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.