Hanging out with two world champions
By the time you read this blog the 2010 season will be just a few more sleeps away (more exciting than Christmas, eh?) and I will be 3,000 miles from home in Bahrain, doing what I did in 2009 - sweating more than I need to!
After the winter we've had I hardly expect you to feel sorry for me as I grab some spring sunshine, but the issue is that my legs are just not suited to shorts. Even my wife Harriet's Dad reckons he's never seen ankles as big as mine, so even in the heat of the desert I tend to wear jeans in the paddock while David Coulthard swans about showing off his bulging, athletic calf muscles.
Mind you, not even 40C will get me sporting a pair of white strides like the ones Eddie Jordan wowed viewers with last year! On my last weekend at home, however, I had no such concerns about the heat.
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button
A biting wind was whistling through the windows (our renovations STILL haven't started) and I irresponsibly had the gas fire up full pelt in an attempt to get some warmth into the room. I watched Superman Returns - for which a bald-headed and rather sinister Kevin Spacey had clearly enjoyed a tasty pay-day and gained sudden inspiration for this blog.
Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to freeze half to death in Corby. Fortunate, because tucked away in an industrial estate in an otherwise ordinary looking corner of Britain is the impressive Rockingham Motor Speedway.
Famous for being Europe's fastest racing circuit, on Friday it played host to a seven-time F1 world champion. So, Michael Schumacher. What is he in your eyes? The Clark Kent, or the Lex Luther of Formula 1?
In my mind there were clearly times when he operated at the very edge of the competitive limit and undoubtedly crossed the line into the realms of unsporting behaviour. But that merely adds to the anticipation surrounding his return, doesn't it?
In a nondescript garage in Rockingham's paddock I got 20 minutes to ask him about one of the greatest ever sporting comebacks. But before speaking to Schumacher, I was given a stark reminder of how quickly life in F1 can flash before a driver's eyes.
Preparing for the action
Twelve months ago I would have travelled to carry out just such an interview with former BMW driver Nick Heidfeld. This year, without an F1 drive and employed as Mercedes test driver (a pretty mundane job for someone with racing in their blood at a time when testing is banned), Heidfeld just came in, sat down and started chatting to us in a way he never had before.
The invisible barrier that exists between F1 driver and the media was gone, along with his relevance as a current racer. I have no doubt that his obvious talent, speed and consistency means Heidfeld will grace F1 again, but at that moment it was just a couple of F1 fans discussing the sport.
Anyway, back to Schumacher. As it was pretty Baltic outside, the Mercedes media team was fretting that it might be a little cold for him so just as he walked into the garage, they turned on the heater.
Unfortunately for them it was an old paraffin heater and threw a huge cloud of fumes into the tiny room and despite spending most of his career surrounded by exhaust fumes it was clearly too much for Michael's sensitive sporting lungs. He quickly lifted the big roller doors and had Matt our cameraman scrabbling around for the door at the opposite end of the room. Some way to start the interview!
After the fumes had subsided, we had just started to chat when interruption number two arrived. Schumacher's new team-mate Nico Rosberg had a flight to get so despite the fact we were mid-flow, he came bumbling into the room, picking up his belongings that he'd left strewn around the place... a man after my own heart!
Actually, as Nico was knocking on the window to get someone to let him in, I said to Michael, "It's Nico" and as quick as a flash the old master said "Ah, leave him out there!". OK, it was a flippant comment said in jest, but it was also, tellingly perhaps, his instant reaction. Having spent a few minutes chatting, it was crystal clear that the man who dominated all 10 of his F1 team-mates until now retains that steel core needed to remain the best. He was interesting and intense.
He said he wouldn't have returned if he wasn't fit enough, that the current crop of drivers aren't special it's the cars that are good, and, most ominously of all, that he is a better driver now than he was five years ago.
I get the impression this is a man who has weighed up all the options, assessed the risks, and decided that returning won't damage his reputation or his legacy because he's got what it takes to beat the lot. He not only retains the same belief he displayed in every one of his seven title winning seasons, but there was a glint in his eye that says to me "watch this space". And we will! Mind you, Schumacher wasn't the only World Champion I got the chance to hang out with last week.
In deep conversation with Jenson
While Michael was opening garage doors, Jenson Button was opening all the doors at his new home, the McLaren Technology Centre. On Monday he gave me a guided tour of his new surroundings that we'll screen soon. We took a walk down the "Boulevard" where various cars from McLaren's past are lined up.
While Lewis Hamilton has in the past extolled the virtues of Ayrton Senna's skills, this time, Jenson talked about his excitement watching Alain Prost guide his iconic 1988 McLaren to victory. I'm sure the irony's not lost on you. Having spent a fair bit of time at McLaren's impressive yet imposing facility recently I was amazed by how relaxed and positive Jenson was. I honestly expected him to be slightly in the shadow of a man who has been with the team since he was just 14, but not a bit of it.
Button knew his new colleagues' names, was able to navigate his way round a building that is almost as confusing and rabbit warren-like as Television Centre. Most impressively, he was just as at ease chatting to the guy who works with the autoclave in the basement, as he was when we gate-crashed team principal Martin Whitmarsh's office for a cheeky chat. Just as Jenson has achieved something he's strived for almost all his life he decides to join a new team.
That means he has no chance to rest on his laurels and no excuse for not being as motivated as ever. Will he still retain that drive at the age of 41? I'm not so sure. Perhaps it all depends how another driver on the grid fares in the next nine months...