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High-octane & muffed ears at Formula 1

Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal


"Packing for Formula 1?” My friends questioned. Little did I know that an innocuous nod would have them twirl in a frenzy. “A slinky top”, one suggested.  “Naah! Leather pants perfect for the occasion”, another piped. “But it would be hot, pack 30 SPF sunblock and your cottons,” I heard a voice from a corner. “Not cotton, silly, it will rain on the day of the race, don’t forget your trendy canary yellow poncho?” the good weatherman of a friend thumped as if he had the weather gods on his hotline. Everyone chipped, everyone waiting to spew that ultimate wisdom. But there was one sulking, he a broke Felippe Massa fan beseeching the lord for a magic wand that would shrink him enough to fit into my camera bag and watch the first Formula One night race ever. I shed a tear for him but clutched my black entry tags tightly. That humid day I would not have bartered my F1 ticket for anything, not even for a suite in the heavens.

The race was still two days away but so eager was I that I could have gleefully erased those days off the calendar. To me, every minute seemed such a drag, every moment tardy as eternity, but Singapore was soaking in the F1 fever. In the pubs people lined up for the F1 cocktails, in the Singapore Motor Show the pretty young things came swathed in black and white chequered dresses, at the Science of F1 exhibition in the Science Centre little children were picking up fast facts and in the market everything from red caps and hotel rooms were acting pricey. The entire city had preened itself to perfection, after all it was no ordinary day, it was the first F1 Grand Prix in Singapore and the first street race in the Asian circuit.  And the gods in overalls and helmets were coming in their mean machines…

Wearing a signature Ferrari red shirt, tour guide Mohammad Hamim was excited to the last torque. It was the biggest event the nation was hosting and I was flummoxed by the efficiency - not one litter on the street, not one car honking desperately, not a speck of grime on the skyscrapers and not one man complaining of closed streets and crowded malls. “Are you surprised? You were expecting chaos?” Hamim asked, perhaps my surprise intrigued him. Chaos? No, that is not what I was expecting, but I was certainly not expecting everything to work with clockwork precision. “Even on an ordinary day, Singapore feels special,” adds Hamim adjusting his golf cap to beat the prickly sun.

For a change the spiky sun was not gutting me out. Perhaps there were too many distractions. The Singapore GP season was on and Lewis Hamilton was everywhere – on the hoardings, on tees, on flags, even on the made-for-F1 merchandise that were flying off the shelves before they caught the creases. In an air-conditioned room with flawless acoustics Lynette Pang, Director, Events and Entertainment, Singapore Tourism Board, was spilling the beans on the GP season. For the aesthete there was the Singapore Biennale and street art installations; for all those who wanted to relive history there were the traditional bumboats floating on the river, their symmetrically arranged gig lamps adding colours to the placid waters, for the curious there was the FI science exhibition while for the men in black, blue and every other colour there was the fashion show where twiggy models would strut in barely inches of fabric. “And,” she whispered into the mike, “if you know anyone, someone, friend, foe, countryman, get a ticket to the Amber Lounge, it is where everyone parties.” “Everyone”, she hushed again. “Not you and me, but Beckham, Paris Hilton, Massa….” she breathlessly counted names.      

However, not everyone was succumbing to glamour. Some of them had arduous chores lined up. In the Gallery Hotel, I lazily dug my fork for breakfast, the spread was lavish and the race still hours away. But for Harry Valier, the moments were ticking faster than he wished. Dressed in dark blue with BMW embroidered on his shirt back, he hurriedly gulped the strawberry yoghurt. I am curious and walk up to BMW’s technical manager. “May I join you?”, I uttered politely, hoping he would not shoo me away for being too nosy. “Sure,” the white-haired Valier smiled.  For the German with a French name, BMW is just another name for home, he has worked for them for 32 years. Now, he leads a retried life in Thailand, walking out of his serene home only when BMW beckons. “I own a sailing team in Thailand and enjoy the peace there. I came because Singapore is not too far from home, I can rush back soon after the race,” says Valier. But while he is in the pits with the cars, too many things burden his wide shoulders. Imagine looking after 60 cars with a team of countless engineers, thousands of nuts to be bolted and million inches of carbon-composite frames to be checked to stave off any possible glitch.  Before I could utter another how, Valier had taken off lickety-split across the yellow and pink chairs in the restaurant.

That day in Singapore, humidity and hemlines were rising, necklines plunging and I was headed to the Singapore Flyer, the world’s tallest observation tower that stands 161 metres and took two years to build. Hamim had told me that it was the best place to view the race, but my pockets were empty and the seats sold out. If I had more than 10,000 Singapore dollars (roughly 3.3 lakh rupees) I could have booked a capsule and watched the circling Flyer beat the chameleon with an incredible 15 lighting patterns. Well, I did not have those wads of green dollars, so I settled for a day hop in the Flyer. As I looked through the glass, Singapore seemed spread out on a canvas, with the green, yellow and red stands adding those vibrant strokes. When the Flyer came close to the specially built pit with 20 garages, I could spot the Ferrari men in red, BMW in blue, Renault in white. Not too far, svelte girls in skin-tight leather frocks looked more seductive than the gleaming cars.

And then the minutes ticked faster and the roar of the cars that screech at a decibel level one-third the speed of sound deafened everything, including my heart beat. I forgot all the sartorial to-dos of friends, all I remembered was the sunscreen and the orange foam plugs to muff my ears. The race was scheduled at 8 in the evening but much before dusk fell, the onomatopoeic sound of footfalls reached a crescendo. I joined the crowd, wherever I looked all I saw was human heads – brown, black, blonde, brunette. So many that for a moment I felt all the world was in Singapore, people lugging beer mugs and loyal fans flaunting their team colours. As I walked up to my seat, I could feel the sweat dripping down my spine. Was it the singing heat, or was it an adrenaline rush? This was my first F1 experience and I fumbled on the wooden stairs. Felippe Massa had whizzed past at more than 200 kmph and I faltered. Ah! The weak-kneed woman, I smirked. In the rumble of the screeching cars, I forgot to count the missed heart beats and calibrate the aaahs that the crowd broke into every time a car pirouetted at the dangerous Turn 10. In two hours the drivers were to cover 309 kms in 61 laps, each lap stretching a tad beyond 5 kms. In the first lap, the time stood at 1 minute 46 seconds for a lap. Whoa! I calculated. I could do Delhi-Jaipur in 73 minutes, I could drive home a 1000 miles away in less than 5 hours. But poor me, I had no million dollars to buy the Renault R28 that comes with a price tag of I million US dollars.

“Oops!” A raucous manly scream interrupted my reverie. Massa who had taken the pole position was driving away with the fuel rig. There was no lollipop man standing in front, the green digi light had flashed and Massa had screeched further down the pit, the petrol washing away his dreams of a place on the podium. Lewis Hamilton, the crowd favourite, was trailing and the merit list suddenly looked topsy-turvy – Massa at 15, Kimi Raikkonen crashed out, Hamilton at 5 and as if from nowhere Renault’s Fernando Alonso sped past everyone. The crowd gasped, I dug my nails in, the lights flickered and the crowd fell thunderstruck. And before the realization sunk in, Alonso was already on the podium dancing amidst mischievous champagne bubbles. It was his day. His F1 moment.

My ears are still buzzing, my heart beat still drowned in the hum of the screeching cars and the squeals of the crowd. I did not party that night at Amber Lounge. I did not see Paris Hilton shake a leg. I forgot to unpack the sequinned tube and the moccasins. But who cares! On seat no. 13, row no. 21 in the B5 gate of Pedang Stand, in a moment the evening of September 28 had turned into a precious lifetime. A moment to enough for a lifetime!


Published in The Week, 2008

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