Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Yas Marina, 2023

Paddock Diary: 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Formula 1

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The punishing demands of the 2023 schedule left paddock dwellers suffering at the end of the season, including some of the drivers.


After a nightmare journey which included 20 hours being stuck in Atlanta due to a missed connecting flight, I was keen for a smooth trip to Abu Dhabi. But as my plane sat on the Heathrow runway my concerns started to grow.

As we arrived in Doha, Qatar I did the maths and knew it was going to be tight. A representative at the airport called ahead to advise my next flight of my latest delay.

Exhausted and sweaty, a colleague and I sprinted to our gate, elated to see the plane still there. “No, you are seven minutes late.” My heart sank. It got worse: there was no further flight for another 12 hours, meaning the media activities at the track would be underway by the time I landed.

Alexander Albon, Williams, Yas Marina, 2023
Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo, Yas Marina, 2023

This wasn’t the best start to the last race of the season. I eventually made it to the track around 2:30pm, with no sleep overnight. I dashed straight to my first appointment of the day, with Lando Norris. Unfortunately the DJ playing in the middle of the paddock, mostly F1 personnel with few fans around, drowned out much of what he was saying.

At least my delays hadn’t kept me from a one-to-one interview with Christian Horner. Explaining my delirious and run-down state, he laughed and said he wasn’t feeling much better.

We had plenty to discuss, and not just due to his team’s stunning form over the season. While on my way to Abu Dhabi, a story had broken quoting Horner claiming a representative of Lewis Hamilton had approached not just his team, but Ferrari as well, about a future drive.

Hamilton had denied several details of the report, so this was an obvious opportunity to put his responses to Horner. He insinuated he didn’t know why it was such a big deal – a narrative I wasn’t sure I bought into. We’ll have much more from our exclusive chat with Horner here on RaceFans soon.

By the end of the day I was so tired I fell asleep on a beanbag while waiting for my lift. When I eventually made it to my hotel (having convinced them my unavoidably delayed arrival did not make me a no-show), I was elated to get some sleep.

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Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Yas Marina, 2023

Waking up once again feeling run down and tired, we made our way in for practice. The difference between the daytime heat of Abu Dhabi and the cold nights in Las Vegas was glaringly obvious.

Everyone in the paddock looked quite happy about that, though we were all exhausted. Even some of the drivers were struggling: An unwell Esteban Ocon made his first appearance having stayed away on Thursday, and George Russell was suffering too.

Yas Marina, 2023I appreciate we spend our life essentially galivanting about reporting on cars. But the travel has taken its toll on many people and everyone seemed too exhausted to even have conversations.

The day was fairly uneventful barring a big crash for Carlos Sainz Jnr during second practice. Bumping into some of the Ferrari mechanics, they knew they faced another late night fixing the car, as they had gone through in Las Vegas. Thankfully Sainz was okay, but it was his mechanics’ second big rebuild in as many weeks after his unfortunate incident with a water valve cover in Las Vegas.

Wandering along the quiet paddock I spotted Amy, one of the producers at F1 TV. Holding a big bag of presents for Secret Santa I shouted out, “Well now it feels like the end of the season!” Valtteri Bottas received a wholly appropriate gift given his recent calendar.

I finished the day with a chat with Daniel Ricciardo. It was a big weekend for AlphaTauri, as team principal Franz Tost was leaving after 18 years in charge and many messages were being left in tribute at the team’s garage. They also had the serious matter of trying to beat Williams to seventh place in the constructors’ championship.

For the first time, I noticed Ricciardo’s injured hand and the scars left from his surgery. It’s not been covered in the past few races, but I just hadn’t seen it close up. Now just a reminder of how quickly things can change in this sport.

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Messages for Franz Tost, AlphaTauri, Yas Marina, 2023


After a disjointed start to the weekend, Saturday caught up with me quickly. Starting to really feel rundown I knew the schedule would be tough.

With practice over, all eyes were set on the final qualifying session of the season. Confident Max Verstappen would come out on top again (a view Helmut Marko apparently didn’t share, as the team revealed he bet €500 against the champion), I set my concentration on the battles behind, specifically the one between Ferrari and Mercedes for second.

After his big practice shunt, Sainz had been off the pace however I was very surprised to see him out in Q1. Sainz doesn’t hide how he feels, and you can clearly see he is furious at his performance.

He is also one of the drivers who rarely makes eye contact with you as you’re asking the question and looks down at the floor. But he will always meet your eyes in his answer and is very gracious and honest with his responses.

Norris was the next driver that caught my attention as he stormed in through to the TV pen, missing out on pole thanks to a mistake. Still holding his crash helmet, which is usually taken away earlier by the trainer, you could see he wanted to get the interviews over and done with.

He was even there before his PR who dashed in mid-interview alongside him. As usual, Norris was unsparing in his self-criticism.

The day ended with a boat party put on by F1 which was a mix of Benidorm and Blackpool Pier. Heading home and starting to lose my voice again, I was pleased to get some rest.

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The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix grid, Yas Marina, 2023

I woke up feeling the worst of all the days on Sunday, and for the first time this season, couldn’t wait for the day to be over, especially as I suffered from motion sickness on the drive-in. Exhaustion can do that.

It was far windier on Sunday morning as we made our way to AlphaTauri for a technical talk. Still feeling unsteady on my feet, it felt like the longest 10 minutes standing in the blistering heat.

Dashing back to the cool media centre, I opted to sit for a few hours and get some work done before watching the F2 race in the paddock.

F1 may have failed to produce a championship contest this year, but the F2 finale was gripping. Theo Pourchaire crossed the line as its new champion, emotion pouring out of the 20-year-old.

I love it when we see such emotion from drivers. But apparently not everyone agrees. “Tears don’t belong in motorsport,” grumbled one bystander to his friends. Clearly had not done his homework.

The grid was much quieter than Las Vegas had been, though it felt nice to end the season with a bit less chaos. It was exciting to see Chris Hemsworth – who portrayed James Hunt in Rush 10 years ago – on a real grid.

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The Ferrari mechanics very kindly sent a birthday message to my four-year-old niece, who is half-Italian. I am sure her Ferrari-mad father appreciated their wonderful gesture even more.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Yas Marina, 2023As no drivers retired during the race (aside from Sainz parking on the final lap) I spent it in the media centre before heading to the pen. Esteban Ocon still looked pale from his illness as I pushed him on the team’s decision to undercut his team mate Pierre Gasly.

A “no comment” is a rare response from an F1 driver, and he looked thorough fed up with how his year had ended. Finishing the interview I pulled him aside and apologised, explaining I had to ask the question. His face lit up and he smiled warmly, “I know, I appreciate you do. See you next year.” A nice touch and a gracious response.

After media commitments were over I started my goodbyes. As Toto Wolff was briefly speaking to Mara Sangi from Sky Italy, I waited for them to finish. Tapping his shoulder to thank him for the season, he turned and said “Ah, another good one!” I smiled at the compliment and received a warm hug. We are all just one big travelling family.

And with that, I was done too. The season, which had been the most gruelling yet, was over and it was time to wave goodbye to the paddock for the winter. Yes, it can be a lot of travel and many are exhausted after the exceptional demands of the last few races, but I will never take bring here for granted and I have never loved a workplace more. Onwards to 2024.

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2023 Abu Dhabi 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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6 comments on “Paddock Diary: 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix”

  1. Wow … what a trip! 20-hours in a shut-down airport (bars closed … ). Then having the “crud” … one tough cookie! Stay home for a week-end.

  2. Thank you, Claire!

    It really brings home what a hammer to the face these long seasons are. But LM want their moolah…

  3. Amazing pieces during the whole year, Claire. Thank you.

    Just one thing:

    “(a view Helmut Marko apparently didn’t share, as the team revealed he bet €500 against the champion)”

    I’m surprised how under the radar this moment has passed through the weekend. Do people consider “normal” that senior directives bet for or against their own employees? I think it’s a pretty delicate topic and nobody should give the image of being into the world of “gambling in the sport you’re contesting in”. I think it’d have been dangerous for the image of the sport had something strange happened during qualifying.

    I perfectly know Marko hasn’t fix anything; I’m talking about image and perception from the outside.

  4. Highlights how ridiculous the weekend schedule was in Las Vegas , how ridiculous the calendar schedule of Abu Dhabi straight after Las Vegas, really was. Sadly to be repeated next year; three weeks between Brazil and Vegas, then Qatar straight after, is crazy.

  5. Well done Claire! Many thanks.

  6. Thank you Claire! You articles have been a lot of fun to read. The look into the paddock life is very much appreciated!

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