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.