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.
July bled into August as everyone in the GP2 paddock was given a rare week away from the action, a chance to rest and rebuild themselves before the heat of Istanbul scurried around the corner to greet them, to introduce them to a circuit they had never seen, a track which until they arrived was nothing but data and numbers on a computer screen.
The reality of the place only made them more eager to begin their work. A long, undulating circuit, a fresh strip of asphalt winding up and down and around hills of orangey brown dirt, a collection of blind corners and fast sweeping bends connected by long straights stretching up and over the rises in the terrain sat still beneath them, waiting for what was to come.
"This circuit is awesome," raved Ernesto Viso, fresh from a few tours on a quad bike with his engineer. On track he had clowned around, running up on two wheels and laughing at those following him before looking intently at each corner, to see and feel its shape and direction. "It goes up and down, up and down, around the blind corners and into the wide straights. I can't wait to get to the race."
It was a feeling shared throughout the paddock, and a fleet of scooters, quads and flat bed vehicles ran around and around the circuit all Wednesday and Thursday, another chance to feel the place before the coming storm of qualifying.
The heat they were expecting didn't hit them as hard as they feared while sweltering in the unbearable pressure cooker ambience of Budapest, with the clouds in Turkey sitting out on the periphery watching and waiting, an anthracite threat just on the margins of their vision staying out of the way until everyone knew what they were doing.
Practice came and went in its usual blur, qualifying too, and Nico Rosberg edging Scott Speed for pole in the first race while Heikki Kovalainen was thirteenth on the grid, low even by his usual standards. Arden had spent most of the year struggling with qualifying but being strong in the races, and if Kovalainen wondered how much easier his life would be if they sorted out the qualifying problem, he wasn't going to admit as much.
The Finn held a five point lead in the Championship before the first ever race on the new Turkish circuit, and still held it when the cars were wheeled back into the paddock, the sky bleached white and shining. Rosberg had stormed off into the lead but was unable to shake Speed off his tail, who ran into the white and red car, bending its exhaust and damaging the gearbox, while Kovalainen was unable to push up past tenth place at the end of the race.
But in between these two facts lived the best race yet seen in a series full of best races. Any circuit with blind corners and hills is going to cause accidents when races are run at full tilt, and the wide expanses of asphault meant that overtaking was inevitable too.
It meant that Hiroki Yoshimoto could run fast, furious with himself for a mistake that pushed him back to nineteenth after overtaking a number of cars, and overtake them all again to claim eighth on the day and pole for the next. It meant that Speed and Jose Maria Lopez could lose out with their pit strategies and still climb back into the points, and that Nelson Piquet could be fast but still have to give up a podium to Borja Garcia, the most improved driver in the second half of the year, because there was just no way to hold him back.
And it meant that Alex Premat and Giorgio Pantano, at the front of the pack after the second safety car returned home when Gimmi Bruni and Nicolas Lapierre's cars were removed from the front straight, a three cars into one corner incident prompted by over-enthusiasm and brain fade by the Italian, could streak away at the restart and push each other at every corner for fifteen laps and be separated by just three tenths in the Frenchman's favour at race end.
The Championship rivals were content after the race, relieved not to have lost anything to each other, and went about their usual routines of interviews and debriefs and dinner, never crossing paths as though their worlds didn't intercross, as though they were two equal magnets which push rather than pull. And as day gave way to night via a blazing sunset, all fire orange and red and purple, the clouds streaked across it like a lattice, like the fans outside the fences pushing to get a little closer, to see.
And the next morning they covered the wide open sky from horizon to horizon. Rain was inevitable, and it started just minutes before the start, prompting a change in strategy for everyone on the grid.
The front row was Yoshimoto's alone at the start after Adam Carroll stalled on the warm up and was dropped to last place, but a slow start meant that Speed was able to power by into the lead running up the hill. The Japanese driver was on his tail almost immediately and looked clearly faster, pushing past at one stage but cannily ceding the position after spying a yellow flag, and was through on a rapidly drying track just as Speed was called into the pits.
Kovalainen was the impetus for the move, having stopped two laps earlier from the middle of the field, and his lap times showed that it was the perfect time to have done so. The Finn now led everyone who had came in for tyres, and it was simply a case of waiting for them to all follow suit and trail back on track after he had passed the pitlane.
One by one they came in, all bar the faded red BCN cars of Yoshimoto and Ernesto Viso, which now circulated half a minute up the road from Kovalainen and ran nose to tail. Someone in the team had decided that the time difference was enough to hold on, but with them now giving away eight or more seconds a lap it was too late to bring them in, and they were stranded.
The Finn blew past the BCN pair effortlessly, originally thinking they were backmarkers before being told by his team that it was for the lead of the race, and was eight seconds ahead of a steaming Carroll, now returned to his second place after an astonishing drive from the back, and rival Rosberg, who hadn't featured much in the race but was in the right place when it counted.
There were more clouds lingering over the paddock in Monza, this time emotional rather than physical. Clivio Piccione was skulking around the front of the Durango pits on Thursday, looking unwilling to go out the back as an invisible wire of electricity seemed to suspend itself between there and the Coloni truck.
"It looks like I'm going to have a new teammate" he stated dryly, a sardonic half smile playing itself on his face and the rumour mill was off and running as Bruni, on the insistence of his manager, had quit Coloni and was said to have signed to drive with Durango despite Ferdinando Monfardini, sobbing quietly out back after being told of the deal, having a contract for the full season.
"This is why I don't deal with the Italian teams," one driver's manager stated. "You never get this sort of thing happening with the British teams, and it never surprises you when the Italians implode." Everyone else would stop to hear the latest gossip, smile to themselves and then get on with their jobs, waiting for it to all blow over.
Paolo Coloni was livid, his usual smiling fa?ade a storm of emotions as he walked back and forth along the paddock, talking to team bosses and series organisers and then back again. It was clear that he was not going to give in and let Bruni go without a fight, but with the driver refusing to drive for him from wherever he was hiding it was a stalemate.
Until, in the afternoon, news filtered out that Toni Vilander, a Finn who drives in the Italian Formula 3000 Championship and was in Monza as a guest of close friend Kimi Raikkonen, was going to be given the drive. The Finn smiled behind his enormous sunglasses, mouthed the expected words of thanks, and sat in the sweltering heat as the Coloni mechanics poured hot foam around him in the cockpit rather than getting dressed for the Gonzalo Rodriguez awards, to be held later that evening.
The awards are usually held at the end of a long season, but with a change in the Formula One calendar there was still plenty of racing ahead of them. The teams were grateful for a night off, a chance to let down their hair together before getting back to it. That it was all for charity, and that charity was in the name of a man who half of the teams knew from when he raced among them a few years ago before his untimely death, was the icing on the cake.
It was a great night - they watched videos of the season, cheering and laughing at the various moments thrown up in a season of great racing, they ate food and applauded politely when expected. Kovalainen won an award, Rosberg won another one, Carroll won two but would have swapped them for results, and ironically Bruni won one for most entertaining driver, which brought a laugh from the audience and a dark cloud over Coloni's head as he sent someone up to collect it in Bruni's absence.
Back on track the next day the Championship battle recommenced in earnest, with Kovalainen and Rosberg fighting tooth and nail for any track advantage in practice and qualifying, both won by the former just a tenth ahead of the latter, with Speed slotting into third to keep the Championship symmetry in place.
With ART generally the fastest team in the paddock of late, Arden had clearly found a solution for Monza to get onto their pace, and the pair were more than a second faster than Speed. Rosberg might not have been happy about it - "lucky for him I was there with him, otherwise it would have looked suspicious!" he half joked after qualifying - but for the title fight the script couldn't have been better. What everyone now wanted was a straight fight between the two, and race one wasn't going to disappoint.
Kovalainen streaked away as the lights went out before slowing again for a full course yellow, the result of mayhem further back in the grid as a number of drivers came together in a scrap for the same piece of road. One lap later and they were off again, with the Finn pushing hard once again and his rival fighting back after being jumped at the restart by teammate Premat.
A few corners later and the ART drivers came together violently, with Premat being launched towards the barriers on the right of the track directly at a group of marshals. The quick reflexes of one of them saved his friend from certain injury as he pulled her back behind the rail, which the Frenchman struck before pinballing back across the track with a badly broken car.
Rosberg shook off the impact and set off after his rival, cutting his lead to almost nothing and setting up a grand fight for the win. After the pitstops the order was still in Kovalainen's favour, but Rosberg stuck to him like glue and pushed everywhere to try and force a mistake from his adversary.
The pair ran almost side by side for most of the race, and despite Kovalainen's car looking more than a handful and sliding all around the track he managed to hold off Rosberg to win by a second as the chequered flag fell, was more than twelve seconds ahead of third placed Nelson Piquet and half a minute up the road from teammate Lapierre in fourth. Rosberg squeaked the fastest lap, and the two points that came with it, and the pair remained just nine points apart in the title chase.
With the Championship momentum moving towards Rosberg previously, it was clear that he was going to have to up his game in race two push it back in his favour. Race two started behind the safety car the next day, the lights malfunctioning after an overnight storm, with front row starter Neel Jani outdragging pole man Monfardini, who was having his best weekend ever for Durango despite the political row surrounding him, at the start proper, and pressed on to build up a gap he knew he'd need later in the race.
Further back Rosberg was dispatching drivers with ease, clearing Piquet and Lapierre as though they weren't there and moving up, while Kovalainen struggled to keep up and eventually ran off track. The pair became embroiled in big battles - Giorgio Pantano and Monfardini for Rosberg, with Kovalainen stuck behind Carroll, Piccione and Juan Cruz Alvarez - with both eventually finding their way through into second and fifth respectively.
With every point being priceless at this stage of the season the pair were also fighting each other, and Scott Speed, for fastest lap in the closing stages of the race. Rosberg was all over the back of Jani for the lead on the final lap but ran out of time, finishing less that 0.5 seconds behind, while his rival crossed the line almost alongside Monfardini but was unable to get by in time, while Speed won the fastest lap contest before losing the two points to Rosberg for changing his tyres during the race.
Just days later and almost everyone arrived at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, the gap in the Championship now down to six points in Kovalainen's favour. Rosberg, however, was in an immensely positive frame of mind, joking and laughing with anyone as he rode a strange, tiny wheeled bicycle around the paddock for laughs, while Kovalainen kept out of sight and planned his strategy with his team.
He had held a speed advantage over Rosberg in Monza, the theory went, but how was he going to maintain it at a track he had never raced on, in the wet, without the benefit of his Monza settings? In free practice he was second only to Rosberg, but the gap was a whole second in a heavily rain affected session.
Qualifying suffered from even worse weather and Bruni, finally in at Durango as he and Coloni sniped at each other to anyone who would listen, had the winning ticket in the lottery by being on track when conditions were slightly better than awful to take pole. Kovalainen managed to come home fourth, but Rosberg suffered a sizeable accident at the top of Eau Rouge, damaging his car and pushing him down to eleventh on the grid.
Premat stormed past his fellow front rower Bruni at the start on a dry track but under a menacing-looking sky, with Kovalainen slotting in behind the pair and hoping to stay out of trouble - as long as he stayed ahead of Rosberg he would be fine, and starting seven spots ahead should have guaranteed it.
Rosberg needed to think differently if he was going to get ahead, and the first of four safety car periods gave him the opportunity to do just that. The race was almost immediately yellow flagged for two stalled cars on the grid, giving the teams almost a whole lap to think about strategy. The rain had started once again, but it wasn't yet heavy enough to go for wet tyres - the question was whether to risk dry tyres and hope the rain doesn't worsen, or wait and hope for a downpour.
ART lost a certain win due to poor pitstop strategy in Magny Cours, and weren't going to make the same mistake again - they brought Premat and Rosberg in, far enough apart on track to make two stops in succession, with Piquet, Viso and Speed joining them. Kovalainen, now second, did what most race teams at the front of the race do - stay conservative and hope that it works.
Bruni hit the wall solidly after losing the car through Eau Rouge a few laps later while trying to stay ahead of Kovalainen and with the rain increasing the only reason he didn't come in under yellow was that he would lose out to the early stoppers. What was needed was enough rain to bring them all in for wet tyres, handing him an advantage over those who had stopped, but Speed was the only one back for wet tyres out of the bunch.
The gamble failed - Kovalainen had to come in towards the end of the race, along with Lopez and Carroll on the same strategy, and the win was gone. Behind them for most of the race, Piquet was now leading after an incredible drive in tricky conditions despite a regrettable collision with Premat at La Source, from which the Frenchman was unable to continue, and took his first win for the year ahead of Viso and Rosberg, who had squabbled between themselves for position before Rosberg's engineer told him to think of the Championship.
Kovalainen, livid with how things had worked out, tried to push past Mathias Lauda for eighth on the final lap to at least take Sunday's pole and salvage something, but the move didn't work - he spun helplessly off track and back to fifteenth for the following day, a disaster that may yet be the deciding moment of the Championship. Rosberg was handed the lead, the first new leader since Kovalainen won the opening round in Imola.
Race two was delayed after damage was inflicted upon the armco in a support race, during which the heavy rain just got heavier, filling the Belgian air with a fine mist that refused to disperse. When they finally got underway Carroll streaked away from pole position, with the rest of the pack held up behind a slow Xandi Negrao. One by one they struggled past - first Garcia then Speed, Rosberg, Viso and Alvarez - but it was too late and the race was effectively over.
Viso was on a charge, looking for his second podium just a day after his first, and fought his way up to third before, on lap nine, touching the white line at Eau Rouge and catapulting into the barriers. Just thirty seconds later Yoshimoto, looking to get past a slow Bruni at the same spot, was baulked by the Italian and thrown into the barriers before bouncing back into the middle of the track, right in front of a storming Jani.
There was nowhere for the Swiss driver to go - his team heard him say "there's a car ahead" before a long, long scream and then silence. The pair came together in a chilling collision, tearing both cars to shreds as they hit the barrier opposite Viso's stricken car and hurling debris all across the circuit.
Yoshimoto was unscathed, but Jani briefly lost his vision and stumbled around blindly until the marshals caught him, taking him back to an ambulance and a visit to hospital. He returned a few hours later to collect his belonging, battered and bruised but putting on a brave face after an accident that reminded everyone present of the other, darker, face racing can unexpectedly put on.
The race was red flagged before being cancelled completely, with the results moved back before the accidents. Carroll won from Garcia and a reinstated Viso, with Rosberg picking up a point for fifth with the scores being halved as the race didn't reach three quarter distance.
It was enough - Kovalainen failed to score anything after finishing ninth, and Rosberg was the first man to break a hundred points in the season with 102, three ahead of his rival.
After finding out that everyone had survived the carnage Rosberg was ebullient, laughing and joking with his team as they celebrated winning the team Championship while Kovalainen answered questions from journalists with a few words hissed through tight lips - for the first time this year the pressure was on him, and it was the worst possible time for that to happen.
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.
“I love this circuit” Ernesto Viso raved, back in the Istanbul paddock fresh from running a number of laps around the brand new track. “It goes up and down, up and down, around the blind corners and into the wide straights. I can't wait to get to the race.” On track he had been clowned around, running on two wheels on his quad bike for a laugh, but into the corners he would look around intently, feeling its shape and direction.
The heat that everyone was expecting didn’t arrive at full strength, with the clouds out on the horizon a hint at what was the come, holding out on the margins as though watching and waiting for their moment.
Free practice came and went in a blur of motion, with Scott Speed dominating a session that saw a part of the field spinning harmlessly as they pushed their tyres to the edge of adhesion. With so much run off no damage was done, and with half an hour on such a new track, with no rubber in place on the track, it was always going to run that way.
This was rectified by qualifying, and the Formula One cars had laid down a good base of rubber which saw the times tumble. Nico Rosberg added to his growing collection of poles, running two seconds faster than in the morning, and when a light dusting of rain came Speed had to make do with second place.
A few of the drivers got to see how much the new race meant to the local fans when they went to an autograph signing session on the far side of the circuit. Local favourite Can Artam was the star attraction, turning into an autograph signing machine as he churned out cards for his fans, while Juan Cruz Alvarez concentrated on the grid girls behind them on stage, much to the amusement of Neel Jani.
Afterwards the event organisers herded everyone back to the bikes, and sure that Artam was onboard they tore off through the throng. Unfortunately for the others they were dropped almost immediately, with Alvarez driving a quad bike bearing his cousin, Jani and two journalists. It took just a minute to become completely lost as they fought to find any stretch of road not covered in pedestrians.
With the race looming there was nothing else for it – Alvarez saw a gap in the fence and went for it, finding a road outside the circuit and driving like a man possessed back to the main entrance, he tore through the standing traffic, barely slowing as a guard jumped out of the way, and then flooring it all the way back to the paddock and relative sanity.
At the start of the race Rosberg was able to pull away from Speed to develop a useful lead, but when Jani was pushed into the pit entrance wall the safety car was out and almost everyone was in for a stop next time around. Rosberg and Speed didn’t come in, and they traded fastest laps after the restart to establish a gap to the rest of the field.
The battle was fierce, but contact from Speed was enough to mortally wound the German’s car. Speed had a good lead over Lopez, and when Gimmi Bruni collected Nicolas Lapierre on the front straight another safety car period was inevitable. The lead pair came in to make their stops, but the gamble didn’t work and they re-emerged in seventh and eighth.
Alex Premat and Giorgio Pantano were the new leaders, and they set a blistering pace from the restart, setting fastest lap after fastest lap with no reply from Nelson Piquet behind them. The competition was intense between the pair, and the only other man on their pace was Borja Garcia, who fought his way through the field to muscle his way onto his first podium of the year to the delight of his team.
“It was an amazing race!” Pantano gushed afterwards. “I was there to win this race, and even on the last lap I was trying to overtake him at the first turn but I got a bit loose for a few seconds, and I didn’t have a chance at the last corners. I was quick, the car was working very well, and I think that everyone enjoyed this race.”
Kovalainen hadn’t been a factor in race one, but he planned to make amends the next day as the clouds blanketed the sky above the circuit in grey. Rain seemed only a matter of time, and the clouds burst just before the start, necessitating a fifteen minute delay as the grid changed their set ups from dry to wet.
Hiroki Yoshimoto and Adam Carroll shared the front row after both drivers suffered from bad luck in the first race, which was compounded for Ulsterman when he stalled on the warm up lap, relegating him to the back of the grid. The Japanese driver suffered too when a slow start let Speed take the lead, but Yoshimoto was soon all over his rear and it seemed only a matter of time before he was back in front as the rain eased.
The conditions were showing the differences in the drivers as some fell off the track with others overtaking at will – Ernesto Viso was soon up to third place with Carroll up to a remarkable seventh from the back of the field.
The decisive moment of the race was soon to come – after Pantano changed onto slicks, Arden pulled Kovalainen in on the right lap after seeing a dry line emerging, and his next few laps showed dry tyres were the ones to have. Speed was shortly in, but BCN missed their window of opportunity and their drivers, leading the race but the only drivers on wets, were sitting ducks.
Kovalainen was taking eight seconds a lap out of the pair and on lap eighteen he caught and passed them as though they were the backmarkers he originally thought they were. The pair were dropping like stones to finish tenth and twelfth, while Kovalainen led an astonishingly fast Carroll and Rosberg, who had been quiet in the race but was at the right place at the right time to claim a podium finish.
The points difference in the championship was unchanged after Istanbul, and the pressure was now on both drivers to outperform each other in Monza in two weeks time.
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.
Hockenheim came and went in a blur, an extended moment of madness that passed by in the eye of the hurricane that was July. With four race weekends in a month it was clear that July was always going to be telling in the fight for the title, and the German round showed that momentum was moving towards the local driver.
Ryan Sharp arrived in Germany convinced in his ability to beat his teammate, but suffering in the comparison resultswise. Sharp was unwavering in his belief in his ability, but Olivier Pla’s win in race two in Silverstone had been a blow – not finishing is never a good result, particularly when you teammate finishes first, but to have this happen at his home race was the final blow – he had one more weekend to turn his entire career around.
The German round brought home to everyone in the paddock how popular the series had already become – Ernesto Viso and Gimmi Bruni were asked to take a busload of fans around the circuit, explaining their approach to every corner as they arrived, and they enjoyed themselves so much that they volunteered to take a second group on the same tour.
And later the now usual signing session took place with the German speaking drivers starring – Mathias Lauda, Neel Jani, Nico Rosberg and ring in Heikki Kovalainen were in place as one thousand fans turned up, the majority showing their credentials as race fans by arriving with photos of the drivers from their former careers as Euroseries and Formula 3000 drivers rather than appearing with Ferrari caps, as most of the fans at the other tracks did.
After the session Rosberg was to get a taste of the future – being the third driver for the Williams Formula One outfit meant that he had a second signing immediately after the one for his principal job, and he continued to sign hundreds of autographs more without complain before returning to focus on the job at hand.
The skies were pregnant with the threat of rain as the drivers took to the track for free practice, and while Sharp was trying to remake a name for himself, Scott Speed was pushing to step up from his perennial third place – he was four tenths quicker than anyone and looking like he was headed for a dominant performance, but in qualifying Nico Rosberg struck back, claiming pole by half a second over the American, with title rival Heikki Kovalainen stuck back in ninth position just before the skies finally broke.
Rosberg tried to downplay his performance: “Driving around I didn’t think it was going to be so special – it was okay, but not that special” – but it was clear that already that he was eying up a home win to add to his growing reputation in the paddock.
“We’ve got to make a few changes in the set up,” he noted, “because there are always things you can improve on the car, especially for the race. If it rains? I was really good in karting and back in the day, and I think it should be okay now, especially after topping the wet test in Paul Ricard.”
The invocation of the almost holy test session for the ART team should have been a warning to everyone else on the grid – the faster of the two drivers in the most improved team was at the front of the grid for race one, and the others were going to have to be at the top of their game to get close.
Local hero Haddaway, a school friend of Alfonso de Orleans in the paddock as a special guest of Racing Engineering, turned up on the grid to see his first GP2 race, and he proved to be even more popular with the photographers than the drivers; he waved and smiled with ease, clearly comfortable with his Hasselhof levels of popularity in his adopted homeland.
The drivers were happy with the distraction – concentration before a race is at a premium, and anything that gives them a level of time to themselves is to be savoured. And with Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone making an appearance on the grid, the drivers had no one but their own engineers to deal with as they pulled on their helmets ahead of race one.
It was enough for Rosberg – he tore away from the grid when the lights went out, pulling out a huge gap over his teammate Alex Premat as he went. As the race developed Speed pushed hard on the rear wing of the Frenchman, but the season had shown that the American was unlikely to overtake and Premat withstood the pressure. All of which meant that Rosberg in front could stretch his lead to almost fifteen seconds, which behind them Nelson Piquet caught up quickly.
On lap 34 the Brazilian, by now on the tail of his rival and unwilling to wait, barged his way through when Speed ran slightly wide into turn one, and with so few laps remaining Premat, Piquet and Speed ran nose to tail across the line behind home hero Rosberg, the first one-two for any of the teams over the season, with Kovalainen a distant fifth.
“We’ve just really improved the car race by race, and it’s really at a stage now where I must say it’s working really well,” Rosberg stated, ominously, after the race, “and that just makes it fun for me to drive.”
Borja Garcia was on the front row for race two, the man his boss described as by saying “at the moment he learns the track in practice, sets up the car in qualifying, and qualifies in race one”, but he dropped like a stone at the start as poleman Olivier Pla walked away for his second win of the season.
Behind him Giorgio Pantano and Scott Speed filled the podium ahead of Rosberg, who tried too hard to overtake the pair and spun before finishing on their tails as Kovalainen scraped a fifth place just ahead of his teammate. It meant that the gap at the top of the table was shrunk to just six points, while further back Pla’s win was too much for his teammate – Sharp scraped twelfth and thirteenth over the weekend, and advised Dave Price that he wouldn’t be back in Budapest.
They came from all over Europe, from England and Italy and Spain and from just slightly up the hill to the public garage that was to be their home from home for the next few days. They came by plane and truck and car and motor scooter, they came in and plugged into their teams, they shook hands and smiled and looked at their cars and wondered what the next few days would hold for them.
They came to Monaco, and Monaco is different to anywhere they had raced before, even if they'd raced there previously. Every Monaco weekend is different from the ones that came before.
It was also different to the Nurburgring, a week and a world away, a return to the normal life of a driver closing in on his dreams but still unknown outside of the specialist press, unknown and therefore incomparable to those twenty drivers the world tunes in to watch every other Sunday, those drivers whose every action during those two hours is dissected and examined for flaw or genius.
In Monaco the sun shone down on the coiled, bundled wires of road in the Principality, the famous streets that wound back and forth around houses and hotels and buildings like an overambitious version of the Mousetrap game, while sunglassed people swarmed the streets, enjoying the sea breezes and oblivious to the combined efforts of the teams setting up racing cars in an enclosed car park at the base of the cliff pushing the Palais Princier towards the sun.
At the Nurburgring the sun shone down too, oppressing, relentless and without relief from a cooling breeze, baking the sweltering mechanics and engineers who didn't need the climactic harassment on top of the lack of lead time, a factor of running back to back races in consecutive weekends more than a thousand kilometres apart, not including a return to base in between.
The contrast between the two events couldn't have been more pronounced. In Monaco the GP2 hospitality unit was set up on the second floor of the garage, open to the elements on two sides and overlooking the harbour, the yachts, the casino and the sea; at the Nurburgring it was back to the heat enhancing white tarpaulins, surrounded by team trucks and a track carved out of a mass of trees standing with their backs to the circuit as though ashamed at their lack of shade.
In Monaco everyone arrived on Wednesday because of the traditional Friday rest day, which was to be anything but for the GP2 paddock. The teams got down to work with their cars, many of the mechanics wearing team fleeces against the cold of the carpark ground floor, the florescent lighting rigs overhead bleaching everything pale green and washing out the various colours of their uniforms.
The drivers spent their time elsewhere - there was nothing for them to do and plenty of time to do it, and most of them took advantage of their team scooters to investigate the town, to crawl around the track with the race weekend-heavy traffic or to buy some sunglasses under instruction from a girlfriend or to just take in the sun. The ones with ties to Formula One teams - Heikki Kovalainen at Renault, Scott Speed at Red Bull, Adam Carroll at BAR, Nico Rosberg at Williams - made their first of many trips to the F1 teams' areas, to see and be seen at the most important paddock of their young lives.
At the Nurburgring the schedule was back on track, the fleeces were off along with some of the shirts, and parts of the Formula One world was hemorrhaging into GP2 - the paddock overlooked the serpentine section of the track flowing from turn one, and the photographers were keen to take advantage of the photo opportunity. Word leaked out and more people arrived, photographers and Formula One staff jostling for position during the Formula One session alongside the GP2 drivers, all watching for the right line to appear among the many run, ahead of their own time on track.
The drivers were mostly split down the middle in Monaco - about half had raced at Monaco before, and most of the others had been to Macao. Those who had raced there weren't too worried, and those who hadn't thought that Macao was probably harder, or at least publicly. But all of them were slightly anxious - Monaco is the one race that everyone has heard of, the one race that, if they win, allows you to say "yes, I won in Monaco" quietly and know that anyone will know what that means.
And it's the race everyone wants to come to. Nelson Piquet lives in Monaco, and his sister and mother were ever present as expected, but there were also hordes of Piquet Sports shirted Brazilians milling about outside of the car park, all of them buzzing with anticipation of something they couldn't name. Hiroki Yoshimoto's manager had also taken the opportunity to fly over, at great expense, a number of his driver's sponsors, to soak up the atmosphere of Monaco and to see their investment in action. They weren't alone in taking advantage of the event for potential financial gain.
A week later and a country away the drivers were given a reprieve; when the money is in the area the teams get tense, worried that they'll say the wrong thing and insult the wrong person, or otherwise getting annoyed at the intrusion into their programme, at the bodies getting in the way when they are trying to work. Without the disturbance of sponsors the mood lifted, and the drivers were back to making jokes with each other and their teams, throwing water over each other and not worrying about hitting someone who would get upset.
And they can always escape to the cars. In Monaco, with so many different series running over the weekend, the programme was tight - the free practice session was at 9.00 on Friday morning, nominally a rest day and therefore scheduled to be over by lunch, with qualifying run almost immediately afterwards. It meant that any off track excursions in practice, no matter how minor, would probably keep them out of qualifying or, at best, at the back of the grid.
It was the most well mannered practice session yet seen in the series - Olivier Pla was fastest and Xandi Negrao was the only man to find the barriers - and everyone was well placed for qualifying. Everyone, that is, except for Yoshi, whose crew had worked through most of the night to sort out a problem in the engine only for his car to stop at the swimming pool section of the track on his installation lap.
Worse was to come - his crew were unable to sort out the engine maladies and he couldn't run a single lap in qualifying. Eventually a plan was hatched by BCN boss Enrique Scalabroni: Yoshi's teammate Ernesto Viso was to set as good a time as possible and then return to the pits, where his crew would replace his seat with Yoshi's, who would then attempt to qualify in the closing minutes of the session.
The plan came to nothing when Viso hit the wall heavily at St. Devote, crushing any chance his teammate had of being on the grid for the race - without a single lap of the circuit under his belt he would be uninsured, and therefore unable to race.
He was, needless to say, gutted: "I was told that if I could have done even one single lap then I could have joined the race, so I'm really pissed off - I missed out by about 300 metres! I just haven't got the words to describe how I feel - I came here to this place that I've loved since I was really young, and now I'm not allowed to race. It's just stupid."
Piquet was distraught too. After a better than expected practice in his first ever session at his adopted home circuit his hopes of a good grid spot were crushed under the wheels of Can Artam's wayward iSport car on the downhill approach to Mirabeau. Artam was unrepentant afterwards, possibly the only person in Monaco who believed that Piquet was at fault, while the Brazilian, resigned to his fate after eventually finding his way back to the paddock, could only raise his usual shy semi-smile when told what Artam had said about the incident.
Compared to the Monaco drama, qualifying at the Nurburgring was uneventful. Giorgio Pantano topped the time sheets before a few drivers spun, bringing out the yellow flags, which blew out the promise of Monaco poleman Kovalainen and the ART drivers' best laps. It was as though the drivers had sated themselves on qualifying dramas a week earlier, and were keeping their powder dry for the races to come instead.
The Monaco merry go round continued spinning - Mathias Lauda had new sponsors on his car, and he and team boss Paolo Coloni were on yachts every night of the extended weekend, passing from party to party and making every minute count. Paolo had his jacket stolen on the first night in a bar, losing his credit cards and mobile phone in the process, but was making up for lost time with the replacement phone the next morning.
"I was really pissed off after they stole my jacket," he noted the next day, "but how can you stay upset here? There is so much happening all the time - it's like magic." He swept his arm majestically towards the harbour before smirking, his eyes twinkling with Italian mischief: "And of course, there are many beautiful girls here, which makes it all better!"
Even the Racing Engineering crew, normally one of the more sedate teams in the paddock, were making their presence felt, becoming a constant at the Stars and Bars restaurant at the end of every day, Alfonso leading them through the crowd each night to their regular table and a sizeable meal overlooking the Formula One paddock before moving on to the Rascasse bar for a quick drink among the mass of fans.
The Nurburgring doesn't give much opportunity to go out, even if you have any desire to do so. Outside of racing the teams didn't get up to much, and a week on from Monaco that was the way they wanted it. On arrival at the airport Paolo Coloni found a journalist who shared his birthday in the car hire queue, sneaking up behind him to sing Happy Birthday in front of a collection of bemused Germans before drinking a coffee and going in search of his car for the trip to the track.
Ultimately what both weekends came down to was the racing, and with most of the car problems sorted out for many of the teams, the drivers came into their own. In Monaco Kovalainen was on pole and looking set to take an easy win - Arden were showing why they were the pre-season favourites, and the Finn was living up to expectations by storming out to an early lead and running an inch perfect race until the pitstop.
Which was when it all fell apart - the left front tyre wouldn't come off and the stop was destroyed, giving an early stopping Adam Carroll the opportunity to be just ahead on track when Gimmi Bruni came in, perhaps just one lap too late. Carroll, as aggressive in the car as he is easy going out of it, was forced into taking very defensive lines to deny the fast charging Italian, and he ran wide just after the swimming pool, glancing the wall and bending his steering column, but he soaked up the pressure for the final ten laps to lead Bruni and Rosberg home, all three split by just one second at the line.
Carroll's small red face afterwards betrayed a fierce fight between joy and sheer relief - he has never had a strong budget to go racing, relying instead on ability and hope, and a win in Monaco went a long way to proving that hope was not misplaced.
There were smiles all around at the Nurburgring - with the focus back on racing after the distractions of Monaco everyone worked hard to make sure the races filled the gap, and their efforts were rewarded by two fine events. A combination of over revving and extreme temperatures removed a few drivers from the grid before a big crash at turn one took out a few more - Borja Garcia appeared to forget how to brake and speared into Carroll, and the resultant mess removed five cars before the safety car was deployed.
"That was a bit of a PlayStation moment," said one observer in the paddock immediately afterwards. "It looked as though he was using the other car to get him around the corner - if Carroll wasn't there Garcia would be in Luxembourg by now."
"I don't think that's true," Alfonso cut in. "That corner points towards Belgium, actually!"
It all played into the hands of Kovalainen, starting from seventeenth after losing his fastest lap for taking it under yellow flags - he was up to seventh at the end of the first lap and was in quickly for an early stop, giving him the ability to set his own pace when the race restarted. Pantano was slow at the front, chewing through his tyres at an incredible rate and holding up the pack, and came out behind the Finn, while the only other man with a chance at the win, Gimmi Bruni, had his race destroyed by a slow puncture, giving him an evil handling, slowing car and handing the win to the delighted Kovalainen, making up for the lost win in Monaco.
Before the race there was a rare distraction for a few of the drivers - Lauda, Rosberg and Carroll were the second participants in a signing session for the fans. The Spanish signing had been a success despite itself - there was little order with a huge number of people swarming all around the table, but the German signing was, predictably, more ordered, with the fans forming themselves into an orderly queue and waiting for their moment as Will Buxton handed out the portrait cards as they neared the front.
The signing was held in the Bridgestone enclosure, and the drivers were told not to give out the company's hats placed in front of each driver. With so many people asking for hats to be signed, a large number of them red Michael Schumacher caps, confusion was inevitable - someone in front of Rosberg handed a Bridgestone cap to him to sign, and he obliged.
"Wait a minute," Carroll commented from the end of the table, "we're not supposed to give those out to anyone."
"Oh, so it's like that now," Rosberg shot back, a smirk creasing his face, "you win one race in Monaco and now you can tell us all what we can and can't do, huh?" Lauda laughed despite himself as Rosberg sat in the middle looking pleased with himself, and they all got on with the business of signing caps with other drivers' names on them.
The second race started as the Formula One paddock was filling up with people no longer having to worry about qualifying, with the unpopular second session having been scraped at last. The timeslot that had been Formula One's domain in those countries that showed it was now GP2's, and it was the perfect race to introduce the series to a wider market, the kind of race that had people stumbling over adjectives in an attempt to describe how good it was.
It was perhaps even, as one open mouthed journalist later claimed in stunned admiration, the best race seen in the last twenty years.
Bruni was on pole and lived up to expectation by storming away into a commanding lead, while behind him there was chaos - Viso pulled a Garcia move on Lauda at turn one, while a lap later another four cars came together at the same spot, handing Neel Jani second place in an ill-handling car. Jani, all dark eyebrows and bloodhound eyes out of the car, was on fire, driving a firm but clean race, never weaving but leaving a car width and nothing more on the outside into every corner.
Behind him a snake of cars was forming - Piquet, Rosberg, a fast charging Clivio Piccione, hoping to make amends for his accident in his home race after looking so fast a week before, and Super Nova teammates Pantano and Carroll, all looking in vain for a way by the man in front of them as the tyres came in.
The race turned on its head on lap sixteen as Bruni, far ahead and cruising, suddenly slowed with just sixth gear - his pursuers were quickly by and the top six were now split by a second and a half. The ensuing laps took on the appearance of choreographed mayhem - at almost every corner someone looked, or drove, inside the car in front, each car pitching and bucking madly as it's driver fought for traction with armfuls of opposite lock.
Jani somehow held on to the lead for a few laps, his car almost impossible to control with a badly flat spotted tyre, while behind him positions were changing at almost every other corner. Eventually the pressure became too much - Piccione, who was in second at the right time, was through after Jani went just one wheel's width wide, and he gleefully left the pack to their own devices. It was the beginning of the end for Jani, who ended the race in the pits with suspension damage from the deflating tyre after proving his worth once again.
Piccione was rightfully ecstatic after taking the chequered flag, his body a ball of pure joy. He was easy to find back in the paddock - you only needed to follow the smell of slightly stale champagne to his team's truck, where he stood being high fived and slapped on the back by everyone in the area, beaming back at them and talking back in top gear.
"It was amazing!" he laughed out loud. "I think the way these cars are built you have a lot of overtaking opportunities, and this was my best race ever, for sure - if you think Formula One is boring, then you should look at us!"
No one could begrudge him his moment in the sun, not even Paolo Coloni, who had suffered so much bad luck over the weekend: "My friend, I am so sad - a crocodile walked out in front of Gimmi's car, and he ate the whole gearbox!
"But what a race, huh? It was bad luck for us, but it was amazing to see."
On Sunday in Monaco after the Formula One race a number of the GP2 teams were still hard at work, setting up their cars for the Nurburgring rounds just a few days away - time was of the essence, and any time spent there would help them soon. The results rewarded their effort.
On Sunday at the Nurburgring everyone sat down for a relaxing lunch before packing everything away and heading off for a deserved break - every team was packed up and gone as soon as they possibly could be, the sooner to get back to their various homes across Europe, to put their feet up after the back to back races, before the ones still to come.
All of the teams, that is, except for Racing Engineering. Their truck was the last sign of life in an expanse empty but for a dark blob across from their truck. It was Carroll's bent and broken sidepod, the result of the pounding received by Garcia in race one. With the truck packed a mechanic emerged, looked all around him before sheepishly picking up the damaged panel and placing it gently into the back of his truck, closing the back door and driving out of the circuit and heading right, towards Spain.
If Imola was the weekend for car problems throughout the grid, then Barcelona was a problem weekend for everyone else in the paddock. Someone at Formula One Management - maybe it was Bernie Ecclestone, maybe it was a flunky trying to justify his existence - decided that GP2 shouldn't have a media centre, which meant anyone wanting to cover the series, or even work in it, was going to have a lot of trouble indeed.
All of the teams used the media centre for issuing press releases, getting fast internet access, or just to having a desk to sit at, with a computer, and work in peace - a peace that was shattered as soon as the journalists started to arrive.
"This is ridiculous!" a German bellowed, reeling as though wounded. "How am I supposed to work if I can't get the internet?"
"I can't plug my computer in!" a Spaniard moaned through the permanent haze of cigarette smoke he generated. "I can't even power it!"
They were beaten to the Mr. Cranky Barcelona title from afar by a British journalist who couldn't get to the accreditation centre because the guards said he didn't have a pass to get there; when he tried to explain that he needed to go to accreditation to pick up the pass to get there, they shrugged confusedly and pointed to a car park a few miles from the circuit where he was allowed to go, prompting a lengthy diatribe during which the word 'bastards' was the most flattering.
The man who had to deal with all of these complaints and more was Stephane Samson, the GP2 head of communications. He sympathised - he's a former journalist, and he wants the press to cover his series, after all - but there was little he could do other than agree, as it was out of his hands. Stephane walked around the paddock all weekend, his dark eyes constantly on the verge of infinite sadness, his facial hair the exact midpoint between stubble and a beard, wondering if anything else could go wrong.
You get the feeling that what GP2 needs most, is to install a bouncy castle; no one can be cranky after a go on one of those.
"It's perfect!" Stephane laughed, his eyes shrugging off the jacket of melancholy, creasing with mirth at last. "If any journalist has a problem I can tell them five minutes on the bouncy castle before they complain to me - after that they'll forget the problem!"
It would help out with any stroppy drivers - any racing incidents and they're into the castle for ten minutes.
"I'm going to have to talk to Bruno about this - I think I want one for myself just to get rid of the stress!"
Bruno Michel, boss of the series, has a lot of people saying "I'm going to talk to Bruno about this" - he could probably use a bouncy castle himself. It would certainly make team principal meetings more interesting.
But the Barcelona sun would be a close second to a bouncy castle in the restorative property stakes - orange and high, the sun in Barcelona gets into your bones, warms you more than the temperature would suggest, makes you feel ready to keep going no matter what happens. Scott Speed obviously thought so - he would be sitting outside of his truck, by himself as usual, but without a shirt for a change, iPod strapped to his thin arms and, when he thought no one was looking, he would start throwing hand shapes and silently rapping along with his songs under the gentle, golden glow of the sun.
They all take advantage of the sun when they can - with their engineers working on the cars there is little for the drivers to do other than sit around and chat, talk about anything or nothing with the others, to keep drinking from their ever present drink bottles and to wait for time to ebb by until they can sit in their cars again, to do what they are here for.
Ernesto Viso in particular seems attached to his car - he can always be found in the BCN (the team, not the city) area doing something to it, whether it's applying and reapplying stickers, running his finger along a gurney flap or cleaning some non-existent dirt away from the sidepods. Away from his car he's a tiny, bouncing ball of muscle, all shoulders and arms and strident pacing around the paddock, but when he is with his car his features soften, his hands unconsciously reaching out to stroke her, to touch her.
It's probably why he seems so outraged when there is something wrong with his car: on Friday he had a problem and was distressed, stating forcefully that they couldn't find out why the engine was not working properly before taking a closer inspection of the offending problem. The next morning he was beaming, radiant - a re-map of the engine solved the problem, and the car was perfect in his eyes once more before the race.
Adam Carroll is the opposite - he spends most of his time away from his car, in the hospitality unit, walking the paddock, talking to the other drivers, making new friends. He doesn't have a huge budget for racing - the British drivers seem to struggle in that respect, and it must be doubly hard to find money to go racing in Northern Ireland - but he's making the most of his time, enjoying himself as much as possible.
"It's great here, isn't it?" he said on Thursday, he soft brogue lilting as he stared out from behind his ever present dark glasses. "And the food is brilliant - I had a kilo of steak last night!"
Carroll is small and wiry under his thatch of blond hair, more junior surfer than racer. How could someone his size eat that much? Where could he put it all?
"Don't worry about that," he smirked as he reached for his phone, "I've got no problem putting it away if it's there! Look." He handed over his phone, which had a photo of a very large steak indeed, before moving on to the next shot showing a bare bone on the plate and nothing else. "I couldn't get that at home, so I've got to eat it while I'm here!"
Carroll's teammate Giorgio Pantano doesn't spend much time in the Super Nova area either - if he's not driving then he spends the rest of the day in the hospitality area in the front seat staring at the Formula One drivers circulating. Free practice, qualifying - whatever it is, he's there, watching every lap with his sunglasses on, his eyes hidden but his memories of racing in the big paddock fresh and raw on his face, across his slumping body as he watches the screen.
It's a sea change from last year, when he would be always smiling, always happy to stop and chat to anyone before stepping back onto his motorised scooter and zipping from end to end of the Formula One paddock, where the results weren't coming but he was living his dream and racing in front of the world, even if he was behind almost everyone else.
The only other person who could understand his predicament is Gianmaria Bruni, who also stepped down from Formula One to GP2 to restart his struggling career, to prove to everyone that he is better than his results showed last year. Bruni had a tough season at Minardi, with an underfunded team and an old car to race, and towards the middle of the year he looked like a man who would rather be anywhere else than where he was.
This year Bruni looks like a new man, back with a team he loves and a team boss who has taken his own unfulfilled dreams (Paolo Coloni came second in the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort before a collection of problems drew time on his own racing career) and uses them as incentive to help push the man he sees as his little brother to the top.
The uncommunicative, doleful Bruni of last year has been replaced by this year's cheerful, enthusiastic version, a man who is confident enough to walk around in loose shorts and a fishing hat before jumping into his car, setting top times and winning a race and then return to the paddock to rightful acclaim and the hugs of everyone in his team.
His enthusiasm is infectious - even struggling teammate Mathias Lauda is happy for Bruni, and the pair can be often seen talking about the track, about qualifying, about anything that comes to mind. They are good teammates - Bruni knows that Lauda is not a threat to him and is happy to help him out in any way he can, while Lauda is glad just to be racing and wants to learn everything he can about the car and the tracks.
"It's my mistake - I was just a bit shit on that corner," he said after qualifying, during which he'd spun off while on his hot lap, losing a potentially decent time in the process. "I know everyone thinks I'm crap, but you've got to remember that I've only been racing for three years - most of these guys have been racing since they were three."
Lauda, sharp and angular in both word and appearance, is very much his father's son in all but racing results, and straight to the point when looking to the reasons for his lack of them. "I'm not good enough yet, but mostly because of my lack of experience. Look at that race - Gimmi's raced on full tanks all last year, but I've never done it before. But I'm improving - give me time and you'll see."
Like Carroll, Lauda is friendly with most of the drivers; Coloni has the best coffee in the paddock, and there will always be other drivers coming around for coffee and a chat with the Austrian; but unlike Carroll the talk won't be of the battles they've had on track. On Saturday evening he was over in the DPR pit talking to Olivier Pla and Ryan Sharp, the Scot standing back slightly as the other two were discussing their fight earlier in the day, hands rolling back and forth from lock to lock as their bodies rolled around them to describe the spins they both endured.
Sharp mostly stayed out of the conversation, not just because he wasn't involved in the fight but also because his shy, reserved character dictated that he does. Small, dark and quiet, he has a particularly Scottish reserve, the type that suggests he doesn't talk unless he has something to say, added to a shyness that ensures it. He's aware of it, and he knows it's not ideal for a driver who has to deal with the media, but unless he is talking to someone he knows, Sharp looks like a man constantly wanting to pull the words back into his head, to rearrange them into another order before releasing them to the world.
But it's a price he's willing to pay to live his dream, one of many. After winning the Renault V6 series last year he was awarded a Renault Megane as a part of his Championship prize and, after deciding that he would be in GP2 this year, he wanted to get some testing in a relevant car to give him some experience with a more powerful machine. With the Megane on the way but little left in his budget after signing with DPR, he realised the only way to get some good testing miles was to test in an old Formula 3000 car.
To this end he sold his existing car, secure in the knowledge that its replacement was just around the corner, to pay for the test. It went well, but a problem with his prize meant the new car didn't arrive until the week before he flew to Barcelona, necessitating the usurping of his mother's car just to get around. Annoying, he felt, but the test went well so it was worth the short-term pain.
And pain is something Sharp understands. He threw his back out after Imola, with a throbbing stretch of muscle across the middle of his back giving him no end of trouble for a week or more. The only time it didn't hurt was when he was sat in his car, with his racing seat holding his body in position and relieving the strain on his back. It meant he had a weekend off from pushing his car up the pitlane with his mechanics, but he would still get out the vacuum cleaner to dust off his car after every session.
He is the diametric opposite of Juan Cruz Alvarez who, when asked what he hoped for from his season, in the GP2 television interviews at the launch, said: "lots of girls, and maybe a few points." Alvarez is the life and soul of any group; at the autograph signing session arranged for fans at the track, he was the one who remained last to chat to the fans after the drivers left, pretending to sign for each of the drivers before drawing breasts on their pictures.
Despite his good natured humour he was to provide the most serious moment for the series so far - on Saturday he ran wide before the final turn and hit the wall with enough force that it actually broke the safety cell. "It was a big one," he said later. "I was a bit dizzy when the marshalls helped me out of the car, and they said 'do you want to go to hospital?' and of course I said 'no'.
"Then they said, 'do you want some water?' and I said 'sure', grabbed the bottle and started pouring. But then I was wondering 'why can't I taste this water?' and I realised I still had my helmet on! They said they thought maybe I'd better go to the hospital!"
He was in the paddock the next morning, dancing around next to his truck to amuse his friends while he waited to race again, and was back doing the same after the race while Carroll was storming around the paddock, fuming after an accident with Nelson Piquet spun him out of a certain second place. Piquet apologised immediately after the race - the two are friends from a year of competing against each other in British Formula Three - and then wisely stayed out of his way for the rest of the day.
Carroll wasn't so much annoyed with Piquet - racing creates accidents, after all - but rather reserved the full brunt of his anger, and more than a few choice swear words, for the stewards who declared the incident the blame of no one, leaving him feeling like he'd been mugged.
Across the lane Jose Maria Lopez was on cloud nine - after losing a podium the day before he had taken his first win in the new series. Lopez is small and friendly, always ready to talk when asked, but beneath his amiable facade resides an intense racing personality that was entirely unable to forgive him after the previous race for making a small but vital mistake, which lost him points in the Championship.
On Sunday afternoon, though, he had found a way to absolve himself, to expunge the anger and allow himself to enjoy the moment, as well as pushing himself back up the points table. He was still enjoying it all hours later, after GP2's press officer Will Buxton had declared: "I need many drinks after dealing with all of the journalists this weekend - I've got a ticket to Coulthard's party and we're going."
The party, held in the heart of Barcelona, was in full flow, with a number of the GP2 drivers running around like mischievous kids let lose from their parents, all following the lead of Lopez, in his element and lost in the elation of a race win. In Formula One a race winner seems to have consigned it to the past by the time he's finished the television interview, but Lopez was clearly still reveling in the moment and taking his friends along for the ride.
"Have you tried the iced vodka yet?" asked a passing Mathias Lauda, his soon to be missing shirt already undone. "They've got two ice sculptures which they pour vodka through before you drink it from the bottom - come on." At the end of the room stood two sculptures - one male, one female, relatively anatomically correct - surrounded by a shirtless Lopez, Piquet and Xandi Negrao.
A lot of vodka was drunk, a lot of dancing was done, a lot of foolish statements were made with more bravado than sense. Walking out of the party, the sun was just starting to make itself known on the horizon along one of Barcelona's long avenues as Lauda, his shirt long since evaporated, went looking for a car. "That was a good night," was his brief judgment. "DC knows how to host a party."
"Make the most of it," I noted. "Formula One isn't usually like that, and this might be as good as it gets."
"Pfft," he scoffed, draping an arm across my shoulder. "We haven't even been to Monaco yet - this was just a warm up."
He then walked towards the road, stumbled over and rebounded without even noticing while he hailed a cab from the other side of the plaza to take him home.
Last year, Saturday afternoon in Monza, I walked through the gates and out of the Formula One paddock on my way home when I spotted a familiar face sitting on the kerb peering back in behind me. Sitting there alone, completely ignored by everyone walking past was the man who had won a dominant race earlier that day, who had a comprehensive title in his back pocket, who had just finished his last race in the junior categories and was looking for a way in to where I'd just left.
"Hey Tonio," I said, watching Vitantonio Liuzzi as he looked up from the mobile phone he was fiddling distractedly with. "What are you doing sitting here in the gutter?"
"Ah, ciao!" he smiled, standing up to shake hands. "I'm waiting to see if Peter can get me a pass to go into the paddock - he told me to wait here for him."
"You just killed that race today - you'd think that would be enough to get you in there."
"Yeah, for sure - I think so too! But it's not so easy, unfortunately."
Formula One comes from another world, an alternate universe to the one we live in, a planet were a million dollars is a bargain, where the colour of the inhabitants' clothes are more important than their personalities, where their every word and deed is beamed into our homes every other Sunday to be dissected and cross examined for a meaning, even if it has none at all.
Peter Collins, Liuzzi's manager, has done his job, and done it well - he has taken a promising young Italian karter and put him into that world, placed him at the heart of a new Red Bull team which, with their new uniforms and PR approach and giant motorhome that rises for three floors from the centre of the paddock, is the new centre of this other world. Last year Liuzzi would wear one outrageous outfit after another, would make amusing comments to no more than a few smiles; now millions of people around the world will dissect everything he says, everything he does, because he is racing in Formula One.
But just two hundred metres from this alternate universe exists another, one that is a part of our world, one where the inhabitants do effectively the same job as their grand neighbours in their translucent bubble of a world, one which goes about its work without all of the attention, without all of the fuss.
So close, so far. Same place, slightly different time. This is the world of GP2.
This world was being set up when I arrived on Thursday to Imola - the gate wasn't yet in place in the swaying wire fence, and the series' press officer Will Buxton was still setting up the media centre, removing long strips of plastic coating from the carpet, peeling them from wall to wall. When he saw me he smiled broadly, shouted a greeting and came over to give me a hug, to welcome me in.
Will is a small bundle of nervous, joyful energy, a compact package of twenty different emotions, all fighting to get out at once. His dark, curly hair seems to form itself into a mohawk of its own accord, and when he smiles, which is often, his dark eyes twinkle with mischief.
We caught up on each other's movements since we'd seen each other last, months ago in that alternate universe somewhere and, with nothing else to do, I got to work helping him set up the media centre, carrying the tables and chairs into place until the job was done.
All around us the teams were doing likewise; wheeling the cars out of their trucks, setting up awnings and putting down floors and connecting electrical cables and setting up their coffee machines. With the centre set up, Will took me around to meet some people, the ones whose world I was about to cohabit.
The first person we met was Rebecca, Nelson Piquet's press officer and another refugee from the world up the road. Rebecca is overwhelmingly tiny, as though someone formed the smallest package necessary to power her giant smile and unleashed her on the world.
"Any time you need anything from Nelson, just come and see me," she said, looking slightly nervous behind her smile as she did so. Piquet has had a tough time from the British media over the last few years, whether for not being British or merely for being his father's son, and I wondered if this was why he tends to steer clear of the media.
"He's just a little shy really," she smiled. "He doesn't mind if people write bad things about him, as long as they're accurate." Piquet didn't seem too shy to me, other than the usual reticence people have when speaking in another language than their own. He carries himself with a certain self-confidence, an inner belief which I'd been led to believe wasn't there.
But he's a racing driver - all the good ones have that, and some of the others as well, for a while. What they look like, when he and teammate Xandi Negrao stand around in their big black sunglasses, is a pair of actors from the sixties when they still made movies about racing, the foreign guys that James Garner or whoever would have to compete against, for the woman, for the race.
The other guy who is most similar to the pair is BCN's Hiroki Yoshimoto, who has the attitude of a rock star, which probably comes from the fact that he's a singer in a rock band back home in Japan. But the attitude may come from his speed rather than his extra-curricular activities - at least three drivers admitted to me that he was way faster than they expected, and that doesn't happen much in racing.
The rock and roll life doesn't get in the way of his racing one - when the helmet comes on he is intensely focused, concentrating on pulling more speed every time he's in the car. The two lives come back together afterwards - back in the paddock after running off on his first lap in qualifying his racing head came out ("it was my mistake") mixed with his rock one ("I feel like punching myself in the head!"). And then it was over, and he was already looking forward to the race ("I'll just have to overtake a lot, get eighth, and then start from pole in the second race").
The nature of GP2 means every driver needs to focus intensely on his job - everyone has the same car, so the differences come more from the driver than they do in Formula One, where the cars make the biggest difference in performance - but they have more time to themselves to do so, without the distractions of the media, of the Paddock Club and the sponsors, of the hype and nonsense that goes on up the road.
It's clear to see this in the paddock when the cars are on track - the teams are cut to the bone, so if you arrive ten minutes in the paddock before a session you find yourself in a ghost town, with every team member in the pitlane. And when you are up there with them, you can witness the intense focus first hand - the drivers who are always ready to make a joke or clown around downstairs have their race faces on, will give you a nod of recognition and then pull the visor down and head out on track.
It's the team bosses who are probably a little easier going, because they've seen it all before, because it's not them that the fans are focused on, because they can be. Racing Engineering's Alfonso de Orleans Borbon is a good example of this: in any other walk of life he would be unusual at the very least - he's the cousin of the king of Spain, he speaks eight languages, his university roommate is now a famous Hollywood director - but here he's just the boss of a racing team, the guy people ask for advice or a quote, and he obliges us all with the same smile as he peers over his ever present sunglasses.
With his nose permanently pointing towards his phone ("the journalists in Spain would call me all the time, so I told them to text me instead and I will answer them as soon as I get a chance") he will hold court in front of his truck, telling me anything I want to know about the team, interspersed with shouts in French or Spanish to the various people on the team before returning to his American inflected English until I have what I need. Alfonso is the living embodiment of multitasking.
The man next door is an entirely different prospect. When I introduced myself to Paolo Coloni, the first thing he said was "do you want a coffee? Come around out back." He peered at me with his jet black, wolfish eyes as we chatted and then, deciding I was alright and not one of those 'others', he said: "so - what do you think about this problem we've got today?" and launched into the first of at least six conspiracy theories for the weekend, all the time smiling wickedly as if to say 'maybe I mean this, maybe not'.
He's not the only one, though. Racing is all about conspiracy theories, all about preemptive excuses for a lack of performance, because everyone knows that Driver A is fantastic and is only beaten by Driver B because of The Powers That Be / he's cheating / they're letting him cheat / they're screwing our team and not them. If it wasn't for theories and excuses, there would be a lot more losers than winners, and no one wants to see that; better to entertain with a preposterous story than admit to being a loser. They all do it.
But they all do it differently, which keeps it interesting. I'd just walked out onto the front of the grid for the first race with Will when a particularly evil sounding car shot out of the pits - I turned to see Nicolas Lapierre headed towards Tamburello, completely oblivious to the fountain of oil spurting high into the air behind him until his car stopped just out of sight of the pitlane.
I pointed it out to Will, who dropped his shoulders and slumped back towards the pits, knowing that another technical problem was manifesting itself in front of the world. I walked back to the Arden pit to ask, but their team boss Mick was already shaking his head and saying "don't know yet - we're not going to know until we get the car back."
After the race it was the subject of much discussion - the polesitter doesn't normally drop out of a race like this, and everyone had a theory.
"It's human error," said one guy. "We had the same problem in testing - they've dropped the car on the oil pipe."
"No way," said another. "That doesn't just happen - they must have been playing with the engine."
"These things happen," came a third view. "There are always problems with a new car, and that's just one of those things."
All were pleased, of course - their drivers all moved up a spot, which remained unsaid throughout.
Arden were less forthcoming: "It was ... a problem," said Christian Horner's dad, watching over things in the small paddock while his son was working upstairs as Red Bull Racing's sporting director. He has the same reluctance to say too much to the media as his son, the same awareness that words can come back to you, albeit with a smaller dose of the paranoia that affects everyone in Formula One.
"A problem?" I asked. "Really? That oil wasn't supposed to shoot out like that?"
"Okay," he laughed. "It was ... a problem with the oil systems."
"Really? I guess that's why there were so many marshalls throwing quick dry around then. Good to know they're on the job, really."
"Alright, alright!" he laughed. "I don't want to point the finger at anyone - let's just say it was a problem in-house, and leave it at that."
For what it's worth, I figured it was human error when the car was being prepared, but ultimately it doesn't matter what it was because Lapierre was out from pole, and that's all that counted.
He was out again the next morning, after another problem on the car stopped him starting with the grid, allowing him a few laps from the pits before pulling back in a few laps later ("yet another GP2 bug," said Mick, answering before I asked). I walked back to the paddock with the driver after the race, along the pit entrance and past the singing Spanish matadors, enthusiastically serenading us all under a low hanging duvet of malevolent grey clouds with a song glorifying the strengths of Fernando Alonso from the centre of a sea of red shirts.
Lapierre doesn't seem like a driver when you first meet him; only the overalls and helmet in his hand point to his occupation. It's only when you ask him something about the car, about his driving, about the track that it comes out - the intense focus as he works through a lap in his head, as he describes a technical problem, as he stares into the near distance or into your eyes as he does so - it's then that you realise this small, smiling, soft spoken Frenchman does this job that we watch on television, that we think would be fantastic but secretly know that we could never do to that level.
He was talking me around the lap, telling me about the kerb here or the camber there that you have to watch out for, and I was watching his focus as much as listening to him - as he spoke he was right there, driving the lap in his head as he described it, his eyes staring ahead until he came to a turn. And then it was gone - Yoshi went by sitting on the back of a trolley being towed by his team, and he smilingly flicked a V sign with his fingers as he went, halting the lap in a fit of laughter.
His car had broken down before both races but Lapierre was still smiling, still keeping his head up: "Yeah sure, it's a shame for me because the weekend didn't work out so well, but I got two points for pole and two points for fastest lap - it could have been worse."
As if on cue Scott Speed scowled by, a beanpole thin streak of gloom with his usual black cloud hovering just above his head. Speed had a slightly better weekend to Lapierre - podium in the first race, stopped first lap in the second - but the difference in personalities was marked. Timing is everything with Speed - he seems to be either really happy (early in the morning, before his race) or really, really pissed off (standing at the Sauber pitwall stand I could feel the heat of his rage before I saw him - turning around to ask what happened was answered by a terse "no idea" and an invisible sign lowered in front of him which said "do not approach, at all" which even his team observed).
But that's the thing with racers - they do what they need to do to race, to allow themselves or their drivers to get into the cars and drive faster than anyone else. If they've got to work themselves up into a righteous rage, they'll do it. If it takes a discussion of the favouritism of others or fifteen minutes spent looking at the differences between their car and their teammates with a journalist in tow or painting an anime animal on their helmet for luck or anything else, that's what they'll do.
You forgive them for all sorts of things, you indulge them when they do it, because they are doing what they truly want to do and so few people in life actually do that, let alone allow you in to witness it, and because, right here and now, they are closer to that alternate universe, that ultimate goal, than they've ever been, and to get there they have to perform. They do what they have to do to perform, because it's what racers do, because they all want to be the guy sitting on the kerb at the end of the year looking into the Formula One paddock, waiting for his manager to get him in.