There were roughly 70 million people watching the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix on television this past weekend, plus another 50 million following on social media, and more than 300,000 lucky spectators watching in-person at the sold-out race in Montreal, but the best way to watch F1 – even better than catching Drive to Survive on Netflix – is to get yourself into the exclusive team paddock clubs. It’s easier said than done.
Aston Martin’s paddock club is invite-only. It’s mainly for guests of the team: sponsors, their friends and families, as well as Aston Martin dealers and some of their very best customers. Paying untold millions to get your company’s logo on Aston’s F1 car is one way in. Another way is to buy a limited-edition US$3 million Aston Martin Valkyrie supercar. Yet another way would be to see if your local dealer has a ticket and then try to buy it from them. Like we said, easier said than done.
Once inside, however, everything is breezy. The team paddock clubs are the Formula 1 equivalent of high-roller suites. Picture a corporate box on steroids. Guests get unprecedented access to the team, including private tours of the garage, pit lane, interviews with the team boss, drivers, and periodic live video updates from the garage. In between all that, it’s an open-bar extravaganza masterfully catered by DO & CO, which must bring a small army to every race in order to crank out such delicately presented dishes.
It’s been three years since the last Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Montreal, and it was worth the wait, at least from our privileged perspective in Aston Martin’s paddock club.
It’s 11 degrees this morning and raining non-stop. The hardcore fans braving the weather in the grandstands are getting soaked and must be chilled to the bone. We just ordered another cappuccino to warm up, and it came with a tasty little biscotti on the side. Thoughtful.
The team paddock club is right over Aston’s garages, overlooking the pit lane and main straight. Amazing views. Down the hall are similar (but not quite as nice?) paddock clubs from other teams: Alfa Romeo, McLaren, Ferrari, Alpine, Red Bull and Williams.
Before noon waiters start bringing around smoked salmon with light yuzu cream and togarashi, then poke bowls with friend tofu and – each bite being better than the last.
There are around 150 people in Aston’s paddock club, if that. A handful of us go down to visit the team’s garage. Almost nobody gets to see this. F1 is so secretive, but at the back of the garage, the team has a booth where guests can watch but not get in the way. It’s a mess of activity, but every surface is spotlessly clean. Mechanics do a million little jobs, and it’s amazing nobody trips over anything.
Ex-F1 driver David Coulthard is upstairs at the paddock club, being charming. Immaculate jawline on that man.
A lot of the Dragon’s Den crew are apparently in the Ferrari paddock club. Hardly surprising.
Lunch: Fillet of beef and lamb chops, roasted Brussels sprouts, grilled Atlantic scallops, handmade ricotta mezzelune, and wow – that crispy pork belly with spicy miso sauce. We would absolutely go to this restaurant even if there wasn’t an F1 race going on outside.
We’re back in the garage to watch qualifying, and given headsets to listen in on radio communication between the drivers and their race engineers. Hectic! Rain is still pouring and tire choice is tough. The cars fire up with a violent roar, and then they’re out. It’s up to the drivers now: four-time champ Sebastien Vettel and the young Canadian Lance Stroll.
Vettel can’t seem to find the pace he had on Friday practice. He’s wondering if maybe there’s something broken on the rear wheels. Time’s running out, but Vettel gets one more lap. Now or never! He’s quiet on the radio, concentrating and then crossing the line and… nope. No joy. He’ll start in 16th out of 20 cars, with Stroll in 17th. Lots to do on Sunday.
SUNDAY, Race Day
We skip the lengthy walk to the track on Montreal’s beautiful Île Notre-Dame and park in the VIP lot, so it takes only 45 minutes to get from our hotel downtown to the paddock club. That’s a minor miracle if you know anything about Montreal traffic.
Mike Krack, team boss, comes into the paddock club to explain what happened yesterday in qualifying. The team made a minor mistake with the tire pressures it seems. But, minor mistakes in this sport are the difference between starting in front and dead last. Getting some points today in the race would, realistically, be a good outcome for the team he said.
Upstairs, it turns out there’s a general paddock club too, with tickets that are available to the public for around $8,000. But – unlike the exclusive team paddock-club tickets – they don’t come with perks like garage tours or interviews with the team.
The Ferrari challenge series is on-track. Amateur drivers are racing hard — and in many cases, crashing hard — in their USD$400,000 purpose-built Ferrari 488 racecars.
The pit lane is open for paddock club guests. Aston Martin’s squad is out practicing pit stops. The crew of a dozen or so mechanics rushes out of the garage, then a few guys push the car into the box, there’s a wicked, piercing, painful noise, some commotion and before we even understand what’s happening it’s done. It takes roughly two seconds to stop and change all four tires. The crowd applauds, and rightly so.
Because we’re part of the team’s paddock club, they let us in the garage again for a behind-the-scenes look before the race. The working space in the garage is as tight as a submarine. Behind the cars, there’s a room full of various tires, spare parts, lots of expensive carbon-fibre bits, plus so many computer terminals it looks like NASA’s Mission Control.
Vettel’s car is on the left side of the garage, Lane Stroll’s is on the right. The Canadian, Stroll, has a red and white helmet made just for his home race.
We learn that Aston Martin sends roughly 100 team members out to each race. There are 700 – soon to be 800 – team members in total. Some of the crew back in England works on the local time of each race, getting up in the wee hours of the morning to work on strategy and stare at the non-stop flow of data coming from each car. The more you know about this sport, the more you appreciate it.
The race starts at 2pm and everyone in the paddock club heads outside to our private grandstands to see the action. The noise is deafening as 20 cars all start at once. A glorious sight.
The waiters are coming around with champagne. Perfect.
No big spoilers here for the race in case you haven’t watched it yet, but we will say that Lance Stroll managed to get into the points, which is a good result considering he started back in 17th position. Maybe the fact he got to sleep at home, at his parents’ house, all weekend helped?
What a whirlwind of a weekend. See you next year in the paddock club – hopefully.
All images courtesy of Aston Martin Formula One Team.