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.