Praise the wife! She told me to pack shorts and that was the best advice I've ever had. Hot as you like in France, and hot as you like on the virtual racing circuit that is Paul Ricard.
I'm the kind of guy who likes an adventure. Not a Bear Grylls type living off the land whilst fighting off a pack of lions adventure, but certainly the kind where you see and do new things, enjoy fresh experiences and come away from whatever you are doing pleasantly surprised about all that unfolded.
Paul Ricard was one such trip.
I'll have to put my hand up right at the very beginning of this light hearted article... I had pre-conceived ideas about the Circuit Paul Ricard in France, and frankly they didn't paint a particularly spectacular mental picture ahead of the second round of the SRO E-Sport GT Series the weekend just gone.
What I knew about Paul Ricard prior to leaving you could list on one hand. It hosts Formula One, its been used as a test track for a long time, I can't distinguish between any of the corners and I've never really liked it all that much when playing it in a simulation. So yeah, these things added together made me wonder just how much fun the venue was going to be when I set off for the airport on Thursday morning. The next few days would most certainly open my eyes..
Day 1 - Thursday - The longest day of travelling in the world (part 1).
Now I'm not all that great at geography, but I'm pretty sure France isn't that far away from England, and with the invention of the airplane, it would be safe to assume a quick hop on and hop off would be needed before arriving at the circuit not all that long after departing good old blighty... enter surprise number one.
Remember when Magny Cours dropped off the Grand Prix schedule for being too remote from civilisation? Well judging by where they plonked Paul Ricard, it must have been quite literally the rear end of nowhere if this location was an improvement.. let's just say its off the beaten track..
SRO E-Sport GT Series - Watch the final race again HERE.
Alas, I'm getting ahead of myself here.. the first battle was to get to the country itself before such concerns as to locating the hotel or circuit would enter my mind. Because I live 'up north', and we've yet to adequately embrace the modern world, we have no direct flight to anywhere useful in France, which means a change somewhere along the route, which means plenty of time in airports. Setting off from home at just turned 12pm, I would eventually arrive in France, meet up with the AK Informatica boys for a ride in their van and find myself at the hotel, beer waiting thanks to Mr. @Chris Haye at the impressive time of 12:20am... over 12 hours after leaving home.. I only went to France!
Drama in the bedroom - steady on folks..
Grateful for the waiting pint, and happy to see an already fairly well oiled Mr. Haye once again, I thought it wise to check-in to the hotel first, dump my bags, have a wash then do some late night / early morning drinking to celebrate the start of our latest adventure. Dutifully heading to the check-in desk, I was met by a rather surprised expression from the lady behind the counter, and much speaking in French. Concerning.
Upon further discussion / arm waving / smiling and nodding, the lady suggested we go check out the room to see if it is suitable. We. As in, not me alone, but Chris and I. Hmmm... ok, why not, let's go see what we can see... this can't be that bad, can it? Well, it was! We had a double bed! Now, I really like Chris, he's a good lad and definitely someone who I'd consider a mate. But sharing a bed, having only met each other three times... nah, that's a step too far for such a young bromance to overcome. Time to troop back down to reception and see what can be arranged as the clock ticks ever closer to 1am...
Long story short, we managed to secure a room with two single beds (and not much else), although very closely spaced, at least we could sleep in the comfort of knowing we couldn't accidently spoon each other during the course of the night.
Helping with this swapping of rooms would be the boss of AK Informatica, the company who have done much of the legwork in putting this series together, and are responsible for the awesome E-Sport arena we use at each of the events.
Alessio came down and sorted things out, and when asked if he fancies a quick drink, which he did, but only the one, we ended up having a couple... day one over - off to bed at around 3.30am...
Oh, did I tell you - our lift to the track was scheduled for 8.30am? Damn.
Day 2 - Friday - Paul Ricard and some epic sim racing
Courting a most impressive hangover and some serious lack of quality rest, we shot off to the track for the first time in the weekend - getting our first glimpse of what the E-Sport Arena looks like, and preparing to settle down to the serious business of calling the action in the opening semi-final races of the SRO E-Sport GT Series second round.
Driving up to the circuit thanks to the kind offer of a lift from the stream director Nicolas, I couldn't help but be impressed by just how stunning the area is around Paul Ricard - it really is just like the postcard pictures of France you see in books or on the TV - a seriously impressive bit of the world, and somewhere I'm more than keen to return with the wife and lad for a little holiday jaunt at some stage in the future.
Driving up winding mountain roads and through beautiful quaint villages, already I could feel the mood lifting and the general tiredness beginning to wash away in anticipation of getting into the circuit and having a good look round.
Unlike last time out in Monza, this weekend we would also be blessed with perfectly clear skies and glorious sunshine throughout our stay, yet further adding to the surreal and magnificent atmosphere that seems to be blanketed over the whole of the Paul Ricard circuit and surrounding areas.
Once inside the venue, we had a little time to walk round the paddock chomping on paracetamol washed down with 2.50eu cans of Coke, and take in some of the wonderful sights to be had at the circuit.
To be honest, we didn't do that much walking on the Friday as neither of us really felt up to the challenge, including Steve who flew in late from another assignment and was also feeling somewhat the worse for wear after his own adventures in another part of the world, doing things in a much less noisy form of motorsport..
Anyway, after heading into the sun for a few minutes we quickly decided it would be wise to spend the time where we aren't needed in the comms booth just chilling out under the air conditioning for a bit.. and this is where we discovered something rather strange...
France doesn't have seats.
None, anywhere, at all. How weird is that? In the main hall where we had our E-Sport event we had two leather chairs that were more often than not taken by someone else, so it was left to finding various ingenious ways to park our behinds for the rest of the weekend. I recall making use of stairs, a plant pot, the floor, grass and the toilet. Really, why no seats in what seems like the whole of France?
We did feel pretty good about finding a leather sofa at one point, somewhere we quickly christened the secrete sofa. Sadly, as if by magic, this vanished at one point during the afternoon, leaving us rather perplexed and not a little bit disappointed by its sudden and rather bizarre departure.
What was really cool about that sofa was the fact that the view next to it was this:
How sweet is that?
Anyway, needless to say once we jumped into the live show we both suddenly felt much better and enjoyed what felt like a very, very long time on screen covering the three semi-final races before the big one on Saturday afternoon.
Now I'm sure many of the community were expecting technical issues due to the proximity of Assetto Corsa Competizione hitting V1 release status - and we did indeed hit a couple of restart requiring snags along the way - but neither of them had anything to do with the actual software..
First time around, we had what is fair to say something of a straightforward race unfolding in front of us in one of the semi-final events (I forget which category it was now), pretty light on action and proving to be a not too engaging spectacle for the viewer - as is sometimes the case in motorsport. I clearly remember looking at the timing counter and thinking to myself how pleased I was that we are nearly halfway through the race when boom... half the rigs turn off and the red flag is called to stop proceedings. Nooooo, surely this is a game bug?
No - someone from the circuit decided to pull out a plug and kill power to six of the rigs... ending that one in unceremonious fashion, and as per the regulations, requiring a complete race restart. Oh, and due to how ACC works, we'd have to run the qualifying again too.
Suddenly Chris and I felt less than fresh again having to face going through all that once again! Needless to say we decided to ignore qualifying completely and just talk about sim racing for a bit and the lack of seats at Paul Ricard, passing the time until the race restarted.. which turned into another race without much in the way of action on track.. oh well, these are the issue once faces with live broadcasting..
Then further into the day we were hit by another issue, with the server waiting time between qualifying and race having been incorrectly set to 60 minutes rather than 6, leading to another restart of qualifying in order to get the game switched over to the race in a decent timeframe.. all these little issues were overcome with a calm head and professionalism from all concerned, and I think all things considered the show wasn't affected too much in the overall scheme of things. A solid if trying first day of the weekend.
When the track action was over and done with, due to the lateness of the hour, we all headed back to our various hotels to grab a quick drink and off to bed. Some of the team decided to head into town, but Chris and I made a wise move and decided that having felt lousy all day, a couple of beers in the hotel then an early night was probably the wisest move for us to make. Still ended up getting off to bed at 12:30, but fairing better than the other crew so on balance a wise call.
Day 3 - Saturday - Paul Ricard is the coolest place in the motorsport world.
Because the Blancpain GT Series runs a six hour race at Paul Ricard, the schedule is a bit different than normal rounds, with the majority of the main series action taking place on the Saturday and running into the night, with podium celebrations taking place well past midnight. Visually stunning watching these cars racing into the darkness, but something I imagined to be a hard slog when thinking about the schedule on Saturday morning. After all, my experiences of long distance night racing are based on looking out of a tent at a cold and miserable Silverstone, so expectations of fun were not high heading into the track on Saturday morning.
Before the live stream duties began we did a couple of pieces to camera for the build up coverage, and had some time, suitably refreshed by our 'early' night, to head off into the paddock and see what we could see. It was spectacular.
Getting up close to these amazing cars will never, ever grow dull this year, and I really hope a second season comes our way from this because now I've had a taste I'm well and truly hooked by this series and the level of access our little pink pass entitles us to having.
One thing we did find in the paddock, and this is totally something you will never, ever see at Silverstone or Donington Park, is a makeup booth for the ladies who wish to apply a fresh touch of glam during the course of the weekend. How strange is that, a booth manned by three people no less, than caters exclusively to putting on makeup and sorting out your hair..
Anyway... the final race of the SRO E-Sport GT Series was a thrilling affair that contained some exceptional racing by many of the drivers, a real masterclass of how sim racing should be done and a well deserved winner in the form of David Tonizza for the Jean Alesi eSports Academy team. Tonizza looked to have the absolute edge on everyone all through the race and never put a foot wrong, taking home the first place prize and a slot in the season finale at Barcelona at the end of September. A fantastic and well deserving winner.
SRO E-Sport GT Series - Final race results can be found HERE.
When the race was over and our duties completed the only thing left to do was.. celebrate! So off we headed to the café across from our arena and time for beers. This is when Paul Ricard really, really came into its own. The place is just one big, massive, happy party. We headed onto the roof above the pitlane where the circuit host a full blown party with cocktails, beers, lighting, music, dancers, themed rest areas and everything in between - all overlooking the circuit! It was an incredible experience to be able to party, watch the racing and dance all at the same time - simply incredible and well worth the price of admission alone.
Seriously, if you want to know a good European venue to attend a night race, you really can't look much further than Paul Ricard - I'll be coming back again regardless of working commitments in future, that's for sure.
Sadly I enjoyed it that much I forgot to take any pictures, but I'm sure when @VernWozza edits together the after movie we will see plenty of footage from that rooftop.. it was a brilliant way to end an intense, stressful, exciting and enjoyable weekend of real and virtual motorsport. Epic.
Day 4 - Sunday - A lizard and the longest journey in the world (part 2)
Normally Sunday is the day of action at a race venue, but on this occasion it was a case of a later start and all going our separate ways on the journey back home.
While outside enjoying a coffee and chat with Chris, we did however have a visit from one of the locals, with this little fella stopping by to say hello..
How cute is that?
With that little encounter out of the way is was time to bid farewell to Mr. Haye once again and head off in the big red AK van and back to Marseille airport, ready for another adventure off into the wild ride that is my journey back homeward bound.
Much like on the way out to France, this would be another gruelling affair of double figure hours, exchanging the outbound halt at Schiphol airport for one at Dublin on the way home, before arriving back in the UK around 10pm local, then heading straight home to say hello to the wife and lad once again.
Interestingly in Dublin I did see an eye watering fashion statement sported by an attractive lady, who had a jumper with absolutely no back on it, or sides, and no bra... a brave fashion statement, and one that I hope she never needs to reach for anything or bend down while wearing, otherwise it will be an interesting view for the person stood behind..
Oh and a burger and fries from Burger King costs 10eu. That ladies and gentlemen, is a sodding rip off.
So that's that, two races down, just three more to go before the end of the first season of the SRO E-Sport GT Series in Assetto Corsa Competizione. The ride so far has been fantastic, the characters involved behind the scenes are legends, each and every one of them, the drivers have been first class and everything we've experienced together so far has been simply breath taking. I'm loving every second of this series, and with Spa next up, I've got a feeling its about to get even better...
Many of the events from the weekend have been redacted from this short story to protect the innocent. Much of the really good stuff is, and will forever remain, unpublishable.
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