It was a welcome back to the paddock for Darshan Chokhani for F1 2018’s Abu Dhabi GP and the following test. Here’s a reflection of what all happened and how things stand with independent media from his view… 

Following my return to the F1 paddock at Yas Marina Circuit for the 2017 Abu Dhabi GP after three years gap, the idea for 2018 was to do more races for sure. But it is far from reality when you are an independent writer, who needs stability first before taking decisions which could backfire.

In the end – for various reasons which includes both professional and personal – I could only do one grand prix in 2018 as well. It was again the finale in Abu Dhabi, but I made sure to stay back for the two-day Pirelli test, so as to make up slightly for the missed opportunities.

Before I get on with the weekend, I would like to clarify the situation regarding the media covering F1 or motorsport in general. Financially, it is a big call for anyone in the independent sector to think about doing a full season unless there is a sponsor who helps the writer/journalist.

The grand prixs keep rising, so does the cost incurred for an individual. For every host venue, a grand prix event is when they try to soak in all the money and which is what happens – the flight rates, hotel rates and even the transport is higher than usual, sometimes double, triple and even more.

On top of that, we have the currency exchange rates which if I take India for example, usually has a higher exchange rate – meaning I have to buy the local currency of other countries at a higher cost which eventually increases the overall traveling expenditure.

Many still do commit to the races despite not getting back as much they want as the passion pushes them in doing so and sport is such where the heart plays an important role and sometimes overpowers the mind in decision making.

There is always the question of whether you as a writer is doing justice to your work? In today’s time, internet has expanded in such a way that whatever story you think you’ll do at a later stage, it is already out and you are left with finding ways to do it still in a fresh way.

It is a common problem with many regular grand prix visitors. If you use a quote from a publicised press conference or a TV interview, it is still pardonable but the issue rise when quotes from a written media session are found on places or sites that are certainly not present when it was said or recorded.

It happened to me as well in my short visit, so I can imagine how much it does for the regular goers. It is a huge mistake from the so-called ‘couch writers’, although I’ll not say everyone in their clan should be called out like that. There are many who do carry their work diligently as well.

To be fair, it is not because of will but because of choice that many cannot travel to all the races. A lot of the longtime travelers have some kind of sponsorship behind which they have earned it, probably having started the same way as the current crop does – of course, not by stealing the work of others but by working hard.

I despise the ones who copy and paste the work just for clicks on their respective sites and present it as their own – whether crediting or not – which eventually ruins the smart work done by the non-travelers who respect the regulars and maximize their writing with whatever they have without disrupting anyone else’s work.

The race weekend

Coming to the final race of the 2018 season, it wasn’t much to expect from the grand prix as both the titles were already sealed with Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes taking their respective fifth world championship in the earlier races.

And so, all eyes were on Fernando Alonso, who had his final F1 race – for now. In addition, with the silly season one had this year, there were many drivers who had their last F1 race as well along with many having their last with a particular team.

Most of the Thursday belonged to that with questions to the drivers on their season, future and so on. There was also an announcement from Williams’ side with the return of Robert Kubica in 2019. At the same time last year, Kubica lost out to Sergey Sirotkin in a direct fight but one year later, it is the Polish driver replacing the Russian for the same seat.

The reflections from the Polish and the Russian driver was a talking point for sure while the official Abu Dhabi GP drivers’ press conference was devoted wholly to Alonso with Hamilton beside him as they called back on their careers so far with mutual respect shown, especially after the hairy journey together in 2007.

The Yas Marina paddock had its usual suspects with ex-boss Bernie Ecclestone roaming freely with many of the ex-F1 racers also present like Nico Rosberg, Gerhard Berger, Jean Alesi, Timo Glock, Jacques Villneuve and many more. The FIA President Jean Todt was there too when the Pirelli extension deal was announced.

It ended up being a funny situation when on Saturday I interviewed Pirelli’s Mario Isola and naturally asked about the new F1 deal as to when it will be sorted and announced but a day later, it was formally announced to the world – that’s how the F1 world works sometimes and a lot of times we end up looking a bit like a fool as well.

The same happened with Brendon Hartley. The decision seemed certain for his ouster but we couldn’t talk for obvious reasons when I interviewed him and then it was formally announced on Monday – the day after the grand prix – with Alexander Albon’s signing for 2019 with Toro Rosso.

The Abu Dhabi GP weekend also had its share of controversy off-track with Haas going against Racing Point (Force India) over the legality of their cars and also on the prize money matter, the case was eventually won by the latter with doubts still in the minds of the former as it laid down its intention to appeal.

Meanwhile, much of the Saturday in the grand prix paddock belonged to Alonso as the circuit hosted a BBQ for the Spaniard and a stage was set-up just beside the entrance of the paddock and opposite to the media center. Whole of the McLaren team was present along with much of the drivers and rival teams with a special video played as well.

The Spaniard bid goodbye to the sport and had his special deckchair moment too. The circuit official then revealed that the drivers’ briefing room at the track will be named after him and the wall design which they had for Alonso will remain there forever as well.

More than Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel and even Will Smith, it seemed like the weekend was all about Alonso, even on Sunday with a lot of his former colleagues were there to greet him well. It was mayhem as usual for photos to be clicked with Alonso, both pre and post race as no one knows when will be the next time with him in a F1 paddock.

Over the years, I have observed that one thing which many readers and viewers don’t get to see is how the drivers or team members react in certain situations or a certain happening during a race weekend. It is known that the drivers and the team officials don’t usually like to talk to the media folks, but they know it is part of the job.

In the end, they do end up conveying – to a larger extent – as to what they feel about anything. If you are a regular, the trust is enough among them to put out the answers which they know will not be taken out of context by the one interviewing you. It is a professional relation of give and take and built on mutual respect.

The drivers and team members even inquire from the media about the happenings with other teams or drivers. It ends up being one family as they know the hardships of traveling to so many places for the love of the sport and also earn their livelihood.

Pirelli test

Once the Abu Dhabi GP was over, most of the team members including drivers and top officials bid goodbye along with many journalists. Many stayed back even for the final scribbling to be done for the two-day test.

I did only a day in 2017 but made sure to stay back for both the days this time. As alluded earlier, the changes were aplenty with only two teams having a settled line-up for 2019 F1 season, while the rest eight having at least one change if not both.

The likes of Albon was seen in Toro Rosso colours for the first time – even though he did not drive – with a lot of other first-timers which included Haas’ Pietro Fittipaldi and Louis Deletraz getting their first taste of F1, Lance Stroll shifting to Racing Point, Carlos Sainz to McLaren and Pierre Gasly to Red Bull.

Some of the familiar ones were Daniil Kvyat returning to Toro Rosso with Kimi Raikkonen to Sauber. Although it was a fresh move for Charles Leclerc to Ferrari, Lando Norris to McLaren, Kubica & George Russell to Williams and Antonio Giovinazzi to Sauber – but they were all seen before in those colours.

The testing is usually boring for many regulars who just want to get back home but it is a bit relaxing who can do more things than during a usual weekend. The trackside viewing is one of those – although this year it was a bit confusing whether one was allowed or not as there were restrictions put up.

The test for me sealed another grand prix event which was more enriching considering this time I had the opportunity to follow the whole of the 2018 season in a better way and write on all the happenings as well than the previous years where other commitments did take charge.

I must add that the people in the paddock are always welcoming and remember you well – even the drivers and team members for that matter. I’ll not say everything is perfect in that world, but then nothing ever is. The only think what counts is how you show yourself and how you do things.

The wish remains to undertake more ventures but as an independent, one can only do so much at a time. If I am to remember very well, 2018 actually marks a decade for me since I started watching motor racing with deep interest rather than a casual one – it has brought me to this; let’s see where it takes in the future!