Paddock Diary: 2023 Italian Grand Prix

2023 Italian Grand Prix

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What’s it like to interview a quarter of the grid in one day? RaceFans’ Claire Cottingham had a busy start to the Italian Grand Prix weekend.


Monza is one of my favourite events on the calendar. I love the track, I love the passion, I love the country and I love the pizza. The Tifosi always come out in full force regardless of how Ferrari is doing and with popular drivers like Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr I knew it would be buzzing.

A lot of preparation work went into Thursday, as I had arranged exclusive interviews with no fewer than five drivers – one quarter of the grid. These were squeezed in around the usual five-driver FIA press conferences (two each) and individual driver media sessions (another 10 appointments).

First up were the Alfa Romeo drivers: Valtteri Bottas, followed by his team mate Zhou Guanyu. As I was taken upstairs to speak to the Alfa Romeo pairing I was hit by a wave of heat – their motorhome lacks air conditioning.

“Yes, it’s very hot in here,” Bottas acknowledged as I rearranged my hair for some respite from the heat. He sat down and opened up about his second season at Alfa Romeo, which has seen a dip in the team’s form, in his softly-spoken manner. Next on the list was Logan Sargeant in the mercifully ice-cool Williams motorhome.

After that was the reigning champion and for possibly the first time this year Max Verstappen was running a little behind. I made myself comfortable in the gigantic Red Bull Energy Station.

When he arrived he had a big smile on his face and plonked down in the empty seat next to me. After joking around with our photographer – pretending to sabotage the shoot – he turned his attention to me. Max is a very cool character and when he looks at you his eyes feel very intense. I remembered this from last year’s sit-down and immediately started asking questions, which he responded to positively.

I finished the day at McLaren with Lando Norris. Stopping briefly to grab a biscuit, I could tell he was relaxed already as he took a seat opposite me. He leant back with one leg bent, propped on the table with his hands rested on the outside of his knee, clearly ready for any question I threw at him.

As the interview finished he stood up and we chatted briefly about some of the paddock gossip with the team’s communications director Sophie Ogg. It’s always an honour when a driver trusts you enough to stop and candidly give you their thoughts on various F1-related subjects.

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Having spent Thursday in a whirlwind of interviews, Friday presented a welcome opportunity to get trackside and see some cars in action.

Driving in, the Tifosi lined the tunnel heading to the drivers’ and our media car park. I love how excited the Italian fans get and how proud they are of Ferrari.

Once in the paddock, I grabbed my tabard and carved my way through the crowds to find somewhere to stand. I had never gone trackside in Monza but one major change was immediately obvious: I was shocked to see how many trees had come down during the July storm. The landscape was completely different and I was sorry to see such devastation.

After initially struggling to find where we could go trackside, I was quite surprised to see some of the entrances to the track were unstaffed. Hoping there was some logic to that and maybe the staff were elsewhere watching, we made our way to stand with the other photographers on the run-up to Ascari.

I finished the day with a quick chat with Tom McCullough at Aston Martin, the day ended with a McLaren pub quiz – easily the most fun I’d had at an event in a long time.

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Dodging the Tifosi as we breezed into the track, I was excited by qualifying. Ferrari had been rapid on Friday, Carlos Sainz Jnr in particular was looking very racy, and there seemed a genuine possibility Red Bull could have some serious competition for a change.

This time I went for a long walk trackside with one of my photographer friends. We trundled all the way to Lesmo, which was quite a hike through the forest but so worth it when we got there.

I watched as Oscar Piastri got out of shape and kicked up a load of dust onto us, fans screaming when a Ferrari driver swept past – it was truly one of the best trackside experiences I had been part of.

I went down to the media pen early doors as the set-up looked like it was going to be become chaotic as more media turned up to speak to drivers and settled in for qualifying.

The sound of the crowds left me with goosebumps as Sainz stuck it on pole by a tiny margin, Leclerc taking third, the crowd’s beloved red cars split by Verstappen. The cheers rang around the circuit and you couldn’t help but smile.

I popped into the press conference after qualifying. It was so nice to finally see the Ferrari pair smiling, in contrast to their mood a week ago, despite their lack of confidence they could beat Red Bull on Sunday.

Keen fans were still waiting to see the drivers after all the interviews were done, and I spotted Leclerc trying to head back to his motorhome before leaving the track. Both he and Sainz were mobbed everywhere they went with fans even sitting outside of their hotels. I’m all for passionate fans, however, some need to learn to be respectful, not touch anyone without prior consent and let them at least sleep in peace.

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I joined Andrea Stella and Zak Brown for an informal off-the-record breakfast at McLaren’s motorhome with a few media colleagues. Conversation started flowing between us all and the stories Stella had about his time at Ferrari and the mindset of drivers was fascinating. Afterwards we all agreed we could listen to him all day.

Time ticks past very quickly on Sunday before it’s time to get onto the grid and an hour before the race gets underway. I have no issue at all with Verstappen or Red Bull, but it was nice to see someone else on pole position.

Letting the atmosphere sink in I smiled as I could see the Ferrari fans on their feet cheering for Sainz and Leclerc, a complete contrast to the weekend before with everyone in orange for Verstappen.

Walking up towards pole position, I spotted Sainz surrounded by photographers. As someone who isn’t a massive fan of crowds myself, I suddenly realised how difficult this must be for the drivers and immediately walked away. I didn’t want to add to the throng around him.

After the ever-impressive Italian fly-by thundered by, I headed to the media centre hopeful that a Ferrari could hold off a Red Bull for at least a few laps.

Sainz hung on for 14 tours before Verstappen pounced on the briefest of lock-ups and found a way past – though not without some elbowing from the Ferrari driver. From then on the race came alive with McLaren and Ferrari team mates both battling for position.

As the drivers began to filter through with Verstappen winner, I knew there could be some unhappy drivers. Oscar Piastri was one of the first to come through and looked deflated by his race. After tangles with his team mate and Lewis Hamilton, he gave very little away about how he felt.

George Russell was along shortly afterwards. “George I’m so sorry, you’ve got a massive bug on your hat,” I interrupted after his first question, “please can I take it off?” Unperturbed he bowed his head so I could brush it away. “Hope it’s not been there long,” he laughed.

As the sun set, the sky turned pink – not quite Ferrari red, I thought – and we headed out for some more pizza.

Later, I was saddened to hear Sainz had been robbed for his watch in Milan. It appears he retrieved it, but it was a sad way to end such a positive weekend and the last European race. I was relieved to hear from his team that all involved were okay, but it could have been much worse.

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2023 Italian Grand Prix

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Author information

Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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8 comments on “Paddock Diary: 2023 Italian Grand Prix”

  1. An UN-air-conditioned Alfa motorhome? Where can I ship some “R-12”?

  2. I read these diaries now & then occasionally in the hope they’ve vastly improved….Still disappointed everytime. Bring back Dieter!

    1. Didn’t Dieter leave?

      1. He’s lost a lot of weight.

  3. Nope. I love both of them. Great side information about the paddock life.

  4. Coventry Climax
    5th September 2023, 21:37

    Claire, always a pleasure to read these diaries. No frills, no controversies, just a down to earth report of your days and a bit of circuit atmosphere on the side. I like the contrast with the regular stories, for which you obviously do the interviews and all. Well done!

    1. + 1. Don’t like the negative comments by some. These diaries are always enlightening.

  5. Bug handled much better than the massive bump on Nigel’s head by Murray Walker (which I’ll never get tired of seeing)

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