Last year an EJ saved my life
This is not the Formula E Season 3 roundup I wrote as a motorsport journalist, this is more the Livejournal entry. This is the season 3 roundup that is entirely about having a breakdown, nearly dying a couple of times, looking round and thinking ‘this definitely actually isn’t my beautiful wife, I’m fairly sure she must be with one of the drivers, I ought to get out of the way of the garage entrance’ and being a bit less #DareWinCelebrate than #TryFailInebriate. And also making friends, enemies and most importantly, content.
It owes a huge debt, if it has any merit at all, to my friend Claire’s amazing piece about 18 months with the 1975, which puts this all into words far better than I can.
It has been the worst year. Any year with a breakup in it is a bad year, any breakup that lasts a year is a bad one. This isn’t really about that because some things are too deeply personal for even me to turn into #content. This is about how motorsport saved my sad little life over a season.
Walking down a dark road in the peaceful early hours of a Monday morning in Montreal, having just found out about some final twists to a bad situation, my Formula E season ended. Well, kinda, I obviously still had tons of transcribing to do but in theory there was no event left to crash, no media pen to try not to stutter at, no seat to occupy for thirteen much-loved gruelling hours in an airless media centre.
I’d just drunk loads of white wine and had a properly life-affirming conversation about how South London is obviously better than North London so was perhaps feeling a bit ebullient but I decided: Formula E and me, we’re both going to somehow be ok. Which fuck knows was not how it was always looking, this year.
I was still mostly a music journalist at the start of this season. Well, I say mostly a music journalist — that in no way even slightly describes what I have been doing for any of my career but let’s call it that because explaining what you actually do as a social & digital producer for BBC radio is too distracting given that for the purposes of this, it was just my amazing day job that I greedily refreshed the Formula E website jobs section to attempt to get out of. Lives are strange, friends.
What I was beyond that was a heartbroken wreck drinking wine out of a box on a friend’s sofa and somehow managing to just about get up and go to work looking relatively normal while my life fell utterly apart, I accidentally lost so much weight you could probably just about fit me in one of the cars and I waited to find out when I was going to actually start crying about things rather than just numbly consuming fanfiction in a desperate attempt to feel an emotion about anything.
I’d been having a breakdown for ages but it peaked with suddenly finding myself without a place to live, which is the sort of thing that traditionally does stress the human psyche quite a bit. I was already desperately unhappy and self-destructing but now I had to do it sort of in public. I had never felt less prepared to be brave but also required quite a lot of that ability to, for instance, get up. And actually go to bed, which involved a scramble over boats that I now approach quite blithely but at the time held all the appropriate horror of doing something disgustingly dangerous on the regular.
Meanwhile, Formula E. Into its third season and taking a new direction called: fuck all y’all. It has fired shots at the rest of motorsport, nay, the automotive industry, about Climate Change. Jaguar have joined on this premise. It’s taking a tremendous gamble that I desperately hope will pay off because this is what I really urgently want it to do and I am proud and scared for it.
Probably not the moment for a career change, let alone hooning off around the world following my favourite motorsport series — I clearly had rather a lot of my life to sort out and maybe it would have been sensible to find somewhere to live rather than gamble whether this sort of self-discovery stepping-into-the-unknown would result in acquiring a sense of self-worth or utter annihilation. Maybe neither, maybe it would just be a thing that happened and no one would learn any important life lessons or even snog anyone.
A sudden swing into motorsport, no matter how long you’ve been a fan, is a little difficult to orchestrate — but I’d been knocked back from a job I wanted because I wasn’t supposedly connected enough to it. And I’m extremely bloodyminded, so that sat at the back of my mind as something to fix — even if I couldn’t sort out my rotten life, I am quite happy to break my own foot jamming it in a door that’s determined to close on me just to prove someone else wrong.
This actually all starts with testing. And Mitch Evans. Sorry Mitch, you inadvertently featured quite a lot in the early stages of this. The reason it starts with testing is because that happens at the start of the season and the reason it starts with Mitch is because Tumblr likes him and at this time, I’m Motorsport Tumblr’s dad. Don’t ask, it’s an entirely different story.
What happens is that I have to explain Formula E to Tumblr, which is great fun. And then I realise that with no London race I am going to have to Go Somewhere to see any this year, which leaves me brooding on the prospect for some time. I mean, I can’t go to Hong Kong, surely?
I don’t — aside from anything else I think I was working on 1Xtra Live or something until 5am and only just got home in time to watch the race. But the thought’s set in now and I’ve never been to Morocco but Marrakesh is nowhere near as far, so perhaps now’s the time.
It has started getting cold on the boats. I’m a little worried about the winter. I book the flights with days to spare and zero plan other than I’m massively entertained by the fact Menara airport is in the city so I can just walk in from it. My main preparation is refreshing Tumblr again and again because I am desperately lonely and don’t even know how to describe my emotions anymore. All the fanfiction I write has turned numbly pornographic.
The night before I leave, water pours in through the window over my bed, the cats start scrapping and I end up walking to the cornershop, soaking wet at 2am to attempt to find placating Felix. I sleep on a towel next to a bucket. I cannot wait to not be in this situation.
This all seems slightly ridiculous now because I have since spent a year taking myself off to places but at the time I never have gone anywhere totally on my own and I’m not really sure what I’m expecting. 29 year old me works out a cheap way of doing things, gets on the National Express to Stansted airport at 2am and kind of crosses her fingers that I’m not having too big a breakdown to deal with this right now.
It turns out Menara airport is actually quite a long way from the old town of Marrakesh, where I’m staying. But there are some exciting indicators that I appear to be home — the traffic is nonsense, I’ve remembered how to speak French and the dusty, hot chaos is extremely heartening. I pootle out to pick up my ticket and manage to find a rooftop bar near the Palais el Bahia that becomes my second home for the next 5 days, having both WiFi and excellent Moroccan wine.
It turns out one of the reasons I have generally had company when going to things previously is that when I am on my own, I am a fucking nerd. Ok, obviously, I am having a non-brilliant time of things at this point and am under some emotional stress which is what I am going to blame for one of the most awkward moments of my entire life where I have a non-verbal panic attack at the Jaguar drivers because Mitch sits down opposite me when i’m not expecting it.
This all seems hilarious now but somehow we end up glaring at each other for ten minutes because I’m trying to watch the eRace over his head and it seems too weird to move. I’d already deliberately stood that end because I didn’t want to creepily stare at Jev for god’s sake. Mitch has quite a good glare and I am the only white-ish woman wearing a sparkly evening dress in the vicinity and it’s actually quite hot and I’m not sure I’ve drunk enough water really.
Which is probably why it feels quite so dramatically terrible when the man standing next to me asks if he can borrow my battery pack to take a photo with Lopez (of course) and I realise I’m going to have to follow him down the signing run, by which point I can barely move without hyperventilating. Why is this happening? Nothing stressful is even occurring. Why am I like this?
I feel extremely bad when Jaguar have a terrible race. It is a measure of how severely fucked my head is that I assume it is my fault by somehow cursing them with my social awkwardness not the fact they haven’t really got the hang of their own powertrain yet. I am wracked with weird guilt as I walk through the desert back into town and try not to freak out, writing things up on my phone without mentioning my terrible, race-cursing secret.
The man who has adopted me as his new granddaughter in the rooftop bar says it probably wasn’t my fault and gives me extra olives. But the thought lingers, especially as as soon as I get back to WiFi I discover, via everyone I know sending me screenshots, that my murderous glare is now a feature on Jaguar’s Instagram story. Preserve your worst memories.
But I’ve done it, I’ve gone to the thing. Despite the disproportionate shame feelings that are causing me something like physical pain, I feel a lot like I have remembered how to do something. Possibly ‘feeling things’ and maybe definitely ‘living as me or something proximate to it.’
When I get back to the UK, I miss the race track so badly I book Monaco, Paris and Berlin. I need to go back. It’s not until Montreal that I realise I need to go back alone, that that was part of it. But baby steps.
I spend the break between races I can feasibly get to doing an architecture project in the Balkans and Romania. Each strange, solo excursion reminds me that actually I am quite capable of all kinds of things, from instinctively knowing how Bucharest works, like a muscle memory, to that time I had to employ some interesting tactics to survive drinking with the Montenegrin mafia. It’s ok, we’re all Facebook friends now.
I only get pleurisy twice over the winter and do learn some interesting plumbing skills, kneeling by candlelight in six inches of rusty water. I discover I really enjoy going to Screwfix when it’s quiet. I remember that even though I’ve been ill for eighteen months previous to all this happening, I’m actually quite physically hardy and although I don’t think I’m ever going to be an athlete, I can endure freezing, boiling, dehydration, sleep deprivation and exhaustion in reasonably good spirits and indeed think of it as vaguely exciting.
I get a bit better. Maybe things will, in some messed up fashion, be ok. Then some major stress reappears and I get a lot worse. I also get cholera or something from falling in a river, which offsets the anxiety nausea with the very real possibility I will throw up. By the time I go to the WEC at Silverstone I am about half a kilogram off being a suitable candidate for a Toro Rosso drive and also probably roughly in the correct mindset.
It is a lovely time, watching things go round for 6 hours. I’ve never been all that bothered about the Prototype Endurance before but suddenly, with appalling timing, get quite into it. It keeps me going for about another week before the other things properly start dragging my mental state under.
I am falling apart. Totally falling apart. In a way I didn’t think I was going to again but I have become basically stressed to the point of actual hysteria all the time — I’m so unhappy my brain is intruding on matters with the idea of throwing myself under a bus, tempting me with the idea of drinking until I don’t notice dying. Almost nothing is keeping me going and I don’t know how I’m going to cope — the idea of Monaco is too far off and I need a hit.
So I go and see the Blancpain — it’s virtually the opposite of Formula E on every level but features half the same lads, as well as being one of my favourite series. I book myself a whole, blissful weekend down at Brands Hatch avoiding life and watching GT racing, sitting in the rain with no one talking to me and temporarily cut off from the work that’s beginning to eat my entire existence.
It’s like putting my brain through the laundry. From scrambling around the paddock doing the odd bit of work-that-is-reassuringly-different-to-the-work-destroying-my-brain to sitting peacefully in the cafe having a conversation with a stranger about which our favourite UK circuits are and what we love about Blancpain. She, like me, doesn’t really care what she’s going to see at this point, so long as it’s racing. And Blancpain is such good racing.
I get a message from some much- beloved and well-intentioned friends telling me they have decided to cheer me up by taking me to a party on the Saturday night. Reader, it does not cheer me up. I have to leave the lovely, soothing Blancpain early and go to Primark on Oxford Street to try to find an outfit, for it is sports-themed. I do not want to go to a sports-themed party, I was having my own sports-themed party. I love my friends and understand they think this is for my own good but it is not.
In some mad act of defiance about this — and entirely also in desperation, searching for anything to possibly wear — I end up heading to this party about an hour after the time I’ve been insisting I want to be going home by, vibrating with social stress, nearly non-verbal and dressed as the Jaguar Formula E livery. A sexy Jaguar Formula E livery. It is only later I realise Techeetah probably would’ve been way easier but you make the choices you have in front of you in terms of bodypaint and sports bras.
No one knows what it is or comes on to me. I am enormously pleased, alone at the sexy party defiantly refusing to be in any way accessible because despite being a reasonably attractive woman (in a sort of non-celebrity context, at least) I have reviewed the options and chosen The Motorsport. I write skeevy fanfic on my phone in a corner and drink more red wine than is technically sensible.
I will have to return to Brands Hatch straight from said party, minus some body paint, in order to make the 7am session and it has frankly spoilt my weekend. I don’t really make it through the second day and it is a bit of a blur, returning home to curl in a ball with the cat that has become my cat at some point over the previous six months. Part of me still feels I won that.
Now it all gathers speed, with some professional plot twists that mean I work every single day, including weekends, from some point towards the end of February until the end of July. It feels strangely good, from sitting in a strange guesthouse in a remote part of eastern Bosnia, utterly triumphant that I’ve made it to WiFi in time to watch the glorious Mexico chaos to filing copy on my phone from several fields, I feel like I’ve rediscovered a skillset that’s lain dormant much too long.
The host of my guesthouse later suggests I marry him and move there. I decline, as this seems unlikely to help any of the ongoing situations and then spend the following three days politely avoiding him. How do I get myself into these things? Am I literally just a walking set of anecdotes?
(Yes, that’s ‘being a journalist’)
Old wiring snaps back into place and the me that, for instance, had a wee standing up in sparkly high heels and a wedding dress on a Soviet-era night train remembers how to do things. By Monaco I am writing much more than I’ve been in years, I’ve somehow got another three jobs and things are looking up, albeit in that frightening way when you look up the side of a sheer skyscraper and get vertigo. But racing is all about daring, right? I take the summer flat out.
Monte Carlo is surreal, incredible. I have always thought I was a pretty hard-left-leaning socialist but within five minutes of getting there I have resolved to get filthy, disgustingly rich and live here. A friend is with me for their first experience of Formula E and neither of us have been to the principality before; it is magical. The spell is just as powerful as everyone says. There is nothing like it. I crave a return like it is breath.
I feel bad at the extent to which I am recovering, still emotionally blasted-apart enough that I nearly miss my flight back from Nice because after a surreal few days in Monte-Carlo I do not want to go home. But it’s only for four days anyway, because I need to go to Paris. I have a fucking blast in Paris. I think?
Paris is the first time I successfully blag my way into the after party and frankly probably should have been the last but fortunately people are very forgiving of… whatever it was I did. More importantly Paris is the first time I actually successfully meet up with a bunch of people I know off the internet, which is superb and also I’m realising I now know enough people in the Paddock that it’s a homecoming not a visitation.
I also stuff up my accreditation badly enough that I end up breaking into the pitlane because I need to speak to someone — Paris has incredibly tight security, for 2017 reasons and this seems like a logical impossibility. Emboldened by a few months of mysterious activities in Eastern Europe, however, I breeze in like I’m obviously meant to be there. And even slightly feel like I am.
I’m sitting down trying to write some copy on my phone when two women randomly in attendance get me to join in on their wine drinking. They ask me what I do and I say I’m a motorsport journalist because I’ve just realised I actually am.
“That’s so cool” one of them says. And yeah, it is.
(Less cool that I lose, in succession, my dignity and phone later)
By this point things have gathered such pace that I no longer remember if I have gone to any motorsport in between the motorsport I have gone to. When was Berlin? I go to that, anyway. It is a surreal time, as I go with the person I am breaking up with and everything feels sad and difficult not least because we are having an actually nice time, which makes everything else harder.
We make a bar show us the F1 while I’m filing some copy on my phone because who doesn’t love filing copy on your phone? Not I, fam — no more ‘carrying around a laptop’ for me. I think about the fact the Berlin ePrix looked a little like it wouldn’t happen, earlier this year.
Formula E had a pretty major wobble about the same time I did — the Belgian ePrix cancelled, the Berlin ePrix moved from the proposed Alexanderplatz track. All its ambitions seemed shaky, from the uncertainty around races to the fact Buemi’s astonishing domination of the championship was somehow making people lose faith in the racing, a little. Channel 5 was doing a baleful job of the coverage in the UK. I was getting nervous about that fuck all y’all.
But in pulling off Berlin, in persisting, it feels like it’s won. Formula E held its nerve and it was right — maybe I can, too. I have a right to be here, I just have to keep going and make it happen.
Fuck it, I’m going to Le Mans. With a similarly weak-willed friend. 24 hours of filing copy on my phone, yaaaas. Le Mans is everything it promises to be — both a weekend of relentless Belgian techno lads, searing, glorious heat and spectacular racing. It’s dusty and chaotic and delirium-inducing, it’s like a surreally huge hit of motorsport drugs. It’s too good — and I feel like I’ve not exactly conquered it but definitely been part of something.
(It’s also the first time I get randomly recognised although given I see 16 other women over the course of the entire weekend that isn’t that surprising)
Then a frightening, interminable wait. Which has to be filled with Silverstone and a trip to Shelsley Walsh for Hill Climb. Silverstone annoys me, the F1 pomp like being immersed in a bath of Brexit and I wonder if I’m actually a motorsport person. Fortunately the New York Formula E race afterwards is utterly brilliant and slumped on a friend’s couch, drinking a mug of rose wine, I am furious for playing myself by not going.
Daniel Abt’s crumpled form, after retiring, is unbearably heartbreaking. I realise I feel more emotions about this than anything else, now. And perhaps that’s all safe and fine.
Shelsley Walsh is ancient and utterly without phone signal so for once, no copy filing. It’s dreamily lush, fascinating and I feel deeply content the entire time I am there, curled into a friend to avoid the rain. I am quite a big person (one motorsport colleague insists on referring to me as ‘Amazonian’) and very averse to physical contact in general and don’t normally seek this sort of thing out but maybe it’s the strange magic of this unearthly, Tolkien-esque site filled with the roar of old rally engines.
And then it’s time to fly to Iceland and on to Montreal. It is my 16th flight of the season. I used to get nervous on planes. I get weirdly worried about this trip — it feels terribly off-kilter and like I don’t know what I’m doing, emotions falling apart that it’s close to the end, slightly wondering if this is somehow too big for me. As though that’s a thing.
I fall apart with sadness in Reykjavik, only restored by a trip to the phallological museum. It turns out there are other ways to look at a load of old cocks without going to a motorsport media centre, etc. Arriving in Montreal is overwhelming — Porsche and Mercedes have just announced their entries and this circuit feels huge.
Formula E feels like it’s made it. It’s not stoppable now — it’s a conversation we keep having in the Paddock, that any fear we had at the start of the year is turning into gleeful triumph, that the belief of the people running and participating in it has paid off.
Have I though? This blind, desperate panic over a season feels like a precipice. I don’t know if I could be Lucas, snatching victory from the jaws of a meltingly crushing defeat — I’m more inclined to be Sebastien, stacking it in free practice and blowing everything I looked certain to win. But without the preceding championship.
I drag another journalist who’s slumping into defeat off into the night, only find WiFi later enough to discover how many people are missing us at the after party. It’s not a question of are we going, it’s are we staying.
You can’t talk about after parties (thank god) but it’s over before anyone expects, like the season. We’d just built momentum, where’s the braking point?
I’m ok with throwing my lot in with this. I’m ok with almost nothing else in my life, still exhausted and depressed. Formula E and me, we’re a little off kilter from what people expected, we’re upsetting and upset, we’re things out of necessity that want to have fun. I hope we take the next season as screechingly flat out as the last, whatever anyone else thinks of it — and a little before we do.