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.”
The mid-season test at Circuit Paul Ricard in June was to end up being the turning point of the season. But as the drivers arrived, they were unaware of how important the next few days would be in the grander scheme of things. They were all in high spirits, all the better for a few weeks off, and all of them looking forward to a kart race which series organisers had prepared at the track for the evening before the test was due to start.
The race was set up with a lottery grid, with each driver being paired up with another GP2 series pilot that wasn't his regular team-mate. Following two five-minute practice/qualifying sessions, the race started in earnest: a one hour endurance run, with team-mates swapping driving duties every ten minutes.
Some driver change-overs went smoothly. Others did not. But it didn't really matter. The whole evening was taken as one big piece of fun, with some of the drivers, who found themselves in open air, often dropping back to indulge in some closer combat. Those who watched on laughed and joked at the manoeuvres their counterparts were attempting, with the ever animated (despite his jet-lag) Scott Speed bouncing around at the sight of Viso's somewhat … individual line through the chicane.
But when the hour was up, it was the pairing of Nelson Piquet Jr and Clivio Piccione who crossed the line first followed by the kart shared by Nicolas Lapierre and Ernesto Viso, with the team of Jose Maria Lopez and Ferdinando Monfardini in third.
A great evening was had by all, apart from maybe the karts themselves, who looked more than a little bruised after an hour of some of what was probably the hardest racing they'd seen in quite a while.
The next day, however, and they got down to work when the drivers hit the main track in their own cars to find an advantage to take with them to Magny Cours. Tuesday was cold and slightly damp, but ART were hard at work to allow Nico Rosberg to set the fastest time of the day before a huge rainstorm hit the track and hour before the test was set to finish.
The storm gave the teams the opportunity to do something they had not yet done – drive with their rain tyres – and all drivers hit the track with vigour to see how they handled. Their opinion was almost unanimous – the drivers loved the feel and grip of the wet weather rubber, and looked forward to using them again.
That opportunity wasn’t going to present itself on the next day, however, as the teams arrived at the track that morning to glorious sunshine. With temperatures soaring throughout the day Rosberg set the fastest lap in the morning session once again and, although Giorgio Pantano was fastest in the afternoon he was still almost four tenths off his rival’s time.
There were a lot of puzzled faces along the pitlane as they other teams tried to work out how ART had managed to find so much pace, and there was going to be a lot more scratching of heads when they arrived in Magny Cours a few weeks later…
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.