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.
It’s rare that the outside world imposes itself on a racing paddock, a self-contained world away from everything past the circuit gates, but the bombing attack in London was the main topic of discussion as the various teams arrived at Silverstone. A number of people were late arrivals as a result – Alfonso de Orleans was stuck in the underground, others were delayed by airport closures – and it was a brief reminder of mortality in a realm that generally prefers not to think about the subject.
With added security popping up all around the paddock the teams universally decided to show their respect by affixing black bands to the cars before trying to take their minds off current events by throwing themselves into their work. It was a relief to get to free practice and a bit of normality. Adam Carroll struck the first blow in the session, topping the times ahead of Scott Speed and Gimmi Bruni at his home circuit.
Qualifying was an echo from the past when Nico Rosberg just pipped Nelson Piquet to pole, a reflection of qualifying in Formula One twenty years previous. When journalists discovered the previous result they obviously tried to link the two sessions for the sake of a story, but for Piquet his result was more important for what it meant now than for what it was being compared with.
“1985 - that was just when I was born. For me, my car was better here, and I think we can still improve. I think it all works out when you feel good in the car, you're concentrated and do a good lap - it helps. And I know the circuit quite well, so I am very happy.”
It was clear the session was a relief for the Brazilian after the start of the season had not gone as planned, and that the team that bore his name wasn’t working as well as he hoped. Notoriously shy around people he doesn’t know, Piquet struggled to open up to journalists about his season, but at last he felt that a win was around the corner, a result that he could point to without needing to explain why things hadn’t worked out.
But it wasn’t to be – Piquet’s car broke down on the way to the grid, and he was left stranded by the side of the track as the rest of the field filed past on their warm up lap, his already dark eyes turning black as he turned in on himself, a defence against people asking him about yet more disappointment in a season of plenty.
It was an early present for Rosberg, and he grabbed it with both hands at the start as, with no one on the grid next to him, he tore away into an unassailable lead. Heikki Kovalainen, third on the grid, indicated his intentions by pointing his car towards the empty space, but he simply didn’t have the pace and was left behind by the man who had rapidly become his principal rival in the championship.
Premat made an early stop and the strategy worked out – the lead pair came in together and when they reappeared on track the Frenchman was third but the race was over, and Rosberg had his second win of the series, and ART had their first double podium of the year. “I’m really happy,” he smiled afterwards. “We were able to open a safe gap for the pitstop, that worked out well and we came out in front, and then I just controlled the gap to him until the end.”
Sunday was to throw up a complete surprise in the unlikely shape of Olivier Pla. The ginger Frenchman had had a wretched season so far, spinning so often that some people in the paddock were betting on which lap he would spin out of each race. He scraped into eighth place on Saturday, but no one outside of DPR was prepared to entertain him holding onto the front of the grid at the start of the race, let alone at the finish.
Pla is an extremely intense driver, and would often be found sitting at the end of his team's truck scowling with concentration, working himself up into a fury as he replayed the previous race in his head. The more bad luck he had the more severe his intensity would be, but it’s this same intensity that allows him to race – if he could channel it in the right direction it was clear that good results would come.
And so it proved in race two – after a strong getaway at the start he got to the first corner first and kept him there, despite race-long pressure from Piccione and then Speed, finishing half a second ahead of the American to claim a momentous win which made the demons evaporate.
Behind them Kovalainen and Rosberg ran like a train through the field, fighting each other all the way, and finished the race on Speed’s rear wing, but the top three in the championship were unable to steal Pla’s moment in the sun.
“It was a lot of fucking pressure!” he laughed in the paddock after the podium celebrations. “Before the safety car it was okay – I could manage the gap to Piccione, but after the safety car I began to move the car and had a big degradation of my tyres, so that’s the reason why I came back a bit to the others. I was so happy for every mechanic, for everybody on the team – this win is for all of them. It is fantastic!”
After the bad luck he’d suffered earlier in the year no one in the paddock begrudged him his moment of infectious joy – everyone knew what it felt like to have lost in the past, and after a long and emotional weekend it felt good to have something to smile about at last.
Heikki Kovalainen arrived at Magny Cours with people opening discussing when, not whether, he was going to win the championship. With a nine point lead over Scott Speed, and seventeen points back to Nico Rosberg, it was assumed that the series was going the way of their senior partner, and that two Renault drivers would be collecting trophies for winning the two most senior open wheel championships at the end of the year.
But what they hadn’t factored into the equation was the astonishing improvement ART made at the mid-season test in Paul Ricard, and the effect it would have on the championship starting at the team’s home circuit.
Dark, menacing clouds hung gloomily over the region as the teams pushed their cars up to the pitlane for the opening session, but the rain stayed away as Rosberg, Kovalainen and Speed filled the top three spots on the timesheets. It was, however, local hero Alex Premat who went on to claim pole position later in the day, ahead of Jose Maria Lopez, Rosberg and Kovalainen under a newly brilliant blue sky.
The marked improvement at ART didn’t go unnoticed, and all along the paddock it was the talk of the weekend. “Yeah, everyone asked how our level is so high now!” Premat laughed qualifying. “We looked at everything – the springs, the heights, just everything – and it looks like it is working for us.”
For the first time GP2 was able to open their paddock to the spectators, stating that anyone with a race ticket was welcome to come in at the end of the day. The paddock was well away from the Formula One version, a carpark and some roads laying between the two, but nonetheless thousands of fans turned the invitation into a roaring success over the two days.
Too much of a success, perhaps, as the invitation was not able to be offered at any other track.
The overcast skies were back the next day in time for race one, with the local race fans cheering loudly for Premat on pole. It wasn’t enough help, as he had no reply to a fast starting Kovalainen, and the Finn was through and into the lead at the first corner, with Lopez behind the pair. Rosberg was pushing hard too, and was up to third when Lopez pulled in for his stop on lap eleven, with both ART drivers looking unstoppable.
Five laps later Olivier Pla suffered his second and final spin of the day at the last turn, beaching his car on the high kerbs and necessitating the entrance on track of the safety car. All of the leaders took the opportunity to come into the pits – all, that is, for ART, who somehow failed to call their drivers in and threw away a certain victory for the team.
The pair easily led the pack away at the restart, with Kovalainen, Lopez and Nicolas Lapierre following the ART drivers across the start line on lap 19. Both men were able to open up a gap to their pursuers, but it was never going to be enough to allow them to make a stop and get back on track before Kovalainen came through.
And so it proved – Premat came in from the lead on lap 32 and came out twelfth, and Rosberg did the same with two laps to go and slotting in at seventh despite a number of fast laps. Kovalainen had been gifted a win and celebrated with a number of donuts on his slow down lap before spraying the champagne all over his teammate, who was thrilled to be on the podium in his former home town of Magny Cours.
Kovalainen couldn’t understand his rival’s choice, but he certainly enjoyed the results of it: “Mick [Cook] said we’re going to pit now, and I was very surprised to see the other guys didn’t follow me! It was even more surprising when I returned to the track and was just behind them - I thought ‘this is going to be great’ because for sure they were not going to be able to pull away by half a minute in any circumstances.”
Premat was as surprised as everyone: “We did a really bad strategy when the safety car came on the track – the engineers were speak, speak, speak with themselves and didn’t speak with the drivers - not with Nico, not with me. I am really disappointed, because we lost the race on that lap.”
Nonetheless the pace the pair showed proved that the potential was still there to a strong result in race two, and with Rosberg on the front row he was the obvious candidate to claim it.
Polesitter Clivio Piccione was slow off the line at the start, and Rosberg was immediately past him and trailing Hiroki Yoshimoto, who tried in vain to hold on as the German pulled away at a rate of one second a lap.
Further back Kovalainen had a fantastic fight with Adam Carroll for fourth place, the pair putting wheels on the dirt and pushing each other until the Finn finally put his nose in front at the hairpin. A lap later Premat tried the same move but succeeded only in hitting Carroll, before coming together with Lopez at the same place a few laps later in a move that removed both drivers from the race.
Rosberg won easily, slowing up but still finishing 25 seconds ahead of Yoshimoto, who claimed his first podium with a drive strong enough to repel Kovalainen despite near constant pressure in the closing stages of the race. The German was overjoyed with his first win in the series, claiming “it was not my best win, but it’s the most important one so far.”