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.”