Back on British Soil

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.


Stuck in Shanghai

We saw a fantastic race on Sunday, but the fond memories are fading quickly because I’m currently stuck in Shanghai with the next available flight to Europe on May 6 – the Thursday before the Spanish Grand Prix.

We were meant to be flying back via Zurich with Swiss Air on Monday but that was cancelled due to the ash. Somehow we missed out on a half-full plane on Tuesday morning, which is sickening because now are only hope of getting out of here before the end of the month is to go on a waiting list to replace no-shows. Realistically I think the best we can hope for is getting a flight on Friday or Saturday but there are no guarantees. We thought about taking an alternative route, but you can easily end up spending extra money unnecessarily because the situation is evolving all the time. The good news is that China is quite cheap and we’ve got a Tesco round the corner that sells wine for £1 and beers for 50p.

It could be worse though, because we know one photographer who’s date to return to Europe is on May 30 – that’s after both the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix. At the other end of the scale there was another snapper who got straight back to Turkey on Sunday. He was due to change flights there anyway and then got a plane to Milan where his wife picked him up and got him back to his home in Switzerland by Monday morning. He probably got back quicker than anyone else in the paddock, you’re either lucky or you’re not – it’s a real lottery.

It was strange on the Sunday morning before the race because the whole paddock was dead, as everybody was trying to figure out how they were going to get back after the race. The Shanghai International Circuit has a massive paddock and people are pretty sparse at the best of times but on that morning there was nobody around, it was like the race was already over. The teams were all hidden away in corners talking about their travel plans rather than the race, which is unheard of in the paddock on a Sunday.

I’m sure there will be some great stories in Spain about who got home the quickest and who took the most exotic route; I just hope I’m not telling the story about the slowest journey. In a way it’s quite fun because it brings people together. It reminds me of the time a typhoon hit the Japanese Grand Prix in 2004 and qualifying was cancelled. Everybody was worrying about it so much at the time but in the end they just qualified on Sunday morning and got on with it.

It’s been a bad trip all round for me though, because on the way out I was on a plane that lost an engine while taxiing to the runway. We were sat on the tarmac and just as they went full power I heard an engine go pop and I looked out the window to see a load of crap spew out of the engine. It got reported by a lot of the F1 websites because Sebastian Vettel was on the flight, and for some reason I got a mention too. There was the whole Ferrari team on that flight but bizarrely I got named ahead of them.

It then got even weirder because when I arrived at the other end and came through the arrivals gate a girl shouted my name. I looked around and it was a Chinese fan with the picture I sometimes use for this column asking me to sign it – I’m really not used to that. They must have read the story on the websites and realised what plane we were on, because there were loads of Sebastian Vettel fans there too.

It just goes to show that there are some really dedicated fans in China, even if the grandstands were a bit empty for Friday practice. The people that are there are brilliant and they really shout and make some noise when there is action on track. Lots of them are big fans of Michael Schumacher and whenever he was involved in a scrap on track you could hear the excitement build all around the grandstands. There were loads of home-made banners and flags dotted around, some of which had rather crude English slogans on them, such as “Michael you’re better than sex”. They’re more fanatical than the Japanese, at least more boisterous, and that’s saying something.

It’s a shame more of them didn’t show up earlier in the weekend for Friday practice though. At the driver autograph singing there was only about 100 people there, which is nothing compared to the European rounds. However, the die-hard Schumacher fans were there and the girl from the airport was there with her Vettel flag. They went crazy when Schumacher came out, pushing against the barrier and falling over each other. It was like the Michael-mania we see in Germany, but of course he took it all in his stride. He was joking around and at one point came up behind Felipe Massa and started signing his jacket. I think Massa though he was being attacked because he swung round and looked pretty serious, but as soon as he clocked it was Schumacher it was all back slaps and shaking hands. It goes to show the two of them are still good mates.

Spain is up next where we’ll no doubt have similar levels of hysteria around Fernando Alonso. I just hope I can get there in time.