Tradition dictates a Monday return from most Grands Prix – and especially those that attract large crowds. It’s an opportunity to let the mayhem subside and reduces the likelihood of boarding a flight that feels like the paddock at 37,000 feet. Cover the race, catch your breath and return to the UK at a civilised pace.
It’s a method that’s served me well over the years. When first I began covering overseas events, almost three decades ago, it was normal to travel back to the UK from all over Europe and reach the office by 6am on Monday morning, to start gluing together a newspaper. Sleep was a rare commodity and France often doubled up as a racetrack. Adrenaline prevented you nodding off when cruising at about 120mph, so it felt much safer than 80. I’m not sure the gendarmes would have bought that as an excuse, but happily I wasn’t stopped and thus never had to provide one. You couldn’t do that nowadays, nor does it merit contemplation.
Some trips stick in the mind more than others. Once, when most of Sicily seemed to be gridlocked and our chances of making the flight had been compromised by the customary, red flag-tinged chaos of an Enna-Pergusa Formula 3000 race (David Coulthard pictured leading Pedro Lamy in 1993, above), a colleague reckoned he knew a rural route to Catania Airport. It worked, but the effort took such a toll on our heavily laden Fiat Tipo that its brakes failed at about half-distance. The first warning came on a mountain road, when the pedal went to the floor approaching a downhill hairpin and we had little option but to rattle around against the Armco. Back then, Italian hire companies didn’t fine you for returning cars with body damage: they simply shrugged.
On another occasion, we reached Milan’s Linate Airport and discovered there was a much earlier flight than the one we were supposed to catch. The hire car was left by the terminal door and three of us sprinted to the departure gate in a bid to negotiate seats. The Alitalia personnel were initially reluctant, but jockey Willie Carson and colleagues were boarding the same plane, on their way back from a race meeting nearby. Carson overheard our pleas and intervened, imploring the desk to let “his friends” on board. I’d never met him before (and haven’t since, come to that), but it was a generous gesture I have always appreciated. It was only once airborne that I realised I’d left a pile of Italian currency – worth £250 or so – in the car. A couple of weeks later, I received a very polite letter from Avis Italy, asking me to return cars to the correct parking area in future – to prevent them having to pay further tow-away charges – and, by the way, here’s some money we found in the door pocket. They hadn’t even deducted the fine…
Monday returns, then, tend to be a little more relaxing – but four times in the past five seasons I’ve made an exception at Spa, leaving southern Belgium within a few hours of the Grand Prix’s conclusion and heading through the night to north-west England for the final day of the Historic Sports Car Club’s Gold Cup meeting.
By the time this appears on the Motor Sport website, I hope to be relishing an Oulton Park paddock breakfast. From Lotus-Renaults and McLaren MP4-28s, then, to Lotus Cortinas and McLaren M10Bs: few weekends have parallel appeal.