Formula One Diary: Friday morning

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the second in a series.

At precisely 4 p.m. on Thursday — everything is precise in Formula One — members of the Haas F1 Team set out on their weekly track walk.

Drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, along with a team of engineers, walked out of their garage stall and onto the pit lane, past the onlookers who paid big bucks for the privilege to set foot in sacred territory before cars hit the track, and up the steep hill into Turn 1.

This was part of the ritual every driver and team undergoes in F1, which is a crucial part of the weekend. I got invited to tag along, and it was extremely cool to walk the 3.43-mile circuit — which is only five years old and thus a very beautiful and modern facility.

But I didn’t understand why we were doing it.

Members of the Haas F1 Team walk the Circuit of the Americas to prepare for the race weekend.

So I asked Santino Ferrucci, the Connecticut teenager who is a Haas development driver. He explained the drivers and teams look for changes to the track since their last visit, as well as visual markers that will serve as braking points. They examine any unusual curbing and get a better feel for the line into the corners.

OK, but isn’t that kind of late? I mean, it was less than 24 hours before they hit the track. Shouldn’t they already know the layout?

Ferrucci explained in this type of racing, absolute perfection is required. Where NASCAR drivers can go by feel, F1 drivers have to be extremely detailed about their line. So as the drivers walk the track, the team takes notes to record the feedback.

Grosjean even brought his drone — operated by a team member — to shadow the group as we walked the circuit. Although I’m not sure how much of that was for studying purposes and how much was because the aerial photos are pretty sweet.

Anyway, all of this is done before cars ever hit the track on Friday. The team spent the entire day Thursday prepping the car and essentially worked until it was ready.

In F1, there are no “garage hours” like in NASCAR. Instead, there is a curfew. For example: The curfew — where teams had to stop working on the cars and be out of the paddock — was 11 p.m. on Thursday night and ended at 7 a.m. Friday morning. But Friday’s curfew doesn’t begin until midnight, which means teams often eat all three meals at the track.

Members of the Haas F1 Team eat breakfast in the team hospitality area before getting to work early Friday morning.

The one bit of respite came on Wednesday night, after everyone had arrived in Austin.

Haas F1 Team held its annual team dinner to kick off its home track weekend, with a group of 70 or so people gathering in an upstairs room of Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.

As country music played and those in attendance sipped Shiner Bock in between bites of meat, you would have thought it was a room full of Americans if not for the accents making it sound like a British pub.

With everyone in street clothes, Grosjean and Magnussen blended right in with their team members. There was nothing formal about the evening until team principal Guenther Steiner hopped up on a stage at the front of the room to address the group, telling everyone to have a good weekend.

The Haas F1 Team annual Austin dinner to celebrate the team’s home track race in “Haastin.”

The team, of course, already knew what was on the line. All races are important, but it would be special for the team to have a double points showing (only the top 10 finishers score points in F1) as it did in Japan during the most recent grand prix.

Steiner told reporters about an upgrade to the car on Thursday — a modification to something called the bargeboard, which honestly is beyond my technical understanding — but it could potentially help the team stay competitive.

Of course, no one really knows until the cars hit the track for the first practice session — FP1, they call it — later Friday morning.

Related: Thursday diary on media day

One of the T-shirts passed out to team members during the annual Haas F1 Team dinner in Austin.

Formula One Diary: Thursday

I’m following the American-owned Haas F1 Team through its weekend at the only Formula One race in America: The United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin. This post is the first in a series.

It’s five minutes before Haas F1 Team driver Kevin Magnussen is supposed to be at the track for his mandatory media session, but there’s no sight of him yet in the team’s hospitality chalet.

At a table inside the temporary building, which serves as a headquarters in the paddock area, the team’s communications chief Mike Arning — who was Tony Stewart’s longtime public relations representative in NASCAR — is anticipating Magnussen’s arrival.

“Here I am waiting on the driver of the 20,” Arning says. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

There’s supposedly no fine for being late or anything, it’s just that in the F1 world, people are punctual. It’s considered a bit rude to be late.

Finally, a minute before Magnussen has to be at the other end of the paddock to face the cameras, he bursts through the door with a smile.

Some of the team members laugh and razz him a bit. Aren’t you supposed to be at the press conference?

“It’s not for another 30 seconds,” Magnussen says with a grin.

The 25-year-old drops his belongings in his dressing room area — every driver has one inside the team hospitality areas — and begins a brisk walk to the media bullpen where roughly 40 cameras are positioned around a square, fenced-in area.

Kevin Magnussen, left, chats with Haas F1 Team development driver Santino Ferrucci on his way to the F1 media bullpen.

This is the standard Thursday at a Formula One event. Before cars ever hit the track on Friday, drivers participate in a long, full day of media.

It starts with six drivers in the FIA-mandated media sessions. The drivers rotate, but both Haas F1 Team drivers — Magnussen and Romain Grosjean — are on the list today because the race is on the team’s home turf.

The drivers do 30 minutes in the TV bullpen — where a TV rights-holder from each country that covers F1 is positioned to get interviews — followed by 30 minutes in a slickly produced news conference for print media that is beamed all over the world.

The bullpen interviews are the best chance for outlets like Viasat (from Magnussen’s home country of Denmark) and Canal (which covers the French driver Grosjean) to gather content to use for the weekend.

TV stations from all over the world gather at the media bullpen for driver interviews.

Then every team has small group sessions, where drivers will chat with TV or with print reporters back at the chalets. Even the top drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel go through this and seem to react as if it’s standard practice. It’s just part of the routine.

Hamilton has cut back on some of his media sessions as he’s become uber successful, but he is still made available to the media a few times per weekend.  I checked with F1 beat writer Nate Saunders to see if this was really true — because I was a bit skeptical coming from the NASCAR world, where some drivers will go weeks at a time without a media session — but he confirmed that is the case.

Aside from that, drivers do a number of one-on-one interviews, as do executives; Haas team principal Guenther Steiner alone has six of them on Thursday.

As the teams work all day to set up the cars before an 11 p.m. curfew (this after leaving the hotel at 8 a.m.), the drivers are busy being the international stars they are. Rarely do the drivers move through the paddock without a camera of some kind following their movements, snapping away or recording video.

For example: While Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg messed around with a shuffleboard table in the media center while waiting for his turn in the press conference, a half-dozen cameras gathered to document the moment.

Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg plays around with the media center shuffleboard table while waiting for his press conference to begin.

Though it may be hard to get into the F1 paddock in the first place, this much is clear: The driver access once inside is pretty impressive.

One reason is the drivers have nowhere to go. The drivers do not have motorhomes — those would be impractical for international travel — so if they aren’t in their garage stalls, then they’re in their hospitality chalets across the way. There, they can either eat with their team or sit in the common areas (which have tables, couches and a TV). Or just chill in their dressing rooms.

I was intrigued by the dressing rooms, which are in the chalets alongside offices for the public relations/marketing staff and team executives. Haas F1 Team allowed me to peek inside Grosjean’s room. Here’s what it looks like:

Keep checking back for more posts throughout the weekend.

Fernando Alonso wins American hearts, but not the Indy 500

Fernando Alonso came to Indianapolis with a nearly impossible task: To not only perform well enough to justify skipping the biggest race of the Formula One season, but to serve as an ambassador in the process.

Politicians have cracked under much less of a spotlight. Everyone wanted a piece of Alonso during his stay, and he had to divide his time between his team, a load of media commitments and endless fan requests — all while figuring out how to race on an oval for the first time.

And yet Alonso truly represented himself better than anyone could have hoped; despite the 24th-place finish after a blown engine, the journey to Indianapolis was a success on all fronts.

He raced and conducted himself like a champion in so many ways. Even though his success might made the Indy 500 look easier than it is, being able to adapt so quickly surely had to raise his reputation as an all-around great racer.

But Alonso is a great professional off the track as well.

Take Sunday, for example. He was faced with a major disappointment after leading 27 laps and having a chance to win the race, only to have his engine expire with 20 laps to go.

Had Alonso called it a day without talking to the media and just left the track to beat the traffic, few could have really blamed him. But he did the opposite.

He changed into street clothes and did a TV interview, then watched the end of the race (Alonso said he was “on my knees” rooting for teammate Takuma Sato). After that, he came to the media center to face a large group of reporters.

Alonso was not under obligation to come, but he realized what a story he was — this race will be remembered more for his presence than Sato’s win — so he agreed to the interview.

But by Sunday, it was no surprise he would accommodate such a request. That’s because he went along with everything IndyCar and the track asked him to do, never complaining or saying it was too much.

He probably said “sure” a thousand times, whether it was for a media hit or a selfie with a fan while in transit. And he exhibited good nature throughout, never looking bored (even during the public drivers meeting) or acting like he was too good for something (like the hour-long public autograph session the day before the race).

That’s very impressive for a two-time Formula One world champion who — let’s face it — could have been a jerk to everyone and still been just as much of a story. It’s not like reporters could say, “Screw this guy, we aren’t giving him coverage.” This Indy 500 was all Alonso.

On Thursday, he was surrounded by a five-deep group of reporters for a solid hour during Indy 500 media day. After awhile, that kind of environment would get claustrophobic or irritating for even the best of us.

But Alonso answered all the questions — even if the question was a repeat — and was cool throughout the process. The time he gave was impressive for someone of his stature (and was a lot more of a commitment than the weekly F1 press conferences).

And despite hogging the attention leading into the race, Alonso charmed the heck out of everyone — fellow drivers and Indiana fans included — and left everyone wanting more. Fans greeted him with loud cheers before the race and a standing ovation after it.

“Thanks to IndyCar — amazing experience,” Alonso said. “Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”

Alonso could have come to Indy and been selfish about the opportunity. But he wasn’t. He gave as much as he received. He showed respect to everyone and acted with class throughout the process.

At the end of Sunday’s post-race media session, the moderator dismissed Alonso. He was free to go.

“Last thing,” Alonso said.

He pulled out a small carton of milk and raised it as a toast.

“Thank you to all the media,” he said. “I didn’t win, but I will drink a little bit of milk. You followed me for two weeks — every single minute — but I really enjoyed (it).

“Thanks for the welcoming.”

We can only hope he decides to come back soon.