Having first experienced the Formula 1 paddock in 2010 at the Australian Grand Prix, I came to Malaysia expecting a fairly similar situation. It has however been a completely surprising experience in a completely different environment.
The Australian paddock is renowned for being close and compact with it being generally easy to spot drivers relaxing over a beverage outside the small compounds that each team have setup. From walking past Felipe Massa having some pasta to seeing Ross Brawn in conversation with his mechanics, it was a case of generally spotting the personality as you walked from one end to the other.
However in Malaysia, it’s completely different. With the searing heat a constant issue, most of the drivers are constantly seeking the benefits of air conditioned garages or hospitality areas. Being a custom built circuit, the hospitality areas are huge, with multiple levels and multiple parts connected across a large stretch of buildings behind the garages. On a general walk through, it is often hard to spot any of the drivers or team personnel between sessions. On one walk through, we were able to spot Christian Horner in deep conversation with Helmut Marko at Red Bull, Sir Jackie Stewart enjoying the company of several Lotus members while Olivier Panis spoke to French TV and David Coulthard gave a walking paddock report through the area. It’s an interesting situation to find yourself in as you see all these notable figures you have grown up admiring within touching distance, and it’s even more of a unique experience knowing that you are in THEIR domain and you are seeing it first hand.
The media centre too is a much larger facility than the one at Albert Park. Three long rows of tables take up the entire alphabet in terms of row letters, with the usual suspects of the F1 journalism world hard at work bringing the stories across the globe. Two rows directly back from us is Malaysia’s only Formula 1 driver Alex Yoong, with former driver Frank Montagny also roaming the centre as well. The views from the media centre are superb, with a separate walking level available for media to be able to walk back and forwards watching the action on the track, while also seeing the pit action directly below. The food might not be the best on offer, but with endless amounts of water available as well as a well timed schedule to get lunch at Ferrari, things work out for the best.
One of the best things about the Sepang paddock is the access to the other side of the track. A tunnel goes directly under the track to enable you to go on to the main straight to watch the cars hurtle down towards turn 1, and with relative ease you can be in the paddock into a stand within 5 minutes. While it’s something that obviously isn’t possible at Albert Park, it’s interesting to be able to experience the differences between a paddock at a street circuit, right through to a paddock at a custom built racing facility.