Paul sipped at the water and stared at the blotter pad on the huge meeting table in front of him.
“Take your time, Mr Coelho.”
Paul counted the players in his mind. Fifteen men, excluding the driver, all trained as a team: three to each wheel; Jack-men front and back; and the release, Graham.
Paul had known Graham Greenaway for many years, but this had been only his fifth season with Coulthard: his second as release. Graham had never missed a practice and always chipped in when the team were looking to shave a half-second here or there. Practice, practice, and more practice: car up to the line, nut-men unlock the old wheels; front-wheel men roll the wheels away; rear-wheel men lift new wheels in place; nut-men lock them on and hold their hands out ‘ready’; jack-men drop the car, and the release checks the pit-lane is clear before pressing the tit to give the driver the all-clear. Clockwork.
“You seem hesitant, Mr Coelho. Please be assured this isn’t a court, and neither you nor anyone else can be found guilty of anything. We just need to establish the cause of Mr Greenaway's death.”
Paul looked down at the blotter and the expanse of polished oak, and wondered what the hell to say. All had gone just as they practiced it to, but something had made him look back. He’d rolled the worn front-right wheel away and normally wouldn’t stop until the wheel was in position on the rack in the garage, awaiting any surprise inspection by the stewards or the manufacturers. Yet this time he’d looked over his shoulder as he moved away.
Someone was whispering into Graham’s ear. Absurd! No-one whispers in anyone's ear in a pit-lane during a Grand Prix: they shout, they gesticulate, if at all. And certainly no one distracts the release man during a wheel change – ever. Yet someone had, Paul was sure of what he’d seen. Or, he had been until he’d watched the TV playback. Fifteen men around the Coulthard Racing car – no one else – and all going like clockwork, right up until the time Graham released the car and stepped back into the path of the oncoming Jaguar, to be crushed between the two.
Paul would swear that Graham the consummate professional would never release a car into pit-lane traffic. Yet there on the replay being shown on every channel around the world was Graham putting himself in the path that would inevitably cause a collision, his own body caught in the middle of it. Paul was sure the stranger, the sixteenth man invisible to the cameras, had made Graham do what he did.
If Paul sensed that no-one around the table would accept his story about the intruder being there, the fact that he had also after the event recognized the stranger didn’t help. Without question, the man whispering in Graham’s ear had been Graham’s own father: the unmistakable blue overalls and white shoulder flashes, and the tricolour helmet had been plain to see, if only to Paul. Except Graham’s dad had died in a pit-lane fireball twenty seasons earlier: at this same circuit.
Paul looked up and caught sight of his own pathetic reflection in the chairman’s glasses. Clearing his throat, and convinced that his own F1 career was about to end, he began his tale.