The entire WTCC paddock was stunned two years ago, when we paid our first visit to the Hungaroring, by the sheer numbers and enthusiasm of the hordes of fans who turned out to cheer on their hero, Norbert Michelisz.
I clearly remember starting the Race 1 commentary, while a ribbon of traffic, reflecting the sun, snaked all the way back, away from the circuit, as far as the eye could see. Back to Budapest, reports said. Still trying to get in as the races got underway.
I recall standing in the pits after the races with Yvan Muller and Alain Menu, genuinely astounded at the volume of noise the fans generated. "You can hear them over the noise of the engine every time you go down the straight," Yvan said, "It’s incredible!"
Everyone in the paddock echoed their feelings. What a crowd, what a noise – we were actually laughing during race commentary, because the volume of cheering from the fans immediately outside our commentary booth made it hard to hear ourselves talking!
And what emotions. The local boy – who, after six weeks of almost non-stop TV, radio and press appearances, interviews and features, could barely speak and was near-exhausted on Friday – treated the fans to a roller-coaster of emotions as he showed great pace but fell just short of the fervently hoped-for win.
Then, last season, the quietly-spoken ex-computer gamer, who is probably Hungary’s biggest sporting star, took them through it all again… but this time, the script-writers gave him (and 80,000 breathlessly nervous and yet raucously vocal fans) the hugest high: that home win.
How does he do it? How does he cope with the media focus? With tens of thousands of fans turning out not to see the WTCC, not to see other drivers or cars, only to see him? How does he look like it’s just another test session, shyly acknowledging the roars, air-horns and constant scrum of people? And never mind simply surviving it, how does he turn it into motivation, rather than pressure? Somehow, he seems to thrive on it, in his modest, unassuming, shy way.
Despite a car that’s been pretty troublesome – of which he and the team have no previous experience – and allied to luck that has not helped one iota, he somehow managed to pull out a wonderful qualifying lap in Slovakia and finish behind the Castrol Hondas, in a Race 1 podium sweep for Honda.
Of one thing, we can be certain. That result last weekend will have only served to stoke the fires of Norbi fever among the faithful. I think we’d better pack the ear-plugs again. Win, lose or draw for Norbi, it’ll be a very noisy weekend…
- Sports & Recreation
- Yvan Muller