On Tuesday we rang the Swiss Air office, and like I said in my first column, the earliest flight they could guarantee was on May 6. My only hope of getting home earlier was a charter flight organised among the teams, with the seats going for around £1700. As all hope of getting back by conventional means had evaporated, I had all but settled for that option.
I went to sleep on Tuesday night preparing myself for the financial hit and subsequent insurance claim and set an alarm for the next morning. At 5am I heard this buzzing, considered getting up but thought better of it. A couple of minutes later there was more buzzing and I realised it was my phone vibrating (I’d put it on silent). I picked up the call and it was a photographer friend telling me to get down to the airport immediately as a Swiss Air flight was leaving that morning with space on board. I quickly got my stuff together, had a shower and ran through the lobby – without even bother checking out – to get a taxi.
By some bizarre luck there was a driver waiting outside and I ran to the window shouting, “Taxi, taxi, airport, airport”. He understood my ramblings and set off airport-bound at a fair old lick. His driving was unreal, weaving through the traffic in a style that made Lewis Hamilton’s road manners look polite. I’m sure we went straight through a number of speed cameras and in half an hour I was at the airport at the Swiss Air check-in desk. There were about three or four people queuing so it looked promising. But when I got to the desk I found that there were over 100 people ahead of me in the reserve list who had called in before me. My heart dropped slightly, I was back to square one. I enquired about buying a ticket, but they were only selling business class seats at €5,500 and there was no way I was paying that much.
A little while later they started calling the names out for the people who were being offered a seat on the flight. Amazingly they went through the first two sheets of paper without anybody responding – they must have all put their names down over the phone or found another way home. Eventually my name was called and it was for the last place. I was told to get in line and check my bags in, I couldn’t believe it – my heart was thumping as I was given my ticket. So off I went to security when a Swiss Air employee stopped me and asked me what my name was. He told me that a girl had been in front of me in the queue and that I wouldn’t be on the flight. For the second time that hour my heart dropped. He took my ticket and tore it up in front of me while the girl had a fresh one printed in her name. I couldn’t believe it.
In the finest British tradition, I kicked up a fuss in an attempt to have something done but it was to no avail. So then I was off to Lufthansa to see if I could get a flight with them. Then just seconds later I heard my name being called again back at Swiss Air. I ran to the desk again and the same guy that had ripped up my ticket told me I had a place in business class, seat 7C and with no extra charge. I couldn’t believe it, the stress had been enough to give me heart attack, but somehow I found the strength to run through security and get to the gate in time.
I stumbled onto the plane, found row 7 but there was someone sat in seat C. Surely not. I was there fretting, trying to find someone to explain what was going on, when a stewardess came round the corner and asked “What’s the matter?” As I explained the guy in 7C looked at this ticket to find he had taken the wrong seat and directly behind me was seat 7A completely free. I told him to stay where he was and settled back to enjoy the flight – it was now certain I’d be back in Europe the same day.
There were quite a few F1 people on the flight, including Ferrari’s press officer Luca Colajanni, but sat next to me was a guy called Ralph who worked on a lot of the car’s paint jobs for a company based in Belgium. We got chatting and he said he could get me as far as Brussels if all the European transfer flights were booked or grounded at the other end. Now I could really relax and enjoy the champagne, as from Brussels I could get the train over to Calais at least.
When we landed I went with Ralph to the flight transfers area and we were met with a queue 300 people deep. But just as I’d lost hope (again), he got out a Swiss Air gold card and we by-passed the lot of them. He got booked straight onto a flight for Brussels and the next thing I knew, he had me on a flight back to the UK. I couldn’t thank him enough. So in a matter of hours I was on a flight back to British soil with my chauffer waiting at the other end, I just couldn’t believe my luck.
How it all came together I’ll never know. But I’ve got to say a huge thanks to all the people that helped me along the way, all the way back to that crazy taxi driver.