch qualifying in case anything happened and commentary needed to throw back to us to discuss it.
I watched qualifying with Johnny while Karun was in commentary with Crofty. We watched the footage on our monitor and I got the timing page up on my phone to keep track of what's going on and who is running which tyres.
While watching Q2 during the red flag we saw that Lewis, who was at risk of being knocked out, had left it really late to come out of the garage. The other cars were queuing up in the pit lane waiting for the green light and Crofty speculated as to whether Mercedes are able to do the same or if they aren't able to be manually started by the driver and so have to wait in the garage until the very last second.
As Johnny later found out through a contact that is exactly the case. In order to save weight on the car Mercedes did away with the ability to do that and so while the others can queue in the pitlane and switch the car off for a short while if it gets too hot, the Mercedes can't.
It makes for a tense final couple of minutes but Lewis does get through, albeit on the soft tyres and now we have an element of jeopardy for Sunday's race as Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas got through on the medium tyres.
Lewis goes on to claim his 96th pole position and after the qualifying session we discussed what happened on the stage and the guests came up to join us.
Carlos Sainz told us that he was in the queue in the pit lane but once out on track let other cars go past because his first lap had been good enough for him not to worry about making it to the line. He also tells us that he instead used the lap to practice Turn Two which had been proving tricky for all the drivers.
Unfortunately for him that is as far as he would get in the race.
One thing that is really tricky as a host is listening to all the voices that are coming through your earpiece at once. You have a director, a producer, and the director's assistant (DA) who is giving you a count. The count is how long you have for each item.
For example, each chat will have an allowance of time in our running order so we make sure we don't overrun. So when I was talking to Carlos the DA will be telling everyone how long the chat has been and the producer has to work out how much other content there is in the programme and when to move on to the next item or, as often happens, another guest arriving.
So I have those voices talking to me while I'm also listening to the guest. It is the trickiest part of the job - listening to the interview that somebody is giving right in front of you while taking in a whole host of other information coming into your head and being able to work out which you need to react to and which you can safely ignore.
Once the qualifying show is finished I have to record a couple of links again for promos across the Sky channels to be played out ahead of the race on Sunday. We wait until the pole-sitter is in the drivers' pen and stand in front of it so that you can see him over my shoulder while I deliver the lines. They are only short lines but at the end of a long day where your mind feels like it's been running on overdrive it can sometimes take a couple of takes!
Then it is back to the office on site where I start to look through the running order for Sunday's show. I call the producer back in London and we go through every single item and I make notes on what I think will be pertinent things to say at various points of the show. Then it's back to the hotel for a quick dinner and I then head back to my room and write up my notes for Sunday.
I always like to have more information than I will ever possibly need but it does make some of the others laugh. I also usually use notebooks as a reporter but as a host it looks untidy to have notebooks in your hand on the stage so I make my notes on my running order.
The buzz and build-up of race day
I slept surprisingly well on Saturday night and feel refreshed on Sunday morning and ready to tackle the race day. Once at the circuit I go through the running order with the producer on site and we discuss any changes that may need to be made. Then it's down to the stage in the paddock for rehearsal to go through the top of the show where I'll be talking over pictures and introducing the race-day coverage.
It is set to be the hottest day of the weekend, up to 31 degrees, and as I will be outside in it for most of the day I decide to put my hair up so it's the last thing I have to worry about when I'm on air.
Our race show begins on the stage and then it's the part I have been looking forward to most.
Just over an hour before the race start we head out to the grid.
When I used to work for Sky Sports News my favourite part of the race weekend was always as the drivers arrived at the FIA garage for the track parade. I would stand outside and be live and as each driver walked up I would talk about them, what had happened in the previous race, I would mention the starting position for today and maybe something else they said across the race weekend but I loved it.
It gave me a real buzz not knowing who would walk up next and seeing if I had enough information stored in my head for the time I needed to fill.
I haven't done that since I moved across to Sky F1 in 2016, so on Sunday standing on the grid with the pictures from the world feed popping up on the monitor in front of me, I got to use some of what I'd been able to do back in the earlier years.
But I will admit I did spend Saturday night making sure I learnt all 20 positions on the grid. I also may have asked one of our fab technical crew to test me at breakfast on Sunday morning. Of course, that all changed when I found out there were grid penalties for Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi!
We walk out to the grid and as I walked through I realise this is only the second time this season that I've been in an F1 pit lane. Due to the new restrictions, numbers are restricted everywhere, and for right now our access to the pit lane has been taken away.
I've always said that my favourite moment of a race weekend is when I'm in the pit lane around the green-light time and the drivers are getting ready and the sense of anticipation is heightened. But I now have a new favourite moment of the race because as Johnny and I stepped out onto the grid for my first time in nine years of working in this sport, behind my mask I had a massive grin on my face.
As a Formula 1 fan there is no better place to be than standing on the grid before the lights turn green. We have a position at the side of the grid and just in front of Max Verstappen's car. We have a small monitor with us to watch what is being shown on Sky Sports F1 channel at the time but my cameraman focuses mostly on what is going on around us.
So we watch on the monitor what he is filming at the time so that we can talk over the pictures. I have Johnny with me to start with and we chat through various topics before we go to Karun at the green light.
Moments later he is alongside me on the grid when I'm told in my ear that Lewis is under investigation. I start to relay this information on air when the message flashes up on the monitor in front of us that he is indeed under investigation for his practice start outside the designated area. No one has seen any footage of this yet because it wasn't shown on the world feed at the time but the quick guys at FOM spool back through the track camera footage and then play out on the world feed the moment Lewis reached the end of the pit exit and we show it on air at the same time.
The world feed wasn't live on Lewis at the time so this is the first chance anybody has had to see this footage. As we watch it looks as though it's just one practice start that he is being investigated for. We discuss this and hear from Crofty on the regulations regarding practice starts. Part of the fun of being on the grid is that none of it is planned. You go out there and you're running order is empty. So we watch the pictures that are on the monitor.
We are on the grid for almost an hour in the blazing sun, but I don't really actually feel it. I think the adrenaline and the buzz of everything that is going on around me means that it doesn't really register. We stepped aside a couple of times for shade but only for a moment or two before we're back out in the sunshine.
I talk as the drivers make their way to the front of the grid in preparation for the end racism gesture and the national anthem. I've only ever seen any of this from the other side of the pit wall or on a TV screen and so it feels incredibly special and I feel very privileged to be just a few feet away as it all unfolds.
Then the drivers go back to their cars and prepare for the race and my job is to fill those final few moments until we are ready for the lights out. I have the DA counting down in my ears and I have to stop talking no matter what when she says zero.
You cannot make a mistake and so as I speak my brain is trying to work out if I have enough words or have enough time to get all the words out and not make a mistake. But I managed it and hit it right on cue. I'm sure there was a visible dropping of my shoulders with relief as I left the grid and made my way back into the paddock to watch the race start.
We watch the first couple of laps in the paddock in case there is a red flag before heading back to the office to watch the rest. We hear Lewis's team radio and I hear his engineer tell him he has a penalty for his practice starts. Starts plural.
I text our producer back in London and ask him to see if our guys can look at Lewis's onboard and see if he went through the pit lane again after going out for his lap to the grid. He did. He did one practice start out of position and then came back through the pit lane to do it again a second time. This information can then get passed to commentary to add it to the broadcast. We all work as a team at races and that really showed this weekend with so few people, not just on camera but behind the scenes as well, managing to bring you the race weekend.
Post-race the plan is always that there is no plan so, aside from my notes on the race, I am running on my wits again. But I like it that way. If someone said to you after the race on Sunday, Sergio is sitting down, and you had no time to prepare, would you know what to ask?
You get maybe a few seconds warning in your ear while you are talking about something completely different and so your brain needs to get you from one topic to another, recall where that driver finished, where he qualified, what the result means for him and for the team, and any other news stories that driver has been involved in, in a very short space of time.
But I loved every second of it! I'm putting my feet up for the next few races but I am sure I will be filling in my notebooks while I am here…
P.S. Thank you all for your messages and support 😊