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The incredible journey

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Jake Humphrey | 12:47 UK time, Thursday, 22 April 2010

We had known for some time that the end of the Chinese Grand Prix would be lights out for a whole new race - a sort of 'Volcanic GP' as the entire Formula 1 paddock tried to get back to various homes across the globe.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone's gag on our programme on Sunday that we would just stay in China for the foreseeable future and make Shanghai the new home of F1 filled no one with much joy.

So, Sunday night rolls around, the BBC team gather in the hotel dining room and our boss Mark Wilkin informs us that our scheduled departure is indeed cancelled, there is no confirmation yet that there will be a flight soon and we'll just sit it out.

Our hotel offered a buffet-style dinner and, moments after the news about our (lack of) travel plans, I sauntered over to where we were eating with a plate piled high with pork and potato wedges. As a few team members reminded me about my new-found health kick, I blamed the shock and duly tucked in.

To be honest it was a slight shock, actually. We had all heard the rumours that some people were being offered flights to get them home in mid-May but you always believe these things are just tales being spread by doom-mongers and you'll be just fine.

The next thing that struck me was that people were just desperate to travel. Somewhere. Anywhere.

It was almost as if sitting in a hotel waiting for news that UK airspace was open was a waste of time. There were rumours of people heading to Dubai as they didn't want to be part of the 5000+ F1 community heading out of Shanghai, stories of flights to Doha, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, even New York, as people clearly thought moving was progress.

We stayed put and I was resigned to the fact we were in China for as long as it took. Then we got a call. An F1 contact had us on a plane that evening! I scuttled upstairs, packed and prepared and grabbed a quick sleep before the 4am departure to freedom.

At 3.30am my phone buzzed. The message read: "Sorry, the flight this morning is no longer an option." Hope dashed, back to Bed-fordshire.

The following day was a mix of eating, snoozing, reading my gripping 'Jack Reacher' novel, blog writing, Twittering and keeping my fingers extremely tightly crossed. And later that day my positive thinking seemed to pay off. Our carrier, Lufthansa, was going to run the flight scheduled for 24 hours after ours was due to leave - and they would honour our bookings!

Now, there is always something odd about breaking up a team. We think the unit that produces your F1 output is a pretty tight group. We travel the world, work long hours, spend more time with each other than our actual families, and there is very rarely so much as a cross word between us.

However, this time the unit had to be split.

Unfortunately, because of the complexity of our operation, a number of our team-mates were not booked with the same carrier - so they were unable to travel with us. It was a very odd, rather unpleasant sensation driving off and leaving them in a Shanghai suburb.

However, one thing tempering our sadness was that we knew the chance of returning to the hotel later that night were more than a little on the high side. We'd been told German airspace was still closed and we were only going to the airport "just in case" the flight was on.

So, at 6.30pm Chinese time, our adventure began as we took to the incredibly busy, fast and at times seemingly lawless roads of Shanghai.

In the cab
Lee McKenzie's taxi heads to the airport

Ninety minutes later we arrived at Pudong Airport where we were told... precisely nothing. The information board informed us that there would be news at 9.30pm. So we went for dinner... but the restaurant was shut. So we wandered to a bar... but it, too, was about to shut. We saw a darts board and thought the despair was over (shame 5 live's David Croft wasn't with us to commentate!), but the darts were "broken", we were told.

So, we settled for a fast-food restaurant and started the wait. And it was at this point that I started to realise how serious the situation could become. We met some students from Glamorgan University who had been thrown off their plane after it was on the runway four days previously, put up in a hotel at the airport that they described as "pretty rank", had no money to spend on sightseeing or having a good time... and were told they could be flown home by 10 May.

The students eventually slunk off, 9.30 came and went, no news. Suddenly, mid-chip, there was a cheer from the check-in hall upstairs. We were allowed to check in for the flight. Cue a frantic grabbing of bags and a couple of whoops not out of place in Ritzy's nightclub in the late '90s. It was happening!

Well, it was until we arrived at the departure gate. By now, it was approaching midnight. The airport was quiet but gate D71 was deserted. No staff, few other passengers and more importantly, no plane on the stand.

The clock ticked past our scheduled departure time. Some slept, others read, VT producer Sunil bought a chocolate panda. Then about 10 flight crew members sauntered past, Sunil giving them a standing ovation. A plane had been towed to the gate and only a little later than planned we were on!

Around 2am, our flight to Europe took off!

Now, China is seven hours ahead of the UK so, despite being on the plane for 12 hours, we were actually making our approach to Frankfurt the same morning. I'll admit that outside the window it was a hazy, smoggy view of Europe but I'm really not sure if I was looking at clouds or volcanic ash.

Clouds or ash?
I'm really not sure if I was looking at clouds or volcanic ash

The pilot came over the radio.

"Good morning ladies and gentleman. We're going to change our flight path. The usual slow descent would mean staying in the ash cloud for longer, so instead we're going to stay at cruising altitude for longer and then descend much more quickly so we spend less time in the ash cloud. But we're pretty sure we'll be all right".

What? Pretty sure? We speculated that this was a lost in translation moment... Gulp!

As the pilot promised, we remained high and then dropped at the last possible moment through the clouds into a smooth, fast landing. Upon arrival the purser sounded as shocked as anyone over the Tannoy: "Well, we actually made it ladies and gentlemen!"

So, we were in Europe. But what would be next. Well, my vote was breakfast but I was overruled by those wanting to plan the next step. Logically, it would be a train to Calais.

Mark the editor and Anne the production manager braved the queue while Matt, one of the editors, spent £3 on the Times newspaper and we tried to make it feel like a school exchange trip by purchasing Hollywood gum and Ritter Sport.

Thirty minutes later Mark offered us a thumbs down through the glass window of the train office. Apparently you had to book to take the trains and there was a few days waiting list which was no good for us. It also seemed the pressure was getting to people. As the desperate travelers crowded around the train staffs desks, one man was heard to shout at the customers: "I am not a supermarket!" No-one dared do a 'bleep' noise for a laugh.

Hotels in Frankfurt were being furtively mentioned, but then we got wind that there was the possibility of some hire cars. Again, Anne took on the role of chief investigator while the airport floor became a temporary dining table.

Three modest-sized hire cars could indeed be located. The next challenge was filling them with 13 people and luggage. We all squeezed in and left the airport by lunchtime.

The 600km+ trip to the ferries was great fun. Our car led the convoy because we boasted 'Mappo', aka Richard the director. He seems to own maps that cover every square inch of the world (apart from Malaysia - he had a rare shocker there!). So Mappo led the way as we crossed through Germany, Belgium and France.

We stopped for lunch in a German service station, where I suddenly felt quite at home as I was greeted by a gaggle of Norfolk boys. Their plan had been to get to Prague for a stag do. From what I could gather they'd headed in that general direction, driven till they'd run out of time, turned around and headed back. In a van limited to 60mph on the autobahn!

However, they were in good spirits, as you'd expect from supporters of the greatest football team in the world who'd just won the trophy they all want - promotion from League One!

We paid 50c to use the toilet. We then continued on our merry way.

Past Brugge, through the flatlands of Europe, around Dunkirk, and to the ferry port.

Here it had clearly been a stressful week as TV crews captured the scene, and it was obvious from talking to everyone from the Welsh Commonwealth Bowls Team to various other families that we had got away lightly. Some of the stories were pretty hardcore.

Luckily the ferry companies were laying on extra services, we pretty quickly got our tickets and then all got to re-live our childhoods that almost to a person were spent on the Pride of Dover, it seemed.

We made the most of the ferry's hospitality with fish and chips for £5, watched the One Show on the TV, and eventually all piled out on deck, where we were rewarded with an incredible sunset and eventually the white cliffs of Dover!

The journey was almost over. All that was left ahead of us was a coach journey to central London. Ironically, the first problem we had after a few thousand miles hitch-free was that the M20 was closed. We knew we were home!

By 11.30pm the adventure was finally over as we all shuffled in to our houses. I can't say any of us would have wanted to spend more than a day getting home, but somehow the trip out to the next grand prix in Spain just won't be quite as special.

And while we made it, spare a thought for our colleagues, who are among the people still stuck in China.

Enjoy the photos.



  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting read Jake. Although this seems bad from other reports from friends and on the News you seem to have had a fairly smooth ride. What about all the BBC equipment? Where are all the camera's etc? Surely they can't fit into the back of three hire cars!

    Glad your home and now looking forward to Spain!

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    It was an amazing journey. Nice to see our local taxi in your blog.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great the pictures.. sounds like you had an easier time than a lot of other.. I know of 3 people still stranded in Europe trying to get to Ireland..

    Hopefully Ash cloud will remain quiet and the trip to Barcelona won't be as bad

  • Comment number 5.

    Wonder if the pilot was on a bit of a wind up? "we're pretty sure we'll be all right"

    Knowing people who are currently stuck in places from Australia to South Africa, with some of them not expected to make it back until early next month, I think you did quite well.

    Just waiting for someone's election pledge to ban volcanoes now.....

  • Comment number 6.

    Incredible!!! BUT luckily you have arrived home.

    And Congratulations on your winning ‘back home’racing with guys in 5LIVE.

    Already start missing you guys.
    See you next year in Shanghai.
    still hope you like the city despite the weather and the flight :)

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm in China at the moment. Saying that I have been working here since October, it's not all bad. Shanghai is lovely, I know what you mean about the lawless roads of China though!

    I hope your colleagues make it back home swiftly and safely.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Jake,pleased you are home.Enjoyed reading about your travels from China.Photos good.Looking forward to Spain.At least its a nice sunny day today.Did Harriet make the Choux buns.

  • Comment number 9.

    Great blog on the VolcanicGP. Great photos.
    If only'd filmed it, after all you did have the cameras and mics to do it with, didn't you ?

  • Comment number 10.

    Excellent blog; you're the only person I know who could have made a crazy journey like that sound enthralling and exciting!!!

    On a heavier note; I'm still stuck with the F1 circus in Shanghai until my flight next tuesday!! Any chance you could get your lovely wife to make her buns again and post them to China?

  • Comment number 11.

    Welcome home Jake. I hope the rest of the team get home soon too. Certainly an epic journey to get home.

    Looking forward to Spain and having EJ back on screen too. Funnily enough I actually missed him not being there with you & DC in China!

  • Comment number 12.

    Excellent blog Jake,

    I went to the race in Shanghai as I was stuck due to the ash. I leave tomorrow from Hong Kong only a week late so I am lucky. Race was awesome.

  • Comment number 13.

    At 2:26pm on 22 Apr 2010, Schloom wrote:

    Maybe BBC should have a guess commentator each week. Pick a fan up at the track and get them to comment on the race.. I am not sure how many bleeps you can have before the machine breaks but it would be a delight to watch and they would be saying what we all scream at the TV anyway.

    Come on BBC, be a leader in this!

  • Comment number 14.

    Who got left behind, Jake? Name those guys, they probably deserve some exposure time for their supreme sacrifice in staying behind, thus ensuring you could return (cos if it'd been me, I'd have said "Oi, make some room, yer not b****y leaving me behind!!!").

    Go on Jake, name the unchosen few....who were/are they?

  • Comment number 15.

    Hi Jake, thanks for the update ! Quite a journey. Glad you made it back safe and sound.

    By the way, I came out of my house this morning and was hit on the head by a bag of frozen sausages, a chocolate gateau and some fish fingers. I realised it must be the fallout from Iceland.

  • Comment number 16.

    Another great blog Jake - thanks for posting it.

    I was also stranded by the ash cloud. Not as far afield as China - it was Vienna for me. But my journey was as fraught with uncertainty and uncomfortableness as yours was! Mine took 60 hours.
    I blogged too - Won't get as many views as yours but I think the story is as readworthy anyway!
    There's even a video in there of the train I had to take from Vienna to Frankfurt.

    I sense a bandwagon might start about Jonathan. I don't want to jump on it, but I would like to make one suggestion that I hope is constructive - please ask him to stop talking over and interrupting Martin. He's moved from radio so it's understandable that he's used to filling every single momemt of air time, but he doesn't need to do that as much on TV and he seems to interrupt Martin an awful lot.

    Keep up the great work Jake!

  • Comment number 17.

    Glad you made it home. As someone else has mentioned it's amazing how you manage to make your 36+ hour trip home, sound so exciting.

    See you in Spain


  • Comment number 18.

    Come on Jake, spill the beans, how much did the Beeb end up paying for those Hire cars? I'm betting we are talking thousands of Euros! - You should have done a "top gear" and purchased three old bangers from the local rag, that would have been a lot more fun and I dare say a lot cheaper! I can just imagine you crammed into some clapped out VW Beetle.

  • Comment number 19.

    The volcano is spewing out a new ash cloud at the moment, shutting down parts of Scandanavia. I doubt it'll affect the teams getting to Spain, but that's not the thing that concerns me. There WILL be ash (albeit very low density) in the air for the race.

    Formula 1 cars use some of the most powerful piston engines on the planet. They require massive amounts of air for cooling and a fair bit to run as well. If aerospace companies haven't tested their systems in volcanic ash, you can be certain F1 teams haven't.

    This will, therefore, be the first time such extreme engines have operated under these kinds of conditions. If any do cut out, it's not a big deal (they're not at 20,000 feet), but it could change race dynamics.

    I would also argue the FIA should suspend any restrictions on engine replacement after Spain in such cases where engine failure is the result of, or related to, the presence of volcanic ash.

  • Comment number 20.

    As a twitter fan, you'll know that it was #nickcleggsfault ;-)

  • Comment number 21.

    Excellent blog, Jake! Loved the photos, too. The one of you all just about the board the coach in Dover is a gem; one can almost feel the joy and relief radiating off of you all!

    Yes, you were very lucky to get home so fast. But thoughts must be spared for those stranded alone, with no money to change their plans as opportunities arise. Hopefully with air travel now back to normal, everyone will be able to return to the place they call home in the next few days.

    By the time you all hit Barcelona, I should be back in NY and can tell you right now that I will sorely miss the BBC coverage. It really is excellent. People should stop whining about details and appreciate just how extensive and entertaining the coverage you provide for us week after week is. And for that I thank you.

  • Comment number 22.

    Good blog Jake - A great read.

    I understand that Ross Brawn and Sam Micheal were winners of the "Volacanic Grand Prix". Will you be doing a trophy presentation in Barcelona? I gather from this blog that the 5live crew do not travel with you. I read from Twitter that they took the Dubai/Nice route, and came in about two hours after you.

    Any way glad you made it back. Let's spare a thought for the thousands of people still stranded away from home.

  • Comment number 23.

    For the past few days i've been trying to send a message to Jake and the F1 team and have found no 'easy way', so i have just registered to write down the idea that has been running through my head since quali 1 on saturday. but first i want to say sorry to jake for not even reading his blog. i did, however, read Schloom's comment and I totally agree with what he says. for ages i used to think it was just me being over critical towards his commentating style, but i can see there are others who dislike it too (i watched the 1st race of the season in poland and i can tell you people that Legard is a GOD compared to the way they commentate and produce their show...i was ripping my hair out at the bias they showed towards Kubica). On the other hand the rest of the F1 team are so brilliant that i can forgive JL's short falls.

    i would like to give a suggestion in response to the wing-mirror/visibility issues that you guys have been talking about for the past few weeks.

    why don't the teams get rid of the wing mirrors totally and replace them with pin cameras facing towards the rear (like the cameras we see in the front wings/cockpit), install an iphone/itouch type LCD screen inside the drivers helmet (maybe above their vizor), hook it all up; now the drivers will see more than half a letter box in their rear!! surely the F1 teams have the means to do this, or does the FIA have a regulation against this?!

    Huge Fan,
    Rob, Croydon

  • Comment number 24.

    Jake, I'm impressed on how you managed to get a flight in this Volcanic ash which has messed up peoples lives, I only realised by checking my facebook how many people I know who were and are still stranded!

    Also the greatest team in the world promoted from league one! Got to love it!

  • Comment number 25.

    Poor Eddie Jordan, he missed the outbound trip to China and Jake and Coultard were taking the mickie.

    He also missed the scenic inbound trip with Jake and company, such fun, he must be besides himself, laughing his head off.

  • Comment number 26.

    Excellent read, and great pics. Jake you are a pure legend along with everyone else at the BBC that brings us the fantastic coverage of all the races all over the world. Keep up the great work!

  • Comment number 27.

    How dull - why write about a dull back home - filling space with nothing

  • Comment number 28.

    Because people asked him too. We were interested on how he and some of the BEEB crew managed to get home.

    You didn't have to read it and you certainly didn't have to comment!

  • Comment number 29.

    I can believe that you mentioned Ritzys in a blog. The shame of that place.

    Good job mentioning the Canaries though ;-)

  • Comment number 30.

    Yet again the BBC brings the best coverage of F1 to the fans in every possible way!! Great story.

  • Comment number 31.

    This is amazing Jake. You are the best presenter in the world, ever.

    You actually care about keeping the audience in touch with what is going on. I wish more presenters could be like you.

    The team look so happy and motivated (even if Lee hides under a blanket!) and it really does reflect on the quality of the Formula One programmes.

    I love how the cameras occasionally pan out to show the F1 camera crew walking down the pitlane. Not only does this give a more 'honest' approach it makes us appreciate how much effort goes into what most of us take for granted each race weekend.

    Have a well deserved rest (and a chance to celebrate Norwich's promotion) and see you in Spain. Volcanic ash permitting.

    P.S: Good luck to BBC F1's Sunil in the marathon!

  • Comment number 32.

    Message 27:- "How dull - why write about a dull (journey) back home - filling space with nothing "

    Lots of us were interested in Jake and the teams journey back home under these exceptional circumstances. And you were apparently interested enough to read and comment on it. You didn't have to do either, did you?

  • Comment number 33.

    Hi Jake
    Thanks for the blog and the photos. Along with the tweets and the 5Live guys' pictures, I've found your adventures very amusing and entertaining. The comments about needing to travel somewhere and not just sit still make sense. Here in the UK, living under the Heathrow flight path, it felt strangely calming. Can't go anywhere. Can't even do much for the poor s ods stranded. Can only enjoy the silence. Didn't last long, did it?

    I have to point out one thing however. Blogs, Tweets, Photos. The central obsession, even more than the next form of transport, seemed to be FOOD! LOL. I know an army's supposed to run on it's stomach. It would seem BEEB F1 does too. Oh and I'd suggest you guys had a logistical head start to your journey, considering the normal logistics you have to come up with on a fortnightly basis. I never realised quite how many unsung heroes you have behind the scene however.

    A big shout out to the guys left behind. It sounds like things are getting back to normal reasonably quickly so hopefully they'll all be home soon - if not straight to Barcelona. You guys planning any fallback strategy if the winds prevail from the North and the mountain decides to sneeze again?


  • Comment number 34.

    Should have taken the Trans-Siberian. but you aren't that interesting.

    yawn...waits for deletion...

  • Comment number 35.

    Surely a BBC employee was not so blatently breaking Chinese law by twittering at Shanghai?

  • Comment number 36.

    Still here! The chinese are trying to block this as it has the word 'blog' in the url; but i've found a way round it! :)

    I have to fully agree with Joshua #31! I was in the grandstand in China watching you leg it up and down the pit-lane for hours! Every now and then disappearing into a garage do a piece to camera, only to reappear mere seconds later and run to the other end of the pitlane! A truly exemplary athletic effort! I had a feeling a lot of effort went into it, but only now can I fully appreciate how much effort!!

    p.s. any idea when the buns might get here? ;-) (#10)

  • Comment number 37.

    Excellent. An incredible journey. About 9000 miles in three stops strategy. You woud be better than the Formula 1 Guys. Sadly this weekend, no races either MotoGP or Formula 1. We have to be satisifed with the SBK races now. See you soon you guys in Spain.

  • Comment number 38.

    Great blog, Jake (as always), hope you all get to enjoy a few well deserved days off now.

    Is it just me or is 2010 really sorting out the men from the boys? Lets face it all F1 drivers are the best but some seem to have that extra edge (killer instinct?). To me there are just 4 haves: Hamilton, Vettel, Rosberg & Alonso. Note there aren't 2 in any 1 team.

    What does everyone else think?

  • Comment number 39.


    It depends what qualities you're talking about. If killer instinct = the ability to win races, then Jenson is ahead of Lewis. (I say this not just as a McLaren fan in general, but also as a Lewis supporter).

    As for Mercedes, its too early to tell. What will you say in the second half of the season IF schuey starts to dominate Rosberg? Too early to tell for that team.

    As for Ferrari, I'd probably agree with you (as much as I like Felipe).

  • Comment number 40.

    That is probably the least interesting journey back from China that I've ever read about. You had to wait for a plane, which eventually came and then took you to Germany. Then you had some plush cars laid on for you to get you to Calis and then you got on a ferry. Wow, that really is an epic journey of grand proportions.

    It seems to me that since blogs have become part of sports journalism it is now fine for the journalists to write bland descriptions of how their days panned out which usually includes what they ate for breakfast and very little insight to sport.

    Now if you had had to get a train to Ulaanbaatar, swapped your camera for some Mongolian horses which took you across the steppe and into Russia, where you hitched a lift in the back of some rickety old soviet army trucks, then had to sleep for 5 days in the Moscow embassy awaiting clearance, after that taking various modes of transport through Europe, including an old 3 wheeled Trabant while in the former East Germany I might just have thought your journey, incredible.

  • Comment number 41.

    Hi Jake,

    Great Blog as usual! Nobody seems to have mentioned it but it's good to see another Jack Reacher reader. They are cracking books and I'm sure you won't be disapointed!

    Great to hear about the journey, I love those kind of trips, they stay in the memory forever!

    Roll on spain and maybe Hamilton can finaly win one and get what he deserves!

  • Comment number 42.

    Great stuff as usuall Jake.
    A real imsight into the team that brings us the show, it certainly adds to whole packadge of the BBC's coverage of F1 :)
    I certainly enjoy these insights into another world i'd never otherwise of know about, thank you :)

  • Comment number 43.

    Excellent insight into what you guys experienced in getting Home.
    Well done anyway to you guys and I hope that all the BBC team is back in the UK.
    I bet Jenson was happy just jumping over the Zea to Japan!
    But your Blogs offers a really big insight into F1 and the Lives of the BBC F1 Team at the Races.
    Keep it up Jake and the rest of the Team.
    Adds another dimension to the Sport that Millions follow.

  • Comment number 44.

    Big up to my man jake, always offering an insight into the fantastic world of Formula 1

  • Comment number 45.

    Sounds like you had a fairly easy time getting back but saying that i bet it was quite an adventure but all's well that ends well, my sisters currently stuck in thailand (yeah quite worried) and i think she'll find it a bit harder getting back. anyway as mr burns would say another EXELENT race weekend and a cracking 1,2 for mclaren and our boys. by the way do you have any prefered teams and drivers and if so who would they be. also could you let me know if there are any films on the technical aspects of f1 coming up on the show because that's what i'm interested in. don't get me wrong the races come first, but i do really enjoy the way f1 cars are designed and built. you know, how the slightest bit of wieght or a tweak of aero makes all the differance. i must say i do follow f1 to the exteme. my partner is so good the way she puts up with me over the race weekend. i've not missed a qualifying session or race for about 10 years and set my alarm for the eastern races to watch them live as there's nothing worse than waiting for the race only to be channel flicking and catch the result when you don't want to. anyway i'll stop waffling now. keep up the good work as you, DC, eddie and martin do an absoloutly brilliant job, love the forum please don't ever let the beeb bosses ever even discus giving the forum the chop. it is a very important and valuble part of the f1 program scedule and as seen as it's been here from the start it should stay. once again you guys do a very good job with f1 and the coverage is second to none. cheers guys.

  • Comment number 46.

    Jake great blog and great photos.

    Lee Mackenzie is a beautiful women even with al the stress and lack of sleep.

    Although how did DC get home?

  • Comment number 47.

    Great blog Jake, thanks for your fantastic BBC coverage - keep up the good work, and ... on the ball city, never mind the danger...


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