When I’m gone

20170716_190351 (1) edt

A forest path between Nürburg and Quiddelbach:  the sky is a gentle shade of orange with a soft hint of purple, framed in the dark lace of the pine trees. Wild raspberries growing along the path on top of the hill, the undergrowth turning into wilder ferny looking stuff along the little brook further down the road.

There is no one around, just some birds in the trees, the deer that were there in the early morning are no longer there.  It feels good when with every gasp for breath you get a mouthful of air that smells like grass and pine-trees and sunset. And there is no one to ask you why the hell you are crying, no need for censorship. You just sit on the grass and let yourself be – happy because it happened, sad because it’s gone. Maybe for good.

Last times hurt. And the nicer they are the worse it hurts. Porsche could have packed up my heart and taken it with them wherever they go. Sometimes I think this is just what they did a couple of years ago.

WEC is an incredible world. A beautiful, inspiring universe of remarkable professionalism and great passion. And being in the paddock is like being in the middle of a fairy tale – having a sneak peek at the world which can’t exist in this universe.

It’s Thursday morning and Timo is signing the book, kindly personalised. For the first time I dared to ask for a personalized autograph, and Timo was so kind to do it. “I like writing,” he said switching to the next line to write an “Alles Gute”. It’s a good morning and a beautiful sunny smile from Brendon.

The free practice sessions go well. New aero seems to be working and Timo looks genuinely happy. “Hast du gesehen! Zwei mal die Ersten!” he beams.

“Oh! Haven’t seen you before,” Neel greets when I am standing with Cliff and David, and offers a handshake and a smile with those tiny little wrinkles in the corners of his bright green eyes. With Neel you never know whether he’s mocking you – but you can always have a good laugh, when suddenly relationships get complicated and the colonial politics of the British empire becomes an issue.

The next morning Brendon is all chatty, slowing down his usual sprint between the trucks and the hospitality for a little chat. He’s seemingly happy about the new aero and says they could have used it in Silverstone. He is very confident they have a good chance of becoming double world champions, attributing it to how strong Timo and Earl are. Sometimes I think Timo’s biggest fan is actually Brendon. In hindsight, what he said suddenly has a slightly different taste to it.

During the relatively chilly third practice Toyota is on top. So it seems to be close. It was indeed close in Qualifying. André did a stellar job on his lap. Unfortunately, Neel’s lap wasn’t quite as good. Timo and Brendon did a decent job, but Toyota was still on top.

The next day the light drizzle sets off just as I have got to the circuit, somehow I like it this way, when it’s quite calm and peaceful. And who needs sunshine when there is Brendon Hartley? Timo, Brendon and Earl arrived in a pack, just as they always do. And while Timo went to the garage, Earl and Brendon hurried to the trucks at the back and quickly dashed off to hospitality.

The autograph session was in the paddock, and unlike the smaller teams, Porsche were a little unprepared for the drizzle – they didn’t have a tent. So Rich and Verena set up the tables outside. Earl said to Nick it was just his weather. Verena and Rich and Holger, who heads LMP1 Communications held umbrellas over the drivers’ heads. Which I am pretty sure didn’t do much, especially for Nick, who was sat between the two umbrellas. For the first time I have managed to be in the pole position for the signing session, as usual thanks to Rich, just for Neel to be late – he was watching the Porsche race.

“Actually… what’s your name?” Brendon asked when I got to him, and what was left of my brain has melted into a puddle (usually only Neel does that to me). I tried to spell it – without having a clue whether the letters were right. Just for Timo to help out – he somehow remembered it from signing the book for me the day before. I didn’t ask, Brendon offered, and it means a lot.

Later I just stood there watching Timo, Earl and Brendon – just like in Le Mans. We had a good laugh – about the Swiss being late, and Brendon’s super power of maintaining a hairstyle no matter what external influences and German language requirements in the fine print of Porsche contracts. I couldn’t help but ask what Brendon did with his hair for it to look perfect irrespective of the weather. “And when he takes off his helmet, it still looks like this!” Earl added. “Nah… I was born lucky,” Brendon laughed and ruffled his hair. It seems like Brendon’s German is a bit of their insider joke – what he has definitely learned is that Timo is Der Ring König, The King of The Ring. Well he is. He is a fill-in-any-circuit king, to be honest.

What was also nice, that at the end of the signing session, Earl came to sign more autographs for the part of the queue who didn’t make it in 30 minutes.

Watching the race start was a bit bittersweet, knowing it’s the last one for me, at least for this year. It still amazes me every time that no one stands up for the national anthem in Germany. After the packed Grandstands in France singing La Marshallese, people in Germany didn’t even stir, bar a couple of us, who did stand up.

Somehow from the beginning it was clear that the No. 1 were in a position of a rear gunner. And when Neel didn’t defend against Brendon it became clear that Le Mans was paying dividends for the No. 2. It seemed close, for a couple of hours all three leading cars were within a couple of seconds. But then the temperatures rose, and Toyota didn’t manage to keep up.

This time I took a walk a bit further down the track, and it was worth it – the downhill sloping chicane with the backdrop of the Eifel mountains is just incredible. And you can get close to the fence at the exit of the 8th corner. It doesn’t beat La Source, but it is still quite a nice feeling.

The race seemed quite straight forward, before the 24 Manor spun in turn 14 chicane and both of the Porsches had to take avoiding action. It cost Earl track position and me a big chunk of nerve cells.

With Timo and André on track in the closing stages, it was quite close for a while, Timo was doing an awesome job catching André. But with the front wing issues the gap has grown back to 6 seconds.

And then the splash and dashes happened, and… yeah. It was a Porsche win for sure – the car was very good at these conditions, and the Team did an incredible job. Unfortunately doing a great job for the Team meant sacrificing a win for Neel, André and Nick.

Neel was not amused, he wears his heart on his sleeve, as always. “Na ja… Wir wussten ja, dass wir schon wider alles verschenken müssen,” he said, and it is just heart breaking. Of course it is a team-first kind of racing, and it is logical for Porsche to want the championship leading car on top, but it doesn’t mean my heart doesn’t break for Neel, André and Nick. Especially Neel since he has already been in this position in 2015, letting Mark, Timo and Brendon win Fuji.

Getting to the pit lane for the podium, was amazing. Timo drove the car with Brendon and Earl sitting on top just in a couple of meters from us. Watching the podium one couldn’t not notice how understandably unhappy the No. 1 drivers were. And Neel especially wasn’t up to much champagne spraying.

We headed to the back of the garage, where Porsche were having their team celebrations. With a bit of trashing for one of the mechanics for whom it was the last race: poor fella got a sack of grind coffee poured over him, topped with some beer. Everyone around had an awesome laugh.

It is quite surreal to see a CEO of a multimillion dollar company just relax with a beer, celebrating with everyone else. “It feels so good,” he said proudly, and Cliff joked he’d lock him up and blackmail him, so that they decide to stay. What amazed me the most was a tiny detail about the R&D boss of Porsche. The mechanic was moving the bulky bodywork, between the garage and storage behind, and he accidentally touched Mr. Steiner, and the member if the Board of Porsche just turned around and pushed along to helped the mechanic out.

And then something absolutely surreal happened. They were gathering for a team photo. And the same gentleman who did something incredible for us in Le Mans, said “oh c’mon just go join us”. And Boom. I was in the Porsche garage. Along the rows of headphones neatly hung together with the engineering on the right with their multiple screens, with all the little plugs for the radios and absolutely impeccable white around. This distinct feeling of not being supposed to be there just overwhelming when it’s Earl standing next to you, when it’s Timo chatting to Kyle in the corner. It was an absolutely surreal experience to be in the garage. And in the team photo. Absolutely weird, completely, totally surreal. Something I’m very unlikely to forget.

A bit later when we were back to the paddock “When I’m gone” by 3 Doors Down was playing in the garage. And you just hope it wasn’t one of those times when the soundtrack perfectly matches the scene.

The last times always hurt. And the nicer they are the more it hurts. It was the last time for this year. And… Well.  They said they will make a decision by the end of the month. To be honest, I am prepared for the worst. If you put all the emotional aside. It doesn’t make sense for Porsche to stay for 2018, let alone beyond that. But maybe, just maybe, all those men with all this power who are supposed to be rational decision makers, will love the feeling enough, to rationalise an irrational decision.

The sky over Nürburg was a gentle shade of orange framed in the dark intricate lace of the pine-trees. I sat on the grass in the forest between Nürburg and Quiddelbach and cried. Because it happened.

“Part of me is fighting this but part of me is gone.”

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