Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

My Monza paddock tour - Virgin Racing provide extra access during the Italian Grand Prix

Published by Amy Fulton

There is no doubt that Virgin Racing has by far the most interactive, fan friendly Twitter account of all the teams. They reply to almost everyone, the tone is refreshingly casual, and they often reach out to their fans that are lucky enough to attend races and invite them into the paddock. Sometimes they even reach out to other team’s fans and invite them into the paddock, they’re just that friendly. This is what happened to me in Monza.

Throughout the season I had seen tweets and retweets of those who had been given paddock passes from Virgin, and the prevailing theme is that these tweeters were huge fans of Virgin Racing or its drivers, and were tweeting backwards and forwards enough with Virgin to be recognised by the team. I was surprised that after only tweeting them one time on the Wednesday before the race they replied asking if I would be in Monza. After confirming that I would be there I was told to grab myself a VR twibbon and in exchange they’d see if they could find a spare pass to get me into the paddock. As someone whose Twitter icon is a picture of Heikki in his Lotus kit, I was shocked to say the least. I received a DM shortly afterwards with a contact phone number, a plan to aim for Friday after FP2 and a question as to if I had anyone else with me who might need a pass too.

Friday morning was a bit of a nightmare. I missed a large portion of FP1 trying to find the Kangaroo TV I had booked as they were for once mysteriously located outside the circuit. By the time I did find them after more than an hour of searching, one telephone call and numerous tweets to the company, the only thing that was stopping me from bursting into tears and declaring this the worst race ever was the thought of possibly getting the pass that afternoon. Once FP2 was over I made my way to the paddock entrance, just so I would be close by if Virgin did manage to find a spare pass.

Around 4.30pm the text I had been anticipating arrived – “I have the pass in hand, can you make it to the paddock entrance at the pit exit end?” I replied to say that I was at the other paddock entrance, but started making my way over. I hadn’t actually attempted to get near that entrance earlier so had no idea where it was. Eventually I found a VIP tunnel that was being guarded by some scary looking men, so I texted Virgin again to ask them to come and rescue me. I later found out that there was another public tunnel up a bit further, but at least now I can say I’ve been in a VIP tunnel.

Amy gets into the paddock at Monza
Amy gets into the paddock at MonzaCredit: Amy Fulton / Flickr

A few minutes later a man in a Virgin shirt popped out from under the building and I learned that the person I had been referring to as Virgin for the last few days was actually a man by the name of Geoff, and he is as friendly in person as he is on Twitter although as we walked over to the paddock entrance he did disqualify me from the Virgin competition to find Alex “Chalky White” Snell, who I had located earlier that day. I was quite willing to give up a free shirt in exchange for a paddock tour though!

After beeping through the fun little turnstiles I was face to face with the famous F1 motorhomes for the first time. After a couple of quick visits to the Melbourne paddock and it’s temporary buildings with McLaren over the last few years it was very exciting to finally see a proper European paddock, the way it should be. The Virgin home was one of the first by the entrance and as we were walking up to it Lucas di Grassi came out! Geoff said “There’s Lucas, say hi to Lucas” so I did. And he said hi back. Swoon.

The Virgin motorhome towers in the paddock
The Virgin motorhome towers in the paddockCredit: Amy Fulton / Flickr

Geoff was a fantastic host. He asked if I wanted to see the motorhome, the garages or the paddock itself and I’m really not built for a decision like that so I got to see a little of everything. First we wandered right down the other end of the paddock to where the FIA lives. Bernie and Christian Horner were having a discussion outside and they were absolutely surrounded by photographers. So I joined in the throng and took some photos as well because I’d never actually seen Bernie up close before.

As we walked back up to where we started I stopped for a closer look at some of the other team’s structures. The McLaren Brand Centre is as amazing and as shiny as I had expected it to be, and the Red Bull/Torro Rosso home was even nicer in person. It looked like a very welcoming place to hang out, unlike Ferrari who had “Invited Guests Only” printed on the door of their two structures. I walked into the background of some filming for Speed TV and spotted quite a few drivers walking the opposite way. I saw Sebastien and Jaime, Pedro and Kamui, Robert and Jarno and Heikki. Geoff told me I could stop them for photos or autographs if I wanted but I was quite happy just to see them as I’d never seen drivers up close in such a casual environment, normally I only see them when they’re being crowded by fans. It almost felt wrong to bother them!

On the way into the garage Geoff stopped to show me the various trucks that are used as offices for the engineers and other staff. Once again this was something the teams don’t bring to Melbourne so it was very cool to see them up close. The garage itself was a very busy place, with both cars being stripped down after practice. It was also noisy as there was a GP3 race happening at the same time. Geoff offered to take my photo in the pit lane so I could get some proof that I was actually having this amazing experience.

Amy gets into the Virgin Garage at Monza
Amy gets into the Virgin Garage at MonzaCredit: Amy Fulton / Flickr

We then headed into the motorhome, and it must be said the Virgin structure is a lot more impressive than the Lotus one next door! There were a few people milling about on the bottom level and upstairs had been prepared for a meeting with Cosworth. On the top level there is a nice open bit where you can stand and look out over the paddock. I spotted Timo’s girlfriend Isabell having a chat outside, and I couldn’t help but think of Mr C when I saw Ted Kravitz on the phone over by the Virgin trucks. Geoff then offered me a drink and in the Italian heat I was very happy to get a bottle of water. After paying 5 euro per bottle trackside it was amazing how nice the free motorhome water tasted!

After I finished my water it was time to say goodbye to Geoff, Virgin and the paddock as the Cosworth meeting was about to start and Geoff had some press releases to issue. He took me back out the way I came in but after realising I had no idea where the exits were at that part of the circuit I asked if I could go out the way the drivers exit. Beeping into the paddock twice in one day was quite exciting, I really enjoy the noise those turnstiles make! I took in everything on my final walk through the paddock, gave my pass back to Geoff, thanked him again, and then walked towards the large waiting crowd. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were wondering who I was and why I was in the paddock, because I often think that as I watch people exit while I’m standing there!

I would love to thank Geoff once again for the opportunity, and for taking the fact I’m a Lotus fan so well! That half hour was definitely the highlight of my entire trip to Europe as after applying for the McLaren tours in Spa and Monza and missing out I thought I was never going to get to see a motorhome. It turned out for the best in the end as I got a personalised solo tour instead of being shown around with 15 others like McLaren do! I think Virgin do such a great job of making the sport accessible to fans through their friendly Twitter account and such amazing acts of kindness and I just wish more teams would do the same. I find it incredible that two teams from opposite ends of the pit lane manage to give their fans such a once in a lifetime opportunity but none of the other teams do! Virgin may be fighting with my favourite driver on track but after showing me such generosity in Italy (and Geoff remembered me when he saw me in Singapore too, which I thought was lovely) I’m now a fan for life. Go Virgin!