The teams arrived in the sweltering heat of the Nurburgring region just days after leaving Monaco, with a number of them setting up their cars in the Monegasque carpark before heading immediately to Germany. The sun was so extreme that only the South American drivers spent much time outside, baking themselves to a deep brown as they watched for the right line through the serpentine section of track after the front straight, while the Europeans searched in vain for some shade to hide in.
Without the pressure of the money men of Monaco most of the drivers got back to an increasing variety of practical jokes, most incorporating large quantities of water, without having to worry about hitting someone who would get upset, while the teams were able to concentrate on working on the cars without a number of non-team bodies getting in the way as they worked. With few distractions in the region, everyone just focused on their jobs, which after the excesses of the previous week was how most of them wanted it.
Gimmi Bruni was determined to get back on a winning footing, starting as he meant to go on by taking the top time in practice ahead of Heikki Kovalainen. It didn’t quite go to plan for the Italian in qualifying, however – he spun at the last corner on his second set of tyres and was unable to top the times.
Pantano was the man on pole, ahead of Nico Rosberg and Heikki Kovalainen, but a later decision that the latter pair, along with Alex Premat, had set their best times deleted after being judged to have set them with yellow flags on track for a spin by Olivier Pla. The move meant Bruni was given a reprieve, pushing him up to the front row along side his former Formula One rival. Rosberg was dropped down to eleventh on the grid, with Kovalainen lining up even further back in seventeenth position.
On the grid the next day the extreme temperatures in the area played havoc with the cars – a number of cars were unable to get off the line and had to be removed to the pitlane, and after a few false starts Pantano and Bruni led the field through the first corner and beyond.
Unfortunately for Adam Carroll, Borja Garcia appeared not to be wearing his glasses, having comprehensively misjudged the approach to turn one and clattering solidly into the sidepod of the Super Nova driver and blocking the corner completely. As a result five drivers were out on the first lap and a safety car was out on track immediately.
Kovalainen could hardly believe his luck – he managed to avoid the carnage and moved up ten spots to seventh by the end of the first lap, when he came in for his pitstop to give himself some breathing space around him.
Pantano was slow at the front of the pack and chewing through his tyres at a great rate, although his pursuers were unable to find a way by the Italian. After his pitstop he was behind Kovalainen, who had been set a strong pace further back and on his own, and when Bruni picked up a slow puncture after his stop any chance he had of a race win was gone – Kovalainen had won a tremendous race from seventeenth on the grid, going someway towards making up for the points he lost in Monaco, ahead of Pantano and Rosberg, who recovered from an early stall to claim a podium finish.
After the race Garcia was handed a one race ban for causing the turn one mayhem, with his Racing Engineering team declining to appeal the decision on the sound reason that it was entirely his fault.
Off track there was little to distract the drivers, although the usual signing session had been arranged, this time with Carroll, Rosberg and Mathias Lauda starring. In a sea of red hats being thrust in front of them someone picked up the promotional Bridgestone hat, which Rosberg promptly signed.
Carroll mentioned to the German that he’d been told not to hand out the hats, to which Rosberg shot back: “Oh, so it's like that now - you win one race in Monaco and now you can tell us all what we can and can't do, huh?” It was the first appearance of what was to become the regular Rosberg wit, and he sat back pleased with himself as Lauda laughed helplessly.
The next morning’s race two had been changed – with more time available to the series as a result of a change in the Formula One qualifying programme, the race was now able to run longer, and was the first GP2 race shown live on national television in Europe. It was a good introduction to the new fans – one journalist stated, in awe, that it was the best race he had ever seen in his life.
Bruni was able to easily pull away as the lights went out to lead the pack through turn one. Viso didn’t make it, having pulled a Garcia move on Lauda on the first lap, and with another four drivers taking themselves out next time around Neel Jani was now up to second, albeit a long way behind Bruni.
Bruni pulled out a huge lead, but when a problem with his gearbox stopped the Italian Jani took on the lead, the head of a snake compromised of Piquet, Rosberg, Clivio Piccione, Pantano and Carroll, all of whom were separated by just 1.5 seconds, all of them bucking as they looked for grip in a sea of opposite lock.
Jani had flatspotted his tyre, but was never going to concede the lead willingly – he drove cleanly but firmly to deny every attempt at a pass as those behind him overtook each other at almost every corner. It couldn’t last though, and Piccione barged by just before the Swiss driver retired with terminal suspension damage. Carroll and Piquet were the other drivers in the right place as the chequered flag dropped to round out the podium in the most incredible race of the series to date.
The Monaco weekend was a change from the normal, with the teams setting up in a multi-storey carpark built into the cliff underneath the Palais Princier rather than under tarpaulins built off the side of their trucks, and the views out over harbour, the casino and the sea made a nice change from the usual view of another teams pit or an industrial garbage bin.
Arriving a day early due to the traditional Friday rest day, which wasn’t going to apply to GP2, the drivers found they had less to do and more time to do it, with most deciding to spend time shopping or zipping around on their scooters rather than stopping in the fleece inducing cold of the carpark.
For those who were affiliated with a Formula One team – Kovalainen, Carroll, Rosberg and Speed – the weekend was a good send, a chance to see and be seen in the most popular paddock of the season, to promote themselves in front of the most high powered audience of their young lives. For the others it was a chance to try and find a way up, or at the very least to work on their tans in a glamourous location.
It was also the home race for a number of drivers – Piquet, Rosberg and Piccione – and they were more pumped up than usual to perform well in front of their friends and family. As was Yoshimoto, who had brought a number of sponsors over from Japan at great expense to show them what he was capable of.
Added to which it was Monaco, the one race you can tell even non-motorsport fans you’ve won and have them understand its importance.
Because of the number of series running on the weekend free practice and qualifying were run just half an hour apart on the so-called rest day, meaning that any damage in the first session would severely hamper your qualifying. Olivier Pla was the fastest in a very sedate practice.
Qualifying, as expected, was more eventful – the combination of so little track time and the challenge of threading the needle through the unforgiving walls surrounding the famous circuit meant that an action-packed session was guaranteed.
The session opened dramatically when Can Artam struck Piquet on the approach to Mirabeau in an incident that was much discussed in the paddock. Olivier Pla and Ernesto Viso also found the barriers, albeit under their own power, and the resultant stoppages in the session meant that Ryan Sharp and Xandi Negrao were unable to set a time within 107% of pole.
When these repairs were added to Yoshimoto and Jose Maria Lopez being unable to set a time at all due to mechanical maladies, the increased workload created the usual gloom among mechanics visiting the tight circuit when it came time to get back to work on their cars.
Kovalainen managed to find a clear line through the mayhem to record the fastest lap of the session and claim pole position, ahead of Gimmi Bruni and Carroll. “The plan was to take it easy at first in practice and to find the way,” the Finn noted after the session, “and on the second set of tyres to push. I was lucky it was exactly the right time to go out."
The Monaco lifestyle was having its effect on most of paddock. When Paolo Coloni went out at the end of the day he somehow managed to have his jacket stolen, along with his wallet and mobile phone, but all were replaced by the next day when he escorted Mathias Lauda to a number of sponsor events on yachts all around the harbour.
It’s hard to stay upset when you have a glass of champagne in your hand and are watching a spectacular sunset over the sea in front of you, and he was far from alone in enjoying the hospitality of the principality.
But when the racing started these thoughts were long gone. Kovalainen made the most of pole and was easily the first man through St Devote, with Bruni and Carroll unable to keep up with the Finn’s early pace. Viso was out after an early stop – he left the pitlane with the red lights at the exit still showing and was black flagged next time by, completing an appalling weekend for BCN.
Carroll was the first of the leaders into the pits, two laps before Kovalainen who was held up when his left front tyre stuck – his mechanic kept pulling at the errant wheel before finally moving to the other side of the car, but the damage was done and he was a lap down on new leader Bruni.
The Italian pushed to make as big a gap as possible before stopping, but was unable to quite do it – he was out just behind Carroll after making his pitstop. Despite the Ulsterman tapping a barrier and bending his steering column slightly the tight confines of the circuit meant that Bruni was unable to find a way past, and Carroll took the win by just six tenths from Bruni and an impressively strong Rosberg.
Carroll stood proudly on the podium, his red face betraying the physical nature of the fight he had just won. He was the first double winner of the new series, and for a man whose career has always been underfinanced being able to call himself a Monaco winner was going to do him no harm at all.