Nico Rosberg: five time race winner, GP2 champion, Williams race driver. It seems natural, as though the season was a mere formality to get to where he is now, as if everyone was expecting this result from the beginning of the year and all he did was live up to expectations. But it was never really like that – he had to make this season with his own two hands, he believed when perhaps no one else did, and the fact that it seems the obvious result in retrospect only shows what a good job he did over the year.
At the start of the season Nico wasn’t seen as one of the main challengers for the title – he was one the Three Princes, the sons of former World Champions that were trying their luck in the series, but he wasn’t even the most hotly tipped of the trio. Nico came from a solid karting pedigree and a Formula BMW title ahead of a couple of less than perfect years in the Formula 3 Euroseries – the saying goes that you’re only as good as your last season, and if you lost, then…
Nico’s shyness was clear at the start of the year, when he struggled to find things to say to the throng of journalists as well as the other inhabitants of the new paddock, and his heavy handed attempts at humour, comprised in equal parts of sarcasm and faux outrage, didn’t endear him to many people.
But in reality it was probably more a part of learning to understand who he was, and like anyone that’s a long road with a lot of detours. Every young boy is defined in part by his father, particularly if he tries to make a name for himself in the same line of work, but when you’re a racing driver and your father is Keke Rosberg there is no doubt that you’ve got a lot to live up to.
As the season got underway he retreated to his team, learning how they worked and putting his solid engineering background – Nico was studying the subject before taking time out to concentrate more fully on racing – to good use. The bond he formed with race engineer Steeve Marcel was unparalleled in the paddock, with the pair speaking their own language and spending hours pouring over the data to find an advantage, any advantage, for the next race.
It’s indicative of the closeness between the pair that Nico was disappointed at the awards show in Monza, not because he didn’t win the best driver award, but because Marcel wasn’t awarded the best engineer prize.
The relationship worked, and through that Nico learnt more about himself. Race results always improve the mood of a driver, but more than that when they started to come for Nico it was as though they were a validation, proof that he was actually good at his job after being knocked back by the lack of success over the previous two years.
And by believing more in himself, he became someone that others could believe in too. The results started to come, and the sunny, mischievous side of Nico suddenly bloomed. When interviewed on television immediately after winning in Magny Cours it was suggested that he had been lucky to have had such a good car in the race, to which he deadpanned: “I guess I didn’t have much to do with it then, if it was all the car.” The interviewer, horrified at offending the race winner, started to apologise before a wry grin creased his face.
The longer the season went on, the more success he had; the more success, the more comfortable he seemed within himself. The first podium, the first pole position, the first Sunday win, the first Saturday win, the contract to become a permanent test driver for Williams, it all reinforced his growing belief that he was there on merit rather than a name. “You’re back again?” he would often ask the GP2 press officers after a race when they needed a quote for the website. “Cool – I must have had a good race then.”
The turning point in Nico’s season was the mid-season test, which moved ART from a potential podium finisher into a winning team in search of their first victory. Pole position for his team-mate in the next race in Magny Cours was the precursor to a dominant win in the second one, and he was on his way. When asked by a journalist what the team had found in the test Nico laughed, saying: “I’d be pretty stupid to tell you, wouldn’t I?” After originally seeing GP2 as a two year programme, he could now see that he had a shot at winning it first time out, and he wasn’t about to give that advantage away to anybody.
It was the start of a remarkable run to the title: before the test Nico scored 21 points to Heikki Kovalainen’s 38, afterwards he outscored his rival 99 points to 67. Heikki, the initial runaway favourite and racing for the most successful team at this level in recent years, tried everything he had, but ultimately he had no answer to the unbroken string of success Nico was building.
Nico’s team boss Frederic Vasseur had humble ambitions at the start of the season, making a step up in category to compete with teams with years of success at this level: “I wanted to just perform well, maybe take a win during the season. I could never have imagined winning the title like this.” Asked for his opinion on his lead driver and he smiled embarrassedly, looked up to the sky and said “oh, I don’t know where to begin…”
The final step in the process of becoming Nico was learning to mix self-deprecation with self belief. When he finally claimed the title after winning race one in Bahrain and was addressed as GP2 champion, he smirked “there’s worse things than that, for sure! It’s unreal – we just progressively got faster and faster, and then we went to the test and got a lot better.
“I hardly made any mistakes – I made a few, of course, but very few compared to last year – and I think I’ve really improved myself. I’ve got this qualifying thing, where I’ve done a great job and got five poles, and I really enjoy it to go balls out for one lap.
Now Formula One is definitely the next step, and I can’t believe I’m actually talking about it like that! Everything really worked out fine.”
After a season like this, it’s tough to imagine anyone arguing with him about that. Nico Rosberg, race winner, GP2 champion, Williams race driver. d in the championship by just half a point. Scott Speed took two
In a way, Heikki Kovalainen was only ever going to lose this year – as the golden boy of the Renault Driver Development programme and the clear favourite to win the series, the high expectation meant that if he won people would say he was supposed to, and if he lost they would assume it was all his fault. It was a lose/lose situation, and the pressure that can put on a driver is immense.
That he could absorb all of that pressure is one thing; that he did so and performed so well, taking the lead in the championship and staying there for so long and looking unfazed by it all is nothing short of remarkable. And he did it all with good grace and humour, his genuine decency shining through it all.
One example among many – when he finally lost the championship after a tough battle in Bahrain the very first thing Heikki said in the press conference immediately after the race was “before I talk about my race, I’d just like to congratulate Nico on winning the championship” – despite the heartache of getting so close but not winning, despite the unrelenting pressure on him to succeed and the effect it would have on his future, the first thing Heikki thought about was to congratulate his competitor.
Heikki is an uncomplicated soul: he genuinely love to race, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to get the opportunity to do it. The product of a modest upbringing, he knows how lucky he is to be in the position he’s in and works to the maximum to stay there – if it means an autograph signing session followed by an appearance in the paddock club and a seemingly unending string of interviews at the track followed by phone interviews in the middle of the night to the other side of the world, he’ll do it without question, smile and joke and give the quotes everyone wants, because ultimately it means he gets to sit in the car and drive.
And as good as he is at everything outside of the car, ultimately it’s Heikki’s abilities inside it that have put him in the position he enjoys now. You don’t have to look far for examples of his extraordinary talent – he won from seventeenth on the grid at the Nurburgring, he won with an ill-handling car in Monza despite race long pressure from Nico Rosberg, he drove flat out in both wet and dry conditions in Turkey to win – and even though he’s disappointed when he doesn’t win it’s not hard to see that he still appreciates how lucky he is to be there, even on the days when nothing goes right.
It’s easy to underestimate Heikki because of his good natured personality, but to do so is to do him a disservice – Heikki was the favourite at most races, and to win the title, simply because it’s more easy to imagine him winning than not, because winning is what he tends to do. It’s a good characteristic to have when you’re a racer.
One of the most useful weapons in his armoury is the ability to keep an even keel, to not get wound up about things not going his way – Heikki doesn’t ever seem to get upset, which means he doesn’t expend energy unnecessarily on things that he can’t change, unlike most drivers.
Even when he finally lost the championship he didn’t get upset, he didn’t lash out or make excuses or look for fault elsewhere: “It’s very disappointing of course – I was looking for the win, so second place doesn’t mean a lot to me, but I’ve learnt a lot and it’s been a competitive championship.
“I’ve got five victories, and they’ve all been very good moments, so I know how to win races and fight with the car and be on the edge all the time, so from that point of view there are some positive things. They were stronger than we were, and therefore they deserved to win - congratulations to Nico for a job well done.”
And it’s impossible to imagine Heikki changing next year in Formula One, despite the pressures going up even further. He will continue to be genuinely decent, interesting and funny person who wants to keep his life as simple as possible – he will continue to play the drums at home to relax, he will continue to bring his girlfriend to the races because she’s his best friend and he loves to just hang out with her, he will continue to eat astonishing amounts of food and thank the cook for making it, he will continue to carry out all of the public relations activities without complaint.
And then he will get into the car and continue to amaze onlookers with his ability to run at one hundred percent for as long as he has to, because it’s what he loves to do.
Scott Speed: "I'm just happy to have finished after the brake problems we had - it felt like the 24 Hours of Imola out there!"
"I had lunch at Renault today and Flavio asked me if I was going to win - I laughed and said yes!" Heikki obviously had the scoop on the first race.
"I had problems at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of that race.” – but the rest of the Imola race was fine for Nelson Piquet.
Adam Carroll, Imola Race Two: “This is my type of car. It’s got grunt, power and torque. You hit the throttle and it will light the rear wheels up. I love cars that oversteer, too, so this is just perfect.”
"It was lucky for Giorgio really, because if he had hit me and I fell on him I might have crushed him!" – Enrique Scalabroni contemplates a diet after his near miss in Imola.
Hiroki Yoshimoto: "I was just stupid! I spun trying to get the fastest lap on the first lap because of the Formula One rubber. It was all my mistake - I want to punch myself in the head!"
“I’m a racing driver. I’ll drive anything. Any track, anytime, anywhere. Make some corners up, put me in a car, and I’ll drive them quickly.” – Scott felt relatively confident in Spain.
“Last year was a very difficult season for me because most people saw me as the guy who was at the back, or the guy who could only beat Baumgartner. Today I think I showed them I can beat more than Baumgartner.” – Zsolt wasn’t in the race, Gimmi.
"I think I start about twentieth or something, so for sure I can maybe get a podium!" – Juan Cruz Alvarez felt confident despite destroying his car and getting concussion the previous day in Barcelona.
“I said sorry to him for what happened. It was a shame it finished like that, but we were wearing crash helmets when he came over so I couldn’t really hear what he said.” – Nelson explains his conversational style with friend Adam Carroll after punting him out of race two in Barcelona.
Ryan Sharp: "I'm looking forward to Monaco because I drove there in V6 and it suits my style - I'm smooth and I stay off the kerbs, mostly because I can't afford to pay for a crash!”
“When I was a kid I was a freak about this place, and I knew it so well even then. I can't wait to get out on track!” – Yoshi, who is still waiting to drive in Monaco.
“Monaco really is the ultimate challenge for a racing driver as there’s no room for mistakes. With no run-off area, you have to be millimetre perfect - an inch too late or an inch too wide and you’ll end up in the barriers.” – Clivio Piccione, who retired from the race after hitting the barriers.
“As we only have one race it’s just going to be really important to qualify well” – said Nelson before qualifying in Monaco - unfortunately Can Artam wasn’t listening.
“I was really happy with the car this morning in free practice, and I was looking pretty good for qualifying, and then this idiot happened. He's been in Formula 3000 before, and now he's just here spending money thinking he's going to get somewhere and then look what happens.” – don’t hold back Nelson – what do you really think?
"I was in the middle of the track and I tried to move across to give him room, but he was already there." – From the Defensive Driving Manual, by Can Artam.
Ryan Sharp: "I think the internals of the gearbox are now external - we can see straight through it."
"The GP2 championship is known as a very tough, lot of work championship. When we ask people would you like to come and race with us they say 'do you have an opening in your F3 team?'" – Alfonso de Orleans describes his employment techniques.
“The first corner is going to be a mess” Yoshi gazes into his crystal ball and gets it spot on.
Journalist: "That was a bit of a PlayStation moment - it looked as though he was using the other car to get him around the corner. If Carroll wasn't there Garcia would be in Luxembourg by now."
Alfonso: "I don't think that's true - that corner points towards Belgium, actually."
“I’ve got to win a race this year, because I’m so damn fast” – Nico seemed pleased with his drive to third from 24th on the grid at the Nurburgring.
“We’re not going to appeal the decision because it was Borja’s fault.” Alfonso could see the stewards point after Borja was banned for a race after causing a crash at the Nurburgring.
“If you think Formula One is boring then you should look at this now!” Clivio was rightly over the moon after winning race two.
“Good man, hold them up and I’ll be up there in a minute!” – Adam’s thoughts on seeing Neel Jani holding up the field.
“Rubbing is racing!” Adam Carroll describes his race once he got up to the frontrunners.
“My friend, I am so sad - a crocodile, he walked in front of Gimmi’s car and he eat the whole gearbox!” – Paolo Coloni had an unusual problem to face in race two at the Nurburgring.
“I think I made the race interesting! What I didn’t do is zigzag – once I change my direction then there I am, and if you want to you can go around the outside, which they did in the end because I just couldn’t brake late anymore.” Neel Jani on that race.
Adrian Campos: “It’s the best car I’ve ever driven in my life!”
Jacques Lafitte: “This car is so fast, it made me feel like a boy again.”
“It really is a very good car - it’s exactly what any young driver needs to prepare him for Formula One” – So said Damon Hill, who arranged for his young driver Steven Kane to drive it too.
Patrick Tambay: “I really shouldn’t have come today. I haven’t driven anything like this in 20 years, and I just want to start racing again.”
“We were not the quickest on any of the days, but we've never been quickest in Ricard and we are still winning races, so that was not the point.” - Try telling Nico that test wasn’t important, Heikki.
“This month is going to be so important, and with this many races in one month it could either make or break the championship” – Adam Carroll, speaking before the month that broke his championship.
Heikki on the month break: “It’s always a bit boring when I’m not doing much.”
“Yeah, we had a fire on the steering wheel!” Gimmi confirms he had some unexpected problems at the test.
“Oh shit.” Yoshi on being told Borja would line up on the grid behind him in Magny-Cours
“I could tell you, but I’d be pretty stupid to, wouldn’t I!” Nico after being asked what ART had found at the test.
Yoshi to team boss Scalabroni, on the phone: "I did okay - I got sixth yesterday and second today. And it happened the first time you weren't here - I think you should stay away for the rest of the season if that's what happens."
“It’s a bit itchy!” J Lo on a rash he had on his arms and torso in France.
“It’s very, very annoying now” - J Lo’s second day with the rash
“That’s when the Finnish racing spirit comes out, and no one can stop you then!” Nico ditches his German heritage for a moment.
“Loads of smoke and two cars going off!” Adam explains what he saw of Premat taking off Lopez, Race Two.
Lopez: "He knew it was difficult to pass there anyway, and he just hit me.”
Carroll: "Yeah, and he'd already spun when he hit me!" Alex Premat struggled to make friends in France.
“They’ve clearly found something.” – It’s hard to get anything past Heikki unnoticed.
Nico on Heikki: “the problem is he’s bloody consistent as well, so we won today but bloody hell - he’s only lost two points!”
“The car was very shit in the beginning and then we changed the tyres and then it was a bit better” – Xandi in Silverstone.
“A lot of fucking pressure” – Olivier Pla’s colourful description of his first win at Silverstone.
"We've been to six events - eleven races - and the only time we didn't have any problems was Magny-Cours. But I have to be positive.” Good thing you got that podium, Yoshi.
“Umm….it depends!” – Alex Premat on being asked whether he was any good in the wet.
“The name may have a negative effect sometimes, and you have to work around that” – so said Nico Whatshisname.
“I got recognised in the street! That’s the first time that’s happened in 25 fucking years.” Dave Price post Silverstone.
J Lo: “That was probably the worst race in my career.”
“I can feel it in my arse” - Heikki had an unusual method for working out whether or not he was fast enough.
“That sounds beautiful!” – Nico on being told his race was “amazing.”
“I’d rather win the race than take the best lap and end up in the gravel!” - GP2’s king of spin Olivier Pla on taking his second win.
“He wasn't fair with me in qualifying, and now in the race he's done another dangerous move. I think when it comes to my chance to do it to him he'll see how bad it is.” - Nelson issues the smack down to Scott.
"I don't think there's any reason to panic - we just need to look at it carefully" – let us know when we should, Heikki.
“Okay, we made a few mistakes with the strategy at Paul Ricard…” - Nicolas Todt, confirming he saw the same race as the rest of us.
“Now everybody is talking about Nico Rosberg, but Nelsinho always beat him in Formula Three. It'll happen here too...” – Nelson Sr took an unbiased look at GP2.
“There was oil on the track? I had no idea” – Nico appears to have literally during the Budapest practice.
Neel, after winning in Budapest: “I think tonight I will sleep very well!”
Neel on Heikki’s overtaking attempt: “I'd say he took quite a risk there - he looked more like a Japanese driver than a Finnish one!”
Nico: “It's not that many podiums, really … well, one each weekend since Monaco!”
“It's always difficult to overtake here - you just need to hope that some driver will make a mistake, like I did yesterday to be honest” – Giorgio Pantano is always ready to help his fellow drivers.
“The whole year is like a holiday if you don't need to work to make money - that's like a holiday!” – Nelson explaining why he wouldn’t be taking a break before the next race.
“I think that maybe my head isn't working a hundred percent at the track because things are not going in the right direction or going well” – You might want to work on that, Nelson.
“I think now is the time to have some luck!” – Paolo Coloni, stating the obvious in Turkey.
“I think there’s going to be more here than we’ve seen all year. The layout, the braking zones - this place was built for overtaking. Seriously. It's the coolest track” – Sure Scott, but do you like the Istanbul track?
“I was going quick and then along comes Can Artam … I don’t understand … I’m sorry for him but … I hate him! Big time! I was so pissed!” – You can probably scratch Yoshi off your Christmas card list, Can.
“I got through and the others crashed, so something was good!” – Borja got the fundamentals right in Turkey.
“I wasn’t very happy, that’s for sure. I was just thinking … you complete wanker, you’ve fucked your race now” – Adam was less than pleased after stalling on the front row. He got back up to second, though.
“Did I do good? Really? I had no idea - I didn’t even know where I was - I had no clue. There was just everybody everywhere. I was just really careful and going where there was nobody” – If Nico can be that fast in the rain and not even know it, the others should be worried.
“I didn’t know that I was racing the two BCN cars, who were obviously still on wets, and I was thinking ‘where are the flags?’ I managed to get past them pretty easily, and my team told me after the race that I was racing with them!” – Heikki really needs to work on his communication skills during the race.
Scott Speed in the wet, Turkey: “It was quite difficult to tame 600 horsepower!”
“I think the weekend where we have both drivers in the points we’ll go out and have a big party. And you’re invited!” – We’re looking forward to it, Alfonso.
“I was waiting, no problem, because I was able to overtake whenever I wanted, but suddenly everyone started overtaking me – Lauda first” – Ernesto Viso describes that sinking feeling in Turkey.
Heikki, on the gap back to third in qualifying: “It's a surprise, but I'm not complaining – as long as the gap stays like that tomorrow, it's fine!”
Nico: “Lucky for him I was there with him, because otherwise it would have looked suspicious!”
Adam: “I’m sick of starting at the back!”
Adam: “It felt quite easy today. Testing the F1 car here last week… now that was tiring.”
Olivier: “In Monza we have just one problem – we are slow on the straight – which is a big problem!”
“The first few laps were really good – there were a lot of people crashing, and it was quite exciting!” – Nicolas Lapierre on life in the fast lane, Monza.
“It looked like he made a little twitch and that’s when we made contact… but on the other hand I had a few metres of space on the inside, so why was I that close? In the end it was just stupid. He thinks it’s my fault, and I think it was his fault. There’s no tension between us though, it’s cool” – Nico sending mixed messages after his crash with his teammate in Monza.
“Things are going to get back to normal I think in the next two races, like in Istanbul where he was 1.5 seconds a lap off. I think we're going to have a bit of an edge…” – Feeling confident, Nico?
Neel, who won in Monza, just: “I have to say that Monfardini shunted me in Turkey, but I forgive him after today!”
Ernesto: “I don't just want to talk about the problems, I'd rather talk about the good things in the season - even if there are not many.”
Gimmi: “If you go back last year to here, in Formula One I qualified as the best qualifying ever for Minardi, ahead of the Jordans, one of the BARs and Toyota, so obviously I like this circuit.”
Nico: “We were really quick this morning, easily quickest, so when it started raining I was like ‘yes!’”
“I don't understand why the GP2 series costs 2.5 million and our team and other teams cost maybe between three and five hundred million - I don’t see what the difference is” – I guess that’s why you’re not an accountant, Flavio.
“I'm really angry at Piquet because he pushes all the drivers, was in contact with the other drivers, and I think this is stupid” – Alex spits the dummy.
“I braked a bit hard, and we were coming from sixth gear to first gear – I locked up a little and unfortunately I touched him, and these things happen sometimes. It was wet, and I was on slicks” – Nelson shrugs.
An understated Heikki, in Spa: “It was not really the best day…”
“Nobody was ready when I came in - they were admiring Alex driving off!” – Nico on ART’s unorthodox pitstop style. Well, they are French, and it did look good.
Nico: “I'm looking forward to Bahrain, where I think we're going to be very strong – I think we're going to be ballistic.”
“After the safety car someone spun and there was another safety car, and then another one because of Yoshimoto, so it was lucky” – Well, except for your teammate, Ernesto.
“I think I had a good race – I started 21st and finished 5th” – We have to agree, Juan Cruz.
Borja, Spa, Race Two: “It was just difficult on this track, because I couldn't see anything – even my glasses were hard to see through!”
“When it rained it started to get really heavy, and there was some standing water at the top of Eau Rouge – I came through that and it was a little bit squirrelly” – Only a little bit, Adam?
Yoshi: “Until this moment, through every race, I've never bent a suspension arm, and here I've bent about twenty.”
Neel: “I saw there were yellow flags displayed so I slowed down, and I was going through Eau Rouge and suddenly there was a car passing in front of me, and I just hit him. Maybe if I didn't slow down for the yellow flags I would have passed him.”
Neel: “I've got blue knees, blue elbows, blue ribs and all over my back – just everywhere.”
“I think when we won we thought 'okay, now we have to win another one, and another one, and another one', and then we were in the fight for the championship” - Frederic Vasseur caught on fast.
“I don’t think it's the biggest weekend of my life, just because I don't see it like that” – So said Heikki in Bahrain – he clearly has a more interesting life than most.
“It's bloody difficult in a Formula One car to do more that fifteen laps – it's not easy” – Don’t worry Frank, we’re sure Nico will get up to speed pretty quick.
Nico: “GP2 champion? There's worse things than that, for sure!”
Nico on Heikki’s early pitstop in Bahrain: “I thought 'what the hell are they doing?', and that it was good that they messed up their strategy once in the season too!”
“He drove alone just to get the fastest lap and I drove to get positions, which is a bit more of a race” – Alex feels he was the moral victor in the battle for third in the championship against Scott.
Giorgio Mondini works out his problem: “I thought I would be faster at the end frankly, and I could have been if you look at the data, but the main problem was I made mistakes.”
Heikki on his season: “It’s been okay, apart from not winning the championship, obviously.”
Fairuz Fauzy: “The season for me has been quite unlucky – I think in Monaco I could have easily finished in the top five but we had a few problems there.”
Can: “In the early days in testing Scott was pretty quick, but unfortunately we were not able to convert that into results as a team.”
Mathias Lauda tells it like it is: “This year my qualifying performance was totally wrong, totally shit, totally bad.”
Borja: “The first part of the season was too difficult for me and my team.”
“I don’t know if it’s bad luck or what, but I can’t seem to finish races” – Well it’s not good luck, Juan Cruz.
Xandi: “I had some really good races, and also some terrible races!”
Neel’s secret to his success: “That’s where I did a new record this year I think – keeping guys behind me!”
It’s impossible to overstate how impressive ART’s first year in GP2 has been. “I wanted to just perform well, and maybe take a win during the season,” team principal Frederic Vasseur stated at the end of the Spa weekend. “I could never have imagined winning the title like this at the start of the year.”
ART was formed out of the successful Formula 3 Euroseries team ASM, but despite their record in that series few people gave them much chance of succeeding in their first year of GP2 - stepping up a level requires a remarkable increase in budget, facilities and personnel just to run, let alone take podiums and wins.
But win they did – seven times, two more than their nearest rivals – against formidable competition, without previous experience at this level, and with the further disadvantage of operating from France rather than in the so-called Motorsport Valley in England, further restricting their ability to call on facilities and experienced personnel.
Vasseur is certain as to what gave his team an advantage over every other outfit: “We had a big advantage that we had two drivers who were very competitive - this was a big help for us to win the Championship, I am one hundred percent sure, to have a sportive fight in the team. And we could improve a lot, because we had two good drivers in the cars.”
Improve they did, particularly after the mid season test at Paul Ricard, which transformed the team from sometime podium finishers to race winners at the very next race weekend. The difference was like night and day, and after getting a taste of winning they keep on doing it, winning at all bar two of the remaining race weekends.
Having the drivers’ champion in the team certainly helped ART claim the teams’ championship, but both drivers played their part – Nico took five wins and five poles, Alex scored two wins from one pole – and the combination of the two helped the team push up the field. In a sport where beating your teammate is usually your first priority, the genuine friendship between the pair and the help they gave each other allowed ART to concentrate on helping them both, rather than keeping them apart.
Will ART go on to dominate GP2 like they’ve done in the Euroseries? It’s impossible to say, although it’s obvious that their competitors in GP2 will be redoubling their efforts to get back on terms with the French team. But a few facts show just how well ART have performed this year: one of their drivers has been signed to race with Williams, the other is a proven race winner in A1 and one of the favourites to win GP2 next year, and ART have become the destination of choice for every top line driver looking to come up into the series in 2006.
Which is not bad for a team that was hoping to win one race this year, if everything went well.
Arden International have a heritage of winning – in 2002 they won four races, in 2003 it was three, and last year they took a remarkable eight victories – so it’s unsurprising that they would win five races as they did in GP2 this year. What is surprising is that they didn’t win either title, and it says much about the team that these five wins and second place in both titles is seen by the team as a disappointment.
At GP2’s launch in April this year Arden were the clear favourite to win both titles, and their recent history suggested that they would cruise through the year while doing so. That a team with the facilities, skill levels and history of Arden didn’t win the title shows just how competitive GP2 was straight out of the box in its first year in existence.
Arden introduced a strong line up to an awaiting media at the launch: Heikki Kovalainen was a proven winner, coming off a championship year in the Nissan World Series and already signed up as a test driver for Renault’s Formula One team, while Nicolas Lapierre was the youngest ever winner at Macau and a three time winner in the Formula 3 Euroseries.
Much was expected of the team, and they lived up to expectations by taking the first GP2 pole position and the first win at Imola. Heikki took the lead in the championship and stayed there, and it seemed only a question of when, not if, he would win the title.
But the year didn’t go according to the script: the team struggled with qualifying, with Heikki unable to consistently challenge Nico Rosberg for poles, and Nicolas in particular suffering from car problems over the season – while Heikki and Nico scored twelve podium finishes each, Nicolas could only manage to score one, an indication that all was not well in his side of the pits.
“Qualifying has always been difficult for us this year,” Heikki noted as far back as Hockenheim. “I don’t think it’s a big thing or that we’re a million miles away, but when you have a little problem in the critical times like in qualifying then it makes it a lot more difficult.”
Ironically this problem showed the depth of racing knowledge in Arden, as it meant that their strategies had to be better so much better than anyone else’s to overcome the problem. There was no better example of this than at the Nurburgring – Heikki was able to win from seventeenth on the grid by a smart pit call to come in early and run in clean air rather than get stuck in traffic.
The ability to think on your feet is what separates the great teams from the less able, and it’s that sort of ability under pressure that makes it likely we’ll see Arden fighting for both titles once again next year.
Super Nova have won the Formula 3000 drivers’ championship four times in their illustrious history, and run the vice champion five times. Given their celebrated past it was not going to surprise anyone if the team was among the top teams in the opening season of the GP2 series, and so it proved.
Despite being the last team to announce their driver line up – the issue was still not clear at the GP2 launch in Paul Ricard in April – nonetheless they pulled a masterstroke by signing the infinitely experienced Giorgio Pantano, fresh from a bruising year in Formula One and looking to re-establish his reputation, and the young charger Adam Carroll, second in last year’s British Formula 3 and wanting to make his name in a bigger arena.
The season got off to a strong start in Imola, where both drivers had the possibility of winning the first round before Adam went one step further and did win the second race on Sunday. A further win in Monaco, followed by his teammate claiming second in the next race, meant there was a feeling that things were coming together at Super Nova.
Unfortunately for Giorgio, things were coming together on the other side of the garage. Apart from his pole and second place Giorgio did not score a single point until Germany, with reliability woes hampering his run for the championship – after entering the competition as one of the drivers tipped to do well it was a disappointment for the likeable Italian.
“It was quite a difficult year for us because we started with a series where everything is new, and we had a lot of problems for the first four races – that dropped us to the back of the grid for the championship. After we fixed all of the problems we started to be very close to a win. Sometimes I was a little bit unlucky, I have to say, because I couldn’t compete for the championship – I think we had a very good chance to be there when everything was fine.”
And when the team finally managed to make his car reliable his teammate started to suffer a run of car gremlins – second in the title fight in France, Adam failed to score again until Turkey, and his title shot had evaporated too.
“Unfortunately the mid part of the season cost us third in the championship, and I think where we finished is a little untrue as to how we’ve done this year. We did have a few races where I really did struggle, with the car and a few bits and pieces, but we were very quick in lots of races where we started at the back and came through.”
Ultimately this unreliability cost Super Nova any serious shot at the title, but almost every other team on the grid would have been delighted to have a season with three wins and eight further podiums – third in the championship was a strong result, and it’s only the team’s history that could make David Sears anything other than delighted with it.
“My year’s been pretty tough, but it’s been pretty good,” Adam noted at the end of the season. “We’ve had lots of highs along with a few lows, but I’ve won a few races this year, got a few podiums, and I think we’ve been quick at a lot of places. It’s all been pretty good really, eventful, and the guys have been working really hard – I think it’s a tough, tough championship for everybody involved.
“We’ve had lots of good races starting from the back and finishing second, like Turkey and the Nurburgring – I can’t even remember, there’s been so much that’s happened! It’s been quite a busy year, really.”
No one at Super Nova would disagree with this assessment, and the general feeling within the team is that having this year’s experience under their belts is only going to improve them for the fight ahead in 2006. Strength often comes through adversity, and allied to their experience it’s hard to see Super Nova doing anything other than advance.
Created late in 2004 specifically to race in GP2, iSport were the dark horse of the field right from day one – comprised of some of the best talent in racing their skills and experience were never in doubt, but the question remained as to whether Paul Jackson and his men could gel as a unit to compete at such a high level against some of the most famous teams outside of Formula One.
After claiming third in the drivers’ championship and placing fourth among the teams, the answer to that question at the end of the year has to be a resounding yes.
When Scott Speed joined the team it was clear that they had a strong driver with an even stronger backing – good results in America led to Scott winning the Red Bull American driver search, and in 2004 he won both the German and Eurocup Formula Renault championships as well as testing in the IRL. Scott was seen as the next potential American Formula One driver, and iSport was charged with the responsibility of giving him the car to get to that level.
Five podiums in GP2 speaks volumes about how the team performed – it was a big step up in power for the American but he took to it like a duck to water, and time spent in iSport’s pit showed just how strong the link between team and driver was, and how well they performed in giving Scott the opportunity to challenge for race wins.
“It’s been quite an up and down season for me, but I feel pretty good,” Scott noted at the end of the season. “It obviously started off pretty good, and I think it’s been good to me – it’s been a really good experience.”
A sign of how well iSport performed in 2005 was the level of disappointment in not achieving a win, despite it being their debut year. Scott was not immune to such regret: “In Barcelona I didn't get a win because the clutch slipped off the line - we should easily have won that race. Turkey was a tough weekend for the team and I too, and we probably had two wins on the cards but didn’t get them.
“Obviously I had a great chance in a few of the races, and they've slipped away for a few reasons. It is frustrating, but I'm not so concerned – the team was great, and I’ve gained a lot of good experience in racing circumstances, with pitstops, strategies and things like this.”
The relationship between Scott and Can Artam was handled well, with the pair becoming close in a situation where it might have been otherwise, and the team had a real sense of camaraderie as they set about proving themselves against the toughest competition. One thing that helped in this respect was a shared sense of humour – no mean feat with an American and a Turk driving in a particularly English team.
And it is this sense of humour, mixed with their proven heritage – while it may have been iSport’s first year in existence, the people behind the team were the brains behind Formula 3000 outfits Den Bla Avis and Petrobras, among others – that differentiates them from the rest of the field, and which may be the momentum behind their growth in the future.
Racing Engineering was the biggest surprise in GP2 in 2005 – the team stepped up from Spanish Formula 3 with the ambition of not embarrassing themselves and the hope that they could be the top Spanish team, and finished the year with two wins along with two further podium finishes, to the clear delight of team principal Alfonso de Orleans Borbon: “What a year! We started off with more work than we could handle, and we finished with an incredible championship.”
The team were at a disadvantage from the start of the season, having only ever raced at two of the circuits previously and therefore having little data to work with, and as such leaned heavily for information on lead driver Neel Jani, who at least had been to some of the tracks during his time in Formula Renault V6.
Ironically Racing Engineering’s first race win came in Hungary, a country where none of the team had ever set foot previously. “I am ecstatic,” de Orleans beamed after the race, “because Neel has the talent to have won more races - what we just needed was for the team to go through all the points that allowed us to get to where we are.
“I think we now have what the drivers need to allow them to win, although obviously the final step is up to the driver - if he's got the talent he'll get the win, and Neel has shown he’s got the talent.”
The team suffered low moments during the season – Borja Garcia’s brain fade at the Nurburgring and Neel’s shocking accident in Spa being the most memorable – but overall they did far better than avoiding embarrassment, and have marked themselves out as a team of the future.
Hitech Piquet Sports
Hitech Piquet came to GP2 with high expectations in 2005 – if they didn’t admit they were targeting the title it was clear that the mood within the team was that they were ready to move up a category and take on the big teams at their own game. That this didn’t happen is self evident, but nonetheless there were clear signs in the second half of the year that the team was on a rise.
In retrospect it’s clear that the team struggled with the level of expectation surrounding the team, most of it down to Nelson Piquet Jr’s 2004 British Formula 3 title. “It hasn’t gone as I expected,” he stated, matter of fact, at the end of the season. “I thought the testing results we had would mean we’d be close to the front, but that isn’t what happened because the team wasn’t prepared, and there were a lot of mistakes. It hasn’t been even close to an ideal year for us.”
With a largely inexperienced teammate Nelson had to provide the lion’s share of the driving feedback, and a lack of resources led to a lack of results, which fed the frustration the driver felt as the season slipped away from him. The nadir for the team was Nelson’s retirement as he made his way to the grid in Silverstone, where he was due to start from the front row, a race the Brazilian saw as his best opportunity for a race win.
In Turkey the team announced a split between Hitech and Piquet Sports, with the former moving back to concentrate on their Formula 3 outfit and the latter staying to concentrate on GP2. The atmosphere was notably clearer afterwards, and Nelson took a podium at the next race in Monza before finally claimed a fine win in the wet at Spa.
“Now we’ve got to try to make the team a competitive, race winning team, and try to win the championship next year,” Piquet observed in Bahrain. “It’s going to be very tough, but it’s not impossible I think. I have one more thing than the other drivers I need to worry about - making the team strong - but it’s also something more that I’m learning that the others are not.”
The vastly experienced DAMS team stepped up to GP2 in 2005 after spending two years in Formula Renault V6, reuniting with their 2003 champion Jose Maria Lopez. The pairing of team and driver brought back some of the old spark, with a win and two second place finishes giving them a decent return on their efforts over the season.
The biggest problem for DAMS was that they lost their way mid-season with the car, and spent too long chasing a number of blind alleys on set up, losing valuable time before finding their way back.
Lopez saw his season this way: “It’s been good, and sometimes bad, but there have been too many ups and downs. At the beginning it was pretty good – we had good results in Imola, we had good results in Barcelona – but later trying to find a good car we would have problems. We lost the car in the middle of the championship, and we didn’t get any points or even sometimes we didn’t finish, so it was pretty difficult.
“But after the break in Turkey we analysed everything and decided to come back to the old set ups, and in Turkey we were quite strong and could fight for pole position, and without the pitstop problems we had we would have been able to score two podiums easily. Okay, we had the problems, but we were able to score some points at least.”
The other problem the team had was that most of the workload was thrust upon Lopez, who scored all of the team’s points, owing to the relative inexperience of his teammate Fairuz Fauzy. Given his experience it’s hard to remember Lopez is only 22, and it was a heavy load for the amiable Argentinean to wear.
Nonetheless he was relatively pleased with his year, and his trust in the team is absolute: “I want to come back here, because GP2 is very competitive and I’m still very young, to go into next year with my head high and then to win the championship.”
Despite high hopes, a big investment in the team and a solid driver line up headed by a former Formula One driver Coloni’s season flattered to deceive in 2005, with an initially strong start to the season falling away as problems struck and the year failed to go to plan.
The team’s charismatic leader Paolo Coloni was confident in Gimmi Bruni’s ability to win the title at the start of the season, saying of the driver: “I think he can win, yes, because he's the best driver, and we have done a really good job, so the only problem is reliability.”
It was a prescient call - Gimmi rewarded his boss with a win in Barcelona and was in the hunt for the title during the early stages of the season, but reliability woes hit the team hard and Bruni lost a further two wins due to problems with his car. The frustrations of these problems created a rift between driver and team, and he left Coloni at Monza in a war of words.
A simple look at the championship table shows that Coloni did not score a point after Silverstone, although this discounts a number of problems that debilitated the team – as recently as Bahrain new driver Ferdinando Monfardini retired from a potential podium finish with a mechanical gremlin.
Nonetheless Coloni believes they team will push forward hunt next year: “We are making a big investment for next year, and we will be back – this is a strong series, and we know what we need to do.”
Sometimes over the course of 2005 it seemed as though BCN were cursed; the team and their popular drivers Hiroki Yoshimoto and Ernesto Viso seemed to have a never-ending stream of bad luck, from which they were unable to find a way out.
“It’s been very up and down,” Ernesto noted at the end of the season. “I think we started in a very good position during testing, but as soon as the season started we got many, many things that mostly I think were bad luck, some of them the team’s fault and some of them my fault. If you see the table I’m not in a very good position, but I proved that I can be quick because I set the fastest lap a couple of times, I’ve been in the front every time the car allowed me, and for me that was the important thing.”
After the Venezuelan’s two points for fastest lap in the first race, which he didn’t finish, it took BCN eight races to trouble the scorers again, a string of results that is never going to going to help. However, towards the end of the season there were clear signs of improvement, with the team taking 19 of their 35 points in the final two weekends despite Yoshi’s horrific accident in Spa.
And there could have been even more points but for a wrong call on tyres in race two in Istanbul. BCN held first and second in a rain affected rain but failed to bring their drivers in to change tyres, costing the team an almost certain one-two finish. “Turkey was a highlight,” Yoshi later noted, “because I was on pole and it started to rain on the grid for ten minutes and stopped – by looking at the race it was probably the best race, although for me it turned into the worst ever!”
Despite the problems the team claimed four podiums, three of them in the final two weekends, pointing the way towards further improvement in the future.
DPR was the little team that could of the GP2 field in 2005 – despite having a less than extensive recent history in open wheel racing the plucky team in sky blue claimed two wins on their way to tenth in the championship, more than most of their more illustrious competitors.
The start of the season was disappointing for DPR, with a number of results slipping through their fingers due to a combination of bad luck, lack of experience and driver error. “I missed some really good results at the start of the season,” Olivier Pla noted, “Barcelona and Monaco especially, and we missed them because of the set up of the car.
“It was the same in Magny Cours, Nurburgring, and even Silverstone in the beginning, although we found a good car and I won there and in Hockenheim. And in Hungary it was the first time there for me and for the team, so it wasn’t too bad considering. But I should have won the race there, too.”
Despite the problems DPR outperformed their modest ambitions at the start of the season, and their home win at Silverstone was an obvious highlight for the team. With a big investment on the way for 2006 the little team is looking for even bigger things in the new year.
Being last at the launch shoot out meant that Durango could only improve, and despite a number of problems throughout the year they did just that – Clivio Piccione won possibly the most exciting race of the year at the Nurburgring against strong competition, and Gimmi Bruni claimed pole position in Spa, two of the highlights in an up and down season for the likeable Italian team.
It was said that Durango had one of the best set up cars on the grid but were let down by a relatively inexperienced line up, but it is certain that car problems and driver errors combined to create a season that did not live up to expectation. But moments of promise still shone through – Ferdinando Monfardini had some strong performances in qualifying and did well in Monza, while Clivio was in line for a podium in Monaco and Silverstone before accidents put paid to his chances.
Uncertainty over the driver line up later in the season didn’t really help the team, although Gimmi undoubtedly brought a wealth of experience to a team that needed it. In general this season has been a learning year for the team and their drivers, as Clivio acknowledged at the end of the season: “You learn more from mistakes than having good laps all the time, so I think I’ve improved a lot this year.
“It’s been tough – we’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but we got a win and a fastest lap. I think we had a good car at every race we went to, but we didn’t maximise it in qualifying, which is a bit of a shame. It’s generally been tough, but I learnt a lot this year, and my aim is to bring all of this to next year, start on a high and then finish on a high.”
Cast as the plucky underdogs at the start of the season, Campos lived up the reputation – while they may not have had the success of the other outfits they were certainly one of the most close knit teams, building a bond between drivers and team at least the equal of their more fancied rivals, and what they may have lacked in experience they more than made up for in spirit and exuberance.
Campos struggled to achieve much in the way of results – a combination of budgetary constraints and incredibly strong competition was never going to do them any favours in that respect – but nonetheless the team never dropped their heads and gave up, and their enthusiasm and commitment was and example to everyone.
The team’s financial restrictions meant that the relatively inexperienced driver line up of Sergio Hernandez and Juan Cruz Alvarez had a tough fight on their hands, but it was a battle they were always willing to enter. Both drivers spent a number of races in potential points scoring positions, but both suffered more than their fair share of bad luck.
Juan Cruz in particular should be singled out in this respect. The gregarious Argentine lost six or seven podiums through no fault of his own, and anyone who watched him race could see that he is a potential star of the future. His strong results in Spa were scarce recompense for a string of extraordinary drives all year.
As ever, he still managed to put a shine on a season that would have crushed lesser drivers: “I have been fighting for podiums, I was fighting with the best drivers and the best teams, and maybe not with a perfect car. For me, for the experience, it was a good year, because I’ve learnt how to fight with a car that was not always the best.”
If Bahrain was shaping up to be the most important weekend of Heikki Kovalainen and Nico Rosberg’s young lives – and it was – then they weren’t about to admit they were thinking about it as they arrived at the circuit.
“I think all of the weekends have been important, so I don’t think about it that way,” Kovalainen noted. “I’ve got no pressure at the moment, so I can relax and just fight, and I am attacking now instead of defending, so that’s good.”
“I’ve had my first real week off since April where I could just concentrate on my training,” Rosberg reflected, “and the whole week was just dedicated to getting my energy back, and I spent some time with my girlfriend and things like that.”
The truth, as ever, was more prosaic: Kovalainen had two weeks to reflect on losing the lead in the championship for the first time in the season, and pressure had been on him all year to win for Renault. Rosberg had a cold for a week or so, and felt dreadful but was unable to admit it for fear of showing a chink in his armour. Both men have an easy humour with most in the paddock, but the pressure meant it was forced, a deliberate sign to signal they were unaffected, honest.
For both men the best moment of the unfolding weekend was when they could get into their cars: after two weeks away they could get back to what they do best, to where they feel most relaxed – the car.
Qualifying was run over two sessions, and Kovalainen stated his intentions by topping the times in the first, just ahead of Rosberg and Scott Speed. However, Rosberg struck back in the second to claim pole, where he would be surrounded by Kovalainen and his teammate Nicolas Lapierre. “I’m really pleased,” Rosberg smiled after the session, “two points already, and every point counts.”
With the race on that afternoon there was little time to wait, and that suited the title rivals down to the ground. The pair ran side by side down to the first corner, but Rosberg had the better line and let Kovalainen into turn one. Unfortunately three cars were left stranded on the grid and the safety car was called, which led to the decisive moment of the race – the safety car was in one lap later, and Kovalainen followed it into the pits.
It was a risky strategy but one which had worked in the past, and Kovalainen was out in twentieth but with clear air in front of him, allowing him to run at his own pace in the opening stint of the race.
Rosberg now led Lapierre and teammate Alex Premat, and the trio weren’t about to wait for the now departed Finn. Kovalainen ran as fast as possible, and was up to eighth on lap eleven, when Rosberg’s engineer clearly decided not to risk anything for any longer and brought his driver in, followed closely by the other leaders.
The stop was good enough – Rosberg re-emerged just in front of Kovalainen, and pulled away almost immediately. ART had obviously won the battle for speed, as Premat caught and dispatched the Finn five laps later, just ahead of Ferdinando Monfardini, who was now driving the race of his life for Coloni with Vilander having to return for the final race in Italia 3000, the latest twist in that particular saga.
Heartbreakingly it didn’t last – his car stopped by the side of the road and all of his good work was undone. At the front Rosberg was pulling away with ease, and with his teammate protecting him from Kovalainen and also setting the fastest lap of the race all he had to do to win the championship was finish the race.
Rosberg finished the race, and he was the first ever GP2 champion.
“There’s worse things than that, for sure!” he laughed after his team had finally put him back on the ground after carrying him along the paddock. “It’s an unbelievably happy moment for me, to have won the GP2 championship. It’s unreal – when you look at the list of names in the series you think ‘shit, this is going to be a difficult one to win’. To have had a difficult start and then come out on top at the end is just amazing.”
“It’s very disappointing of course,” Kovalainen noted dolefully, “I’ve got five victories, and they’ve all been very good moments, so from that point of view there are some positive things to think about. Although at the moment I don’t feel too great about them.”
He wouldn’t feel too great about the final race of the season either, after spinning out in the scrap for the first corner. The BCN pair of Ernesto Viso and Hiroki Yoshimoto started from the front row, and Viso won the battle for turn one before stretching out a lead.
Rosberg and Premat were slicing through the field like a hot knife through butter, and it was only a matter of time before they arrived on the tail of the Venezuelan. Viso wasn’t about to give up the lead without a fight, and Rosberg followed him for lap after lap. His advantage was too great though, and the German finally sliced past at turn one and was gone.
Premat needed second place to guarantee third in the championship, but Viso had other ideas – his laps were inch perfect, one after the other, and while the gaggle of cars from sixth to thirteenth split by mere seconds and were passing and re-passing each other at will, Premat could not find a way past to claim the position.
And so it finished – Rosberg was the first man to take two wins in a weekend, Viso held onto a strong second place ahead of Premat, and Scott Speed took two points for fastest lap after starting in the pits to claim third in the championship by just half a point.
After so much sun all season it seemed as if some rain was overdue, and there was nowhere it was more likely to appear than Spa-Francorchamps. The famous Belgian circuit is famous for its unusual micro climate, and fans of wet races were in for a treat – every session was rain affected. Despite having permanent pits for the first time this year, the teams were set for a gloomy weekend.
The Coloni-Bruni spat seemed to have come to a head at last, with the driver appearing for Durango despite the initial arrival of Ferdinando Monfardini in the paddock. A war of words rumbled on between the two teams, while everyone else ignored them and got on with setting up their cars for the tricky conditions.
The sodden free practice session ended with the top five drivers in the championship topping the timesheets albeit with Nico Rosberg one second faster than Heikki Kovalainen on the Finn’s debut at the circuit. The only other man who looked fast was Nelson Piquet, although he was unable to show his hand as the session was red flagged after a number of accidents around the track.
Bruni was behind both Coloni drivers in the session, but in an even wetter qualifying he was on track at the right time to win the lottery – he took pole position on the almost undriveable circuit in a session that was red flagged three times for crashes by Nicolas Lapierre, Rosberg and Giorgio Pantano.
Rosberg looked to have given away a big advantage to his title rival – his crash at Eau Rouge meant the German would line up eleventh on the grid, while a more conservative approach meant Kovalainen was fourth and in a good position to claim a solid result. Rosberg was phlegmatic about the result: “I have everything to win and nothing to lose, so I’ll just go for it tomorrow.”
The race started on a dry track under an ominous looking sky, with Alex Premat taking the lead at La Source before a safety car period for some stalled cars. A second safety car period for a spinning Yoshimoto split the grid when most drivers took the opportunity to pit but Kovalainen, Carroll and Lopez took the risk of staying out and waiting to see if the drizzle than had now started was going to become a full downpour.
Two further safety cars, for crashes by Bruni and Giorgio Mondini, gave the trio the opportunity to come in without penalty, but the rain was never quite strong enough to switch to new wet tyres. Behind them Piquet was driving like a man possessed, tearing through the field and eventually getting past Carroll, showing that the risky strategy had failed. The trio came in under normal racing conditions with just six laps remaining.
Piquet had the race under control and won his first GP2 race convincingly, ahead of an impressive Ernesto Viso who managed to keep Rosberg at bay for his best result of the season. Kovalainen, looking for anything he could find to resuscitate his stuttering challenge, spun off on the last lap as he tried to overtake Mathias Lauda for eight position and the race two pole position that went with it.
The Finn was as understated as ever afterwards, noting “It was not really the best day, but what can you do?” Rosberg by comparison was ecstatic to finally take the lead in the championship, laughing as he said “it’s about time!”
Race two was delayed by more than an hour to allow repairs to be effected to the armco after a heavy crash in soaking conditions in an earlier support race, with the rain barely improving as the lights went out. Carroll tore off from pole to dominate the race, finishing well ahead of Borja Garcia and Scott Speed.
Viso was repeating his fine performance from the day before, overtaking drivers seemingly at will to put himself up to third place before crashing heavily at the top of Eau Rouge on lap nine and ending his race. Further back Bruni got loose at the bottom of the hill and tapped Yoshimoto into a spin, with the Japanese driver impacting the wall solidly before bouncing back into the middle of the track.
A pursuing Neel Jani had nowhere to go - his team heard him say "there's a car ahead" before a long, long scream and then silence. The sickening crash left both drivers with nothing but scrap around them, but thankfully both men eventually emerged from their cars, albeit with the Swiss driver temporarily blinded by the impact and needing assistance to get back to the medical centre.
With debris all across the track there was no other option but to red flag the race, and eventually the results were amended to reflect those at the beginning of lap nine, two before the red flag results from lap eleven. It meant that Viso, who was disappointed to have crashed out after a strong race was able to claim another trophy for his cabinet from Speed, who had collected third at the chastened podium ceremony.
Racing Engineering and BCN reclaimed what they could from their destroyed cars before setting about acquiring new ones for the final round in Bahrain, while further down the paddock Rosberg was celebrating his three point lead in the championship with his team, who had just claimed the initial team’s championship title.
His team boss Frederic Vasseur was delighted, passing champagne around as he stated “at the beginning of the season and we wanted to win one race, and when we won we thought ‘okay, now we have to win another one, and another one, and another one.’” Further up the paddock a tight lipped Kovalainen slipped out of the paddock with a haunted look on his face - for the first time this year the pressure was on him, and it came at the worst possible time in the season.
The first sign that anything was awry was Clivio Piccione standing outside of his pits, occasionally peering out the back with a look on his face that said he wasn’t go in there for the rest of the day. “It looks like I'm going to have a new teammate” he stated dryly as Paolo Coloni stormed out, his face like thunder as he headed off towards the GP2 bus.
Gimmi Bruni had had enough – the relationship between the two had deteriorated to mutual antipathy, and it transpired that he had signed a contract to drive with Durango despite Ferdinando Monfardini, who was seen sobbing behind the truck, having a contract for the season.
“This is why I don't deal with the Italian teams,” one driver's manager stated. “You don’t get this sort of thing with the British teams, but it never surprises you when the Italians implode.” Everyone else in the paddock spent the day occasionally stopping to find out the latest gossip, smile to themselves and then get on with their jobs, waiting for it to all blow over.
With Coloni refusing to release Bruni, and Bruni refusing to drive for Coloni, it looked as though a stalemate had been reached, but at the end of the day Toni Vilander, a Finn driving in Italia 3000, was brought in to mouth the platitudes, smile behind his massive sunglasses, and then sit and sweat in his new car as the mechanics poured foam around him for his new seat.
The storm had one last blast for the team – at the Gonzalo Rodriguez Awards, held that night at the Monza Sporting Club, Bruni won an award for most entertaining driver – as he hadn’t attended the ceremony Coloni sent someone up to accept the award to the sound of laughter from all around the room, one of the highlights of another terrific night in honour of the sadly missed Rodriguez.
But racing was on the agenda again the next morning, and both free practice and qualifying went as follows: Kovalainen, Rosberg, Speed, with the first two split by almost nothing but both well ahead of the third placed man. The gap to the rest of the field was so big that Rosberg, half joking, stated: “it’s lucky for him I was there with him, otherwise it would have looked suspicious!”
Arden had found a solution to their comparative lack of pace at last, and with the top two so far ahead the omens looked good for a strong battle between the pair with little interference from anyone else, and race one did not disappoint anyone in that respect.
Kovalainen led Rosberg and Speed through the first turn but back on the grid there was mayhem as a number of cars came together, prompting the safety car to come out on track. Speed was one of many drivers in the pits next time by, but his race was run as racing recommenced and he was unable to come back on track.
Rosberg was caught out by Alex Premat at the restart, and the teammates came together a few corners later with the Frenchman’s car flying off track, destroying itself against the barrier before bouncing to a rest. The German was quickly past an opportunistic Nelson Piquet and setting a string of fastest laps to get himself back on his title rival’s tail.
The pitstops came and went without incident, and the order was unchanged at the front of the field. Rosberg threw everything he had at Kovalainen, whose car was looking increasingly lose as the race progressed, but the Finn was somehow able to absorb the almost race long pressure to score a vital win by just one second from Rosberg, with Piquet scoring a lonely podium finish in third.
Rosberg managed to take the two points for fastest lap, so the gap was unchanged in the title race, but the win clearly energised his rival: “To beat Nico in a straight fight was a good feeling - I was clearly struggling a little bit with the rear grip so he was a bit quicker, but I never gave up, which I’m very happy about.”
Further back Monfardini, feeling unloved as a result of the Bruni affair, soaked up the pressure to finish eighth and secure pole position for race two at his home circuit. An overnight shower knocked out the start lights, so the Italian had to lead the grid away the next morning in a rolling start.
Neel Jani, also starting on the front row, knew he only had one chance of a race win at the high speed circuit: “I need to take Monfardini at the first turn, and then hope I can build up a big enough gap while he holds everyone else up for a while – if that happens, I can win.”
It was as though he’d read the script for the race beforehand – at the start the Swiss driver outdragged his rival to the first chicane, took the lead and then set off at a great rate while the Italian had his mirrors full as he tried to hold on for a podium finish.
Further back the title rivals were showing great pace, but Rosberg looked to be having an easier time with the traffic than Kovalainen. With drivers colliding or running off all over the circuit the pair were slicing through the field, with Rosberg shortly on the tail of Monfardini after Pantano slid wide to give him the position after pressuring his countryman for a number of laps.
But time was running out – Rosberg got by Monfardini with three laps remaining and a three second gap up to Jani. He was more than a second quicker each time around but the race was one lap too short for the German to take a momentous victory – he crossed the line four tenths behind Jani, with Kovalainen six seconds back in fifth.
Second place and fastest lap were, however, good enough for Rosberg to pull the title difference back to just four points, and the battle promised to be intense a few days later in Spa.
“I love this circuit” Ernesto Viso raved, back in the Istanbul paddock fresh from running a number of laps around the brand new track. “It goes up and down, up and down, around the blind corners and into the wide straights. I can't wait to get to the race.” On track he had been clowned around, running on two wheels on his quad bike for a laugh, but into the corners he would look around intently, feeling its shape and direction.
The heat that everyone was expecting didn’t arrive at full strength, with the clouds out on the horizon a hint at what was the come, holding out on the margins as though watching and waiting for their moment.
Free practice came and went in a blur of motion, with Scott Speed dominating a session that saw a part of the field spinning harmlessly as they pushed their tyres to the edge of adhesion. With so much run off no damage was done, and with half an hour on such a new track, with no rubber in place on the track, it was always going to run that way.
This was rectified by qualifying, and the Formula One cars had laid down a good base of rubber which saw the times tumble. Nico Rosberg added to his growing collection of poles, running two seconds faster than in the morning, and when a light dusting of rain came Speed had to make do with second place.
A few of the drivers got to see how much the new race meant to the local fans when they went to an autograph signing session on the far side of the circuit. Local favourite Can Artam was the star attraction, turning into an autograph signing machine as he churned out cards for his fans, while Juan Cruz Alvarez concentrated on the grid girls behind them on stage, much to the amusement of Neel Jani.
Afterwards the event organisers herded everyone back to the bikes, and sure that Artam was onboard they tore off through the throng. Unfortunately for the others they were dropped almost immediately, with Alvarez driving a quad bike bearing his cousin, Jani and two journalists. It took just a minute to become completely lost as they fought to find any stretch of road not covered in pedestrians.
With the race looming there was nothing else for it – Alvarez saw a gap in the fence and went for it, finding a road outside the circuit and driving like a man possessed back to the main entrance, he tore through the standing traffic, barely slowing as a guard jumped out of the way, and then flooring it all the way back to the paddock and relative sanity.
At the start of the race Rosberg was able to pull away from Speed to develop a useful lead, but when Jani was pushed into the pit entrance wall the safety car was out and almost everyone was in for a stop next time around. Rosberg and Speed didn’t come in, and they traded fastest laps after the restart to establish a gap to the rest of the field.
The battle was fierce, but contact from Speed was enough to mortally wound the German’s car. Speed had a good lead over Lopez, and when Gimmi Bruni collected Nicolas Lapierre on the front straight another safety car period was inevitable. The lead pair came in to make their stops, but the gamble didn’t work and they re-emerged in seventh and eighth.
Alex Premat and Giorgio Pantano were the new leaders, and they set a blistering pace from the restart, setting fastest lap after fastest lap with no reply from Nelson Piquet behind them. The competition was intense between the pair, and the only other man on their pace was Borja Garcia, who fought his way through the field to muscle his way onto his first podium of the year to the delight of his team.
“It was an amazing race!” Pantano gushed afterwards. “I was there to win this race, and even on the last lap I was trying to overtake him at the first turn but I got a bit loose for a few seconds, and I didn’t have a chance at the last corners. I was quick, the car was working very well, and I think that everyone enjoyed this race.”
Kovalainen hadn’t been a factor in race one, but he planned to make amends the next day as the clouds blanketed the sky above the circuit in grey. Rain seemed only a matter of time, and the clouds burst just before the start, necessitating a fifteen minute delay as the grid changed their set ups from dry to wet.
Hiroki Yoshimoto and Adam Carroll shared the front row after both drivers suffered from bad luck in the first race, which was compounded for Ulsterman when he stalled on the warm up lap, relegating him to the back of the grid. The Japanese driver suffered too when a slow start let Speed take the lead, but Yoshimoto was soon all over his rear and it seemed only a matter of time before he was back in front as the rain eased.
The conditions were showing the differences in the drivers as some fell off the track with others overtaking at will – Ernesto Viso was soon up to third place with Carroll up to a remarkable seventh from the back of the field.
The decisive moment of the race was soon to come – after Pantano changed onto slicks, Arden pulled Kovalainen in on the right lap after seeing a dry line emerging, and his next few laps showed dry tyres were the ones to have. Speed was shortly in, but BCN missed their window of opportunity and their drivers, leading the race but the only drivers on wets, were sitting ducks.
Kovalainen was taking eight seconds a lap out of the pair and on lap eighteen he caught and passed them as though they were the backmarkers he originally thought they were. The pair were dropping like stones to finish tenth and twelfth, while Kovalainen led an astonishingly fast Carroll and Rosberg, who had been quiet in the race but was at the right place at the right time to claim a podium finish.
The points difference in the championship was unchanged after Istanbul, and the pressure was now on both drivers to outperform each other in Monza in two weeks time.
The most intense heat of the year greeted the teams as they arrived in Hungary, and the conditions were to prove the most intense test yet seen for everyone on track. With temperatures inside the hospitality unit nudging fifty degrees extreme measures were needed – two sprinklers were set up on the roof of the GP2 bus to ease the load, Ernesto Viso was permanently shadowed by a hose pipe, and no one at Hitech Piquet was seen wearing a shirt in the paddock.
Years of uneventful Formula One races at the communist era circuit suggested a humdrum series of sessions was in the offing, but the track brought out the best in the cars, with Giorgio Pantano showing that experience counted by topping the timesheets in free practice, narrowly missing the best time of the slowest cars in the senior category.
Qualifying pushed the times even higher, with Nico Rosberg claiming pole ahead of Neel Jani and Heikki Kovalainen with a time that beat the unfortunate Chanoch Nissany in the third Minardi. Rosberg’s time was a second faster than his nearest rival, and Kovalainen had no answer to his title rival’s pace: “I don't think there's any reason to panic,” he noted; “we just need to look at it carefully.” The pressure was showing in what the Finn didn’t say.
Ryan Sharp was replaced by the incoming Giorgio Mondini, and the Italo-Swiss driver showed how much of a difference experience made even at this stage – he was more than five seconds off the pace in free practice, and even though he improved in qualifying he could only look at the timesheets afterwards and sigh “I was really happy with the feeling I got from the car, but I was losing a lot in the corners.”
ART’s progress since the mid season test was nothing less than remarkable, and Rosberg in particular had made the most of his opportunities to cut the lead in the title fight down to the bone. As ever in racing when one team does well tongues were wagging about the reasons for their improvement, and the one second gap at the front set them into overdrive.
Which is why there were more than a few wry smiles in the paddock when the team were penalised after qualifying. A protest to the race stewards over the positioning of ART’s steering rack brought a penalty – both of their drivers had their times disallowed, and the pair were thrown to the back of the grid for race one.
Hours of Gallic gesticulation after the decision made no difference other than to keep the series organisers at the still sweltering track long into the night; Neel Jani was on his first GP2 pole, and Nicolas Todt worried aloud that, despite his team’s hard work over the season, everyone would point to the penalty and say “hah – I knew they were cheating.”
The next morning the biggest smile in the paddock was on the face of Kovalainen – after the unrelenting pressure of the last few races he knew this was his opportunity to regain the momentum, and there was no question that he felt a win in race one was his for the taking. Further along the paddock and Rosberg would have been forgiven for being upset, but he looked more relaxed than he ever, and if it was an act then it was worthy of an Oscar.
With the steering rack back in the prescribed position he and his teammate pulled up at the rear of the grid for the first race moments before Jani, racing for a team populated by people who had never been to the country let alone the circuit before the weekend, dominating the start and setting the early running ahead of Giorgio Pantano and Scott Speed.
With the ART drivers running as fast as ever Speed was the first man into the pits, albeit stopping briefly in the wrong one, the battle at the front was intense with Pantano catching the leader and breathing down his collar for a number of laps. The pitstop lost second for the Italian to Kovalainen, and after the stops had shaken out he was all over the tail of Jani and looking to claim the top spot to reverse the recent pressure from Rosberg in the title run.
A safety car period for a Jose Maria Lopez crash closed up the gap and helped Premat and Rosberg to move onto the tail of Pantano in third, and the final eight laps spelt unrelenting pressure at the front, but Jani managed to hold on for a win by just 0.4 seconds from Kovalainen, sweating for apparently the first time in the season after narrowly failing to claim the win he thought had been his right.
The weekend was to get worse in race two for the Finn, and substantially better for ART. Polesitter Xandi Negrao stalled on the warm up and was relegated to the pitlane for the start, won commandingly by Sunday specialist Olivier Pla. Following the Frenchman was Viso who, despite showing strong pace the day before was dropping backwards in front of Premat before eventually driving into the pits and retirement.
The second Lopez safety car period in as many days reduced the gap to almost nothing, and although Pla looked to have the measure of his countryman at the restart it was amounted to nothing when he fell by the wayside with a broken car a number of laps later.
The ART resurrection was complete, and despite starting race one from the back of the grid Premat lead his teammate home for another ART one-two, while Kovalainen was yet again unable to find a way by Jani, following him across the line in fifth place.
Rosberg, continuing a theme of at least one podium per weekend since Monaco, was delighted despite his dramas, noting that it had been “really good damage limitation this weekend – he only made one point on us.” The he in question – Kovalainen – could only shake his head and wonder at how such a perfect opportunity to move ahead had slipped through his fingers in the furnace that was Budapest.
Hockenheim came and went in a blur, an extended moment of madness that passed by in the eye of the hurricane that was July. With four race weekends in a month it was clear that July was always going to be telling in the fight for the title, and the German round showed that momentum was moving towards the local driver.
Ryan Sharp arrived in Germany convinced in his ability to beat his teammate, but suffering in the comparison resultswise. Sharp was unwavering in his belief in his ability, but Olivier Pla’s win in race two in Silverstone had been a blow – not finishing is never a good result, particularly when you teammate finishes first, but to have this happen at his home race was the final blow – he had one more weekend to turn his entire career around.
The German round brought home to everyone in the paddock how popular the series had already become – Ernesto Viso and Gimmi Bruni were asked to take a busload of fans around the circuit, explaining their approach to every corner as they arrived, and they enjoyed themselves so much that they volunteered to take a second group on the same tour.
And later the now usual signing session took place with the German speaking drivers starring – Mathias Lauda, Neel Jani, Nico Rosberg and ring in Heikki Kovalainen were in place as one thousand fans turned up, the majority showing their credentials as race fans by arriving with photos of the drivers from their former careers as Euroseries and Formula 3000 drivers rather than appearing with Ferrari caps, as most of the fans at the other tracks did.
After the session Rosberg was to get a taste of the future – being the third driver for the Williams Formula One outfit meant that he had a second signing immediately after the one for his principal job, and he continued to sign hundreds of autographs more without complain before returning to focus on the job at hand.
The skies were pregnant with the threat of rain as the drivers took to the track for free practice, and while Sharp was trying to remake a name for himself, Scott Speed was pushing to step up from his perennial third place – he was four tenths quicker than anyone and looking like he was headed for a dominant performance, but in qualifying Nico Rosberg struck back, claiming pole by half a second over the American, with title rival Heikki Kovalainen stuck back in ninth position just before the skies finally broke.
Rosberg tried to downplay his performance: “Driving around I didn’t think it was going to be so special – it was okay, but not that special” – but it was clear that already that he was eying up a home win to add to his growing reputation in the paddock.
“We’ve got to make a few changes in the set up,” he noted, “because there are always things you can improve on the car, especially for the race. If it rains? I was really good in karting and back in the day, and I think it should be okay now, especially after topping the wet test in Paul Ricard.”
The invocation of the almost holy test session for the ART team should have been a warning to everyone else on the grid – the faster of the two drivers in the most improved team was at the front of the grid for race one, and the others were going to have to be at the top of their game to get close.
Local hero Haddaway, a school friend of Alfonso de Orleans in the paddock as a special guest of Racing Engineering, turned up on the grid to see his first GP2 race, and he proved to be even more popular with the photographers than the drivers; he waved and smiled with ease, clearly comfortable with his Hasselhof levels of popularity in his adopted homeland.
The drivers were happy with the distraction – concentration before a race is at a premium, and anything that gives them a level of time to themselves is to be savoured. And with Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone making an appearance on the grid, the drivers had no one but their own engineers to deal with as they pulled on their helmets ahead of race one.
It was enough for Rosberg – he tore away from the grid when the lights went out, pulling out a huge gap over his teammate Alex Premat as he went. As the race developed Speed pushed hard on the rear wing of the Frenchman, but the season had shown that the American was unlikely to overtake and Premat withstood the pressure. All of which meant that Rosberg in front could stretch his lead to almost fifteen seconds, which behind them Nelson Piquet caught up quickly.
On lap 34 the Brazilian, by now on the tail of his rival and unwilling to wait, barged his way through when Speed ran slightly wide into turn one, and with so few laps remaining Premat, Piquet and Speed ran nose to tail across the line behind home hero Rosberg, the first one-two for any of the teams over the season, with Kovalainen a distant fifth.
“We’ve just really improved the car race by race, and it’s really at a stage now where I must say it’s working really well,” Rosberg stated, ominously, after the race, “and that just makes it fun for me to drive.”
Borja Garcia was on the front row for race two, the man his boss described as by saying “at the moment he learns the track in practice, sets up the car in qualifying, and qualifies in race one”, but he dropped like a stone at the start as poleman Olivier Pla walked away for his second win of the season.
Behind him Giorgio Pantano and Scott Speed filled the podium ahead of Rosberg, who tried too hard to overtake the pair and spun before finishing on their tails as Kovalainen scraped a fifth place just ahead of his teammate. It meant that the gap at the top of the table was shrunk to just six points, while further back Pla’s win was too much for his teammate – Sharp scraped twelfth and thirteenth over the weekend, and advised Dave Price that he wouldn’t be back in Budapest.