- F1 Catering
Monza, Italy. September 2011. It's the last weekend on the European leg of the F1 calendar and only four short days before the paddock motorhomes are packed up and put into storage for the winter.
At the far end of the paddock, Virgin Racing - now Marussia - are hosting their weekly media get-together. The top deck of the Virgin motorhome is heaving with journalists, PRs, and team bosses, while catering staff flit about offering trays loaded with a selection of hot and cold antipasti.
Downstairs, the team dinner is being laid out. Industrial-sized quantities of pasta, curries, salads, and fish n' chips are served buffet-style for team members - mechanics, engineers, physios, catering staff - to help themselves.
All things considered, it's actually a fairly quiet day in the kitchen.
Much is made of Formula 1's famous efficiency when it comes to the work done in the garages and along the pitlane. A well-oiled team can bring a fuel-free pit stop down to less than three seconds with enough practice. Cars can be rebuilt in the lunch break.
But there's just as much efficiency going on behind the scenes at a race as there is in the action that's shown on TV.
Every day of a grand prix weekend, catering crews working for Formula 1's twelve teams provide three meals a day for the team, plus VIP dinners, lunches, and cocktail parties as requested, all from a kitchen not much larger than your average F1 cockpit.
But the challenge isn't just about making the best use of the limited space available in the motorhome kitchen, or about coordinating the serving of three very different meals to up to 300 people in a single evening. It begins much earlier.
With adequate planning and preparation, anything is possible. And planning is the backbone of the F1 catering machine. Weeks before a grand prix, PR liaise with the catering staff to establish which dignitaries and VIP guests will be served which meals on which nights (and days). Guest lists are drawn up, shopping lists written, and preparations can get underway.
"Basically, we plan well ahead," Craig Freeman, of Freeman's Hospitality, explained in the Singapore paddock. "We get a calendar from the FIA at the end of each year, so we plan the next year using the dates of the freight. We fly out air freight and send sea freight - most of our freight is done by sea."
"We decide in advance with Craig what we're going to," Virgin Racing PR boss Tracy Novak explained. "Sometimes it's to do with the venue, so in Japan we did a sushi night for the media. We've got a great Japanese chef coming in just for that race. But sometimes we decide not to go down the obvious route, so - for example - in Korea the guys might decide to do steak and kidney pie, to make a home from home."
While the European races might seem to be the most challenging from a catering perspective, thanks to the limited kitchen space on offer inside an F1 motorhome, it's the flyaways that tend to provide the real dramas.
In Europe, an F1 team travels like a high speed aerodynamic snail: its house is on its back, and contains everything the team might need over the course of a race weekend. But more challenges can arise in far-flung lands and pastures new.
The hospitality suites used at the flyaways aren't as well-equipped as you might assume - in some cases, teams need to import all of their own equipment. And when a team says all, they mean all… right down to the oven. But when ovens need to be imported, they are also at risk of being impounded by customs. It's happened before.
"There are certain countries we don't take anything to," Freeman said when asked about transporting foodstuffs around the world. "We don't take anything to Brazil; they're very strict. We don't take anything to Australia."
Assuming the equipment makes it through customs, the next battle is to source the food. While eating locally has been the rallying cry of environmentally-minded foodies for quite some time, for an F1 chef it's not always possible.
"We carry a forty-foot sea container to every single race," Freeman explained. "In the container we carry dry food, water - we bring as much as we can from England - the kitchen, tables, chairs, umbrellas, fridges… We bring everything."
At a new race, such as last year's Indian Grand Prix, reconnaissance teams are sent out to investigate local markets and food suppliers months in advance of the event. Before menus can be planned, the chefs need to know what's available.
"I went to India two months ago," Freeman told me last September, a month before the maiden race in Greater Noida.
"I did a recce there, took a look at the circuit, went round all the markets, found some good suppliers to make sure that [the food] is fresh, healthy, and you know where it's sourced from. That way, you know where you are when you get there, rather than going in blind."
It gets easier with time, as relationships with trusted suppliers are established and repeat orders placed, but the first year is always a gamble. Will orders be delivered as scheduled? Will the quality of ingredients be consistent? If not, what's the back-up plan?
"A couple of us come out early," Freeman explained. "We're always here the weekend before the race so we can build the kitchens and set up the hospitality so that when the teams arrive on Monday it's all ready for them and they don't have to worry.
"We start catering for the set-up crew on Monday, while building our hospitality area, doing the shopping, all the things we have to do. On Tuesday, more people turn up - mechanics - then on Wednesday it's the PR people. Thursday the management arrive, and you're in the full flow of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then you have the guests, the media…"
While great efforts are made to source ingredients locally, some things have to be brought from home, as the teams just can't function without them.
And it's not always the products you might expect, although the British teams do demand a fried breakfast wherever they are in the world. Italian racing legends Ferrari always have a stockpile of Rose's Lime Cordial, while Red Bull keep San Pellegrino soft drinks on hand to quench the thirsts of those not so keen on taurine with every meal.
An army is said to march on its stomach. Without the behind-the-scenes catering armies feeding all of the teams, Formula 1 wouldn't march at all.