There’s a bit of a trick to holding a champagne flute and covering your ears at the same time. This I discovered while in the Paddock Club – Formula One’s corporate hospitality area, which sits directly over the pitlane. Felipe Massa has just sped away from a practice pitstop, causing unknown damage to my hearing. I’m not alone – there are hundreds of us hunched over the guardrail up here in the open-plan suite.
We’re in a communal area where pass-holders – most of whom are corporate big wigs or well-heeled fans – can network, kick back with a drink, have an ice-cream, watch the action on the dozens of flat-screens TVs that paper the walls, and have a view of the start-finish straight. Or alternatively spy on the movements of the paddock below, where the teams are at work.
There’s a DJ, but he can’t compete with Massa. So, with the stem of my glass between middle and forefinger, and two digits stuck in either ear, I beat a retreat to the kitchen – a place usually unseen by guests.
The Paddock Club works a bit like a swan – all graceful and serene on the surface, but below the water line there is a huge amount of activity and effort. Standing in the kitchen, I have to suck in my gut as half a dozen chefs pour in from three directions, juggling delicate crockery. When I nip around the corner to leave, I nearly end up with an entire gravy boat down my shirt.
There are some 70 chefs working here, in a space of about 100 square metres. With shiny steel and aluminium benches and industrial appliances filling much of the volume, this canvas-roofed space is cramped. Add to this the heat which is inevitably generated by ovens and hobs, and the result is a working environment which would make the uninitiated wilt well before the 14-hour day is complete.
Most of the catering staff in here are Swiss or Austrian, but staff are flown in from all over Europe. They appear quieter and more polite than the aggressive, sweary characters you might find in a TV kitchen, and it all seems to be running like clockwork today.
In fact the Paddock Club is a 24-hour operation. It starts around 5am when the chefs arrive to prepare breakfast. Baking fresh bread in the quantities demanded by this number of guests – often over 2,000 – requires an early start. But it’s worth it, as the croissants and pain au chocolate prepared by the pastry chef de partie are every bit as good as those you would find at La Durée. Early birds will also be greeted by the wafting smell of frying bacon, as the Paddock Club serves a mean trucker’s breakfast for its elite clientele – most of whom have probably never been near a truck-stop café.
The focus of culinary activity each day, however, is lunch. As well as the main dining area, there are up to ten private suites for teams and sponsors. Some elect for a buffet, others a silver service. The menu remains the same, but the presentation can be adapted to suit.
Quality is always consistent, but the kitchen will often devise its menu around the location, the preferences of international guests, and the produce available. “Every country has its own trends and customs,” explains Isabelle Kaufmann, the lady in charge of the Paddock Club. “We know that in Japan, for example, they will never eat rabbit. That is their culture – it would be like us eating dog. The Chinese are different – they will eat anything, even if it’s something they’ve never seen before. But we will still cook in a way that suits their palette and digestion.”
“We will often serve dishes or accompaniments unique to that country. I always look forward to Silverstone because in Britain everyone loves lamb. And we’ll serve it with mint sauce. In Japan people would be freaked out, but at the British Grand Prix it makes perfect sense.”
The Paddock Club tends to bring its own food to races, simply because the quantities it needs are massive. Also it’s true that bulk buying from a single source and then flying food can work out less expensive than using different suppliers for different races. “In somewhere like Spain, though, we take vegetables, but we send a catering manager in advance to test quality and availability,” says Isabelle. “Meat is complicated. In the past they’ve been to Uruguay to order meat. We’ll take produce from the best source – lobster from Canada, salmon from Scotland or Norway. But we must also consider budgets, for we have margins. There was one time we needed flowers in Japan, and unbelievably it was cheaper to buy them in Amsterdam and fly them out specially by jet!”
For the Paddock Club, there is also etiquette and other codes to consider. “In Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain we have to respect religious customs,” continues Isabelle. “In Malaysia we cannot serve Crêpe Suzette because alcohol is an ingredient. They may take alcohol, but we cannot assume they will. Likewise in Bahrain they may want wine on their table, or not. We have to ask in advance – it depends who is being entertained. We need to talk to the promoters to understand all of these things.”
After serving afternoon tea, which follows Formula One’s on-track show, the chefs are able to leave the track. But there’s no sense of winding down. Cleaners come in to do the dishes, sort the laundry; they’ll even change the carpet if necessary. Laundry is sent out to local services that can cope with the quantity.
Far from being the work of a single weekend, each Paddock Club takes three weeks to set-up, and this is repeated at all 19 races. Allsport Management, which owns and runs the operation, employ different contractors for different tasks – rigging and construction; power; lighting; catering; cleaning; security; and hospitality. There are three different sets of interiors and furniture, so there are always three Paddock Clubs moving around the world at one time. Transporting the gear is similar to the way the teams send their kit. In Europe, truck drivers will travel 30,000km per season. For the long haul destinations, teams dispatch 30 tonnes of equipment, as will the Paddock Club.
There are some 40 Paddock Club hostesses swooping around the tables right now, serving canapés and champagne. They are multilingual, speaking English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. In addition, when traveling outside Europe, hostesses with local language skills may be drafted in.
And it’s the same in the kitchen; outside the traditional European venues specialist chefs will be hired. “In exotic places it’s important,” advises Isabelle. “If you want a local Malaysian dish you need a Malaysian to do it.”
The level of service is one that you’d find in an absolutely top-level hotel, and many of the staff here come from that industry.
“I am from the hotel business. I’ve worked in all sectors, but I knew nothing about Formula One when I was approached,” Isabelle tells me, sat upright with finishing school poise. “I had heard of [Clay] Regazzoni, but only because he was a fellow Swiss. I said to them I’d need to research, but they said no, it’s not important. This is my 18th year.”
Isabelle oversees everything. While observing all that’s happening on-site and being in touch with every manager by radio, she’ll also be on the phone to the promoter of an upcoming race to ensure every detail is covered there too.
The Paddock Club was established by Paddy McNally. Shy of press attention, he remains best known for once dating Sarah Fergusson, before she became the Duchess of York.
“Mr McNally launched the Paddock Club at the 1984 French Grand Prix, and back then he was very hands-on. He organized everything. I think he may have stirred the pasta himself,” jokes Isabelle. “Now it’s a real platform for business.”
Indeed, while the mood in the Paddock Club is relaxed – there is even a mini-spa – the fact is that many guests are here for more than sport and spectacle. There are deals to be done. A lot of the guests are corporate and are wined and dined into signing lucrative contracts. A ticket for the three-day weekend is between $4,700-7,800 depending on the race, Singapore being the most expensive. Monaco is a slightly different deal. A two-day ticket is $6,279 but places are restricted to the Paddock Club’s best customers.
Away from the main salle and partner dining rooms, teams have suites decorated in their own image, not dissimilar to the garages that sit a floor below. Goody-bags sit in a corner, full of F1 mementos. The drivers themselves make daily trips up here, to speak with guests and answer questions. “They have been known to down a dessert at the same time,” confides Isabelle. “They’re not really meant to. They are on very strict diets, but if their physio is looking away… An extra crème brulee probably wouldn’t have caused much concern 20 years ago, but now they take these things very seriously.”
It’s true, back in the olden days – when drivers raced without seatbelts and regularly smoked cigars in the pits – little thought was given to nutrition. You could argue Ligier came up with the Paddock Club concept – each lunchtime lasted a couple of hours as the French team’s drivers washed Beef Bourguignon down with vintage claret.
Motor racing has changed, and drivers are forced to adhere to strict regimes. I sense the drivers look up to the Paddock Club from their motorhomes, salivating uncontrollably. So no wonder the occasional cake goes wayward.
But what has also changed is the quality of food and hospitality. Back in ye olde days the height of paddock gastronomic sophistication was a burger van and a battered tea urn. Now you get fois gras and five-star service. A dedication to quality is one of the things which brings sponsors and their guests to Formula One, as well as the Paddock Club.
Waiting staff: 40
Glasses: 275,000 (across three Paddock Club kits)
Plates: 350,000 (across three Paddock Club kits)
Cutlery: 400,000 (across three Paddock Club kits)
Champagne: 5,500 magnums per season
Red wine: 10,000 bottles per season
White wine: 12,500 bottles per season
Lobsters: 30,000 per season
Prawns: 100,000 per season
Smoked salmon: 2,000kg per season
Fresh fish: 23,000kg per season
Prime beef and spring lamb: 25,000kg per season
Vegetables: 60,000 tons per season
Potatoes: 30,000 tons per season
Fruit: 15,000 tons per season
Fresh strawberries: 150,000 per season
Chocolate: 3,500kg per season
Fresh cream: 8,000 litres per season
Ice cream balls: 80,000 per season
Croissants and pain au chocolate: 75,000 per season
Ice cubes: 130,000kg per season